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Archive for the ‘unions’ Category

Study: Popularity of Joining Unions Surges

Friday, June 22nd, 2018

After holding steady for decades, the percentage of American workers in all jobs who would say yes to join a union jumped sharply this past year, by 50%, says a new, independent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The evidence is clear: The popularity of the labor movement is surging as more people want to join unions than ever before. Every worker must have the freedom to negotiate in a union over pay, benefits and working conditions.

The national narrative that the economy is doing OK, while working people struggle and billionaires bask in their latest round of massive tax cuts, is all wrong.

The truth is more working people want collective power. From 1977 to 1995, the percentage of all workers who would say yes to a union drive stayed flat, at about 32% of nonunion workers. Today, that number is 48%, a remarkable 50% increase.

This independent study from MIT confirms a broad trend we’ve seen in recent months as teachers have marched and rallied en masse for better school funding and higher pay, as tens of thousands of workers have voted to join unions and as the concept of unionism has spread in countless other ways in America.

The rich and powerful still hold many of the levers of power in America, but working people are claiming our seat at the table. We demand that every worker have the freedom to form or join a union.

This blog was originally published at AFLCIO.org on June 22, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

Trump administration sued after trying to gut federal workers’ union rights

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

The Trump administration is being sued by the largest union representing federal workers, which claims a new executive order that restricts union representation during work hours is unlawful and violates the First Amendment rights of its members.

The executive order was among three that Trump issued last Friday that rolled back union protections and the latest anti-union measures imposed by the administration. The lawsuit was filed by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) at U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.

“These changes will effectively deny thousands upon thousands of federal employees union representation,” AFGE General Counsel David Borer told ThinkProgress on Thursday. “It’s all part of an effort to destroy the unions and shrink the size of the government, in the words of some Republicans, down to the size of where you can drown it in a bathtub.”

Among a number of limitations, the “Official Time” executive order bars union representatives from spending more than 25 percent of their work hours providing representation for employees and, in the aggregate, no more than one hour per employee in their bargaining unit per year, Borer said. In other words, if there are 1,000 employees in a unit, a representative cannot spend more than 1,000 hours representing employees, he said.

Allowing union representation during work hours is common practice in the private sector and unions are required by law to represent all employees, both paying members and non-members, said Borer. Historically, the rationale for allowing union representatives to use “official time” to represent employees is because the law requires the union to provide the free service to non-members that don’t pay dues, he said.

In its lawsuit, the union argues the executive order violates the First Amendment because it does not provide valid justification for the regulations and singles out labor organizations and their representatives for “disparate, negative treatment as compared to individuals.” Because of this, it “restrains and retaliates” against the union and its employee representatives for exercising their rights to expressive association.

It also violates the Separation of Powers in the Constitution because it attempts to give agencies unilateral authority to determine whether a particular amount of official time is reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest, according to the suit.

After Janus, Should Unions Abandon Exclusive Representation?

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

The Supreme Court is set to issue a ruling on Janus vs. AFSCME, which could have far-reaching consequences for the future of public-sector unions in the United States. The case has sparked a wide-ranging debate within the labor movement about how to deal with the “free-rider problem” of union members who benefit from collective bargaining agreements but opt-out of paying dues. We asked three labor experts to discuss what’s at stake in the case and how they each think unions should respond.

Kate Bronfenbrenner is director of labor education research at Cornell University, Chris Brooks is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes and Shaun Richman is a former organizing director at the American Federation of Teachers.

Chris Brooks: The way I see it, right-to-work presents two interlocking problems for unions. The first is that unions are legally required to represent all workers in a bargaining unit that the union has been certified to represent, and in open shops the Duty of Fair Representation (DFR) requires unions to expend resources on non-members who are covered by that contract. This is commonly known as the free rider problem and it gets a lot of attention, for good reason.

The second problem is that open shops also undermine solidarity by pitting workers who pay their fair share to support the union against those who do not. This is the divide-and-conquer problem.

So the free rider problem is institutional: the union has to expend all these resources fighting on behalf of workers who are not members and do not pay dues. And the divide-and-conquer problem is interpersonal: when workers do not all support the union this results in union and non-union members developing adversarial attitudes toward each other which undermines the ability for collective action.

If you believe that the source of a union’s strength is its ability to unite workers in common fights to better their conditions on the job and in the community, then the divide-and-conquer problem is a real impediment to union power. Yet, the free rider problem gets far more attention from union leaders and activists than the divide-and-conquer problem. This is especially true in the discussion around whether unions should ditch exclusive representation and pursue a members-only form of unionism.

In my opinion, most arguments in support of kicking out free riders actually reinforces the employers’ logic—turning union membership into a personal choice and unions themselves into competing vehicles for individualized services rather than vehicles for broad class struggle. So by focusing on the free rider problem to the exclusion of the divide-and-conquer problem, unions run the danger of turning inward and representing a smaller and smaller number of workers rather than seeking to constantly expand their base in larger fights on behalf of all workers in an industry.

Shaun Richman: I had an article published in The Washington Post and I admit it was too cute by half partly because I was trying to amplify what I think was actually the strongest argument that AFSCME is making in the case itself, which is that the agency fee has historically been traded for the no strike clause and if you strike that there is the potential for quite a bit of chaos. So I wanted to put a little bit of fear to whoever might potentially have the ear of Chief Justice Roberts, as crazy as that may sound. But I also wanted to plant the seed of thinking for a few union rebels out there. If the Janus decision comes down as many of us fear then the proper response is to create chaos.

If the entire public sector goes right to work, unions will never look the same. So, then, the project of the left should be “what do we want them to look like?” and “what will drive the bosses craziest?” I’ve written about this before and Chris has respondedat In These Times. There are three things that I am suggesting will happen—two of which, and I think Chris agrees, are sort of inevitable and not particularly desirable. The third part is notinevitable and depends a lot on what we do as activists.

If we lose the agency fee, some unions will seek to go members-only in order to avoid the free rider problem, and that’s a lousy motivation. I’m not encouraging that, but I think it’s also inevitable. Once you have unions representing these workers over here but not those workers over there, it’s also inevitable that you wind up with competitor unions vying for the unrepresented. And the first competitor unions are going to be conservative. These already exist. They’re all over the South and they compete against the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) in many districts and they offer bare bones benefits and they promote themselves on “we’re not going to support candidates who are in favor of abortions and we’ll represent you if you have tenure issues.” That’s also bad but also inevitable.

The third step, which is not inevitable but we need to consider in this moment, is at what point do new opposition groups break away from the existing formal union?  When do we just break the exclusive model and compete for members and workplace leadership? Can we get to a point where on the shop floor level you’ve got organizations vying for workers’ dues money and loyalty based on who can take on the boss in a better fight or who can win a better deal on the basis of we’re going to be less confrontational (which, I think, there are a lot of workers whom that appeals to as much as I don’t like that idea)? But the chaos of the employer not being able to make one deal with one union that settles everything for three or five years—that’s just the sort of chaos that the boss class deserves for having pursued this whole Friedrichs and now Janus strategy.

