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In Wisconsin, the Teamsters Faced a Revolt from Below

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019

Every day, Nikki Sampson drives from her home in Portage to Madison, where she works as a dispatcher for the city’s bus service. To get there, she drives along a 40-mile stretch of highway, which crosses the Wisconsin River twice and then slices south through farms and municipalities. That road lies at the heart of the region represented by Sampson’s 4,256-strong union—Teamsters Local 695.

Sampson has worked for Metro transit for over 20 years, and says that as a younger employee there, she counted on the union to fight for workers in contract negotiations and file grievances on their behalf when things went wrong. But over the last two decades, Sampson says, the union has developed a reputation as weaker, and unable—even unwilling—to push back against managerial wrongdoing.

“We on the floor are our own union representation. We assist each other with filing a grievance,” says Sampson. “We go to fellow coworkers and we get together and we look over our union contract.” Sampson says that she has regularly looked into grievances on behalf of her coworkers—rather than stewards, the workers who represent the union on the shop floor.

So Sampson and her colleagues ran a campaign to elect a new slate of officials to head the Teamsters local. The slate, which called itself Rebuild 695 and was comprised mostly of Madison Metro Transit employees, came 96 votes short of unseating the incumbent leadership of the local on Friday, October 25.

Given that the slate had only a 100-day notice for the election, it is notable that it came this close to winning.

The reform push in the Wisconsin local has grown out of a broader push to reform Teamsters by electing members to leadership locally and nationally. In the last two years, Teamsters members in Washington D.C.,Texas and, most recently, North Carolina, have successfully installed reformers in office at their locals.

The recent reform campaign by members of Teamsters Local 71 in North Carolina yielded an overwhelming win for the reform slate, with 757 votes cast for reform candidates and 286 for the incumbent. Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a coalition of Teamsters members that has fought corruption in the union and won members the right to elect the union’s leadership, hailed the North Carolina reform effort a “grassroots victory” and wrote in a blog post about the election that leadership had “paid the price for being out-of-touch with the rank-and-file.”

Formed in 1976, TDU has pushed for more equitable pay structures within the union and backed reform campaigns nationally. In 2016, TDU-backed Fred Zuckerman nearly unseated Teamsters president James P. Hoffa, who has held office since 1999 and has faced corruption investigations.

For reform-minded union activists like those at Madison’s Metro Transit, TDU offers guidance for running a local campaign. According to Jake Puls, who ran for president of the Rebuild 695 slate, the reformers consulted TDU materials in preparation for its campaign.

The Local 695 reform candidates pointed to declining membership and increasing salaries for leadership of the local as evidence of a disconnect between workers and their representatives: Membership fell by about 40% between 2000 and 2018, and the top three union officials earned approximately $130,000 as of last year. The reform campaign attributes member attrition to disenchantment with the union, while current leadership at 695 argues that the closure of businesses explains most of the decline in membership since 2000. The union has lost 223 members to decertification, which accounts for about 16% of membership loss since 2011.

Local 695 officials defend their salaries, arguing that officer salaries are on par with other union leaders in the country and that “it is a good paying job, but so are other jobs that require years of experience and no time off.”

Members also identified aspects of the local’s current bylaws as undemocratic. The bylaws include, for example,  a rule that stewards “shall be selected and removed in such a manner as the local union executive board or the principal executive officer may direct.” This wording indicates that whether stewards are elected or appointed is up to the executive board, which can override the results of an election with its own appointee.

Sampson, who has spoken about racism in her workplace since as early as 2014, says that she has found little support from stewards at her local in challenging discriminatory hiring and disciplinary practices by management. And when she ran for the position of steward, Sampson says she was met with resistance from the union.

“I was voted in as a union steward, and they did not like that at all,” said Sampson. Two weeks after she took the position, Sampson says, she was removed and replaced by a steward that the union appointed.

The Rebuild platform promised to adjust salaries for union leadership and campaigned on a platform to expand communication between union officials and membership by “[building] a website for our local, send[ing] emails & text messages and start[ing] newsletters so that Teamster members know what is happening in the local and know how to get involved.”

Instead of union leadership reserving the right to appoint shop stewards, the Rebuild slate said that it would work with members to institute regular elections for the steward position, arguing that elections will “make sure union stewards are doing what the members want.”

Sampson said that she hoped the Rebuild candidates would push hard against contract violations by management. “[Management] understands that we have such a weak union at this point,” says Sampson. In 2014, Sampson and three other Metro Transit workers went to local press to protest what they identified as racist hiring and promotional practices, which were prohibited by the union contract. Sampson is emphatic that the union did not help and has not been friendly to her and her coworkers’ complaints of racial discrimination.

