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As Universities are Gutted, Grad Student Employee Unions Can Provide a Vital Defense

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

The exploitation of academic workers has simmered for decades. Now, buoyed by a National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate employees at private universities have the right to unionize, a new generation is organizing unions across private universities—defying a wave of pushback from administrations. Some students win (Columbia, Loyola). Some withdraw (Duke). Some get caught in a limbo of university appeals (Yale).

But all of these efforts are integral to the U.S. labor movement, as graduate workers challenge their own exploitation and the neoliberal decimation of the higher-education institutions that employ them.

I’m a graduate worker at Vanderbilt University and a member of the committee organizing to unionize 1,200 graduate employees. I attend graduate school out of a passion for learning, writing and teaching young people. I came here to critique Western intellectual history by analyzing social, economic and political issues. These matters impact my life and the lives of loved ones; they are not academic hobbies or intellectual fancies. Even lecturing is no mere academic exercise: Higher education is what fosters democratic citizenship. It cultivates capacities for critical self-reflection, engagement in public discourse and thoughtful participation in a rapidly changing world. We need these pursuits now more than ever.

I did not come to graduate school to spend thousands of dollars out-of- pocket to fulfill professional obligations while watching my institution insidiously cut funding opportunities for faculty and graduate workers. I did not come to graduate school to listen to administrators rebrand us as students gaining ‘experiential education opportunities’ rather than as employees teaching introductory classes, executing research programs, or building scholarly communities. Most importantly, I did not come to graduate school to bolster a system that abuses its workers, ignores academic rigor, overlooks sexual harassment allegations against distinguished (male) faculty, engages in unlawful labor practices and disregards the needs of its staff and faculty.

And yet, this system demands that I participate by providing constant intellectual, physical and emotional labor, despite minimal job security.

Many scholars have already exposed the decline of education and the poor labor conditions of university educators. In his 2011 The Fall of the Faculty, Benjamin Ginsberg published a devastating analysis of the decline of faculty power. More recently, Elizabeth Anderson’s 2015 Tanner Lectures at Princeton, published as Private Government, chronicled dictatorial employment practices. And last month, University of Michigan dual-Ph.D. candidate Maximillian Alvarez penned “Contingent No More,” a manifesto criticizing the laissez-fare academic culture that perpetuates the “neoliberization of higher education.”

These writers illuminate the struggles of a new generation of faculty and graduate workers in academia. Burdened by insurmountable student debt and confronted by the machinery of U.S. capitalism, we fight just to survive.

Recent struggles in higher education are part of a long history of economic exploitation and domination over workers, problems that have pervaded U.S. society since its racist, genocidal and profit-driven founding. Whereas in the 1970s almost 80 percent of faculty were full-time, universities today have shifted to a contingent employment model. Non-tenure track faculty now compose 70 percent of the academic labor force, 41 percent of whom are part-time. Graduate workers are 13 percent of the academic labor force, almost 5 percent more than full-time, tenure-track faculty.

Why? Because contingent labor is cheap, and no tenure means we’re expendable. This allows universities to slash salaries for faculty while expanding bureaucratic administrations that obstruct grievance processes and legal redress.

In fact, Business Insider reveals that tuition has increased by 260 percent since 1980, compared to the 120 percent increase in consumer items over the same period. So, where is that money going, if not to faculty and graduate employee salaries? It is going to university administrators, whose employment has increased by 221 percent from 1975 to 2008. In contrast, faculty employment has increased by only 3.5 percent.

All the while, faculty and students are left in the dark as to how university revenue is spent. The Illinois State Senate’s 99 Percent General Assembly 2015 Report on Executive Compensation notes that “tuition increases have coincided with a dramatic increase in administrative costs, including the size of administrative departments and compensation packages for executives.” Vanderbilt University’s Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos was cited by Forbes as the fifth-highest- paid university president in 2012, with an annual salary of $2.23 million. He and 35 other university presidents across America made over $1 million that year. Nearly 40 percent of university presidents are eligible for financial bonuses for increasing statistics like graduation rates, at the expense of faculty resources for research and conference travel.

For the administrative university, undergraduates—our students—have gone from ‘future leaders’ to ‘commodities.’

The generation of capital, rather than free and critical thought, is increasingly becoming the purpose of higher education. Deans see themselves as micro-CEOs, while provosts and chancellors view the university as a money-making venture. We instructors are the face of the university and provide the classroom education that students pay for, yet revenue we bring in doesn’t pay for our security. Instead, we are told that admission to a doctoral program is a gift, that our employers are benevolent, and that quiet gratitude is the only appropriate response to our conditions. They pretend this is enough to ignore watching us sink below a living wage, struggle with mental health with little support, and work ourselves to exhaustion.

