Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for the ‘unions’ Category

You Can Bet on These Racetrack Workers To Fight for a Raise From Their Billionaire Boss

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Bruce VailBALTIMORE—Boosters of the Maryland horse racing industry cheered earlier this year when Baltimore’s annual Preakness Stakes attracted a record-breaking crowd of more than 130,000. The huge crowd thrilled to the victory of the bay colt American Pharaoh, who would go on to win the Triple Crown, and a place in thoroughbred racing history. At the betting windows, a total of $85.161 million was wagered, another record breaker in the 140-year history of the race.

But there’s a dark side of Baltimore’s sports and entertainment complex: Local residents toil at low-wage jobs to support the huge venues and the extravagant incomes of out-of-town performers, whether those performers are football players, rock stars, or even horses (who, of course, don’t pocket their own pay).

That disparity was on full display on August 4 as union members and their supporters rallied at a gritty Baltimore street corner to protest union busting by Maryland Turf Caterers, a unit of the horse racing empire of Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach, which owns the Preakness track, as well as other tracks in Maryland, Florida, Oregon and California.

Union workers at the company are fighting off concession demands in contract bargaining that would make most workers ineligible for company healthcare coverage (and raise costs for the rest), end retirement benefits and cut back on overtime pay, says Margaret Ellis, an organizer for UNITE HERE Local 7.

Those workers are a group of about 40 cooks, servers, bartenders, porters and concession-stand attendants who alternate between assignments at the Preakness’ Pimlico Race Course and nearby Laurel Park, both owned by the Stronach Group.

Louis Jones, who works as a porter for Maryland Turf Caterers for over 20 years, says his job quality has declined, with his hourly wage stuck at $9.35 for seven years and Maryland Turf Caterers doing away with the periodic bonuses that once made the job more livable. The workers typically earn $9 to $11 an hour and have not seen any negotiated pay raises since the old contract expired in 2008, Ellis says.

“In some ways, it’s the same old story,” remarks Roxie Herbekian, President of Local 7. Local governments shower benefits on businesses like Stronach with the promise of creating jobs and economic prosperity, yet many of the jobs pay so poorly that they trap workers in a cycle of near-poverty, or worse. In Stronach’s case, the company benefits from elaborate state-sponsored schemes to subsidize the Maryland horse racing industry, with little or no benefit trickling down to the low-income workers who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the racecourses, Herbekian says. The Maryland Racing Commission, for example, collected about $48 million last year in a special gambling tax to distribute to the state’s racetracks, with the money dedicated to plumping up purses, or for improvements to track properties.

The site of this week’s demonstration provides a case in point. The sprawling Pimlico complex borders several of Baltimore’s segregated residential neighborhoods. At one end is the affluent Mt. Washington neighborhood, a leafy, mostly-white enclave where few track workers can afford to live. At another end is Park Heights, a dreary and economically depressed area populated by low-income African Americans, including some of the track workers. Tuesday’s demonstration took place at the corner of Park Heights Ave. and Belvedere, with the gigantic Pimlico grandstand dominating the view to the east, and boarded-up storefronts, run-down residences and dirty streets spreading out to the west.

“They think this is a hoodlum neighborhood, a ghetto neighborhood,” says Jones, who tells In These Times that the quality of life in Park Heights has declined steadily even as billions of dollars in horseracing money has passed though the race track. The neighborhood is desperate for an infusion of decent jobs, Jones says, but has been continually disappointed at lack of action on job creation from elected officials. A plan floated several years back to open a slot machine gambling parlor at Pimlico seemed to offer the promise of local jobs, he says, but the plan was abandoned in favor of a new Caesars Entertainment Corp. casino in the downtown tourist district

For Maryland Turf Caterers, the plan seems to be not to promote good jobs, but to turn them into bad ones by bullying the union workers, Ellis says. “They put me off the property” at the Laurel Race Course earlier this year, she says, which she believes was retaliation for her role as a union organizer. The union is seeking the intervention of the National Labor Relations Board in that incident, and is weighing other actions at the labor board.

Stronach Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo defended the company’s labor policies, insisting that the Maryland race tracks were losing money and cuts in labor costs were necessary if the tracks are to remain open at all. “Listen, it’s true the Preakness makes a ton of money. The problem is that we lose money the other 355 days of the year. We lost $5 million last year [in Maryland],” he tells In These Times.

“I’m originally a Democrat from Boston, so I don’t have a beef with unions,” he says. “We have a race track in Hallandale [Florida] where we have UNITE HERE and we don’t have any problems. That’s because it is profitable so we have the money to pay people. We have a hell of a lot more union members in Florida than we do here [in Maryland].”

“We take responsibility—we are not going to take our financial problems out on the workers,” he says. “We only want [the union members] to have the same medical and pension that all of our other workers have. We treat our workers as well as any other company in the same [catering] businesses around here, and a hell a lot of better than most restaurants,” in the area, Rivko says.

“They get a tremendous amount of money from the state,” retorts Local 7’s Herbekian. “So I don’t think the Stronach Group is going to miss a beat if they just pay those workers for healthcare, and a decent raise. These workers are not making some huge salaries that are going to break the bank.”

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on August 7, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

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 Union Behind the Biggest Campaign Against Walmart in History May Be Throwing in the Towel. Why?

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

David MobergIn the pre-dawn chill of Black Friday 2012, a half-dozen yellow school buses pulled up at a South Side Chicago Walmart store, disgorging a small group of striking Walmart workers and nearly 250 supporters.

Along with strikers and allies in 100 other cities around the country, they had come out that day under the aegis of the year-old Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), created to give Walmart workers a vehicle to protest their mistreatment—including low wages, skimpy benefits, erratic scheduling and aggressive management suppression of employees’ voices at work.

“Somewhere, somehow, down the line, it’s going to make a big difference,” said Tyrone Parker, a striking night-shift stocker, at that first Black Friday action.

“If you weren’t excited after some of those Black Fridays, you were dead,” says formerUnited Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) President Joseph Hansen, who started OUR Walmart and the labor-community coalition Making Change at Walmart in 2005. “It was going to be a long haul, but I thought we had no choice.”

After Hansen’s retirement last fall, the union’s 55-member executive board elected Secretary-Treasurer Anthony “Marc” Perrone as the next president. Leading up to the vote, Perrone had questioned the amount of money that had been devoted to the Walmart campaign without gaining any new members for the union, whose membership has declined in recent years. Several sources close to the campaign, not named because they are not authorized to release financial information, estimate that the overall cost had been about $7 million to $8 million a year.

In April, four months into Perrone’s tenure, the Washington Post reported rumors of potential cutbacks to OUR Walmart. In These Times’s sources say the union plans to cut the campaign’s budget by as much as 65 percent.

Sources close to the new leadership say no cuts are planned, only realignments, such as spending more money on advertising and public relations campaigns to highlight Walmart’s faults. At the same time, UFCW will try to parlay the Walmart efforts into “a broader retail campaign,” according to new Executive Vice President Stuart Appelbaum, regarded as an ally of Perrone. This probably will encourage more organizing at other retailers to win contracts and dues-paying members.

As Buzzfeed reported in June, the union also removed two directors of the Walmart effort, Dan Schlademan and Andrea Dehlendorf, in May. Meanwhile, the board of OUR Walmart—five worker-members and the two directors—has sought and received new funding from two progressive donors, according to the director of a funders’ group to which both belong.

Most key labor leaders, whatever their view of OUR Walmart, are unwilling to talk very much, because they hope to continue to work with UFCW on the Walmart campaigns, if possible.

Although OUR Walmart and the Fight for 15 (the Service Employees International Union-backed fast-food workers’ campaign, which has targeted McDonald’s) have been expensive for the unions, they’ve stoked worker and public fervor against two of the mightiest global corporations.