“I want to go back to the union that I was introduced to 24 years ago. A strong, solid, united front,” said Sampson. “A union that represents you and understands what a union is about, to fight for the rights of the file and the represented, not the management.” Once, she said, while driving to work, she was greeted by honks of approval—a fellow Teamster, seeing the Rebuild 695 stickers on her car, rolled town the window to cheer her along.

Puls said that the campaign was predicated on the goal of establishing direct channels of communication between members and the local, and avenues for members to fight for better work conditions.

“The more you get people to feel like they matter and that they have a voice, the more they stick together and the stronger the union becomes,” says Puls.

The Rebuild slate and its supporters also say that union members at shops around the state perceive stewards as reluctant to file grievances and slow to meet with workers to talk about issues at work.

“We always went to our stewards. And our stewards would just blow it off. You have no idea how many times we were told by stewards, ‘Oh no, you shouldn’t file a grievance, oh no, you can’t file a grievance,’” says Sampson. She says that  while campaigning, the reform slate met with members at other shops complained that stewards were “best friends with management” and unwilling to help file a grievance.

Representatives of local 695 responded to the allegation that members around the state did not have knowledge of union operations and personnel such as business agents (who are the primary point of contact between shops and the local headquarters), calling the claim “just silly.” Union leaders also dismissed claims that they had not maintained communication with members in a campaign blog post: “Members can attend our General Meetings that are held on the third Tuesday of every month…Be active in the Union, run for steward!”

Still, Soncerethia (Sonci) Stone, who currently works as a bus driver for Metro Transit and ran for vice president of 695, emphasized the need for transparency between the leadership and its members during contract negotiations in her local.

“The city of Madison is getting a whole lot off our backs. And nothing is returned. In some cases our work conditions are absolutely horrible, and they look at us like, ‘Oh yeah, be glad you got a job,’” says Stone, citing 16-hour work days and long periods without a bathroom break.

“Our plan going forward first off is to be totally transparent about what’s going on, about what management is trying to do, what we can try to fix and how we can fix it, whether or not management is working with us or against us,” Stone continues. “The employees need to know every detail of what’s going on, especially as far as contract negotiation goes.”

Workers at Madison’s Metro Transit account for approximately 11% of the labor force in Teamsters 695, which represents union members in transportation, construction and other occupations across Southwest Wisconsin. To reach workers across the Wisconsin local, candidates on the Rebuild 695 slate traveled across the state, waiting near shops to intercept workers before and after shifts.

Candidates campaigning for the Rebuild slate were joined by fellow union members at Metro transit in Madiso— some of whom say that they put in up to 20 hours a week off-the-clock on the campaign.

Cody Hanna, a mechanic at Metro transit, says that his familiarity with president-hopeful Puls, plus a sense of disillusionment with current union leadership, pushed him to not only support but actively campaign on behalf of the Rebuild team. Hanna says that he traveled to Janesville—about an hour drive from Madison—to speak with Teamsters members at shops there.

“You get a lot of people who are saying our contracts are so weak and our negotiation teams just kinda go with it and they don’t fight it,” Hanna says.

The election on October 25 was the first challenge the current leadership of local 695 has faced since 1998. Most top officials at the local have served for over 15  years; the incumbent officials—calling themselves the Wayne Schultz slate, in a nod to the current secretary treasurer—have run a campaign whose focal point was the relative experience of each set of candidates.

A flyer circulated by the incumbent campaign states, “It takes years of knowledge and training to keep the local running smoothly, and we know they don’t have it.”

Puls says the reform push in Wisconsin is far from over: “We have three years to plan for the next time … We’re not done, we’re not giving up. And they know we’re paying attention as members. hopefully we’ve woken them up.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on December 3, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is a writer based in Madison, Wisconsin, where she works at a restaurant. She contributes regularly to Isthmus, Madison’s alt-weekly, and The Progressive magazine.

Trade Unions Demand Governments Address Gender-based Violence in the World of Work

Monday, December 2nd, 2019

Image result for cassandra waters afl cio

This week marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and trade unions around the world are demanding governments ratify and implement International Labor Organization Convention 190 (C190), on ending violence and harassment in the world of work.

Read the statement from the International Trade Union Confederation in EnglishSpanish or French.

C190 was adopted last June at the International Labor Organization. The AFL-CIO and trade unions around the world campaigned for more than a decade to win this important new global standard, and now are leading the fight to see its framework adopted by governments and employers.

Gender-based violence and harassment is a particular threat to women, LGBTQ workers and other marginalized groups. Homicide is one of the leading causes of death on the job among women in the United States, accounting for almost a quarter of workplace deaths among women, while it accounts for only 8% of workplace deaths among men. It is also a particular threat to workers in low-wage, precarious working arrangements, as poverty and marginalization can prevent workers from escaping or challenging dangerous conditions.