This piece was originally published at In These Times on July 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sabeen Ahmed is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is interested in social and political philosophy and critical phenomenology. She is currently working to analyze refugee discourses through a critique of Western intellectual history.

This is Why Labor Should Care About Virginia’s Gubernatorial Primary

Wednesday, June 14th, 2017

Last year, I wrote about the open shop referendum in Virginia, calling it the most important election for the labor movement in 2016. While Virginia has been a “right-to-work” state since 1947, supporters of the referendum argued that a constitutional amendment was necessary to prevent Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring or future Democratic legislative majorities from overturning the statute.

In a year where the election of an anti-labor president coincided with votes in Alabama and South Dakota that affirmed the open shop, Virginia gave labor its brightest victory: Almost 54 percent of voters across the Commonwealth rejected the constitutional amendment. And the “no” vote was spread out across the Commonwealth, with places as disparate politically as urban Arlington and rural Accomack voting against the measure, which was bitterly opposed by Virginia’s labor movement.

Much like the open shop referendum last year, this year’s gubernatorial election in Virginia is significant for labor. It’s a chance to contest the open shop in a region that has long seemed closed to any pro-labor advances on the issue. The primary vote is set for Tuesday and the labor movement would do well to make its presence felt.

Spread of the open shop

Politically, the open shop has been something of a settled matter in most of the South.

One of the first open shop statutes passed in Florida in 1944. As Gilbert Gall recounts in his Labor Studies Journal article, leaders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) were slow to respond to the calls from its state affiliates for assistance in defeating the measure:

“…..President Green affirmed that the AFL wanted to help, but, he added, ‘it is expected that the Florida labor movement will do its part.’ He then chastised (Florida labor leader W.E.) Sullivan for the recent defeat of a liberal Florida Congressman, stating that he could not ‘understand why labor in Florida did not make a better showing.’ If it had, Green argued, it would have had ‘a tremendous moral effect’ against the coming Right to Work amendment, though exactly how he did not say.”

Floridians would go on to approve the measure with about 55 percent of the vote. While the open shop would end up spreading to places like Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa over the next three years, it was the South where the concept really took hold. By the end of the 1950s, nearly all of the southern states would have right-to-work legislation on the books.

A chance for change

Given that history, it may not come as much of a surprise that the political support for Virginia’s status as an open shop state has been bipartisan. The current governor, Terry McAuliffe, gave a speech to business leaders pledging his full-throated support for the law during his 2013 gubernatorial run and has stated that he would not seek to change it as governor.

This brings us to the Democratic gubernatorial primary this year, which features a race between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello.

Northam, a former state senator and erstwhile potential party-switcher, began the race as the favorite after Herring decided to forgo a run for governor and seek re-election as attorney general. He lined up the endorsement of McAuliffe as well as a fundraising advantage of about half a million dollars. Perriello, who upset arch-conservative U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode in the 2008 congressional election, has closed the gap by turning the election into a referendum on Donald Trump.

But here’s the reason why this election is so important to labor: Perriello has taken a strong stance against the open shop. In an article outlining his campaign’s “Plan For Working Families”, Perriello states that:

“Too often, workers in Virginia don’t get the protections they need to earn their rightful pay and maintain consistent hours. Wage theft, the denial of benefits, and reduced bargaining powers are all side effects of a long, sustained attack on workers’ rights in Virginia. Workers do better when they have strong unions, and the decline in union membership is a major reason why wages have effectively flat-lined since the 1970s. That’s why I oppose so-called ‘right to work’ laws that kneecap unions from helping workers bargain for higher wages.”

He has defended this stance in gubernatorial debates as well, noting that he would fight for a repeal of the law even though it is unlikely to pass through a General Assembly that is dominated by Republicans. Northam, on the other hand, has called for Democrats to focus on other labor issues such as sick leave and an increased minimum wage instead of “pick(ing) fights that we perhaps can’t win right now.”

Sick leave and a minimum wage increase are important, for sure, but without a strong labor movement, it is hard to get the popular groundswell needed to prod legislators to make positive moves on those issues, either. Democrats should be united in their opposition to a policy that drains resources from labor unions and seeks to undermine the growth and stability of the movement as a whole.

Another major victory for the labor movement in Virginia could have major implications for the AFL-CIO’s strategy in the South further down the line. We should ensure that such a big opportunity is not missed.