Kate Bronfenbrenner: I have a different perspective that has to do with having looked at this issue over a longer period of time and also having witnessed the UK labor movement wrestle with exclusive representation when their labor law changed. First, I believe there is a third thing that right to work does that is missing from your analysis. Right to work gives employers another point to intimidate, coerce, and threaten employees about being part of the union, all of which employers find much more difficult to do in a union or an agency shop.

My research suggests that employers will act the same way now they do in the process of workers becoming members as they do during an organizing drive. The historical trade-off for unions was that the price of exclusive representation was Duty of Fair Representation (DFR) and unions saw DFR as a burden.

Those of us who were progressives saw that Duty of Fair Representation was the best thing that ever happened to unions because DFR said that unions had to represent women, people of color, the LGBT community, and you couldn’t discriminate against part time versus full time. Historically it was used to force the old guard had to give up domination of unions and to fight for for union democracy because the simplest basis of DFR is the concept of good faith. If used effectively it would be the thing that could break the hold of the mob, or the old guard, or just white men. So you have to remember when you give up exclusive representation you could lose DFR. I can tell you that women and people of color are not going to want to give it up. And I think the fact that the two of you didn’t think of that is probably because you have not been using that in your roles, but it is central to those who are fighting if you are dealing with members who are fighting discrimination in your union, the whole DFR exclusive representation is absolutely critical.

Brooks: Kate, am I wrong that the actual court case establishing the DFR in exclusive representation comes out of the Railway Act, where a local was refusing to represent Black workers?

Bronfenbrenner: Historically, but it kept being reinforced over and over again in cases involving most collective bargaining laws. It’s been reinforced over and over again that the trade-off for exclusive representation that the DFR is tied with exclusive representation.

Richman: Yeah, it was the entire thrust of the NAACP workplace strategy before the 1960’s—that the labor law could be a civil rights act as long as we could win DFR. Herbert Hill wrote a great book about it (Black Labor and the American Legal System). I would also recommend Sophia Z. Lee’s The Workplace Constitution, which explores that history and makes a compelling argument for returning to a strategy of trying to establish constitutional rights in the workplace through the labor act.

Bronfenbrenner: Right. So union workers had protection for LGBTQ workers under DFR long before any other workers did because you could not discriminate on the basis of any class under duty of fair representation. Now whether workers knew that, whether their unions would represent them, is another matter but if you were a union worker or a worker who knew about it, this was where you fought it. So that was very important.

And the third thing that I wanted to say that related to this was that there is a long history in the public sector of independent unions, of company unions, acting as if exclusive representation didn’t exist, where there would only be one member and employers would recognize the “union” establishing a contract bar so no other union could come in.

In the 1980s and 1990s, public sector unions assumed that they were winning decertification elections rather than the independent unions and discovered that they weren’t. Soon enough they realized that the problem was that they weren’t doing a good enough job of representing their members. Workers were not voting for the company unions, which were little more than law firms or insurance companies. They were voting against the poor representation.

The prevalence of these independents is a long running problem that existed before and after exclusive representation, and it exists when there are agency fees and when there are not. Poor enforcement by the NLRB and the difficulty of tracking down these front groups that are not really unions is a much bigger issue that comes out of a divided public sector, and exclusive representation has nothing to do with it.

Brooks: I think right-wing groups are trying to capitalize on the history of company unions and fragmentation in the public sector. The State Policy Network (SPN) has a nationally coordinated strategy that builds on right-to-work laws to further bust unions. One of the tactics their member organizations, which exist in all fifty states, are pursuing is so-called “workers’ choice” legislation. This legislation allows unions to maintain a limited form of exclusivity, but with no duty of fair representation. Unions must still win a certification election to be the sole organization bargaining with the employer, but workers can opt out of the union and seek their own private contract with the boss outside of the collective bargaining agreement.

Requiring a certification election for collective bargaining also saves employers from having a situation where multiple unions can simultaneously pursue separate bargaining agreements for the same group of workers, a legal can of worms that corporations don’t want to open. SPN affiliates tout this legislation as a solution to the free rider problem for unions, since they have no duty to represent non-members, but it also incentivizes employers to bribe and cajole individual workers away from the union.

Employers could offer bonuses to workers if they drop union membership and call it “merit pay.” I don’t think that corporate advocacy groups like the SPN would be promoting this legislation unless they believed it would further weaken unions and fragment the labor movement.

The SPN is also actively organizing these massive opt-out campaigns, where they encourage workers to “give themselves a raise” by dropping union membership. They even have a nationally coordinated week of action called National Employee Freedom Week that eighty organizations participate in. In fact, the SPN think tanks work hand-in-glove with a host of independent education associations—which are basically company unions, purporting to represent teachers while advancing the privatization agenda. In Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas, these independent education associations claim to be larger than the AFT and NEA affiliates.

So in those places where unions are really strong, there is a high likelihood that we will see an increase in company unions that are working closely with State Policy Network affiliates to further divide workers on the job.

Richman: Chris, what you’re describing are things that are mostly going to happen anyway, if we lose Janus. That SPN opt-out campaign is going to happen. The legislation you describe is not inevitable. I agree we dig a hole for ourselves if the only reason we want to “kick out the scabs” is so we don’t have to represent them in grievances. Because that lays the groundwork for making a union-busting bill seem like a reasonable compromise.

If we lose Janus, unions will never look the same. It’s at moments like this when we have to critically evaluate everything. What do we like about unions and our current workers’ rights regime? What don’t we like and what opportunities has this created for us to at least challenge that?

For me, the opportunity is to think about having multiple competitive unions on the shop floor. I don’t think of this as a model that will lead to multiple contracts. It might lead to no contracts. Everything that I’ve written on this subject so far has been with the assumption that ULP protections against discrimination remain in place so that the boss can’t give one group of workers a better deal because they picked one union over another (or no union at all). If a boss makes a deal with any group of workers or imposes new terms because a union got bargained to impasse, everybody gets the same thing.

Under a competitive multiple union model, I think no strike clauses become basically unenforceable. And these no strike clauses have become really deadly for unions in ways we don’t want to acknowledge. Currently, the workers who should be the most emboldened at work, because they’re protected by a union, have a contract that radically restricts their ability to protest. It’s not just strikes. It curtails the ability to do slow down actions, and malicious compliance, and it forces the union rep to have to rush down to the job and tell their members, you have to stop doing this. And they end up feeling bitter toward the union leadership as much—if not more—than the boss for the conditions that were agitating them still being in place. And then their “my union did nothing for me” stories carry over to non-union shops. Every organizer has heard them.

We need to bring back the strike weapon. And that’s far easier said than done. But it’s really hard to do when you’re severely restricted in your ability for empowered workers to set an example for unorganized workers in taking action and winning.