The C190 framework emphasizes that everyone has the fundamental right to be free from violence and harassment at work, and requires governments adopt an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach to end it. C190 requires governments and employers address the root causes of gender-based violence at work, including discrimination and unequal power relationships. Violence is a tool that both reflects and reinforces a gendered power hierarchy at work and in society, and ending violence requires allowing women workers to take collective action to confront this hierarchy directly.

C190 also calls for investigating sectors and occupations that are more likely to experience violence and harassment. In the United States, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed legislation to adopt specific violence protections for nurses, medical assistants, emergency responders and social workers. These workers are predominantly women, and they face extremely high rates of violence on the job. The law would require employers to develop an enforceable, comprehensive violence protection program in U.S. workplaces.

This article was originally published at Aflcio on November 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:  Cassandra Waters is the global worker rights specialist at the AFL-CIO.

 

 

 

Trump’s SEC Chairman Proposes to Disenfranchise Investors and Reduce Shareholder Democracy

Friday, November 8th, 2019

Image result for Brandon Rees"In a partisan 3-2 vote, the Trump administration’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) proposed to curtail the rights of investors to file proposals for a vote at company annual meetings. If adopted, these changes will hinder shareholder proposals by union members and their pension plans to hold corporate management accountable.

“We strongly oppose the SEC’s shareholder proposal rule changes that will limit the ability of working people and their pension plans to have a voice in the companies that we invest in,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (UMWA). The proposed changes include dramatic increases in stock ownership requirements and vote resubmission requirements.

Corporate CEOs of the Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce have long wished for these changes to the shareholder proposal rule. In a 2017 letter to the SEC, the AFL-CIO showed how these proposed rule changes will undermine efforts to increase corporate responsibility for environmental, social and governance issues.

“The right to petition corporate management by filing shareholder proposals is an integral part of shareholder democracy in the United States,” Trumka explained. “The SEC should protect the rights of working people as the real main street investors, not the interests of overpaid and unaccountable corporate CEOs.”

For more information about the efforts of SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, nominated by President Trump, to disenfranchise investors and reduce shareholder democracy by curtailing the shareholder proposal rule, please visit the Investor Rights Forum.

This article was originally published at AFL-CIO on November 5, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brandon Rees is the Deputy Director of Corporations and Capital Markets for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). The AFL-CIO is a federation of 55 national and international labor unions that represent 12.5 million working men and women.

Labor Needs To Embrace Social Justice Unionism

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Proponents of the “rank-and-file strategy” (RFS) emphasize the need to lay the foundations of a revitalized labor movement through rank-and-file workers—as opposed to union staff or leadership. As Laura Gabby notes, this idea has a long history: In the 1970s, for instance, thousands of leftists (myself included) of both working-class origin and otherwise entered the workforce to build a real working-class Left and rebuild organized labor.

Though this rank-and-file emphasis is more of an orientation than a full strategy, it is good in that it encourages people on the Left to engage as rank and filers—to enter into the working class as coworkers rather than staff. The idea is not, as Andrew Dobbyn argues, elitist; instead, it suggests fellow workers have something to teach, rather than simply being vessels for knowledge from leftists.

But the current discussion has certain important blind spots. First, the mostly white socialists discussing the RFS often fail to recognize that leftist formations composed mostly or entirely of people of color have historically been instrumental in developing and leading efforts to retool the labor movement. The direction and character of these formations has frequently differed from that of white-led formations.

Peter Shapiro presents one example in his Jacobin article, “On the Clock and Off,” drawing on his work with the League of Revolutionary Struggle. He writes about the Mexican immigrant women who emerged as rank-and-file leaders in the 1985–87 frozen food strike in Watsonville, Calif. They were not part of their union’s progressive reform caucus, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, nor would they have been considered part of any conventional “militant minority”—which is why, Shapiro writes, “some strike supporters on the Left viewed them skeptically.” But these women established their own informal infrastructure, bound together through the solidarity of not just working together but the shared experience of racial and gender oppression, and propelled the strike to victory.

More broadly, proponents of the rank-and-file strategy must look beyond the clear, identifiable base of organic leaders and leftists and assess the forces within any workplace, including conservatives and pragmatists. As Fernando Gapasin and I write in our book, Solidarity Divided, to defeat the conservative elements, the Left must pull the center along. Advocates of a “militant minority” can be skeptical of such alliances, but this is a mistake.

William Z. Foster, a brilliant trade unionist who led the Communist Party USA, advocated a militant minority strategy but later adjusted his approach to pursue a “Left-Center Alliance,” recognizing that, even in the militant 1930s, the Left was not sufficiently powerful to act alone. Workers will not necessarily agree with the total program of a leftist, so it is unlikely that leftists will be organizing workers around an exclusively left-wing program. To the extent to which we ignore the center we cede territory to conservative forces that will build their own alliances to crush the Left.