This article was originally published on Inthesetimes.com on June 12, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Douglas Williams is a doctoral student in political science at Wayne State University in Detroit, where his research centers around public policy, disadvantaged communities and the labor movement. He blogs at The South Lawn.

Unionized Scientists March in Protest of Attacks on Science and Jobs

Friday, April 21st, 2017
Of all the attacks on our civil society, the attacks on evidence-based science pose perhaps the greatest existential threat. Decisions being made about climate science and environmental protection at this critical time will shape the future of our planet.

Advances in research are produced by the twin pillars of dedicated scientists and an activated citizenry who demand that the best science be applied to today’s most pressing problems. Because scientists produce the facts that expose the lies currently being purveyed, the tip of the spear is pointed at the heart of science-based policy and research.

But the imminent threat also presents an extraordinary opportunity for the scientific community to unify around a message of resistance, one in which organized labor has a critical role to play. Unionized scientists are well-positioned to fight back against the false narratives being pushed by the administration and to advocate collectively for continued funding of crucial basic research. Science professionals need a workplace free from fear of corporate power and political malfeasance influencing their results. We are the protectors of truth and facts, and in that way we all are in service to the public. With scientific integrity, we speak truth to power.

Budget cuts are the beginning of the attack. For example, the Donald Trump administration is proposing a 31% cut in funding and 21% cut in workforce at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on top of less-heralded budget cuts over the past three years. Such low funding levels have not been seen since the 1970s, prior to the enactment of most of our national environmental laws. Enforcement is also targeted, crippling the EPA’s ability to protect human health.

Is this a good way to save money? Investments in environmental protection pay huge dividends for the country. For example, air pollution reductions will avoid 230,000 premature deaths and produce total benefits valued at $2 trillion in 2020, according to a 2011 study. This benefit exceeds costs by more than 30-to-1, to say nothing of the human suffering.

Scientists have long held the view that with enough data and evidence we will be able to convince skeptics that climate change is real, that humans are responsible and that immediate action must be taken. It is increasingly clear that this approach has not worked.

For the nearly 7,000 postdoctoral researchers at the University of California and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab represented by UAW Local 5810, having a union ensures strong workplace protections as well as a powerful, nationwide platform for advocacy when research comes under threat. And the collective power of the union is not limited to the workplace.

Kathy Setian and other members of IFPTE Local 20 march at the Inauguration protest on January 20th in San Francisco.

With a diverse membership that includes both higher education and the manufacturing sector, the UAW has been a leading advocate for climate change policies that both create healthy communities and address economic and racial inequities. And at the EPA, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 20/Engineers and Scientists of California (ESC) has rallied in opposition to the cuts and will continue to speak out, including in San Francisco at the March for Science.

Make no mistake. As organized scientists, we are in solidarity with our union brothers and sisters who have lost jobs and real income steadily over the past several decades. We support the creation of jobs in clean energy sectors and in green infrastructure projects.

It is time for scientists and the citizenry who depend on science to embrace our responsibility to advocate for sound policies. Our very lives and livelihood are now dependent on stepping collectively forward into the realm of political advocacy and action.

Together we will March for Science on April 22, in opposition to the damage that the current administration seeks to do to research and in solidarity with scientists, researchers, and concerned citizens who remain resolved, undeterred, and organized in the face of these threats.

This blog was originally posted on aflcio.org on April 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Carly Ebben Eaton is a postdoctoral scholar and executive board member of UAW Local 5810.

Kathy Setian was a project manager at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a steward of IFPTE Local 20, Engineers and Scientists of California. She will be a speaker at the April 22 March for Science in San Francisco.

Nestlé’s Makes the Very Best? Georgia Workers Vote To Unionize

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

Your Nesquik may now be shipped by union workers, thanks to a powder-thin union election at a distribution center just south of Atlanta.

Workers at Nestlé’s facility in McDonough, Georgia, voted 49-46 Wednesday in favor of representation by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), said labor organizer Greg Scandrett. The campaign was tough, so the victory is sweet.

“They [Nestlé] fought this from Day 1. They brought in people from HR from all around the country,” Scandrett said.

He expects negotiations around a first contract will be difficult.

The workers at Nestlé’s distribution center are at one of the choke points of a global logistics chain that produces billions in profits for the Swiss company. Nestlé spokeswoman Liz Caselli-Mechael tells In These Times that the company has more than 400 factories in 86 different countries. It employs 330,000 people globally, she says, with about 51,000 of those workers in the United States.

Caselli-Mechael did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the union election.