And, Kate, I have considered the DFR. I can’t imagine a world of multiple competitive unions in a workplace where there wouldn’t be at least one union that says we’re going to be the anti-racist union, we’re going to be the feminist union, and we’re the union for you. Without DFR, you’re right, there’s no legal guarantees. But someone steps into the vacuum and my hope is that at least creates the potential for militancy when militancy is called for in the workplace. With all the other messiness.

There’s going to be plenty of yellow unions and the boss is going to bring back employee representation programs and company unions and all of that. But that mess is exactly what they deserve. They’ve forgotten that exclusive representation is the model that they wanted—we didn’t, necessarily—in the 1940s and 1950s.

Bronfenbrenner: I wouldn’t be ready to throw out DFR. I think that there is too little democracy, and too much discrimination in the labor movement. At this time, we already have right to work in most of the public sector and most of the public sector doesn’t allow strikes, but workers still strike. We see that workers are willing to strike even if they are not allowed to strike, as evidenced by all these teachers, and we have to remember the strike statistics in this country only report strikes that are over 1,000 workers and most workplaces are under 1,000. We have a lot more strikes than are reported.

The labor movement is not going to strike more just because you get rid of no strike clauses. Teamsters had the ability to strike as the last step of their grievance procedure for decades and they never went on strike. I think what is more important is the question of what is going to change the culture and politics of the labor movement. I don’t think changing the right to strike is going to do it.

What is going to make unions actually fight back even on something like fighting on Janus? They’re not even getting in the streets on Janus, so what makes you think they’re actually going to strike on issues in the workplace? We need to think about why workers and unions are so hesitant to strike. I do not believe that chaos necessarily is going to happen. I think employers are much more prepared for this. I think what will happen is that the unions that have been effective and have been working with their members and educating their members and involving their members will be fighting back and the ones that have been sitting back and not doing anything will continue to sit back and not do anything and some will die.

The problem with getting rid of exclusive representation is that some unions are going to think “aha this is what I’m going to do, this is an easy way out,” the same way people used to think “oh it’s easier to organize in health care, oh it’s easier to organize in the public sector, so rather than organize in my industry, which is hard, I’m going to go try health care or the public sector.” But they found that “why can’t I win organizing teachers the same way that AFT does” or “why can’t I win organizing in health care the same way SEIU is doing” and they discovered that it’s not quite as easy as it looks.

Brooks: Yeah, I think Kate’s point is really important: in a right-to-work setting, the employer anti-union campaign never ends. The boss is constantly trying to convince and cajole workers into dropping union membership. And employer anti-union campaigns are really effective, which is why unions don’t win them very often.

If the Supreme Court rules against unions in Janus, anti-union campaigns are only going to gain strength. So, my fear, Shaun, is that you are being overly romantic. I just don’t think left-wing unions are going to suddenly emerge and step into the void left by business-as-usual unionism. If that was the case, then why hasn’t that already happened with the 90 percent of workers that don’t have any union at all?

Richman: The structure is a trap, and exclusive representation is part of that. I don’t think we have a crisis of leadership. I want to turn to the private sector because most of the potential hope in abandoning exclusive representation is in the private sector. Look at the UAW and their struggles at Volkswagen and at Nissan, which Chris is intimately familiar with. I think all three of us could find fault in their organizing strategy and tactics. Kate, I think you have more grounds than anyone in the country to be frustrated because you’ve scientifically proven what it takes to win and most unions have ignored that research for decades! But a third of the workers at Nissan want to have a union. To do so, they have to win an exclusive representation election where the entire power structure of the community comes down on their heads arguing keep the UAW out of the South.

If they had eked out an election win and managed to win a contract a year down the line, at the end of the day they get the obligation of having to represent everyone and probably the one-third of the workers who wanted the union all along are the only ones that join. That’s insane. Charles Morris threw out this theory a decade ago, in The Blue Eagle at Work, about how the NLRA was not intended to have these winner-take-all exclusive representation elections. The point of the NLRA was merely to say to employers anywhere there’s a group of workers that say hey we’re a union you must bargain with them in good faith. He argues that pathway is still open to unions. To the best of my knowledge a few unions politely asked the NLRB for their opinion on that a couple of times rather than all of us demanding that should be a valid pathway for union representation.

If you can win that exclusive representation election, you should win it, and you should also be saddled with the burdens of DFR. But why can’t, and why shouldn’t, the UAW file a petition at every auto factory in the country right now and say we have members here and you need to bargain with us over their working conditions? And why shouldn’t other unions jump into the fray and claim to represent their portion of the workers and drive those non-union companies nuts with a bunch of unions placing demands on them, and organizing to take action?

I think the work that Organization United for Respect (OUR) is doing at Wal-Mart is a good example of that. They by no means have a majority of the workers at Wal-Mart. They are in a few strategic locations. They are a nuisance to the company. They just won a right that workers are allowed to wear union buttons on the shop floor. Wal-Mart has given workers raises in response to their agitation. I’m not suggesting that that model is perfect or what we should all be doing, but I am saying that this should be an avenue open to us. And it only becomes open to us if we’re willing to experiment more with abandoning exclusive representation where it doesn’t work for us.

I would argue that in 90% of private sector workplaces where winning these elections is not possible it’s not working for us currently.

Bronfenbrenner: The comprehensive campaign-organizing model should be part of every organizing effort. Workers are protected under the NLRA when they engage in concerted activity and, as I say in all my organizing research, the union should be acting like a union from the beginning of the campaign. Unions should also be organizing around workplace problems and going to the employer and engaging in actions during the organizing campaign. I’ve been saying for 30 years that you don’t wait to start acting like a union until you win. But there is serious pushback against that element of my model from many organizers.

Unions are very hesitant to start taking on the employer before they win the majority. But there are unions that do that. It’s not just OUR. It’s Warehouse Workers United, SEIU 32BJ, RWDSU, Communications Workers, the Teamsters. All have run campaigns where they begin taking on the employer before the union has been recognized or certified. The unions that have been doing comprehensive campaigns are doing it in bargaining and it’s being done in organizing by the unions who are winning in organizing. So they’re not waiting until they win.

Richman: Thirty or forty years into people getting really serious about organizing as a science and as a craft, the fact that most unions still haven’t embraced an organizing model…

Bronfenbrenner: People have been serious about organizing as a craft from the beginning. It’s just that no one wrote very good books about what they did. The IWW and the UAW organizers, and the textile organizers, they were organizing using the same strategies that are being done now. No one wrote good books about what they did.

Richman: Sure, that’s fair. But the fact that unions are not following an organizing model that’s informed by your researchand other unions’ best practices suggests it’s not a matter of culture but the legal framework that we find ourselves trapped in. Most of the pressure on a union leader is to bring back good contracts for the members you currently represent and keep winning re-election. So that puts more resources into grievance handling and bargaining and it leads to the cost cutting in organizing campaigns.