Leftists in the labor movement must also look beyond the narrow objectives of trade unionism as we know it, centered on making gains within the workplace. In fact, the Left needs an alternative framework, a “social justice unionism,” with objectives focused on the larger working class—which includes, for instance, what Stephen Lerner and others refer to as “bargaining for the common good.” Here, the union takes issues of the larger community to the bargaining table. Unions, too, might provide active support to or establish shared agendas with other worker or progressive community organizations.

Lastly, rebuilding the labor movement requires recognition that labor, as Andrew points out, is not only trade unions. The rise of so-called alt-labor, such as worker centers and domestic worker organizations, is part of this rebuilding. Leftists play a major role in this sector, which is disproportionately workers of color. Unions can and should provide direct material assistance to this organizing; the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, for instance, has worked to ally with informal economy workers.

A Left without a working class base is not a Left, but a collection of advocates for change. Our mission is to rebuild that base, transforming the Left and the labor movement together.

For alternate perspectives on the rank-and-file strategy, see Want To Build the Labor Movement? Get a Job at a Union Workplace.”and “90% of Workers Aren’t in a Union. Labor’s Future Depends on Them.”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on November 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer, activist, and trade unionist. He is the executive editor of The Global African Worker, a co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solitary Divided, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us”–Twenty Other Myths about Unions. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at http://www.billfletcherjr.com.

90% of Workers Aren’t in a Union. Labor’s Future Depends on Them.

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

My comrade Laura Gabby says that “supermajorities are necessary to raise class consciousness, fight capital, strike and win,” and I agree. But we diverge on how to get there.

She and other rank-and-file strategy (RFS) supporters suggest realigning internal union politics from the inside out through a “militant minority.” As Kim Moody argues in his seminal pamphlet about RFS, unions have to “take a central role … by virtue of their size and their place at the heart of capitalist accumulation.”But, in practice, attempts at union realignment through RFS have mixed results, while most workers remain without a union. What’s needed, instead, is a broad “yes, and” approach with an emphasis on new organizing.

Many unionists were first exposed to RFS in August through a series of unfortunate articles in Politico and the New York Times, detailing activities from the Labor Branch of New York City’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. (Laura is a member.) These DSAers called for socialists to get union jobs in specific “strategic industries” to form a “militant minority” and change unions internally. This strategy was reiterated in the national RFS DSA resolution and in a pamphlet, put out by Young Democratic Socialists of America and Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, titled, “Why Socialists Should Become Teachers.”

While the news articles unfairly portray RFS as a devious plot, they highlight real failures in political strategy. NYC-DSA is, anecdotally, disproportionately white; the optics aren’t good for them to take over unions with membership that is mostly people of color.

Organic worker-leaders built our movement; if socialists want to lead, they must become organic leaders, not tack themselves on like some gaudy ideological accessory. Laura says organic leaders and socialists must work together, but the problem remains: The union realignment strategy treats union members as constituencies to be managed, rather than organic partners.

The strategy also leads to a militant minority divorced from the larger union, leaving the efforts of RFS reform caucuses decidedly mixed. While the rank-and-file caucus in the Chicago Teachers Union has seen success, New York’s Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) has seen less. MORE is a favorite of NYC-DSA Labor Branch members, yet its vote share in the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) presidential election dropped from roughly 10,000 in 2016 to less than 2,500 in 2019, and the incumbent UFT Unity Caucus captured all 102 seats on the executive board.

If leftists want to transform the labor movement, there’s a much easier route: Unionize the unorganized. Surveys show that at least 48% of workers would like a union, but 90% do not have one. Unions enjoy high levels of public support, and millennials are joining in disproportionately large numbers.There is no better time for the Left to organize new unions or add new bargaining units. Leftists should focus on developing organizing committees before a union steps in, ensuring unions will actually commit resources to finish the job and that the workers joining do so on their own terms.

A partnership between the progressive International Longshore and Warehouse Workers (ILWU) and DSA San Francisco shows how this organizing can be done. DSA members spent months with Anchor Brewing workers developing the organizing committee, researching unions and writing the campaign plan, and only then reached out to the ILWU, chosen because of its democratic practices and militant politics. Together, they won.

As Moody himself admits, the conservative craft unionism of the Teamsters, for example, only changed because leftists organized huge swathes of new workers. These leftists weren’t outsiders, but organized their neighbors and coworkers. As the Anchor group put it, “We can’t be outsiders helping the labor movement; we have to be organic partners.”

The nature of new organizing reveals why this works: Because workers must take huge risks to form unions, newly organized unionists are likely to be active, politically astute and militant. The bonds forged in this struggle, between leftists and their coworkers, build the relationships necessary to transform the labor movement.