“The union’s biggest accomplishment is the development of OUR Walmart,” says an ally in the campaign who feels that new spirit may be lost in the reshuffling.

How big is too big?

The UFCW largely ignored Walmart when it was a small-town, Southern five-and-dime chain. But as Walmart moved north and west and into groceries, the union had to challenge the mega-retailer to protect its contracts. A massive array of strategies has been tested, with little success: organizing department by department (when butchers at a Texas store voted for the union, Walmart eliminated all its butchers); organizing in Quebec, where laws favor unions (Walmart closed the store); organizing in strong union towns, like Las Vegas (several campaigns failed after supervisors intimidated a majority of workers out of unionizing).

UFCW has also tried educating the public about the high costs of Walmart’s low prices. In 2005, both SEIU and UFCW began publicity campaigns about the corporation’s misbehavior (called, respectively, Walmart Watch and Wake Up, Walmart). Walmart Watch revealed a 2005 internal company memo on how Walmart might cut its already low pay and benefits without incurring bad publicity by increasing the number of part-time workers. Such well-aimed, sharp darts wounded the company’s reputation and may have been a factor in declining profits, although customers have also faulted Walmart for badly stocked, disorganized stores, unattractive produce and poor service.

But these campaigns did not yield union members. By failing to organize the retail behemoth, which provides 8.9 percent of jobs in the sector (which in turn employs nearly 1 in 9 U.S. workers), unions lost power to set wage and labor standards. Since 1983, the percentage of retail workers who belong to unions has declined by half—to 4.4 percent.

When Schlademan started work at the UFCW in 2010 on what would become the new Walmart strategy, he tried to learn from workers and organizers in past campaigns, as he explained in an interview with In These Times in December. First, he concluded, the campaign had to break down the barriers isolating workers from each other, both within and among stores. Second, Walmart workers wanted to be “front and center” in the campaigns and in solving problems. Third, workers had to discover the power of collective action, primarily through strikes, which Schlademan called “probably one of the most liberating things labor does. Striking—just [the act of] striking—helps build leaders.”

Over the next three years, OUR Walmart’s key achievement was mobilizing workers to take direct action against the company. OUR Walmart members challenged management at both their workplaces and at shareholder meetings in Bentonville, Ark., often with work stoppages, sit-ins or similar protests. In the process, effective and committed rank-and-file leaders emerged.

The campaign also won praise for its effective use of online organizing. Organizers and members used the web to move workers into reallife collective protests, build small groups of leaders at individual stores, and arrange local and national direct actions. The online connections produced more direct, horizontal relationships between Walmart workers than in most unions, which have a more hierarchical organization.

OUR Walmart said the campaign was just trying to make Walmart a better corporate citizen, not organize a union. Technically that was true (and tactically necessary, given labor law restrictions on picketing employers for long periods). But in spirit, OUR Walmart resembled a strong minority union, without enough votes to win a formal union and collective bargaining, but with other tools that could be used to solve workers’ problems.

The campaign wrung several concessions from Walmart. Workers won a few pilot programs to reduce inconsiderate scheduling, and a worker-led campaign to “Respect the Bump” yielded better pregnancy accommodations. Accompanied by publicity campaigns attacking the company’s stinginess and its owners’ extreme wealth, worker actions undoubtedly helped prompt Walmart’s decision in April to raise its lowest wages to $9 an hour this year and $10 next year.

Hopes for transforming Walmart—and thereby the whole low-wage economy—rose among supporters.

OUR Walmart is “a little IWW-ish,” Schlademan said in December. In their early 20th-century heyday, the Industrial Workers of the World eschewed contracts in favor of direct action at work. In OUR Walmart, Schlademan sees a similar appetite for militant action and a more vigorous involvement in the collective, horizontal conversation.

At the time, Schlademan said, OUR Walmart was preoccupied with securing its right to exist without being attacked all the time: “Walmart must realize OUR Walmart is not going away.”

But sustaining an expensive campaign like OUR Walmart is difficult with voluntary dues of $5 a month per member. Schlademan has since been cut from the UFCW payroll but is still working with OUR Walmart. And rumors of UFCW withdrawing funds have begun circulating, although a network of progressive donors recently pledged money for OUR Walmart to maintain its work.

If UFCW, the organization’s sponsor, cuts back on OUR Walmart, how will managers—and workers—interpret the move?

Critics of the union’s focus on OUR Walmart believe that broadening the agenda to all retail will spread around organizing dollars more effectively, yielding more unionized shops and more dues-paying members. No organizing is easy, but looking beyond Walmart may provide more realistic targets. In New York—the historic stronghold of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (now a department within UFCW)—UFCW Vice President and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum has overseen successful organizing of clothing boutique workers, such as clerks at the Swedish-owned “cheap chic” H&M stores.

Victory at such companies will bring new members but will not necessarily transform the retail industry the way success at a major chain like Walmart or Home Depot could.

The union will almost certainly maintain some special focus on Walmart. “Nobody wants to walk away from or abandon effort on Walmart,” says one union staffer, who was not authorized to speak with reporters. But the union’s Walmart project “will be a more media-focused campaign,” relying on print and television ads, says the staffer.

Media buys can be very expensive, however. Forbes reported that UFCW “spent six figures” on a Fourth of July ad blitz portraying Walmart as unpatriotic for stashing $76 billion in 15 foreign tax havens. And if past attacks haven’t altered Walmart’s stance on unions, will more exposés do the trick?

On the other hand, the sweeping victories of the 1930s and 1960s in industries from automobiles to healthcare suggest the value of a sector-wide strategy for retail. But can one union take on a sector with 16 million workers?

It starts with the workers

Stephen Lerner is the architect of SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign, one of the most successful sector-wide organizing efforts of the past three decades. He argues that, with labor hanging by a thread, most U.S. unions have gone into defense mode—which only occasionally delays further slippage—rather than playing offense using creative, large-scale campaigns.

Though most analysts see the evershifting Walmart campaign as a defensive effort to keep Walmart from driving down labor standards at other, unionized grocery chains, Lerner believes OUR Walmart is an example of a sweeping, innovative effort. “It’s pretty impressive what workers in OUR Walmart have achieved so far,” he says. He notes that strikes have yielded concrete victories and that creative online organizing has allowed workers to help move people into action, not simply to “scream into the void.”

For workers to form a union against the will of an industry or a big company like Walmart requires “an enormous amount of time” to understand the issues, overcome fears, develop leaders, and formulate a “theory of how to beat the company,” which may vary from target to target, Lerner says. Justice for Janitors’ big breakthrough, in a 1988 organizing campaign in Denver, came in part from understanding that targeting building owners, for whom janitorial costs are minuscule, was essential to organizing the small, costsensitive cleaning companies. “There’s not one tactic or secret sauce to take on an entire industry,” he says.

As UFCW revises or expands its organizing mission, it would seem smart to look for ways to apply the strategy and style of work of OUR Walmart—that is, educating and empowering member-organizers and leaders—throughout its retail organizing. That includes recognizing the utility of the internet for real organizing, breaking barriers and building solidarity and expanding open, direct, horizontal lines of communication among members and workplace leaders. It also includes realizing the crucial role of strikes and direct action in building a sense of collective power and communicating with supporters and the public.

OUR Walmart member Tyfani Faulkner, 32, a high school graduate from Sacramento who knew nothing about the labor movement when she took her job, now loves going online to answer questions or solve others’ problems, or to work for legislation or a candidate she favors (most recently, Bernie Sanders). Her “proudest moment,” she says, was participating in a two-hour sit-in at Walmart this past November. OUR Walmart has produced many powerful worker-leaders and vocal progressives like Faulkner who organize effectively—and at no cost.