The distribution center in McDonough handles many different Nestlé products. Nesquik, the wildly popular chocolate milk powder, and candy are the most famous, but baby formula is also handled there, Scandrett said. The work site is at a key railroad intersection with Interstate 85, so much of Nestlé’s profits from the southeastern United States flow through the facility, he said.

According to Scandrett, management-labor relations on the shop floor are not good. Many workers feel disrespected by the managers. Favoritism in assignments and promotions is a huge complaint, he says. And racial tensions, with the vast majority of black workers pitted against the overwhelmingly white managers, are high, Scandrett says.

Hourly pay is not a big issue, according to Scandrett. Pay starts out at around $17 an hour, but there is little room for growth, with pay topping out at around $19 an hour, he says.

Labor relations at Nestlé’s operating units have been a perennial source of dismay at the IUF, the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations. IUF’s special Nestlé organizing center reports on problems with the company in countries like Turkey, South Korea and Finland.

“It’s not really about the pay. It’s about how you are treated. Nobody should have to stand for being disrespected all the time,” Scandrett said.

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on April 7, 2017. 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.

BREAKING: Iowa Lawmakers Pass Sweeping Anti-Union Bill

Friday, February 17th, 2017

DES MOINES, Iowa – Lawmakers in Iowa have voted to dismantle the state’s 40-year-old collective bargaining law, dramatically weakening the power of public sector labor unions and leaving some 185,000 public workers unable to bargain over benefits, healthcare, vacations, retirement, and nearly all workplace issues outside of wages.

Iowa is a right-to-work state, and the new law would prevent voluntary union dues from being deducted from a public employee’s paycheck. It would also require regular recertification votes. Police officers, firefighters and transit workers are exempt from most of the bill’s provisions.

Republican lawmakers introduced their union-busting bill on February 7 and fast-tracked it through the legislative process. Both the House and Senate, which are controlled by the GOP, approved the bill Thursday, passing the most sweeping and impactful changes to Iowa law in decades. Gov. Terry Branstad is expected to sign the bill soon.

During the 10-day stretch before lawmakers voted, Iowa saw its largest labor mobilization in years, with thousands of union members standing up, speaking out and taking action. The weekend before Valentine’s Day, workers and their families packed legislative forums and town hall meetings in districts across the state. Teachers and their allies rallied and marched at the state Capitol.

A union rally and public hearing Monday drew scores of demonstrators so dense that the Iowa Capitol was packed shoulder-to-shoulder on every floor. Firefighters wore their iconic helmets. Nurses showed up after their shifts in scrubs. Workers continued to pour into the Capitol for hours after the event started, with lines of people spilling out of the statehouse entrances. More than 4,600 people went through the Capitol security checkpoints, Radio Iowa reported. Thousands more Iowans flooded statehouse switchboards and lawmakers’ emails.

Minority Democrats in both chambers managed to briefly slow down the bill’s passage, extending debate over three days of marathon sessions and raising important questions about outside influence by corporate interests like the Koch Brothers, ALEC and Americans for Prosperity.

“We’re talking about people’s lives, their kids, and their homes,” said Candace Acord, an AFSCME member and community-based corrections officer from Iowa City. “I don’t understand what the problem is here when we just want health insurance for our families.”

“My main concern is insurance may now become so unattainable due to the cost that I may not be able to afford healthcare for me and my family,” said Lynette Halsted, an SEIU member and emergency room nurse at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. “Staffing ratios are no longer permissible subjects of bargaining, but evidence-based practice shows that the more patients a nurse has the worse the outcome can be for patients.”

The nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project weighed in with a report on the impacts of the new law, stating it will:

“exacerbate existing trends—low and stagnating wages, growing uncertainty about access to affordable health care, and increasing income inequality—that are already accelerating downward mobility for many Iowa households. And these effects are likely to disproportionately harm rural communities, low-income workers, and to threaten the quality of the health care, public safety, and public education systems upon which all Iowans depend.”

Thousands of people also submitted written comments opposing the union-busting bill.

Carrie Dodd, a junior high English teacher from rural Madrid, wrote: “My husband and I both work in school districts and we will be financially devastated if we lose our insurance, receive lower pay, and have to work more for less.”

T.J. Foley, a senior at Valley High School in Des Moines, wrote: “Union power is key to effective teachers, and effective teachers mean Iowa’s students are successful and our future as a state is secure.”

The recent demonstrations highlighted the power, however diminished, that labor still has to educate, organize, and mobilize workers and their families, and the critical role unions play in bringing every day, regular people into social justice movements.