If we want to change the labor movement, our goal shouldn’t be internal realignment, but new unions for the 90%.

For alternate perspectives on the rank-and-file strategy, see “Want To Build the Labor Movement? Get a Job at a Union Workplace.” and “Labor Needs To Embrace Social Justice Unionism.”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on November 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Andrew Dobbyn is a rank-and-file elected leader in CWA Local 1104 and former co-chair of Suffolk County DSA.

Want To Build the Labor Movement? Get a Job at a Union Workplace.

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Only workers themselves have the power to transform society, and workers must organize themselves to do so. Union staff and elected leadership can play important and sometimes pivotal roles, but in the fight against capital to win substantive, lasting gains, workers must be in the driver’s seat.

When workers are sidelined, at best we get staff-driven mobilizing, which Jane McAlevey describes as “dedicated activists who show up over and over … but [lack] the full mass of their coworkers or community behind them.” With an organized rank-and-file base, by contrast, ordinary workers themselves are the change agents, deeply involved in developing an analysis of what’s wrong in the workplace and a strategy for how to fight the boss (and, ultimately, capitalism). Their power comes from building majorities large enough to leverage militant action. Wins are less likely to be rolled back when a majority puts its own sweat into the process and stands ready to defend its gains.

The widespread teachers’ strikes of 2018 and 2019 and the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012 illuminate the potential power of worker-led organizing, as they were primarily led and initiated by rank-and-file union members.

This deep organizing, however, does not yet exist in most industries. To build it, unionists and labor movement activists can look to the “rank-and-file strategy” (RFS). The phrase was coined by Kim Moody in 2000 but takes inspiration from 20th-century labor upheavals like those led by the Minnesota Teamsters in the 1930s and black workers at a Chrysler assembly plant in Detroit in the 1970s, when radical unionists and socialists were at the heart of big gains.

What socialist rank-and-file activists such as Moody identified was a gulf between the Left and the organized working class, developed under McCarthyism. The class character of this gulf—with leftists more often in the middle class and disconnected from the day-to-day struggles of the working class—has weakened the Left and the labor movement.

When class conflict and labor struggles arise, as they inevitably do under capitalism, they can expose underlying capitalist ideology—an opportunity for people in these struggles to actively raise working-class consciousness. RFS proponents have sought to close the Left-labor gulf by building a layer of workplace organizers—including socialists joining the labor movement and respected workplace leaders of all political persuasions—to heighten class conflict and develop this consciousness.

Part of the answer to overcoming the inertia that ails the labor movement may lie in a new, young and energetic Left—which already shows signs of being closer to the broader working class than other recent generations of leftists. However, this Left remains largely divorced from the organized working class, where RFS suggests young leftists would best be able to exercise real power alongside coworkers. (While young workers are fast joining unions, 2017 data shows only 7.7% of workers between the ages 16 and 34 were union members.)

Evidence suggests that young leftists are already playing key roles in labor struggles that produce wins and raise class consciousness. As Eric Blanc notes, “Though few in number, young socialists inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign played an outsized role [in the teachers’ strikes].”

But radical unionists acting by themselves aren’t enough to win.

At the core of any success are rank-and-file leaders, the ones coworkers respect and come to for advice. What’s necessary is a mix, working in coordination: organic, workplace leaders—able to move coworkers and fellow union members to action—and socialists, who can bring a broader analysis and organizing experience, and who are sometimes workplace leaders themselves. This layer of activists and rank-and-file leaders is sometimes called the “militant minority.”

The militant minority organizes and wins campaigns around workplace issues to grow its ranks and raise class consciousness through these practical struggles, and it fights for the demands of the broader working class by creating an ever-larger group of worker-organizers with a shared vision of class-struggle unionism.

The militant minority seeks to build supermajorities in the workplace. And supermajorities are necessary to raise class consciousness, fight capital, strike and win.

For alternate perspectives on the rank-and-file strategy, see “90% of Workers Aren’t in a Union. Labor’s Future Depends on Them.” and “Labor Needs To Embrace Social Justice Unionism.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on November 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Gabby is a carpenter in Local 157 and member of the Labor Branch of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America.

When Unions Save Lives

Thursday, October 31st, 2019

Image result for Austyn Gaffney"It was a typical workday for Michael “Flip” Wilson when a splintered steel bit punctured his forehead an inch above his eye. He was operating the claw-like continuous miner, a machine that cuts coal from an underground seam. Back above ground, Wilson’s superintendent tweezed out the metal, slapped on a BandAid and sent him back under, Wilson says. It happened again two days later.