The emergence of leaders like Faulkner reinforces the urgency of taking seriously Lerner’s key advice, which is as simple as it is often ignored: “You can’t win without the workers.”

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.com on August 11, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at [email protected]

Lacie Little: You’re Un-Fired

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Leo Gerard  Lacie Little won back last week everything Indiana University Health Inc. took from her –  except her job. Her beloved nursing job.

She got back wages and a formal public statement by the hospital corporation saying that it  removed the firing from her work record. So she’s un-fired.

But she’s not rehired. The hospital behemoth refused to consider restoring Lacie to her  nursing job for seven years, long enough, it hopes, to prevent her from helping form a union  there. Despite everything that has happened to her, Lacie hasn’t given up that goal. Now, she’s  working for my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), trying to organize nurses.

Indiana University (IU) Health fired Lacie on March 30, three days after she began trying to persuade her fellow nurses to unionize. Lacie wanted her co-workers to join together to collectively bargain with IU Health for the same reason many nurses want to negotiate with their hospitals. They love their profession; they’re devoted to their patients, and they want to help their hospitals be the best that they can be.

IU Health Inc. believed it knew what was best for the bottom line of the hospital system – and that wasn’t a nurses union. So like many employers, it took action to squash the nascent effort by employees to gain a voice at work by organizing. Firing workers for trying to form a union is illegal. But institutions – even ones supposedly dedicated to restoring health or to Catholic theology – do it all the time anyway because the penalties are so very paltry and the fear instilled is so very profound.

Corporations know they can stall an organizing campaign with just the threat of firing. Duquesne University in Pittsburgh recently used this tactic in a startling way. It included in a pleading to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) a threat to refuse to rehire for future semesters two adjunct professors who had testified at an NLRB hearing about efforts to organize at Duquesne, which holds itself out as a religious institution. One of the adjuncts described Duquesne’s written threat as bone chilling.

Lacie felt both unnerved and betrayed when the hospital corporation fired her. Her partner was five months pregnant with their second child. She had responsibilities, and the termination left her unsure how she would fulfill them. She could not believe the hospital system she so loved had done this to her.

The doctors and nurses and staff at Indiana University Health endeared themselves to Lacie when her grandfather, Robert Little, was hospitalized at Methodist, an IU institution, just after she graduated from high school. He was admitted to the cardiovascular critical care unit, where Lacie would later work.

Robert Little was having trouble breathing. To distract him, the nurses joked with him. They held his gargantuan hands. The doctor took the time to find out about Robert Little as a person. The physician learned that Robert Little was a union bricklayer who had worked hard all his life and who continued chopping wood as he fell increasingly ill in his 70s. Robert Little would not be happy bedridden, tube invaded, machine dependent.

At that time, Lacie’s mother was a nurse at IU Health. She had worked in its bone marrow transplant unit in the very early days when many patients did not survive. Lacie says her mother taught her an important lesson about that:

“She told me that taking care of someone in their last days and hours of life is an honor. You usher them out. And you can make it a great experience or an awful experience. You can truly take care of the patient and the family. I feel Methodist really did that for my family, took the time to get to know my grandfather and explain things to us. They were able to let him die with dignity. He was clean and warm and not in pain and had his family around him. Everyone has to die. It might as well be in a good way.”

Lacie started work at IU Health when she was just 19 years old. She earned bachelor’s degrees in psychology and biology. Then, while working as a secretary for the hospital system, she returned to college to get her nursing degree. She says she learned: “Nursing is caring for people. Great nurses care for their patients. They don’t just take care of them.”

In 2009, she launched her nursing career in the cardiovascular critical care unit where her grandfather had died. Every day, she challenged herself to care for her patients like they were her grandfather.

The stories she tells show that she reveled in accomplishing that. She talks about caring for an older farmer who had been injured in a tractor accident. At one point as he began to get better, he kept motioning toward his face. Still connected to a breathing tube, he could not talk. She knew he was trying to ask for a shave. Lacie recounts:

“I got some hot water and put some wash cloths in there. I sat him in a reclining chair and leaned him back and said, ‘Here we are at the barber shop’ and gave him a really good shave. He kept touching his face and giving me thumbs up. The shave wasn’t necessary to get him better, but we had fixed all of the acute things, and this was important for helping him feel better. We have to do some things to help them feel good mentally.”

When Lacie began in nursing, the hospital system enabled nurses to help patients feel better. But that changed.

In the fall of 2013, the hospital corporation laid off 800 workers, including Lacie’s mother, who had worked there 25 years. At about the same time, IU Health instituted a management method described as “going lean.” What that meant to Lacie was that the hospital system had the best doctors and nurses and staff but was setting them up to fail at meeting goals like treating their patients like their grandfathers.

“They wanted us to do more with less. And they would say that. Everything was about cost, cost, cost. But we care about patients over profits,” she said. It meant there was rarely time to give a farmer a shave.

Lacie says nurses began talking about being in moral distress, “People were leaving the hospital and going home and crying because they felt they did not take good care of their patients.” They did all the basics. They gave patients all of the medications but had no time to talk to them like they were human beings. “If you are not spoken to, you feel like a specimen, not a person,” Lacie explains. Feeling like a specimen does not help heal.

That’s when the union talk started. Because her father and grandfather were union men, Lacie said family experience had taught her that unions could put workers in a position to get CEOs to listen. “I knew unions were a way to stack up enough people so they were on a level playing field with the CEO,” she said.

Earlier this year, the IU nurses chose the USW to help them organize and began holding informational meetings, three a day, twice a week. Lots of nurses attended. They discussed problems at work and how organizing could be a solution. “People were encouraged because they wanted to do something, not just talk about it,” Lacie says.

In March, Lacie and several other nurses began asking co-workers if they were willing to sign a card petitioning for an election that would determine whether they could form a union.

Lacie was careful to do this only while she was on lunch and other breaks. She cautioned co-workers not to sign unless they too were on a break. She chatted with on-duty nurses but did not take their signatures. Even so, on her third day of doing this, IU Health Inc. officials accused her of accepting signatures from nurses who were on duty.

The hospital corporation suspended her, then fired her just days later. “I was dumbfounded,” she says, “I felt betrayed because I had given my loyalty to IU Health.” She had worked there a decade.

Not long after the hospital system terminated Lacie, the state Health Department issued a report saying the hospital was short staffed and that it adversely affected patient care.

The USW hired Lacie immediately after the firing, but the termination imperiled renewal of her nursing license. She knew if she fought the hospital corporation through the NLRB process and the courts, she would win. But that could take years. And she’d be unable to work as a nurse in the meantime.

So she took the settlement deal. It requires IU Health Inc. to post notices at its hospitals saying that it had rescinded Lacie’s firing and discipline against her and that federal law forbids the hospital corporation from threatening, interrogating, surveilling, disciplining, suspending or firing anyone for attempting to form a union.

Lacie’s firing steeled the commitment of some, who started a Facebook meme saying, “I’ve got a Little fight in me.” But for many others, the firing had the effect the hospital corporation intended. Nurses were fearful, and turnout at union meetings declined.

Studies show the number of illegal firings of union activists increasing and the number of union members in the United States dwindling. Workers like Lacie need legislation to stop it. This time last year U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) introduced the Employee Empowerment Act, which would do just that. It could be called Lacie’s Law. But that wouldn’t be fair to the thousands of other workers who suffered as a result of the same illegal corporate union-busting practice.

Lacie insisted on a provision in the agreement allowing her to apply to return to IU Health in seven years because, she said, “I still love the IU Health nurses and doctors and staff.”