But the future of organized labor is now more uncertain than ever, and the path forward is unclear. Many workers at the demonstrations said they believe the next step is to re-elect Democrats into the majority in 2018. That task will be even more difficult now that Iowa’s public sector unions have been severely weakened, arguably the real purpose of the new law.

There is also no guarantee a Democratic majority would restore collective bargaining rights. Democrats controlled the Iowa Senate in 2013, and collaborated with a Republican governor and House Republicans to pass the largest corporate property tax cuts in state history, cuts which caused a budget shortfall that Republicans are now using to justify their attacks on labor. Unions were unable to expand their collective bargaining rights even when Democrats held a trifecta of political power in 2008.

But workers aren’t giving up.

“We will resist and persist in the face of these neoliberal attacks,” said Naoki Izvmo, a teaching assistant and UE-COGS member at the University of Iowa. “Workers are the true source of power in society, not the law.”

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on February 16, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

David Goodner is a writer, organizer and Catholic Worker from Iowa City. Follow him on twitter @davidgoodner.

Working People and Their Unions Rally to Support Members Affected by Travel Ban

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

“I was fortunate enough to have the support of a union, and I was a member of a union. And I think in this situation, I’m convinced more than ever how important the unions are. And I just wanted to mention that I know here in New York there are so many students from private universities who have been trying to and fighting to get their right to have a union, and the administration of the universities are denying them this right.” – Saira Rafiee

Faculty, staff and students studying and teaching in the United States have been scrambling since Donald Trump barred entry into the country for foreign nationals from seven majority-Muslim countries. Although the executive order has been temporarily blocked by court order, the matter remains a moving target as the White House challenges the rulings — and the legitimacy — of the courts.

The AFT has many members who have been and could be shut out of the country or prevented from traveling under the Jan. 27 executive order. For example, Saira Rafiee (pictured), a doctoral student of political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and member of the Professional Staff Congress/AFT Local 2334, was among those who were blocked from entry during the chaotic initial week of implementation. While attempting to return from vacation in Iran to visit her family during winter break, she was detained for 18 hours in Abu Dhabi before being sent back to Tehran.

Despite the uncertainty about her own future, Rafiee conveyed on Facebook that her main concern was for others, including a student in the United States who had to cancel a last visit with a sister who has cancer in Iran. Her sister has since died. There also are students doing fieldwork for dissertations that have taken years to research; whether they will be able to return to their work is undetermined. “These stories are not even close in painfulness and horror of those who are fleeing war and disastrous situations in their home countries,” wrote Rafiee, whose CUNY colleagues rallied to #GetSairaHome at the Brooklyn courthouse Jan. 30.

Read Rafiee’s Jan. 29 Facebook post:

Rafiee returned to the United States Feb. 4 to a rousing welcome from CUNY student activists, lawyers from CUNY’s Citizenship Now program, family members and others who had worked to make her return possible. “Union support matters,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen. “Hundreds of PSC members responded to the union’s call for messages urging action on Saira’s case, helping to focus public attention on her case. Collective action worked.”

If reinstated, the executive order would temporarily ban entry to the United States for all citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somali, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The ban is widely seen as an attempt to ban Muslims from the U.S., a religious ban that would be constitutionally prohibited. Acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates was fired for refusing to enforce the ban, which she determined was illegal. Courts have challenged the new policy, but border agents reportedly ignored court orders. Details of enforcement have been confusing at best.

In addition to the turmoil academics and other travelers have experienced, another aspect of the order would suspend all refugee admittance for 120 days and turn away desperate families seeking safe haven from war and violence. These refugees already have gone through extensive, often years-long approval processes, yet these families risk being sent back to refugee camps.

The AFT is distributing information and resources on these executive orders and offering some legal advice for foreign nationals from the affected nations.

Rafiee wrote:

The first quote above from Saira Rafiee was provided via an interview with Democracy Now.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 10, 2017.  Reprinted with permission.

Virginia Myers is a writer/editor for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Republican Victory in Missouri Means “Right-to-Work” For Less

Monday, February 6th, 2017

Missouri’s House of Representatives passed a so-called “right-to-work” law this month, marking the end of a decades-long campaign for the adoption of the anti-union legislation in the state.

The measure had already been passed in Missouri’s Senate and newly-installed Gov. Eric Greitens has pledged to sign the law soon. Once he does, Missouri will become the 28th state to have such a law on the books.

The likelihood the law would be passed after years of lobbying by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry became clear on Election Day, when Greitens defeated a union-friendly Democratic Party candidate for governor. Greitens and his opponent had been vying to replace retiring Gov. Jay Nixon, an eight-year incumbent who had staunchly resisted the advance of right-to-work legislation during his two terms in the state capital.