That was about five years ago, when Wilson was 60. Wilson left his final coal job at Parkway Mine in 2015. He insists he loved his 44-year career throughout Western Kentucky, though it was checkered with similar injuries: a broken finger, electrocution from a bad cable, and multiple incidents of being buried under rockfall.

“I’ve seen a guy with a broken back,” Wilson says. “I’ve carried out a guy with a leg or an arm cut off. I’ve seen guys burn up. I’ve seen 10 get killed down there at one time in an explosion.”

Kentucky has seen five coal mine fatalities this year, and while injuries from mine accidents are on the decline nationally—from more than 5,000 reported in 2005 to about 1,500 in 2018—the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) credits the decline in part to the overall decline in coal jobs, as well as tougher enforcement.

MSHA, created in 1977, inspects underground mines quarterly. When it finds a safety hazard, MSHA can fine the mine operators. However, $100 million of $1 billion levied in penalties between 2000 and 2017 remains unpaid. MSHA has no power to compel payment unless it files a lawsuit, and operators with unpaid fines can open new mine operations without consequences.

The Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General reported in August that MSHA’s collections program hasn’t led to safer mining operations, and no correlation exists between the amount or frequency of penalties and the safety of a mine. “Many companies see fines as the cost of doing business,” says Tony Oppegard, an attorney who specializes in mine safety cases.

There is, however, one way to prevent accidents: unions. According to a new Stanford University study of underground safety from 1993 to 2010, “Unionization is associated with a 13-30% drop in traumatic injuries and a 28- 83% drop in fatalities.”

“At a unionized mine, you have safety committeemen who are appointed by the union to look out for the safety of their fellow workers,” Oppegard says.

Almost 20% of mines were unionized in 1993, but by 2010, the proportion was below 10%. No unionized coal mines are left in Kentucky.

Wilson did not have the benefit of union protection, so he was at the mercy of the companies. “They can make it safer, but … they just want the coal,” Wilson says.

Oppegard thinks MSHA should be using more powerful enforcement tools at its disposal. For example, the agency can recommend the Secretary of Labor file an injunction to shut down dangerous mines. MSHA used this power for the first time in 2010 against a Massey Energy Company mine that had almost 2,000 citations in two years. (Massey is the same corporation responsible for the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that left 29 dead in West Virginia.)

In response, Massey simply closed the mine. Oppegard hopes legal action can reduce future safety and health violations. He has represented Wilson in safety complaints against Armstrong Coal Company, operator of Parkway Mine, where Wilson worked. Wilson claims the company violated MSHA regulations by running tests of coal dust levels for 4 to 5 hours instead of the required 8 to 10, cheating the results. Now, the federal government has filed a criminal complaint against former managers of Armstrong Coal (which went under in 2017) over the alleged test tampering. Lawyers for the defendants did not respond to a request for comment.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that 1 in 5 longtime coal miners in central Appalachia has black lung, a potentially fatal cluster of lung diseases, from inhaling unsafe amounts of coal dust. Since 1969, black lung has caused the death of at least 76,000 former coal miners.

Wilson has had black lung for at least 5 years. He is testifying in the federal case. But a successful suit won’t cure his condition.

“Hell, I can’t do anything,” Wilson says of his condition. “I’ve got three great-grandkids and I can’t play with them the way I want to. I run out of oxygen. And there ain’t no cure for it.”

This article was originally published by Politico on October 30, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Austyn Gaffney is a freelance writer from Kentucky who has written for HuffPost, onEarth, Sierra and Vice.

Graduate Workers Are Going to Fight Like Hell to Stop the Trump NLRB’s New Rule

Thursday, September 26th, 2019

At universities across the country, graduate student workers perform essential labor. We teach classes, grade exams and assignments, tutor and mentor undergraduates, maintain labs, and perform clerical duties. Some 66,000 graduate employees at over 30 universities in the United States are currently represented by unions and protected through collective bargaining agreements, because public-sector labor laws in many states recognize the obvious—we are workers.

In August 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a landmark decision recognizing that graduate employees at private universities—who do the same labor as their counterparts at public universities—are also workers, and therefore also have collective bargaining rights. Since then, private universities have seen an explosion of graduate worker organizing. At least nine now have recognized grad unions, and five of those already have union contracts in place.

But now President Trump is trying to permanently reverse the 2016 decision. His anti-union appointees who control the National Labor Relations Board declared on September 20 that graduate workers at private institutions are not workers at all, but only “students,” and therefore have no right to union representation or collective bargaining. Traditionally, the NLRB settles questions of labor law through case-by-case decisions, but this time it’s exercising its rarely used rulemaking authority to set a definitive policy.