Bronfenbrenner: I disagree. For the last three decades servicing and education budgets have been cut while huge amounts of the labor movement’s financial and staff resources have been shifted into labor law reform. And I can tell you because I’m part of the debate they don’t want to have about what they they need to do to change to organize. But most either think they are doing everything they can, or it is too hard to do anything different. It is the law that is the problem.

Either way the shared understanding is that unions should put resources into politics and in getting labor law reform because trying to do comprehensive organizing campaigns we’re asking them to do is “too difficult.” But they’re not putting resources into grievance handling anymore. They are putting it into politics and  labor law reform.

Richman: The approach to labor law reform has been too much about trying to preserve the system. The opportunity of the moment is to think beyond the boundaries of the workplace. Enterprise level bargaining has been killing us since the 1970s. As long as union membership is tied to whether or not some group of workers voted to form a union sometime in the past within the four walls of your workplace, that just incentivizes the offshoring and contracting out that’s really what has decimated the labor movement.

Humpty Dumpty is sitting on the wall and if Neil Gorsuch and John Roberts kick him off I am not particularly interested in being one of the king’s horses and men trying to put him together again. At that point the system is fundamentally broken and we need new demands about what kind of system we want and new strategies about how we exploit the brokenness of the system to make them regret what they have done.

Exclusive representation—combined with agency fee and DFR—worked for a long time. But if you knock one piece out, it all falls apart. We shouldn’t be pining for bygone days. We need to be thinking forward about what opportunities this creates. I hope that some people get inspired to try something as crazy as the IWW saying fuck it, we’re going to organize in different workplaces and agitate for work slowdowns and try to gain a few members in a few places we don’t care about expenditures of resources and dues. We’re going to create some chaos.

Brooks: I share Kate’s concerns, I believe that many unions have devolved into highly legalistic organizations. So the solutions they are pursuing to our current problems are highly technical and legal in nature, which means that lobbying and electing Democrats often becomes their top priority. Laws are important, but unions should spend far more time and resources on organizing comprehensive campaigns that build support among large majorities of workers, winning them over to a plan for collective action that can change conditions on the job and in the community.

Instead of this kind of organizing, what we’ve seen over the past few decades is the increasing confinement of class struggle to smaller and smaller segments of workers. Few unions these days aim to represent all workers in an industry. How many unions are engaged in pattern bargaining and setting contract standards across an industry or openly organizing toward a master agreement? To your point, Shaun, unions have become limited to firm-level representation. Or even just a bargaining unit within a firm, since many do not even try to organize everyone who works for the same employer.

Members-only unionism just continues this trend as unions move to represent an even smaller fraction of workers, not as a stepping stone to building a majority, but as a strategy to get out of providing services to workers who don’t pay dues. Ultimately, I believe this is a capitulation to the employers’ right-to-work framework and a retreat from the kind of broad-based organizing that the labor left has been historically committed to.

Bronfenbrenner:  We can no longer talk about the workplace solely through a U.S. framework. Ownership structures are so large, diffuse, and complex that what we should be doing is organizing and bargaining and building relationships between workers across the entire corporation world-wide, company-wide, and industry-wide. That requires getting workers to understand that they need to build power to take on whomever the decision-makers in the company are. It is not the boss that they see once a year at the annual holiday party. It is whoever has the money and really makes the decisions in the ultimate parent company. And that requires building alliances locally, nationally, and internationally, and building a much broader labor movement.

It also means understanding that the person who doesn’t pay union dues in their shop is not the problem. The problem for workers is that now what they have is the chamber of commerce fighting against their right to bargain and the state at all levels is interfering with economic and union rights. Their boss is now some investor somewhere who has decided to buy and sell their company and their jobs who does not care what they make or whether they stay open or not.

You have to figure out what they care about because that is what gives unions  leverage. That’s why workers in America have to get to know workers in Mexico and workers in Europe, those kinds of relationships, that is what the labor movement needs to spend their energy on. That’s what I’m going to spend my energy on.The U.S. labor movement cannot afford to be picking petty fights between workers who are paying dues and workers who aren’t paying dues because they need each other.

Richman: The structure is a trap partly by forcing unions to focus on individual bargaining units, individual workplaces and somehow winning them one-by-one. What we should be doing is not retreating from our bargaining units, but claiming to represent the willing workers in every company in every industry. I’m trying to inspire anyone who is out there reading this to think about an opportunity to spread out wider—in a much more bare bones, scrappier way—but one that puts the union idea in many more workplaces. To get the word out now, rather than we’ll get to you after we somehow win Nissan or Volkswagen. Because that’s not working.

Bronfenbrenner: But you’re not going to get labor law changed unless you have power.  It takes political power to get labor law changed. You can’t get political power until you organize a lot. You’re asking for a labor law change. The point is that focusing on labor law is backwards. We only get labor law reform after we do a great deal of organizing. First you have to organize and build power.

During the whole Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) fight everyone stopped organizing and spent all their energy on EFCA. That’s the danger of labor law reform.

This article was originally published at In These times on May 25, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 
About the Authors: Kate Bronfenbrenner is director of labor education research at Cornell University, Chris Brooks is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes and Shaun Richman is a former organizing director at the American Federation of Teachers.

My Workers Memorial Day: Fight for Your Union, Fight for Your Lives

Monday, April 30th, 2018

I hope you’re all doing something to commemorate Workers Memorial Day — even if your own personal moment of silence and commitment to do more this coming year to ensure that workers come home safe and healthy at the end of the workday.

Last night I was interviewed on Houston’s  KPFT “Voices at Work” radio show about Workers Memorial Day and the daily  assault on working people. You can listen to it here (the April 27 show), if you have a half hour to burn.  I come on at about minute 30:00

Fight For Your Union

Today I’m in Lake Placid, New York, to give the keynote speech to one-thousand very enthusiastic health and safety reps from CSEA/AFSCME representing state and local workers in New York.  I won’t bore you with the entire speech here, except for one core message that no one should forget:

It comes as no surprise to anyone that the public sector has come under attack recently, and with it, everything that once made America great — great education, roads, infrastructure, health care — all seem to be things of the past.

As tax-cut mania sweeps the country, budgets are slashed, and with them the number of public employees who do America’s most important and most dangerous work.  Those public employees who are left are finding their wages stagnant, their benefits slashed and their working conditions deteriorating.  The only thing saving them — and the America we believe in  — is public employee unions.

You at CSEA have always stood up to those attacks and fought for better working conditions, pay and benefits for the important — and dangerous — work that you do. And now we’re seeing teachers in the reddest of red states stand up, walk out and strike for more education funding.  Is that great or what?

But now, the Supreme Court — at the behest of corporate America and right-wing ideologues — may be poised, with the Janus case, to severely undermine the power of public employee unions and with it, the entire labor movement. If that happens, I can guarantee you that not only will the quality of life in the United States suffer, but more workers — especially public employees — will get hurt and die in the workplace.

Sure, you have a right to a safe workplace. But ultimately your health and safety is safeguarded by your union.

So stand by your union! Fight for your union! And fight for your right to come home safe and healthy at the end of every day!