The Kansas City Star reported a lopsided House vote on Thursday of 100-59 in favor of the legislation. The Senate had passed the same measure 21-12.

The new law follows the pattern of similar legislation passed recently in Kentucky and West Virginia. (A nationwide right-to-work law was also introduced in Congress last week.) It prohibits any requirement that a worker be a union member as a condition of employment, and prevents unions from collecting membership dues from the workers it represents unless the worker specifically authorizes the payment. The effect is to impair the ability of unions to maintain effective recruiting operations and financial management, labor advocates say.

Efforts by the Missouri AFL-CIO to prevent passage of the right-to-work law were a long shot ever since the results of 2016 election became known, says the labor federation’s president, Mike Louis.

“This has been a long fight. We lost the Senate in 2002 and then we lost the House in 2006. But Gov. Nixon always supported us,” he tells In These Times.

Louis adds that that the efforts of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce were given a major boost by wealthy Joplin, Missouri, businessman David Humphreys, who donated generously to promote right-to-work.

“These big corporate types like David Humphreys pay millions to buy these seats,” in the legislature, Louis says.

But Missouri unions are not accepting defeat, and have already developed a counter-campaign to neutralize the law, Louis continues. The AFL-CIO will lead an effort to collect enough signatures to place an initiative on the 2018 state ballot to reverse the right-to-work law, he says.

“Missouri law says we need 250,000 signatures to get our initiative on the ballot. We will absolutely be able to get this number, and I’m convinced we can win an election when the people of Missouri are presented with a plain choice,” Louis says.

In the meantime, individual unions will struggle to convince union members to maintain their membership. Philip Dine, a journalist and author who spent more than two decades as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, says the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters are the two unions that are likely to feel the most immediate impact of the new law.

“UFCW and Teamsters are pretty strong in the St. Louis area. But the grocery store workers in the UFCW are going to come under a lot of pressure. A lot of those jobs don’t pay all that well to start with, so it’s not going to be easy to convince workers that union dues are worth the money,” says Dine, author of the widely-acclaimed State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve our Economy, and Regain Political Influence. Also coming under pressure to quit their unions will be aircraft production workers represented by the International Association of Machinists and assembly line workers represented by the United Auto Workers, Dine says.

“Sure, there will be a touch—absolutely. But I think it is going to be de minimis,” says David Cook, president of 10,000-member UFCW Local 655 in St. Louis. About 85 percent of the local membership is in the retail grocery sector, he says, so “we are going to have to do a better job of communicating union value to our members. This is something we have been doing already, but we’ll need to do more.”

UFCW will throw its full weight behind the AFL-CIO effort to amend the state constitution to protect workers’ union rights, Cook says.

“We’ve been fighting the right-to-work fight here [in Missouri] on an almost daily basis for the last five years. We are already geared up and I think Missouri is ahead of a lot of other states that have thought about an electoral initiative over right-to-work,” he says. “We’ve communicated with voters. We have a head start.”

“Mega-donors like David Humphries have figured out how to buy politicians. But when the issue of better wages and better worker safety are put directly to the voters, we’ll do well,” Cook predicts.

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on February 6, 2017. 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.

This week in the war on workers: Union membership keeps dropping in 2016

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017
There’s bad news and … well, there’s bad news. Union density continued its long decline in 2016:

In 2016, the share of workers who were members of a union decreased 0.4 percentage point to 10.7 percent, continuing a downward trend that has occurred since at least the early 1980s, when directly comparable data became available[.]

It’s not just the union membership rate, it’s also the raw numbers:

In addition to a 0.4 percentage-point drop in membership rate, there were also 240,000 less union workers in 2016 than in 2015[.]

And that’s before Donald Trump gets his hands on things. Although plenty of other Republicans and their corporate bosses have been at work on this for years.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on January 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

What the BLS Union Numbers Don't Tell You About People Organizing and Collective Action

Friday, January 27th, 2017

There are millions of working people who want and need a union but who are being prevented from forming one by their employer. And instead of penalizing bad actors, our outdated labor laws have made union avoidance nothing more than the cost of doing business. This must change.

“The truth is, collective action in America is stronger than ever,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “We’ve seen the source of our power in defeating the TPP, even when most people told us we couldn’t. We’ve seen it in successfully raising wages at the state and local levels against great political odds.”

http://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Organizing-Bargaining/Working-People-Give-a-Bold-Union-Yes-in-Las-Vegas

We see this desire for collective action every day from coast to coast, in industries far and wide. Below, we have detailed just a sampling of amazing organizing wins and what happens when people come together to make changes on the job:

Working people at Verizon who went on strike last year made huge gains, including getting a raise and adding 1,300 new call center jobs on the East Coast.