Before the rule can be implemented, there is a 60-day public comment period, which opened on September 23. The unions representing grad workers at private universities—including AFT, SEIU, UAW and UNITE HERE—are teaming up by calling on all graduate workers and allies to submit a public comment to the NLRB expressing opposition to the proposed rule. Their goal is to get 30,000 comments. With enough public pressure, the unions hope to stop—or at least delay—the new rule.

“We’re looking at having flyers, petitions, delegations, rallies, and of course commenting guidelines, to engage as many folks as possible,” says Yiran Zhang a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Loyola University Chicago.

Zhang is co-chair of the SEIU-affiliated Loyola University Chicago Graduate Worker Union, which the university has refused to recognize or bargain with despite a majority of graduate employees voting to unionize in February 2017. The administration has also faced multiple protests, including a civil disobedience action and march this past spring.

“This is a crossroads for Loyola,” Zhang explains. “They must either publicly show they stand on the side of workers who are increasingly coming under attack by bargaining with us, or they will show once again that they eschew their professed social justice values to simply hide behind Trump’s anti-labor policies.”

Nationally, graduate employees have taken on increasingly heavy teaching workloads in recent years while making poverty wages and receiving few benefits. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of graduate workers employed by universities increased by 16.7 percent, while the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty rose by only 4.8 percent. Meanwhile, executive compensation at private universities has sharply increased, with the presidents of 61 private universities now making over $1 million every year.

The argument that graduate employees are not “real” workers is as old as it is absurd. It’s not an invention of Trump’s NLRB, but of university administrators who are determined to profit off of the exploited labor of their grad workers, and don’t want unions to get in the way.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of when the Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison became the first recognized graduate worker union in the country. Since then, graduate workers at dozens of other public institutions—where labor relations are governed by state laws instead of the NLRB—have won union recognition.

Almost every time, administrators fought tooth and nail to prevent unionization by trotting out the same line that grad workers are more “students” than “employees.” That’s because, once they’re required to negotiate with grad unions, administrators are eventually forced to guarantee higher wages, better healthcare, tuition and fee waivers, grievance procedures, protections against discrimination and other rights through union contracts.

After half a century, it should be obvious that the “students not workers” argument is nothing more than anti-union propaganda. In reality, there’s no question that graduate workers are indeed workers who can and should have collective bargaining rights.

While universities claim to be dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and truth, administrators hate unions so much they are now allying themselves with the most anti-intellectual and mendacious president in history. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the same institutions that often cover up campus sexual assault and readily roll out the welcome mat for white supremacists have found common cause with the racist sexual predator who occupies the White House.

For all the talk from universities of fostering collegial dialogue and debate, administrators are afraid to sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate with their own workers. For all the talk of promoting critical thinking, they cling to lazy union-busting talking points. For all the talk of commitment to diversity and democracy, they do everything possible to prevent their graduate student workers from having an independent voice.

If campus administrators and Trump’s NLRB insist that graduate workers at private institutions really aren’t workers, then perhaps they should all decide to collectively stop working—and see just how long the universities can function without their labor.

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

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.

The Next Wave of Labor Unrest Could Be in Grocery Stores

Tuesday, September 10th, 2019

On August 24, members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555 overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike for 20,000 grocery employees at Safeway, Albertsons, QFC and Fred Meyer locations in the Pacific Northwest. That move came roughly two months after members of the union voted to authorize a strike for about 46,000 grocery employees in southern and central California, and four months after the union declared victory in New England following a successful 11-day strike by Stop & Shop workers.

The workers in California have reportedly reached a tentative deal that could avert a strike, but whether or not union members vote to ratify the agreement won’t be known until later this week.

Grocery workers in the Pacific Northwest are demanding higher wages and an end to the gender pay gap that permeates their stores. They have established proof for the latter, commissioning a third-party group to produce a report on the issue. The research group Olympic Analyticslooked at the data on hourly wage, gender, age, years of Fred Meyer experience, and job title for 1,919 Fred Meyer workers employed in the area. It found that women are almost twice as likely to be given lead positions, but make about an average of $1.68 less than their male counterparts at those positions. In 2018, nearly 80% of the store’s bakery employees were women, while the higher-paying produce department was male-dominated. The gap between these two departments has barely shifted over the last 81 years: The pay gap between the two departments was 27.3% in 1937 and had only dropped to 21.5% by 2018.

Jane Thompson has been working at a Fred Meyer store in Bend, Oregon for 18 years, and has been in the Seafood Department for 12 of them. She hopes the strike authorization vote will lead to better pay for her and her co-workers. “The company keeps taking more and more away from us,” she told In These Times. According to the U.S. Census, the population of Bend increased by almost 30% between 2010 and 2018. While the boom has meant more customers, Thompson said it hasn’t meant additional hires or higher pay. “I’m doing the job of two people now,” said Thompson.