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on April 28, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)

Columbia grad students go on strike to protest university’s efforts to block unionization

Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

More than a year after graduate students at Columbia University voted to unionize with the United Automobile Workers, hundreds of students participated in a walkout Tuesday to protest the university’s refusal to bargain with them.

The students plan to stage a week-long strike during what is the university’s most hectic time, when students and professors are preparing for finals and the help of graduate teaching assistants, fellows, and research assistants is critical.

They claim that the university has “repeatedly ignored” the majority support among graduate students for the Graduate Workers of Columbia University-United Automobile Workers (GWC-UAW). This, despite the fact that efforts to unionize have been ongoing for more than three years.

The conflict between the university and its students regarding unionization is rooted in a fundamental disagreement about whether or not graduate students are university employees — students argue that they are, and the university contends that they’re not.

The distinction is not merely an issue of semantics, but one of rights, better wages, and improved working conditions. According to a January 2018 report by the Economic Policy Institute, graduate teaching assistants have taken on heavier workloads, have more responsibility when it comes to teaching and grading, and assume much of the research that ends up winning the universities grants and prestige.

“And yet the pay they receive rarely rises to the level of a living wage,” the report stated.

The EPI report found that between 2005 and 2015, the rise in graduate assistant and non-tenure-track faculty jobs surpassed that of tenured and tenure-track jobs, with the former currently making up approximately 73 percent of the academic workforce.

“The simple explanation for this increasing reliance on graduate and non-tenure-track faculty is that they are far less costly to employ,” the report reads.

In a statement last week, Columbia University provost John H. Coatsworth said “we believe it would not serve the best interests of our academic mission—or of students themselves—for our student teaching and research assistants to engage with the University as employees rather than students.”

Coatsworth noted that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has “repeatedly reversed itself on the status of teaching and research assistants over the past 15 years,” and called for a judicial review of the “still-unsettled question.” The most recent decision came in 2016, when the NLRB ruled that student teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees with the right to form a union. That ruling is expected to be reversed again under the current Trump administration.

Other universities across the country, including Harvard University and the University of Chicago, have also recently taken steps toward unionization. Harvard graduate students voted to unionize with UAW last week.

“This growing momentum makes clear that Columbia’s efforts to block our democratic rights here on our campus cannot hold back the rising tide of academic workers seeking to improve our conditions and make our universities more just and inclusive for all,” a statement posted on the GWC website on Monday reads. “Columbia administration needs to get on the right of history and negotiate with our union.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Elham Khatami is an associate editor at ThinkProgress. Previously, she worked as a grassroots organizer within the Iranian-American community. She also served as research manager, editor, and reporter during her five-year career at CQ Roll Call. Elham earned her Master of Arts in Global Communication at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and her bachelor’s degree in writing and political science at the University of Pittsburgh.

9 campaigns and 1 major political firm have unionized ahead of the 2018 midterm elections

Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

Nine political campaigns have unionized ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, and one major political firm, Revolution Messaging, joined them this week, according to a BuzzFeed report Tuesday.

Revolution Messaging workers join a number of unionized campaign staffs, all of whom work for progressive Democratic candidates whose campaigns run the gamut from local county council races to congressional and gubernatorial races.

Staffers on Chris Wilhelm’s campaign for county council in Maryland have unionized, as have workers on Renato Mariotti’s campaign for attorney general in Illinois. Erin Murphy, who is running for governor in Minnesota, saw her staff unionize recently, as did Randy Bryce in Wisconsin, Jess King in Pennsylvania, Andy Thorburn in California, Brian Flynn in New York, Dan Haberman in Michigan, and Marie Newman in Illinois, all of whom are running for Congress.

The recent campaign unionization push has been led largely by the Campaign Workers Guild (CWG), which was formed about a year ago, and CWG is now facilitating negotiations with as many as 25 more campaigns, CWG vice president Meg Reilly told BuzzFeed Tuesday.

“It doesn’t show any sign of stopping,” Reilly said, adding that it is the first “really serious concerted effort” by political staffers to collectively bargain.

The trend is notable not only in that it reflects a commitment to labor, but also because campaigns are often staffed by young people who work long hours with low pay and few benefits.

“Campaign work is characterized by 80 to 100-hour weeks — making much less than minimum wage, even when candidates pay well like Bernie [Sanders] does — and immediately burning out,” Reilly told HuffPost. “We don’t get to talk to our family. We get exhausted.”

“That leads to a lot of talented, well-trained organizers leaving the field,” she added.

Unions can help prevent that.

“The more folks we can help stay in the field, the better off the Democratic Party and the progressive movement will be,” Reilly said.

Bryce, who is challenging House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), is the most high-profile of the unionized bunch. Bryce, who has been a union ironworker for years before running for Congress, said in an interview with ThinkProgress last month that he was very supportive of the union.

“‘Yeah let’s do it. Why not?’” Bryce said he told the staffers. “That’s what I’ve been pushing for everybody else to do!”

“These are the people that are responsible for winning this election for me,” Bryce added. “It’s the very least I could do.”

In a letter to senior staff earlier this week, Revolution Messaging staffers reportedly said they felt it was time to “illustrate our pro-labor values” by organizing themselves.

“As progressives who care deeply about the work that we do, we feel that it’s time to illustrate our pro-labor values by organizing ourselves,” the letter said. “Our union will allow everyone at Rev to have a voice on the job and a seat at the table, which will undoubtedly help retain current and future employees, bolster our recruitment efforts moving forward, and attract business from clients who seek out unionized firms.”

Leadership at Revolution Messaging, which is known for helping drive Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) 2016 presidential campaign, was, like Bryce, quick to support its newly unionized staffers.

Founder and CEO Scott Goodstein recognized the union the same day, reportedly writing, “This is great news! … As most of you know, we fought on behalf of dozens of labor unions since our inception, and it is part of our DNA. We believe in workers’ rights, labor rights, women’s rights and human rights.”

“We are excited to work with our workers and their chosen representatives,” the company tweeted Monday.

Revolution Messaging was the subject of a recent HuffPost report in which workers outlined a number of workplace complaints, including the handling of an incident in 2015 when an employee said she was physically assaulted by one of the company’s partners. The partner was fired, but the woman soon left her job, too, which some employees said they believed may have been an act of retaliation.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 20, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Addy Baird is a reporter for ThinkProgress on the news cycle team. Previously, she covered local politics and health policy at POLITICO New York and worked for The Charlie Rose Show digital team.

3 Democratic Campaigns Now Have Staff Unions. Why Not More?

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

All signs point to a messy battle in the 2020 Democratic primaries, pitting establishment types against democratic socialists. Thanks to an effort spearheaded largely by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaigners, the staffers for a few 2018 Congressional candidates could be pioneering a new litmus test for determining candidates’ progressive credentials: Do they recognize their employees’ union?