In August, members of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA at United Airlines voted to ratify a new contract, which provides immediate economic gains, sets a new industry standard and ensures flight attendants can achieve the benefits of a fully integrated airline. The five-year agreement includes double-digit pay increases, enhances job security provisions, maintains and improves health care, protects retirement and increases flexibility.

Also in the month of August, working people at eight Zara locations in New York chose to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union/UFCW. Zara is owned by Inditex, the world’s largest fashion retailer, and the company did not oppose the union drive. More than 1,000 employees now will be represented by RWDSU/UFCW Local 1102. RWDSU/UFCW represents workers at such retail stores as Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s, and supermarkets, drugstores and car washes.

Hotel workers in Las Vegas took on then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and won a fair contract with their union Culinary Workers Union Local 226 after a high-profile fight in 2016. Watch the video to hear Celia Vargas’ story about what it was like to work at the Trump hotel without a contract.

Also in Las Vegas, working people at the Boulder Station Hotel & Casino voted “union yes!” “It is very simple: We voted for the union because we want to have a union at Boulder Station,” said Rodrigo Solano, a cook at the casino, which opened in 1994. “After all these years of fighting to make our jobs better, it is time for management to listen to us: We want to have fair wages and good health benefits like tens of thousands of other casino workers in Las Vegas.”

In Cleveland, teachers won a historic union charter school organizing victory when educators and support staff at the University of Cleveland Preparatory School joined the Ohio Federation of Teachers and the AFT to address high turnover and improve education for their students.

Working people who are members of AFSCME saw a net gain of 12,000 new members added to their ranks. AFSCME President Lee Saunders said in a statement:

“AFSCME has made a commitment to getting back to organizing basics, building power at the grassroots level and hearing the unique concerns of every public service worker in one-on-one conversations…. So even in the face of an anti-labor onslaught, despite efforts to manipulate laws against working people, it’s clear that organizing works.”

In Baltimore, more than 1,400 working people at BG&E gained a union voice with IBEW. And in Memphis, Tennessee, a “right to work” state, hundreds of working people at Electrolux voted to join IBEW.

By a nearly 3-to-1 margin, Columbia graduate student employees voted  yes for their union—the UAW—in an NLRB election. Many of the 3,500 student workers who will be represented say they chose the union to bargain on their behalf for better health care, benefits for dependents, payment procedures, housing opportunities and grievance procedures. Students who work as teaching and research assistants won the right to join a union after an August ruling by the National Labor Relations Board. Columbia University is challenging the election results, and critics have called the appeal baseless.

In California, after four years of instability and threats of hospital closures or major cuts in patient services, registered nurses voted to approve a new contract covering nearly 1,500 RNs at four former Daughters of Charity hospitals in Los Angeles and the Bay area.

And in the growing digital media field, more than 90% of 70 digital journalists at Fusion Media Group voted to join the Writers Guild of America, East. WGAE also represents several hundred digital journalists at Salon Media, The Huffington Post and ThinkProgress.

Trumka said in a statement today:

“Even though collective action remains strong, we recognize that the labor movement has challenges. The biggest challenges have been put in place by corporations and their hired politicians who have been at the throats of workers for years. The ugly truth is, because of these attacks, we live in a country where working people are constantly denied our right – our constitutional right – to join a union in the first place. With the way the deck is currently stacked, it’s a miracle that brave workers continue to find new ways to organize and that today’s numbers aren’t even worse. But we also recognize our own challenges. We must be a better movement for a changing workforce. We must adapt our structures to fit the needs of today’s workers. We must not be afraid to challenge ourselves to better serve working families. And we know we will succeed because we are committed to doing just that, inspired by the spirit we see in working people every day from coast to coast, in industries far and wide.”

This blog originally appeared at aflcio.org on January 26, 2017.  Reprinted with permission.
Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at AFL-CIO.

How the American Postal Workers Union Scored One of its Biggest Wins Ever

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

Members of one of the largest labor unions for post office workers are celebrating the success of a three-year campaign to roll back a commercial alliance between the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and office supplies retailer Staples that threatened a major advance in the privatization of the national mail system. Coming just before the accession of Donald Trump to the White House, the victory marks one of the most successful corporate campaigns by any labor union during the Obama era.