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on August 11, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Leo W. Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

Why Unions Supported a Single-Payer Bill That Passed New York’s State Assembly

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

mark-dudzicNew York’s State Assembly in May overwhelmingly passed a bill to establish a single-payer-style health care system.

The bill isn’t expected to pass the Senate or be signed into law anytime soon. But getting it through, with unprecedented support from big unions, shows that state-level campaigns are still a fertile ground for health care justice organizing, despite the recent setback in Vermont.

The New York Health Act would eliminate private health insurance and cover all New Yorkers in a publicly financed, universal plan with no patient premiums, deductibles, or co-payments.

“We should be able to go to the doctor when we need to, without worrying whether we can afford it,” said its sponsor, Assembly Member Richard Gottfried. “We should choose our doctors and hospitals without worrying about network restrictions.”

Gottfried has led a decades-long effort in the Assembly for universal care. But the difference this time was the number of major unions actively supporting it. They gave the bill a big boost.

More unions onboard

Traditional single-payer advocates like the New York State Nurses (NYSNA) and the New York City stagehands’ union, IATSE Local 1, have backed Gottfried’s bills before.

This year marked the first time they were joined by such influential statewide unions as Service Employees (SEIU) 1199 and New York State United Teachers (NYSUT/AFT).

Those unions’ lobbying efforts helped convince legislators the bill was politically viable. And their financial support was crucial to hiring community organizers in key regions.

The unions also participated in statewide hearings in January and mobilized members for Albany lobby days in May.

“The employer-based system of providing health care is eroding, covering a smaller percentage of New Yorkers each year,” said 1199 SEIU member Malcolm Olaker, a Poughkeepsie nursing home worker, at a lobby day.

“In a just society, all people are entitled to basic health care. That’s why we are all here today from different walks of life: patients, health care providers, caregivers and community members, supporting single payer health care.”

Advocacy groups Healthcare NOW, Single Payer NY, and Physicians for a National Health Program were able to capitalize on the momentum to play much larger roles than in previous years.

Obamacare didn’t fix it

Labor support for the initiative grew so strong because of how the Affordable Act has panned out. The much-heralded federal law has done little to ease bargaining-table pressures for health care concessions.

“Our members working in schools and college campuses want our state’s poorest students and their families to have access to quality health care services, so they arrive at school each day healthy and equipped to learn,” said Anthony Pallota, NYSUT executive vice president, at the January hearing.

“Our retirees, who tend to be our most medically vulnerable and fragile members, want affordable prescription medication and access to immediate health care.”

Despite the federal mandates, employers are still trying to offer less coverage and shift costs onto the backs of workers and retirees.

Public sector health benefits are a particularly tempting target, as states and municipalities wrestle with budget shortfalls. Politicians exploit a “politics of resentment” among private sector workers who’ve already seen their own benefits cut.

Another factor spurring unions to action is the looming 2018 implementation of the ACA’s “Cadillac tax.” This 40 percent excise tax will apply to all health insurance plan charges over $10,200 per year for individual coverage and $27,500 for family coverage.

These caps are set to rise at a much slower rate than the costs of health insurance, which means nearly all union-negotiated plans will eventually face the choice between radical cuts to coverage or paying the hefty tax.

Already, the tax has been a major issue in recent union negotiations with Boeing, oil refiners, and port operators.

State by state

While most health care justice activists would prefer a national, Medicare-for-All reform along the lines of Rep. John Conyers’ H.R. 676, in recent years the momentum has been growing for single-payer-style reforms at the state level.

At a time when any path to sweeping federal action appears closed, groups like the Labor Campaign for Single Payer and Healthcare NOW have supported state campaigns as a way forward.

The ACA may help facilitate these efforts—because, beginning in 2017, the federal government is authorized to grant states “innovation waivers.”

Such a waiver frees the state from the requirement to establish a private insurance exchange. Instead, it can reallocate federal subsidies for private insurance and Medicaid into funding its own plan.

To be approved, the state’s plan must meet the law’s minimum requirements for coverage and cost-sharing, and cover at least as many residents at a cost no higher than what the federal government would have assumed.

“We believe that a victory for a publicly financed, universal plan in one or more states can provide a powerful impetus to the movement for national health care,” said Ben Day, executive director of Healthcare NOW.

State efforts suffered a setback when Vermont’s governor announced in December that he was suspending plans to implement Green Mountain Care, the single-payer-style program to realize the 2011 law that made health care a right.

Shumlin was scheduled to submit a financing proposal to the legislature in advance of the plan going into effect in 2017. Instead, he announced the health care for all was “just not affordable”—despite the fact that even his own economic estimates showed Vermonters would spend less for health care than they currently do.

Gerald Friedman, a University of Massachusetts economist, called Shumlin’s decision “political, not economic.” Nonetheless, single-payer opponents seized on the Vermont debacle as proof that universal health care at the state level is unworkable.

But the book isn’t closed. The law is still in effect, and hundreds have taken to the streets to demand its implementation.

The Vermont Workers’ Center—which maintains that the state still has an obligation to implement the law—issued its own financing plan, which it submitted to the legislature for consideration.

Strategy conference

All health care justice campaigns, if they get far enough, will be forced to wrestle with the same conundrum Vermonters are facing. The closer they come to victory, the greater the resistance from the medical-industrial complex and free-market fundamentalists who viscerally oppose any form of social insurance.

In California, the legislature twice passed single-payer bills in the 2000s, only to have them vetoed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Once Democrat Jerry Brown was elected governor, the movement couldn’t even find a bill sponsor.

California activists are gearing up for a multi-year project to muster the substantial funds and organizers it will take to win (and then defend) a single-payer-style system through the state’s initiative process.

Organizers in the strong, labor-backed campaigns in Oregon and Washington are also looking to use the initiative process if pending legislation founders. Oregon passed a bill to fund a study of alternative plans to ensure universal coverage.

New York will surely experience the same political challenges as Vermont and California. Nonetheless, the bill’s passage with such a big majority and the outpouring of labor and community support have given the national movement a welcome shot in the arm.

“This is a great victory, but now the hard work begins,” warned Joel Shufro, a longtime occupational health and safety advocate who worked to recruit unions to support the bill.

“Getting the bill through the Senate and getting the governor to sign it will be a long and difficult struggle. We must keep on building the grassroots movement if we ever hope to win the right to health care for everyone in New York.”

Activists will discuss and debate how to build this movement when they meet in Chicago, October 30-November 1, for thelargest-ever single-payer national strategy conference.

“Our movement continues to grow, as people realize that the Affordable Care Act does not do enough to solve the health care crisis afflicting almost everyone in America,” said NYSNA Vice President Marva Wade. “We need to come together to finish the job and make health care a right for everyone.”

This blog originally appeared in InTheseTimes.com on August 3, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Mark Dudzic is the national coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer. He can be reached at [email protected]

Calm Down: SCOTUS’s ‘Friedrichs’ Case Won’t Mean the End of the American Labor Movement

Monday, July 20th, 2015

David MobergWhile most liberals were celebrating the Supreme Court’s June rulings affirming both marriage equality and Obamacare, many labor leaders were already worrying about next year. They feared that the court might hear a case that many of them saw as potentially delivering a crippling blow to the union movement: Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. And at the last minute, the court announced it would.

If a majority of the Supreme Court justices back the plaintiff in the Friedrichs case, promoted by a variety of right-wing, anti-union organizations, they will likely overturn the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education court decision. The Supreme Court ruled in Abood that when a public employee union provided benefits, such as collective bargaining or grievance processing, to both members and non-members alike, the non-members could be charged a “fair share” or “agency shop” fee to cover an appropriate share of union expenses. Critics of the Friedrichs petition say that if justices agreed with its complaint, the Supreme Court’s action would have the effect of passing a national right-to-work law for all public employees (even though public employed collective bargaining rights are primarily matters of state law).