Ann Poff is a member of the union’s bargaining committee and has worked as a deli clerk at Safeway for nearly 22 years. She currently makes $1.85 above minimum wage, but the minimum wage is set to increase in Oregon over the next few years. This means that she’ll make just $1.45 above minimum wage for two years, before making just 75 cents above it in the year after that. “The minimum wage is going up, but our wages are going down,” she reasoned. According to Poff, when she once asked to be transferred to a different position, her request was denied despite having spent over 20 years on the job. A male co-worker with less than a year of experience was allowed to switch to the position instead, she said.

At the last bargaining meeting, the employers actually offered a proposal that inexplicably paid many departments less than minimum wage by the year 2022. When confronted about this fact, management offered a mere dime over the state’s minimum wage. “Fred Meyer/Kroger seem to be oddly comfortable being known as the grocer who profits off the devaluation of their workers…specifically women,” said the union in a statement.

Local 555’s president has indicated that there is a “high likelihood that we will see an economic action taken against stores in the near future” and has promised to release details before September 10. Meanwhile, California grocery workers at Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions stores have been working without a contract since March and have already voted to authorize a strike. On September 8, it was announced that the union and the employers had reached a tentative deal, but members have yet to vote on it and no details have been released.

This isn’t the first labor fight that has gripped the grocery industry this year. In April, roughly 31,000 employees at the New England grocery chain Stop & Shop went on strike at over 240 stores. The workers, who were also represented by the UFCW, were fighting against attacks on their pensions, rising healthcare costs, and the potential elimination of certain overtime pay. After striking for 11 days, the union agreed to a new contract and announced that the company had met their major demands. Ahold Delhaize, Stop & Shop’s parent company, says that the strike cost them $345 million.

That number might be frightening for the grocery employers currently facing potential strikes, but it’s also caught the eye of right-wing, anti-labor forces. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation aims to damage organized labor by fighting compulsory union membership in courts. Most notably, it was one of the groups that represented child support specialist Mark Janus, who ultimately achieved a massive victory for the political right at the Supreme Court. The group has filed two unfair labor practice charges against Stop & Shop for an employee named Matthew Coffey who opposed the strike.

Sam Hughes is a social media coordinator at UFCW and a former deli worker at Fred Meyer. Hughes, who prefers “they” pronouns, told In These Times that they had to work additional jobs because they often couldn’t get enough hours from the store. “I found myself being paid low wages on food stamps, cutting deals with my landlord just to afford below-market rent,” said Hughes. Hughes also said the strike authorization vote was a way to fight against the “dehumanization of workers,” and that related labor victories throughout the country underscored an important point: “There’s a lot more of us than there are of them.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 09, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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

The Future of U.S. Jobs Looks Bleak. Unions Are the Answer.

Friday, September 6th, 2019

Image result for heidi shierholzWe were just handed a wake-up call. Newly released numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics project that six of the ten occupations expected to have the most total job growth over the next decade pay less than $27,000 a year. Three of those six are low-paying jobs in the restaurant industry. Even more striking is the concentration of low-paid healthcare jobs at the top of the list, with personal care aides at number one and home health aides at number four. These jobs are disproportionately held by women and by people of color.

The low earnings in these fast-growing jobs provide a grim glimpse into what the future of work in the United States will look like if nothing changes. But this future is not ordained. These jobs pay poorly  because we allow it. Weak labor standards (such as a low federal minimum wage and weak overtime protections), weak enforcement of these standards, and labor law that does a poor job of protecting workers’ right to unionize, all mean employers have the power to suppress workers’ wages. This will continue to be the case unless we, as a society, make different choices—choices that empower workers and give them more power in their workplaces.

For those who might respond that these low-paid workers should just go to college to get a decent-paying job, the new BLS data has an answer for you. In 2028, only 27.2 percent of jobs will be in occupations where a college degree (or more) is typically required. In other words, even in nine years, a college degree won’t actually be required for a huge share of the jobs employers will need workers to do. If everyone gets a college degree, those non-college jobs will simply be filled by college grads. Put yet another way, college cannot solve this. Unless you’re willing to write off almost three-quarters of the labor market as undeserving of a decent job, we need another approach. We need to make sure even those 72.8 percent of jobs that don’t require a college degree are good jobs.

The good news is that we know how to do that. We must implement strong labor standards, strong enforcement of those standards, and reform labor law so that workers who want to join a union are able to do so. As we think about these different choices for our future, it’s worth noting that manufacturing jobs weren’t always good jobs—in fact, they were often terrible, and dangerous. Unionization changed that. Unionization could do that for the fast-growing jobs of the future, too.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 5, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Heidi Shierholz is Senior Economist and Director of Policy at the Economic Policy Institute. From 2014 to 2017, she served the Obama administration as chief economist at the Department of Labor.
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