Last week, the upstart Campaign Workers Guild (CWG) announced that staff members at three Democratic campaigns around the country have formed unions, each of which was voluntarily recognized. Campaigners for Jess King, running for a House seat representing southeastern Pennsylvania, Randy Bryce, vying to take Paul Ryan’s Congressional seat, and Chris Wilhelm, running for Montgomery County Council, have each successfully negotiated union contracts with their progressive—and in some cases openly Left—bosses. The two non-management staffers in Democrat Dan Haberman’s campaign for Michigan’s 11th Congressional District have also taken first steps toward a collective bargaining agreement, with Haberman recently signing a letter of support for the process to move forward.

While these efforts will almost certainly transform working conditions for electoral staffers, the organizing drives might also transform the Democratic Party.

“Every campaign worker at a certain point has either joked about joining a union or unionizing their workplace,” says Brian Wivell, field director for the Wilhelm campaign, and one half of a newly-minted, two-person CWG local. At a previous campaign he worked on, staffers hung the union logo from the fictional Springfield Nuclear Power Plant—of Simpsons fame—in their office. “As soon as we heard this was happening, we jumped on it,” he tells In These Times.

Campaign work often involves long hours—80 to 100 per week—for little pay, particularly for those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy of electoral politics. Piled-up expenses—for gas, especially—often don’t get reimbursed, and staffers can find themselves staying in precarious housing with supporters of the campaign while out on the road. The frantic, temporary nature of campaigns also means there’s little recourse for employees who face sexual assault or harassment on the job, a problem compounded by the fact that so much of the economy of campaign work depends on relationships within a relatively small network of staffers, at the state and local levels especially. Aside from improving wages and working conditions across campaigns, one of the biggest impacts of the CWG’s efforts could be establishing an industry-standard policy for dealing with sexual assault and harassment.

Campaign staffers are hoping to address harassment from supervisors and coworkers, as well as volunteers, who they depend on to meet canvassing and phone-banking quotas. As CWG organizer Meg Reilly puts it, “If your boss is constantly breathing down your neck saying you didn’t meet your goals, do you report [a volunteer] for being a creep or get your numbers up so you don’t get fired?”

Reilly realizes the optics of CWG emerging from several former Sanders campaign staffers might raise questions about the Senator’s labor practices. But she says that Bernie was not a bad boss at all. “The Bernie campaign was just about as good as you could get,” Reilly underscores. “It’s the Cadillac: We got days off and health insurance. It’s just that on the Bernie campaign we had a lot of pro-labor people, and people who were fairly radical.”

Of sexual harassment and assault, Reilly says, “Campaigns are just rife for it. You’re spending 80 to 100 hours a week all together, and campaigns are so small. Everyone knows everyone, and there’s a huge fear of being blacklisted if you do report something. A lot of people who are victims of harassment or assault don’t say anything but because they’re afraid of being blacklisted.” When abuses are reported, she explains, they tend to be handled internally. By contrast, the contracts the Guild has negotiated so far explicitly outline a process for handling such processes through a third party.

“On campaigns, there is no HR department,” says Lauren Hitt, communications director for the Bryce campaign and a member of the bargaining unit there. (I spoke with her and Bryce jointly by phone.) “Problems are always better solved when you address them before they’re problems, and have policies laid out and written down. That’s a big difference from the way campaigns operate now. There has never been anything like that.”

Reilly says that some CWG contracts included mandatory training on issues of sexual harassment. “A big part of it is just admitting that it happens. A big part of this culture is silence around it,” she argues. “And a big part of the training is just admitting that progressive and left campaigns are not immune from this.”

The campaign staffers that have organized so far faced relatively friendly audiences. The first shop—Bryce’s campaign—came about when his digital director, Nate Rifkin, asked him about the idea of starting a staff union as they were driving around talking to voters in Wisconsin. “It was a no-brainer,” Bryce tells In These Times. “It’s an extension of why I’m running in the first place. It comes down to what’s important to me as a candidate. It’s not about me. I am where I am today because we have a very talented staff.” Staffers hammered out a contract with management, which includes Bryce and campaign manager David Keith, who both have hiring and firing power. An Ironworker, Bryce got his start in politics through his union, and has campaigned as a working-class opponent to incumbent Paul Ryan.

Reilly, who worked for the Sanders campaign in 2016, ultimately hopes that CWG will adopt a “hiring hall” model, along the lines of the building trades. As in those industries, campaign work can be sporadic, with staffers facing months-long gaps between election cycles. Membership in the union provides workers with a backstop of support in dry months, and sets industry standards on wages and working conditions.

“Even if campaigns go well, they end, and the staff is looking for another job,” says Hitt. “Most campaign workers—if they do it from campaign to campaign—are looking at at least a month or two when they’re unemployed.” Several of the staffers In These Times spoke with noted that such chronic instability means campaign demographics tend to skew toward the people best able to shoulder it: young, white and middle class individuals, often recent college graduates. Hitt, Reilly and others were excited about the potential of unionization to diversify campaigning more generally, making it a more stable prospect for people dealing with student debt or familial responsibilities.

“You have to be pretty privileged to work for such little pay, and to have a place to crash in campaigns,” Reilly says. “It all sort of fits together like a puzzle. Even progressive candidates who talk the talk about diversity—even reparations—don’t pay attention to the fact that their campaign staff is coming from a pretty homogenous background.” She notes that campaign workers are often expected to have their own cars and phones, on top of sacrificing time that might otherwise be used to care for children or loved ones.

“Just personally, I have epilepsy. So not having healthcare consistently and paying for anti-seizure medications isn’t an option for me,” Hitt says, adding that it was only in the past several years that healthcare benefits became widespread for campaign staffers. Stipulations already built into certain CWG contracts—for benefits and higher wages, for instance—could make campaigning more accessible to organizers from diverse backgrounds, potentially expanding the range of communities within candidates can build relationships with.

Wivell tells In These Times that he “would love to see a future where there’s a Project Labor Agreement between the Democratic Party and campaign workers. There is a reason the building trades follow that path and are able to enforce certain standards for workplace protections.” When unionized crews aren’t used in construction projects, it’s not uncommon to see an inflatable rat outside of job sites. Feasibly, the same thing could happen to Democratic campaigns who hire non-union staff.

Staff unionization could also factor into Democrats’ efforts to win endorsements from organized labor. Especially in state and local races, union endorsements can offer critical resources. Often that money goes toward candidates considered to have the surest chance at winning; their willingness to fight for organized labor can sometimes take a backseat. Yet the optics of a union endorsing a candidate that either failed to recognize or even fought a staff union are more stark, and could create an uncomfortable situation for establishment or even progressive Democrats who are more willing to make public overtures to unions than welcome them into their own campaigns. “It’s really hard to take labor’s money and endorsement and not actively support labor when it’s coming to organize,” Harry Baker, Wivell’s data director, tells In These Times.