The two big teachers unions (American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association) and the two biggest unions of other public employees (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees [AFSCME] and the Service Employees International Union [SEIU]), responded with alarm to the court’s announcement:

“We are disappointed that at a time when big corporations and the wealthy few are rewriting the rules in their favor, knocking American families and our entire economy off-balance, the Supreme Court has chosen to take a case that threatens the fundamental promise of America—that if you work hard and play by the rules you should be able to provide for your family and live a decent life.

“The Supreme Court is revisiting decisions that have made it possible for people to stick together for a voice at work and in their communities—decisions that have stood for more than 35 years—and that have allowed people to work together for better public services and vibrant communities.”

Whether celebrating from the Right or mourning from the Left, many observers saw the Supreme Court’s decision to take the case as another nail in the coffin of the labor movement.

There are good reasons to be concerned. A ruling in favor of Friedrichs would legally and morally permit some workers to be “free riders”—individuals who take advantage of what the union by law must provide them without paying for it. Perhaps more important, it would disregard the fundamental reasoning behind the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)-protected “union security clauses.” The law was intended to encourage collective bargaining, and if some workers could opt out of supporting collective bargaining, legislators reasoned, they would weaken the institution.

From a practical point of view, unions would lose income that they could be using to improve conditions for all workers, including organizing the unorganized (although only voluntary political contributions, not dues money, can be used for union political advocacy). And a ruling in favor of the plaintiff would be a symbolic blow, a legal slap in the face, to a movement which has endured many such blows in the past.

But there are many other reasons to think that, win or lose on this case, the labor movement may not be as seriously damaged as many now fear.

First, there is a chance that even with this very conservative court (whose conservative bloc split enough times to give the liberal bloc some unexpected victories this past term), a majority might vote against the Friedrichs plaintiffs. The Supreme Court has narrowed interpretations of Abood in recent related cases, such as Harris v. Quinn. In that case, the court ruled that home care workers paid by the state are not state employees and thus are exempt from fair share requirements. Conservatives typically argue that agency fee payers are forced to financially support speech with which they disagree, thus violating the First Amendment. They have even argued that collective bargaining constitutes political speech for public employees.

But surprisingly, as the union lawyers noted in their response to the Friedrichs petition, normally arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia has offered strong arguments in defense of the agency fee, going beyond the usual “free-rider” critique of people getting benefits without paying their cost.

“What is distinctive, however, about the ‘free riders’ who are nonunion members of the union’s own bargaining unit is that in some respects they are free riders whom the law requires the union to carry—indeed, requires the union to go out of its way to benefit, even at the expense of its other interests,” Scalia wrote in the case of Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association. Scalia would have to perform some pretty spectacular legal acrobatic maneuvers to move from that position to rejection of a “fair share” fee.

But even if unions lose the Friedrichs case, it need not be the end of the world. It might even prompt some change in strategy that would strengthen unions.

For starters, non-member workers who pay agency fees make up only about 9 percent of the public sector workers who are covered by union contracts, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. And though the “fair share” payment varies by union, local, region and other factors, it is always at least a substantial reduction from full public worker union membership fees. With union density more than five times as great in the public sector compared to the rate of unionization in private business, and with unions feeling pressed for money already, any loss of public union income hurts, but it may not be a “life or death” situation, as some fear.

Also, it is hard to gauge how much difference Abood has made in the growth of public unions since the decision was handed down in 1977. At that time, 33 percent of the public sector was unionized (nearly 5 million members), and 40 percent were under contract; in 2014, 36 percent were members, and 39 percent under contract, according to Union Stats. Membership peaked at 39 percent of public workers in 1994, the same year that 45 percent were covered by a contract, then dropped to around 35-36 percent membership recently. (The number of public sector members peaked at 8.7 million in 2009.)

So it seems that having the Abood union security protection may have helped the public sector unions keep pace with employment growth and avoid, until recently, setbacks from massive employer attacks. But the effect seems modest. An AFSCME spokesperson emphasized that the union grew to be powerful before fair share; the implication is that they could do it again.

But didn’t Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 lead to huge union membership losses as a result of eliminating fair share payments? Yes, there were great losses, as the Washington Post reported: “The state branch of the National Education Association, once 100,000 strong, has seen its membership drop by a third. The American Federation of Teachers, which organized in the college system, saw a 50 percent decline. The 70,000-person membership in the state employees union has fallen by 70 percent.”

But unions lost the right to bargain over almost everything, lost dues check-off, were forced to have representation elections ever year and suffered other assaults that led to members no longer paying dues. The loss of fair share payments played a small role in the overall union losses. Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels rescinded an earlier executive order from Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh granting union representation rights to state employees almost as soon as Daniels took office in 2005. Now Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is trying to wipe out a broad swath of worker rights. If a win on Friedrichs emboldens the right-wing Republicans in the scope of their attack, then it could lead to other measures that could be disastrous.

Fourth, as labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan writes in his recent book Only One Thing Can Save Us, no unions in Europe have the legal security protection U.S. unions have that permits a requirement that all workers either join or pay a fee to a recognized union in their workplace. Yet they have still fared relatively well. Of course, most European unions benefit even more from the laws that often extend the terms of union negotiated wages in an industry to all workers in the industry, whether they belong to a union or not.  That would make an enormous difference in the U.S., well worth even giving up an agency shop fee in order to obtain it, as Geoghegan makes a case for (which is one reason why it is unlikely to happen).

Finally, unions have discovered that there are other ways to deal with workers who are not on their membership rolls. For example, for the first half of last year, AFSCME set out to organize as full members 50,000 of the fair share payers or other non-members in workplaces where they had contracts. They organized 90,000. Some cases were easy—such as workers who thought they were members but weren’t. Renewing the drive this year, the union has signed up 50,000 more, according to an AFSCME spokesperson. The National Education Association has signed up 13,000 fair share payers as members, and other public sector unions are undertaking similar campaigns.

Internal organizing takes staff time and money, and some unionists fear that if the fair share requirement is dropped, not only agency dues payers but also current members may decide not to pay full dues or become full voting members. It is a risk, and the internal organizing adds new demands on already overstretched unions. But it also may lead unions to turn their membership into the active, educated force in the workplace and in the public arena that it already claims to be but all too often isn’t.

The biggest danger of a Supreme Court victory for anti-union forces in Friedrichs is the potential for encouraging more and more devastating legal and political attack on workers who want to organize. Bad as times are now, they could get worse. But the best defense—as well as the best offense to gain improvements—is a highly motivated, well-organized and politically savvy union workforce.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 15, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is David Moberg. David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at [email protected]

Union Is the New Black: Labor Organizing in Orange Is the New Black, And What It Means For You

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Leslie-Tolf2In its third season with Netflix, Orange Is the New Black has had a significant effect on America’s consciousness regarding: race, women and incarceration, and transgender issues. This season highlighted many character backstories, but personally, the most interesting plot-line was that of the security guards and their efforts to organize a potential union. We see labor issues in popular culture and television on occasion, and this example in particular shines light on issues that that arise when workers don’t have labor protection. In this instance, the security guards at Litchfield women’s prison were dealing with cut hours, a loss of benefits and job security, and how to protect themselves. The answer to that, in addition to having an ally in management, was to form a union. We’re not often exposed to unionization in mainstream media, so I want to take the opportunity to explain the importance of unionizing and what it takes to get the protection you need when it comes to labor.