The success also marks the rejuvenation of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) under the leadership of Mark Dimondstein. First elected as president in 2013, Dimondstein promised union members a more aggressive attack on USPS privatization initiatives and a more progressive union overall. He delivered on those promises with the Staples campaign, and stood out in 2016 as one of the few union leaders to back insurgent Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the White House.

APWU President President Mark Dimondstein

In an interview with In These Times, the union leader credits the success of the campaign to the thousands of hours of unpaid volunteer work by union members, and also to impressive demonstrations of solidarity by other unions, particularly teachers unions. Launched in 2014, the campaign gained early momentum, he says, and landed some of its most effective blows in mid-2014 and early 2015. Over the course of 2016, executives at USPS and Staples were in a slow retreat and formally caved in a letter to the union announcing the cancellation of the privatization effort earlier this month.

Union members were immediately galvanized in opposition when the USPS-Staples deal was announced as a “pilot program” in 2013. The pilot called for Staples to open “postal counters” in its existing retail stores where most standard post office services would be available. Such counters would be introduced in a number of select test markets, and gradually expanded to more than 1,000 Staples outlets nationwide. The workers at these counters would be non-union Staples employees, effectively replacing APWU members.

“It was obvious from the start that they were not being honest about the intentions of this program. If these Staples outlets were successful, then the next step would have been to close the regular post offices in those markets, and eliminate the union workers. It was a backdoor privatization. Our members are not stupid, and they saw it for what it was right from the beginning,” Dimondstein says.

The first order of business for the corporate campaign against USPS-Staples was to energize other unions, Diamondstein says, and this ultimately proved critical. Oher postal unions—notably the National Association of Letter Carriers and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union—were eager partners, he reports. Their call for a national boycott of Staples was endorsed by AFL-CIO in June 2014.

But the act of solidarity that carried the most powerful punch was the decision by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) to support the boycott. According to Dimondstein, “There are 3 or 4 million teachers in this country, and in a lot of cities and towns the teachers are given the power to go out and buy school supplies. For Staples, these are customers who come back year after year. This is market power that has real meaning to corporations like Staples.”

 AFT President Randi Weingarten even encouraged the APWU to stage a public demonstration against Staples at the same time as the AFT’s 2014 convention in Los Angeles. Weingarten personally led a large group of teachers from the convention to an APWU rally, held at the Staples Center sports arena, and delivered a fiery speech in support of the postal workers. She backed up the rhetoric, according to Dimondstein, with active efforts to get AFT affiliates to back the boycott nationwide.

“It was at that moment,” that the balance of power shifted in favor of the union, says Dimondstein. Other elements of the corporate campaign—public demonstrations, a legal attack at the National Labor Relations Board, nationwide publicity efforts, etc.—were beginning have an effect, but the teachers’ efforts seemed to pull it all together in the public mind, the union leader says.

Even so, it would take massive overreach by the corporate managers of Staples to drive a final stake through the heart of the USPS-Staples deal. In February 2015, Staples announced it would buy retail competitor Office Depot in a deal valued at $6.3 billion. But the combination of the two large office supply retailers raised obvious anti-trust issues. (A similar merger was blocked in 1997 by the Federal Trade Commission.)

The APWU jumped into action to oppose the merger, mobilizing other potential opponents and meeting with anti-trust regulators at the trade commission.

“Our research team did a just fantastic job. It’s hard for me to see how the merger could possibly have ever been approved after looking at their work,” Dimondstein says.

Sure enough, the trade commission ruled against the Staples-Office Depot deal, embarrassing Staples CEO Ronald Sargent and later costing him his job. The company was also forced to pay Office Depot about $250 million in a “break-up fee” for the failed merger, Dimondstein says.

“We opposed the merger and that put us squarely on the side of the consumer. As a union, we always want to be on the side of the consumer and that drives a lot what we do,” the APWU leader says.

Asked about the cost of the campaign, Dimondstein declines to answer directly. He insists, however, that the union spent less than $5 million and much of the cost was borne by unpaid volunteers from the membership.

“We were willing to spend whatever it took. But it doesn’t take as much as you’d think when you have a united membership willing to pitch in. We put in substantial resources, but our feeling [is] that this is precisely the kind of thing that union dues are for,” he says.

If the campaign presents a single overriding lesson, then it is the importance of labor union solidarity, Dimondstein concludes. Within USPS, there are multiple unions so “it is always divide and conquer with them.” But APWU was able to spearhead an effective coalition with other unions and also enlist the AFL-CIO in the boycott.

“The staying power of our own members is really what carried us and our allies forward,” Dimondstein says. “They had the confidence that workers can win—and will win.”

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on January 18, 2017. 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.

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