As it broadens the range of people who are able to work on campaigns, CWG hopes that collective bargaining agreements will translate into rank-and-file campaign staffs having more say over their campaigns’ strategy. It is well known that electoral work runs on strict hierarchies, but a strong bargaining unit could democratize decisions around things like outreach strategies and messaging.

As in the building trades, CWG envisions that the union could at some point offer not just economic security, but training—to keep staffers updated on the latest voter database software, for instance. Like any other profession, political campaigns require specialized skills. The union could help candidates standardize how those skills are developed and ensure that staffers are competent and up-to-date on the latest developments in their field.

“Every cycle we hear about how field is the most important part of any campaign,” Reilly says. “It’s a really specific skill set, and we think that it’s really been hurting candidates—Democratic and others—to not be systematically investing in it. We can train up these workers who are really excited to work. We think if we treated the workers better and kept them trained, we could win more campaigns.”

Having started around a year ago, CWG now has a 16-member advisory board comprised of both former Sanders and Clinton staffers. Union members pay $30 a month in dues, and campaign workers who aren’t actively working on a campaign can affiliate for $10 a month. CWG is eager to support union drives from Republican campaign staffers, although the union hasn’t gotten any bites yet. To date, Reilly says, the union is working to win contracts and recognition on everything from local ballot-initiative campaigns to Senate races.

Organizers see the CWG as similar in spirit to the unionization campaigns taking place in some digital newsrooms—beneficial both as a way to improve wages and working conditions and to build solidarity among white-collar workers for working-class politics in the United States and abroad.

In These Times asked Hitt and Bryce whether they had heard rumblings from Paul Ryan’s Congressional campaign about any latent unionization efforts. Laughing, Bryce replied that his office had just dropped off 16,000 signatures to his Racine office calling for gun reform: “I kicked myself afterwards for not asking them.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times covering the politics of climate change, the White House transition and the resistance to Trump’s agenda.

West Virginia Teachers Are Showing How Unions Can Win Power Even If They Lose Janus

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

Today’s “Workers’ Day of Action,” organized by AFL-CIO affiliates and labor groups, aimed to show the labor movement’s opposition to a verdict for the plaintiffs in Janus v. AFSCME, which begins oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Monday. Unions fear their power will be diminished if the Court rules against AFSCME, as it is expected to do, and restricts public-sector unions from collecting fees from non-members to pay for collective bargaining. The Right intends to use Janus to gut public employee unions, weakening what is the strongest constituency in organized labor. This in turn will greatly diminish labor’s strength as a progressive force.

Public employee unions are right to be worried, and yet, as today’s demonstrations evidenced, on the eve of oral arguments labor is still grappling with how to protect workers’ rights. The protest’s slogan, “It’s about freedom,” mimics the Right’s own language when it argues that unions shouldn’t be able to collect fees from workers who don’t want to pay. In fact, it’s about social justice: The struggle to protect collective bargaining is a fight for the dignity of work and working people.

How then can public employee unions and the labor movement transition from defense to offense, winning economic and political demands? Must a defeat in Janusmean the end of public employee unions? A movement of school employees in West Virginia is providing answers to these questions, showing organized labor how workers can defend their rights without the legal protections that unions rely upon: the right to strike and the right to bargain collectively.

West Virginia bars strikes by public employees and, as a so-called “right to work” state, bans unions from requiring that everyone represented by a bargaining unit become a dues-paying member. Yet, despite this hostile legal environment, school employees, led primarily by teachers, organized walkouts that resulted in closure of schools in every county on Thursday and Friday. School districts could not remain open because school employees had shown they would not come to work. Although officers of the American Federation of Teachers –West Virginia (AFT-WV) and the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), the state affiliates of the two major teachers unions, are quoted in the press and are widely seen as the movement’s leaders, they are not the force behind the job actions.

As when Detroit teachers organized “sick outs” about appalling conditions in their schools, the West Virginia teachers who took the lead in organizing this movement did so independent of the union apparatus. They invited teachers in both AFT-WV and WVEA, which many activists felt had wasted resources wrangling with one another. As one teacher-leader explained to In These Times, the strategy from the start was “keeping it open.” For this reason, teachers brought in other school employees in  planning actions and demands.

School workers were frustrated and angry about low wages, further diminished by growing health insurance costs. Within months, the movement mushroomed, with the closed Facebook page expanding to 17,000 members. (Although I am not a West Virginia school employee, I was invited to join the closed group because my writing about teacher unionism has informed the organizing. I have commented and posted, making clear that I am a visitor to their site.)

West Virginia is a red state, but one in which union pride and an attunement to class inequality still bubble up. Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary, and memories of the state’s history of labor battles in the coal fields still resonate. Many teachers in the state identify as workers and with unions, not always the case among teachers.

Understanding this movement’s success requires seeing that the WVEA and AFT-WV, which ostensibly spoke for teachers and other school workers, failed to tap into or build this labor consciousness. Instead of mobilizing actions that addressed anger at poor wages, the unions’ strategy was to court state politicians with donations and votes. As I learned in conversations over the past several months, the activists who built the grassroots movement, many of them socialists, believed that traditional labor tactics, ranging from rallies to walkouts, were essential and that their colleagues throughout the state would respond.

They were right. The movement developed at breathtaking speed. Protests and local walkouts expanded to a state-wide strike and mass protests in the state Capitol. Teachers and school workers confronted legislators who had failed to raise wages while rising healthcare costs cut into teachers’ paychecks. At each step, the movement has made demands on the union and prepared to carry out actions without union endorsement or help. In the process they have gone far in making the union carry out its responsibilities to them—and to public education. A key concern of teachers is that by keeping wages so low, West Virginia has created a teacher “shortage” that it has “solved” by allowing people who have no preparation to teach to become teachers—a strategy being adopted in many other states.

The West Virginia struggle has mirrored the energy of the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, which electrified teachers throughout the world and set a new standard for militant union action in the U.S. But it also resembles what occurred in Madison, Wisc., when public employees, with teachers in the forefront, took their defense of collective bargaining to the state legislature, occupying the seat of power. Labor was badly bruised in that battle because workers did what union officials instructed: They disbanded the protest and channeled power into recalling Gov. Scott Walker. The alternative would have been maintaining the strike while building more public support by expanding their political program beyond collective bargaining, to other economic and political rights that have been attacked.

This same choice confronts the movement in West Virginia. One logical expansion of their political struggle is to demand more progressive funding for schools and a statewide “single payer” health plan to cover medical care for everyone in the state. Public employees who face higher healthcare costs will find natural allies in parents who cannot afford insurance or are worried about cutbacks to Medicaid and Medicare because the fight will be to alleviate health care costs for everyone, rather than only protecting costs for public employees. Such an alliance would join the growing movement within labor for “Medicare for all,” a struggle that requires taking on Democrats who won’t break with their party leadership’s rejection of “single payer” as unrealistic. The demand can also weaken the grip of Republicans who won’t break with the GOP’s—and Trump‘s—refusal to fund healthcare as a human right.