A Little Bit of History

During the 18th century and Industrial Revolution in Europe, the influx of new workers in the workplace warranted regulations and conversations around worker protection. In the US, the founding of the National Labor Union in 1886 – though not largely successful – paved the way for unions in the US. Labor protection brought us things we see as customary now, like: the weekend, minimum wage, or national holidays. Without unions, and despite our economy veering towards entrepreneurship and fewer professional boundaries, many of us would be in danger of job loss. Think about what you see on OITNB, where the prisoners work without pay, are demeaned by the prison and are endangered at every moment. Now, imagine that was your job. Less than a century ago, Americans worked for poverty wages alongside their children in dangerous factories; the same factories where the bosses that degraded them also turned workers against other workers by exploiting racial and ethnic prejudices. Imagine that your death was just another cost of doing business, like the overhead and taxes.

This was America before the labor movement – before workers acted together to demand fair wages, safe workplaces and laws that reflected the values of the working class. Workers not only won things like the weekend, minimum wage and national holidays, but also the less-sexy (but equally important) rights to bargain collectively, to take collective action and to even just talk to your coworkers about your wages and working conditions. People died for these things. While we may live in a great democracy, it’s worth remembering that true progress is really made through the mobilization of people. After all, women didn’t get the right to vote by voting on it.

Should You Unionize?

For a long time, a powerful labor movement allowed all American workers the ability to share in economic prosperity and take advantage of what is now an anachronism: if you work harder, you’ll get more. Wages and productivity went hand in hand until the decline of union membership began to drop as a result of anti-union laws and well-funded corporate attack on organized labor. If the median household income had kept pace with the economy at a constant rate during the years of higher unionization, it would now be closer to $92,000 a year instead of just under $52,000. The fundamental purpose of a union is to balance the overwhelming power of the few people making huge gains in our economy.

Put another way: how many people can afford their own lobbyist to get a slice of that pie? That’s the big picture. The smaller picture is you and your job. You know how great the constitution is? Freedom of speech and assembly? The right to due process? Democracy? You can throw all that out when you enter the workplace. If you don’t have a union, you can be fired for any reason that’s not based on a relatively small list of protected classes. But let’s talk money: union members have wages that average 27 percent higher than their non-union counterparts, are more than 79 percent likely to have health benefits through their employers, and 60 percent more likely to have an employer-provided pension.

What it Takes to Build a Union

Solidarity. Practically speaking, it takes a small group of you and your co-workers who can first quietly assess how others in your workplace feel about their jobs. What matters most to you? Is it the low pay? The poor benefits? Safety? Lack of respect? Focusing on what really matters will be crucial to winning the right to collectively bargain. The labor union you contact will help shepherd you through the election process to a contract, but the most important thing that you and your coworkers can do is to educate yourselves and stick together. And always remember that the union is you and your co-workers, not the third-party intruder your bosses might suggest. It’s your union and you’re trying to fix issues that matter to you.

Why It’s Important

Despite common belief, unions aren’t just for factory workers and building trades, they’re for everyone who wants to make a better life for himself or herself and earn a fair wage for the work they do. When you have a union, hard work can once again equate to sharing in the benefits of your labor. Even a college degree hardly guarantees a good paying job like it once did; too many people with piled student loan debt have found themselves underpaid and struggling. At the end of the day, a union is about how you will provide for yourself and your family.

About the Author: The author’s name is Leslie Tolf. Leslie Tolf is the President of Union Plus. You can follow Leslie Tolf  on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/ltolf.

 

Teachers Say 17 Firings at Urban Prep Charter Schools Were Retaliation for Unionization

Monday, July 6th, 2015

Ariel Ziontscrystal stella becerrilOn June 19, during their biannual semester-end interviews, 17 teachers were informed by school staff that they would not be returning to Chicago’s Urban Prep Academy come fall. The terminations came just weeks after 61 percent of Urban Prep’s teachers voted to form a union; activists say the firings were a blatant act of anti-union retaliation.

Last Thursday, around 100 teachers, students, parents and supporters attended Urban Prep’s board meeting to protest the firings and accuse the board of harming their community and hindering student progress. They also accused the board of resisting transparency and accountability, and creating a high teacher-turnover rate through firings and policies that push teachers out of the school.

This is only the latest case of such allegedly unjust firings, as more and more charter schools in Chicago and across the country are organizing to unionize despite the legal hurdles, backlash, and the common belief—at least among school management—that charter teachers don’t need unions.

Matthias Muschal told Catalyst Chicago he was fired after working as a lead English teacher at Urban Prep’s Bronzeville campus for six years for “insubordination—specifically because he threw a pizza party for student-athletes and their families without notifying administration,” according to the administration. He says the real reason was his union activism—a huge disappointment because “I wouldn’t be able to teach my students anymore,” Muschal told In These Times.

Urban Prep CEO Evan Lewis wrote in a statement that “the suggestion that anyone was fired as a result of their organizing activity is both wrong and offensive. … “We respect and support the right of our teachers to choose a union as their exclusive representative. … Many of the teachers returning next year were active in the effort to organize, and we look forward to continuing our work with them.”

At the board meeting, 26 people signed up to speak, although roughly half were allowed to address the board. Parents also delivered over 200 letters in support of the fired teachers in an effort to influence the board’s decision. Not all board members, however, were present at Thursday’s meeting—even though, according to Samuel Adams, a former Urban Prep English teacher, they all live in Chicago. Those who did not attend the meeting called in—a gesture seen by some union supporters as disrespectful.

Teachers, parents and students who attended the meeting praised Urban Prep’s mission and success, but said the recent firings go against the school’s mission and will ultimately harm the students. Englewood Junior Lamar Strickland told the board he “would just like to ask that you guys bring back our teachers because … they have all taught us something different that we can take in our life.”

Students were especially upset about the firing of English teacher Natasha Robinson. Robert DuPont, a junior at the Englewood campus, said Ms. Robinson went above and beyond her responsibilities like calling students she knew were having trouble getting to school on time. Mr. Adams said that his former colleague had the highest freshmen test scores in the school and continued to teach even soon after her mother died.

Of the outpouring of student support over the past weeks, Robinson said, “It’s nice to know I made an impact during my time at Urban Prep—to know that I was able to help these young men.” (Urban Prep is an all-male school.)

At the meeting, James Thindwa of the American Federations of Teachers (who is also a member of the In These Times board of directors) also accused Urban Prep’s majority-black board of directors of harming the black community and instituting measures similar to anti-union, right-wing politicians like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

“I can’t believe that this institution, this publicly funded institution, … anchored in the black neighborhood, that is itself reeling from economic disinvestment that in part has been caused by the attack on labor unions … is participating in a vile attack on a legitimate institution that serves as a legitimate counterweight to what we’re seeing as unchecked corporate power in the United States.”

In a press release, Thindwa wrote that because black Americans hold a disproportionate share of public-sector jobs, they have been hit especially hard by the decline of public-sector jobs and the attacks on their unions.

The audience highlighted the irony in these firings, as one of the main reasons teachers wanted to unionize was to change what they say are Urban Prep’s high teacher turnover rates. They say students don’t know if their favorite teachers will return the following year, which affects their learning environment.

“It’s unfortunate that they would fire veteran teachers and that there will be so much uncertainty for these students going into the new school year,” said Robinson, who had taught at the school for seven years. Teachers say high turnover rates also mean devoting important time to train new teachers rather than to develop the skills of existing ones.

According to Brian Harris, a special education teacher at CICS Northtown Academy and Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS) president, “across the network, only nine teachers have been at Urban Prep more than five years. Now, only about half of them are returning.”

“Students are calling for a stable learning environment, and their teachers know that unionization is the only way to get stability for these students and their communities,” says Rob Heise, an educator and activist who says he was fired from an UNO Network charter high School earlier this month for his involvement in helping unionize his school last year. Heise filed his own unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB two weeks ago.