Officers of large public employee unions say that Janus has caused deep introspection and change. While public employee unions are reaching out to “involve,” “engage” and “hear” members, the need for the self-organization of workers is seldom expressed in this narrative of change—except in unions in which reform caucuses have won leadership, like the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

The consciousness and capacity of workers to organize at the work site is what will save labor. West Virginia’s school employees have demonstrated what workers’ power looks like without collective bargaining or the right to strike. Their lesson is clear to the unions: Either fight for the dignity of work and workers or move over and let others show you how it’s done.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on February 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University who is on the editorial board of New Politics. Her newest book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.

Union workers rally ahead of major Supreme Court case

Monday, February 26th, 2018

Unionized workers and their allies held rallies across the country Saturday to support unions in advance of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that could significantly weaken the power of organized labor. Workers are attending rallies as part of a “working people’s day of action.”

There’s a rally in Foley Square in New York City, a street party in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a Columbus, Ohio party on the statehouse steps, and a gathering at Clayborn Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. Clayborn Temple has historical significance. It’s the place where striking sanitation workers, who had the support of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., began their march to City Hall in 1968 and where they gathered during another march when police attacked them with tear gas.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the Mark Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 (AFSCME) case. Non-union public school teachers in California brought the case.

Mark Janus, a child support specialist who chose not to join the union, said “fair-share” fees levied on non-members, amounting to 78 percent of full union dues, are a violation of his First Amendment rights. A Supreme Court decision in his favor, which is expected, would be a huge setback for public sector unions, which depend on these funds.

A decision in Janus’ favor would also give workers far less incentive to join unions, in essence   expanding “right-to-work” laws from the current 28 states to the entire country.

In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld fair share fees by arguing that since all workers benefit from the representation of a union, represented workers should pay for those benefits. But these workers don’t have to pay full union dues, because they aren’t paying for the union’s political work.

AFSCME argues that “the Republic’s first 150 years are replete with government curtailments of public employees’ free-speech rights, including on issues of public concern” and that most of the collective-bargaining, which is what fair-share fees cover, isn’t political but focused on working conditions and grievance procedures.

Unions are preparing for this possible setback by doing more aggressive internal organizing, hoping to drum up new membership, and also hope that local governments could come up with new ways to facilitate fee collection, labor experts told ThinkProgress in January.

The workers’ rights organization Jobs With Justice, which organized the protests, referred to the historic sanitation workers strike supported by King in explaining the reason behind rallies:

Fifty years later, our struggle continues. For far too long, a handful of corporate CEOs, extremists and corrupt politicians have rigged the rules in their favor: making us work harder for less, taking away our health care, stripping away our voting rights, defunding our schools and polluting our air and water. And now the same forces are behind Janus v. AFSCME Council 31.

People tweeted out photos and videos of rallies with the hashtag #UnrigTheSystem.

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

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

In Janus Case, Working People Continue Fight Championed by Martin Luther King Jr.

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. joined the sanitation strikers in Memphis, Tennessee, who carried signs that boldly proclaimed “I Am a Man,” at a time when many employers rejected that very notion. King and the working people of Memphis fought for the freedom to join together in unions and to be treated with dignity and respect on the job.

Now, corporate lobbyists and the special interests that fund them are trying to undo many of the things King, the sanitation workers and many others have fought hard to win. Through a Supreme Court case, Janus v. AFSCME Local Council 31, they are ratcheting up their fight to divide and conquer us. These are the same extremists who are working to limit voting rights, roll back economic protections and gut the laws that protect working people.

The Supreme Court soon will hear the Janus case, and it will have a big impact on our voice in the workplace. Tomorrow, working people across the country will be standing up in defense of the freedoms that we’ve fought for with a day of action from coast to coast (find an event near you).

Working people across the country have been using their voice to reject the attacks on unions in the Janus case. Here are some highlights of what they’ve been saying.

Bonnee Breese Bentum, science teacher, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers: “As a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia for the past 16 years, I am living proof that being a member, a supporter and an activist in my local union assists not only the lives of our members, but also the consumers, the clients and the children we serve. Our contracts go far beyond what we do in the classroom or in an office. Our members withstood a four-year fight for a fair contract from a hostile School Reform Commission, driven by our state with an antiquated and unfair funding formula, and coupled with the force of a majority of politicians who opposed public schools and unions. We were able to win counselors and nurses for every public school; pay increases for staff after obtaining graduate degrees; and safe and healthy building conditions for all our children.”

Maureen Dugan, RN, University of California-San Francisco and board member of the California Nurses Association/NNOC: “With the union I have that platform where I can safely speak out for patient care. A lot of time in nonunion environments, nurses are intimidated and bullied into staying quiet. These hospitals that don’t have unions don’t care. It’s the union that brings many safety laws in legislation and public regulatory protections. It’s the union dues that fund those efforts. It’s the nurses in my hospital, in my region, in my whole state that make up the strength of our union and our ability to protect our patients, our license, and our profession.”

Dovard Howard, certified control systems technician in California, AFSCME Local 1902: “It is my job to make sure that the public has safe drinking water. There is no room for any mistakes. That’s why I am deeply concerned that this Supreme Court case threatens the ability of the skilled and dedicated people I work with to have a say about their future.”

Stephen Mittons, child protection investigator in Illinois, AFSCME Council 31: “My work as a child protection investigator for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is vital to the safety of our state’s most vulnerable children and families. This court case is yet another political attack on the freedom of my colleagues and I to speak up to ensure that we can safely and adequately manage our caseloads, which reflects our commitment to safety and public service to our community.”

Rich Ognibene, chemistry and physics teacher, Fairport (N.Y.) Educators Association: “Technological advances and societal changes make us more isolated, and we are hesitant to make commitments to others. We assume the wages, benefits, safety and social justice that we enjoy at work have always been there, and that they will never disappear. That’s a dangerous assumption. The benefits we have today were earned over many years of hard-fought negotiations; they could disappear tomorrow without our union. Billionaire CEOs are trying to destroy our community and create a Hunger Games scenario for workers. They want to remove our collective voice and reduce the quality of life for working families. We cannot let them succeed. Now, more than ever, we must fight to keep our unions strong.”

Sue Phillips, RN, Palomar Medical Center, Escondido, Calif.: “Union protection absolutely saves lives.”

Matthew Quigley, correctional officer in Connecticut, AFSCME Local 1565, Council 4: “Big-money corporations and super-wealthy special interests are trying to prevent correctional officers, firefighters, police officers and other working people from having the freedom to join together and create positive working conditions. When we belong to strong unions, we are better able to fight for staffing levels, equipment and training that save lives within state prisons and the communities where we work and live.”

Stephanie Wiley, child care attendant in Columbus, Ohio, AFSCME Local 4/OAPSE: “Our ability to speak together with a collective voice ensures that we can better assist children who need our help. That’s why I am deeply concerned about the Supreme Court case, which could severely limit our voice on the job and hurt our ability to best serve the children we care so much about.”

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on February 22, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

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