Chicago Teachers Union members made their way to the South Side school from their own union’s contract negotiation meeting earlier that afternoon to show support for the fired Urban Prep teachers. Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, was among them. Chambers said that all the Urban Prep teachers who voted to unionize wanted was a voice for their students. Having played a major role in preparing her school for the historic 10-day CTU strike back in 2012, Chambers knows first hand the power of belonging to a union and added that teachers “know that if they don’t have a union they don’t have a voice.”

“Urban Prep punished their staff for unionizing. They lied about what ACTS is and used teachers’ professional development time to spread anti-union propaganda,” said Brian Harris. “Their actions show a real disrespect for teachers and democracy and scream ‘we don’t want to be accountable to anyone.’ ”

Chris Baehrend, Vice President of Chicago ACTS and English teacher at Latino Youth High School, said retaliation is the main reason why 39% of eligible voters chose not to join the Urban Prep union. “They’re afraid. They’re afraid of things like exactly what happened right here happening to them.”

An unfair labor practice suit has been filed with the NLRB, and Chicago ACTS will be planning future demonstrations.

During the public comment period, Samuel Adams called on supporters to put pressure on Urban Prep by sending emails, and parent Shoneice Reynolds called for a local school council. Reynolds cited Urban Prep’s creed to make her point: “It states, we have a future for which we are accountable. I challenge you all to be accountable for our children’s future.”

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 1, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: The authors’ names are Ariel Zionts and Crystal Stella Becerril. Arielle Zionts is a freelancer writer and, beginning in August, a producer at the Interfaith Voices radio show in D.C. She studied anthropology at Pitzer College and radio at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Crystal Stella Becerril is a Chicago-based Xicana activist, writer and photographer who regularly contributes to Socialist Worker, Red Wedge and Warscapes.

West Coast Truckers Poised to Strike, Say They’re Owed Nearly $1 Billion in Stolen Wages

Monday, June 15th, 2015

Mario VasquezLess than two months after participating in a strike against trucking companies allegedly committing wage theft at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, a supermajority of drivers at Intermodal Bridge Transport (IBT) are poised to strike in order to pressure IBT into correcting their alleged misclassification as independent contractors.

IBT, which moves merchandise for Sony, Toyota, General Electric, Target and JC Penney, among others, is a subsidiary of the Chinese Government-owned COSCO Logistics Americas network and employes 88 drivers, according to the union supporting driver efforts, Teamsters Local 848.

The drivers contest that their status as independent contractors is wrong and creates wage theft that amounts to almost $1 billion yearly in California alone, according to estimates by local allies.

Although IBT provides the vehicle that truckers drive (which is standard in an employer-employee relationship), IBT has a leasing arrangement with the drivers to pass along the costs of business on to them. “They deduct reparations, they deduct diesel fuel, they deduct anything they see convenient from the paycheck,” explains Humberto Canales of a fellow trucking company, XPO Logistics.

Their alleged misclassification as independent contractors makes the truckers ineligible for not only the much-publicized recent $15 minimum wage ordinance in Los Angeles, but also for unionization.

On June 5, IBT truckers delivered a petition signed by 59 drivers to executives at IBT, COSCO and their Fortune 500 clients at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, in order to inform management that they had chosen Teamsters Local 848 as their collective bargaining representative. The drivers hope that the letter will stimulate movement on re-classification, and are threatening to strike if the outcome is not in their favor.

“We will fight for as long as it takes and are even ready to go on strike again. But all of that disruption and expense can be avoided if the company simply chooses to do the right thing and recognize our rights as employees and right to become members of the Union,” says IBT driver Hector Flores.

Barb Maynard, an official at Teamsters Local 848, points to April’s trucker strike as a catalyst for the pro-union mood that culminated with the June 5 letter, saying that while only 8 drivers went on strike on the first day, by week’s end that number grew to 57. “They went out on strike, and the strike grew—their numbers kept growing. … They were organizing themselves in the middle of the strike. It was really incredible,” Maynard tells In These Times.

Teamsters Local 848 says that IBT drivers were particularly emboldened by the unionization of truckers at Shippers Transport Express, whose previous legal challenges had successfully compelled the trucking company into reclassification of their workers. COSCO and SSA Marine, the respective parent companies of IBT and Shippers, together own and operate Pacific Container Terminals, a 256-acre marine terminal at the Port of Long Beach. Drivers at both companies were close enough to observe the benefits of full employment status and collective bargaining, workers say.

“Drivers at Shippers Transport Express, who were converted to employees in January and soon thereafter became Teamsters, had to fight through the courts to get their rights. We are hoping to avoid that long and expensive legal process because we know that we are misclassified at IBT—just as they were at Shippers,” Flores says.

IBT truckers are also currently involved in class action and individual lawsuits alleging wage theft and misclassification. The union expects this litigation to be ruled in favor of the truckers.

“[All driver-trucking company litigation] is the same. The working circumstances are all the same—exactly how these companies set up their leases…what deductions they make,” Maynard says. “There’s no reason to believe that, if these drivers do have to take their cases all the way through the court system, which takes years, that the outcome would be any different than what it’s been at Shippers or at any place else.”

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has recently spoken out against misclassification and related wage theft. “The misclassification of port truck drivers is not the gripe of a few drivers but a battle cry of a systemic problem that must be addressed,” Garcetti said at a May press conference, while celebrating the creation of a new 100%-employee-driver trucking company called Eco Flow.

The $15 minimum wage ordinance in Los Angeles also includes funding for a new Wage Enforcement Division that would have five investigators to crack down on wage theft locally. According to a March 2015 study published by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, San Francisco has the same number of investigators in its own wage enforcement team, but because the city has a lower concentration of low-wage workers than Los Angeles, investigators there cover 20,000 low wage workers each. The study says that Los Angeles’s Wage Enforcement Division would require 25 investigators to reach such an average of 20,000 per investigator.

As progressives across the country celebrate the passage of yet another successful $15 minimum wage campaign, and conservatives damn the unions who wish to collectively bargaining for low-wage earners, IBT truckers will eye a possible strike in order to simply qualify for a minimum wage at all.

According to Maynard, IBT truckers “are not going to sit around and wait for either mayor to take action. … [Drivers] are going to continue to fight back. Every day that they are misclassified is another day that their wages are being stolen,” she says.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on June 12, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Mario Vasquez. Mario Vasquez is a writer from Santa Barbara, California. You can reach him at [email protected]

Inside the Case That Could Hold McDonald’s Responsible for Union-busting

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

Andrew ElrodThe National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) complaint for unfair labor practices against the McDonald’s corporation inched forward in a Manhattan courtroom last month.

Lawyers representing the company, its franchisees, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the government met to discuss the future of a case that could lay the groundwork for union representation and collective bargaining at the country’s largest fast food brand.

McDonald’s “entire business model is put at risk” by the litigation, Jones Day’s Willis Goldsmith told Administrative Law Judge Lauren Esposito during the three-hour hearing. If Esposito finds that the company’s oversight and workforce management policies make it a “joint employer,” as the charging parties contend, it could be held responsible for the working conditions in its franchised stores. Nation-wide, 90 percent of McDonald’s stores are owned by franchises.

During the hearing Esposito required McDonald’s to deliver over 700 documents relating to the structure of the corporation to the government and the union.

“The evidence will show that McDonald’s directed or helped direct how to deal with employees at the franchised facilities in response to protected activities,” said Jamie Rucker, General Counsel for the NLRB.

If the judge found coordination that established joint-employer status, the Board would be able to hold McDonald’s liable for illegally retaliating against workers who engaged in activity protected by the National Labor Relations Act in the Fight for 15 protests and organizing campaign, and eventually to be named as a party in collective bargaining for those stores.

But before that can happen, the board must prove that both McDonald’s and the owners of its franchised stores “share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment” or “meaningfully affect” employment issues such as hiring, firing, discipline, supervision and direction of work. The Board believes it can prove joint employer status with information from the shift scheduling software the company provides to its stores, as well as communications between company and individual locations. Evidence and testimonials are to be presented beginning May 26.

“McDonald’s is a complicated company”

While forcing McDonald’s to produce information about the management of its franchised stores, Judge Esposito did revoke subpoenas for information about a corporate-owned restaurant in Illinois. The Board and SEIU had sought the information to compare with management practices at franchised stores, where the company says corporate directives are considered “optional.” If management at both the franchised and non-franchised stores were sufficiently similar, Rucker argued, the “optional” suggestions from McDonald’s could be shown to establish joint-employer status.

Asked about the exact relationship between McDonalds Illinois, the subpoenaed store, and McDonalds USA, the national company, Goldsmith explained that “McDonald’s is a complicated company.”

The Board and the unions also requested details about McDonald’s USA’s corporate structure. But Jonathan Linas, also of Jones Day, explained that finding that information would not be so easy. “There’s no one organizational chart,” Linas said.

“The entire organizational structure of McDonald’s USA will not be produced,” he said. “I don’t know [if] it exists. We’ve been looking a long time and we don’t have one.”

Credible Allegation

The stakes of the proceedings are high and McDonald’s has hired the law firm Jones Day, which oversaw the bankruptcy and restructuring General Motors and the City of Detroit, to lead its defense.

McDonald’s business model in part rests on its exemptions from liability for the working conditions at its franchised stores. But even if these exemptions were to change, it is unclear what the implications for the rest of the fast food industry would be.

First, a finding of joint-employer status would have to survive in federal court, an institution notoriously unfriendly to workers’ collective action. And then it would only apply to the specific locations and conditions named in the complaint.

“As soon as there is some kind of a determination that an employer is a joint employer, the company just restructures the relationship,” says Michael Duff, a law professor at the University of Wyoming who worked at the NLRB for nine years. “And then you get another round of litigation.”

Because the joint-employer status would only apply to franchises named in the consolidated case, Duff explained, organizing campaigns through the NLRB could only occur at those stores. However, he added, an expanded joint employment standard could facilitate organizing at other similar franchises in the future.

“Once you have a broader way of thinking about the employment relationship, it opens up more kinds of workplaces to the credible allegation that this is a joint-employer relationship,” said Duff.

The charging parties are skeptical that McDonald’s workforce management systems can be restructured. Citing an April 2014 statement by then-CEO Dan Thompson, they allege the company has responded to falling profits with a “reset” plan that requires the company to take greater control of staffing and scheduling to maximize in-store revenues.

Guarded Campaigns

In its defense, the McDonald’s is arguing that any coordinated response at its franchised stores against protected activity was lawful-employer free speech, protected under the NLRA.

Under the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the Act, Goldsmith explained, McDonald’s has “the absolute unfettered right to engage in non-coercive free speech in response to attacks on the brand.” Coordination on these grounds, he argued, does not constitute joint-employer status.

To establish its case, McDonald’s subpoenaed information on the internal workings of SEIU’s campaign, including internal documents from the union, the public relations firm Berlin Rosen and two investigative firms.

“We are entitled to find out who they talked to and what they spoke about,” Goldsmith said, referring to one of the investigative firms hired by the SEIU which may have spoken to workers. The union countered that revealing the insides of its campaign would have a “chilling effect” on organizing, as the fast food corporation could threaten those revealed with retaliation.  On Thursday, April 10, Esposito revoked the subpoenas against SEIU and the third parties.

Open-ended future

The pace of the proceedings since workers began protesting in 2012 also gives some sense of the scope of the campaign drive being led by SEIU.

Since November 2012, at least 310 charges of illegal retaliation against workers engaging in protected activity have been filed by workers and their representatives. Over 100 of these charges have been found to have merit, and as of February 13, the Board had filed 19 complaints across 14 administrative regions across the country—offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Manhattan. As the protests have continued, so have the unfair labor practice charges filed by the union.

If McDonald’s is found to have coordinated a national response to protesting workers, as the Board is arguing, that could prove that the company exercises more control over the workers in its stores than it claims.

Such a finding would be initially limited and establish a legal basis for collective bargaining at just a handful of stores. However, the finding could facilitate traditional NLRB organizing across the heavily franchised service sector, forcing the company to bargain with workers who opt for union representation.

SEIU has made a considerable investment (“over $18 million at least,” said Goldsmith) in an open-ended campaign with little promise of immediate returns. The current case in front of the NLRB shows that the union is far from guaranteed from obtaining new dues-paying members any time soon, making the union’s investment an incredibly risky gamble—something most unions would be loathe to even consider.

The campaign has sparked a nation-wide movement that has already won minimum wage increases and raised entry-level pay for workers across the retail and fast food industries. Whether that momentum will translate into joint-employer status or fast food worker union membership may depend on the ruling handed down in Judge Esposito’s courtroom.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on April 29, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The Author’s name is Andrew Elrod. Andrew Elrod is a writer living in New York. He is a contributor and former intern at Dissent, and his work has also appeared in Labor Notes. He is from Texas. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewelrod or reach him at [email protected]

A Legacy Remembered

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Gebre

Every February, people across the country celebrate Black History Month. We honor the  heritage and struggle of African Americans in the United States while looking with hope  toward the future. This year, I am honored to look back at organizers and activists who  inspire me daily in my work as a leader in the labor movement. The history of the  modern labor movement, which is positioned to speak, fight and win on behalf of all  workers, is filled with strong black figures who fought for civil and economic justice  during a time when justice was not guaranteed for all.

When I arrived in the United States at the age of 15 as a refugee of war-torn Ethiopia, I  struggled to take care of myself financially while also trying to focus on my academics.  When I started college at Cal Poly Pomona on an athletic scholarship, I also got a job as a night shift loader for UPS as a member of Teamsters Local 396. UPS was my first union job, and it opened my eyes to the world of labor and all of the trailblazing African American organizers who had come before me.

People like Bayard Rustin, who persevered in the face of threats and violence in his efforts to organize workers on behalf of the trade unionists. Despite enduring multiple arrests and beatings, Rustin continued in his work and went on to help organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom alongside A. Philip Randolph, another great African American labor leader. The March on Washington was the largest demonstration the United States had ever seen, bringing together hundreds of people in the struggle for better jobs and better lives.

Thanks to the work of activists like Rustin and Randolph, all African Americans have moved closer to achieving the goals of justice and equality set forth by the civil rights movement. Rustin and Randolph are important examples of the positive role unions and collective action play in the African American struggle for economic justice. Today, African American union members earn 28% more than our nonunion peers and are far more likely to have good benefits that help us raise families. But there is still work to be done.

Now more than ever, the struggle for civil rights must include good jobs that raise wages and an economy that works for all. Without good jobs, there is no real freedom. While African American union members are weathering the economic downturn with the aid of collective bargaining, our nonunion brothers and sisters are suffering. Today African Americans have a 10.4% rate of unemployment in the United States, compared to a 4.8% rate for white Americans.

It’s time for the next generation of leaders to take up the torch and work on behalf of all workers. I am grateful for the inspiration that past African American leaders have left behind for me. This proud legacy continues to motivate fellow activists who are fighting for justice today. Let’s get to work and make them proud.

This article originally appeared at  The Huffington Post on February 9, 2015. Reprinted with permission from AFL-CIO Now.

About the author: Tefere Gebre is the Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO.

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