Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Greater Boston Labor Council Makes History with Latest Election

January 16th, 2020 | Kalina Newman

Kalina Newman

The Greater Boston Labor Council (GBLC), AFL-CIO, made history last week with the election of the first woman of color to its top office. Darlene Lombos takes over as executive secretary-treasurer, replacing Richard Rogers, who officially retired after leading the GBLC for the past 16 years.

Lombos brings more than 20 years of community and youth organizing experience in the labor movement to the position. She served as vice president of the GBLC and has been the executive director of Community Labor United since 2011. A vital asset to the greater Boston community, her work continues to protect and promote the interests of working-class families and communities of color in greater Boston and throughout the commonwealth.

“I am honored to lead such an amazing group of dedicated workers in the Boston area,” said Lombos. “Rich was a true mentor and I look forward to continuing his legacy of empowering working families for years to come.”

Rogers, a member of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) Local 391, leaves behind an impressive legacy in the labor movement. Prior to leading the GBLC, Rogers served on the staff of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO for 21 years, 12 of those as the state federation’s political director. He was the chief organizer for several influential political campaigns, including Ted Kennedy’s 1994 U.S. Senate race and the elections of Jim McGovern and John Tierney to the U.S. House of Representatives. He played an integral role during his four terms as GBLC executive secretary-treasurer in growing and strengthening the Boston-area labor movement.

In recognition of his lifetime of hard work and dedication to the movement, The Labor Guild awarded the prestigious Cushing-Gavin Award to Rogers in December 2019.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on January 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kalina Newman is an editorial fellow for Washingtonian. Previously, she covered metro news for the Boston Globe. Her work has appeared in ARLnow, DCist, and the Washington City Paper. Kalina graduated from Boston University in 2019 with a degree in journalism.

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Joe Biden Thinks Coal Miners Should Learn to Code. A Real Just Transition Demands Far More.

January 16th, 2020 | Mindy Isser

Image result for mindy isserAs of 2016, there were only 50,000 coal miners in the United States, and yet they occupy so much of our political imagination and conversation around jobs, unions and climate change. During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump ran on bringing coal jobs back to the United States, and Joe Biden said on December 30 that miners should learn to code, as those are the “jobs of the future.” His comments, made to a crowd in Derry, New Hampshire, were reportedly met with silence.

While coal miners aren’t the only workers in our society, coal miners’ voices do matter, and we can’t leave anyone behind. And it’s clear that they are hurting, a point illustrated by the coal miners currently blocking a train carrying coal in eastern Kentucky, demanding back pay from Quest Energy.

The coal industry is in decline, and mining jobs are disappearing. And the science shows that the vast majority of coal needs to stay in the ground if we want to have a shot at stemming climate change. But does that mean miners need to learn to code in order to earn a living? Coding isn’t necessarily bad or unimportant, and it could potentially be one of many retraining opportunities. But coal miners are skilled workers who do much more than just hit rocks all day: Many of them are trained electricians, engineers and builders. There’s no reason they necessarily need to learn new skills when their skills are easily transferable to other industries.

The Green New Deal, popularized by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), puts forward a bold program for a just transition to a low carbon economy. Of course, this includes moving away from coal. This transition would include a federal jobs guarantee to both clean up the damage inflicted by extractive industries and to provide jobs for workers in those industries in lower carbon work. The training, expertise and experience that coal miners and other workers from these sectors have would be an invaluable contribution towards harnessing new sources of energy and repairing damage caused by climate change. Whatever skilled coal miners do next, they should have a say in it.

In These Times spoke with Terry Steele, a retired member of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in West Virginia, about Joe Biden’s comments and the future of coal mining in the United States.

Mindy Isser: Can you share your work and union history?

Terry Steele: My name is Terry Steele. I have worked in the coal industry for 26 years. All that time was union: United Mine Workers. I’ve worked over 50,000 hours underground, and I belong to UMWA Local 1440 as a retired member.

Mindy: Can you describe the work you did in the mines? Feel free to be as detailed as possible.

Terry: I’ve done about everything there is to do in the mines—from running shuttle cars to roof bolting to running scoops. A lot of my mining career was on a move crew: We moved belts, we moved power, we also ran coal when the sections were down, we built stoppings. About anything there was to do in the mines, I have done it. I haven’t done any electrical or maintenance work or anything like that, but as far as running equipment and stuff I can run about anything in the mines.

Mindy: When did you become union?

Terry: I went in the mines on my 19th birthday: May 27th, 1971. I’m a fourth generation coal miner. My dad worked in the mines, my grandfather and my great grandfather all worked in the mines. At that time, if you wanted to make good money and have healthcare, that’s what you did in the area that we lived, you went into the mines.

Mindy: Why did you leave the mines?

Terry: I got laid off and had a hard time getting back on at a union mine. There were jobs in the non-union mines, but I didn’t want to do that, so I just went and started doing carpenter work and things like that. I also had to leave the area for awhile, and when I came back I took my pension at age 55, which the UMWA allowed me to do with 20 years of vested time in. I could take my pension and also get my healthcare. So I’ve done that.

Mindy: Why didn’t you want to go to a non-union mine?

Terry: Well, one reason I worked in union mines, besides the pay and healthcare and benefits, there’s another thing you can do in a union mine: You can speak your mind. And I always liked being able to do that, because when you’re underground between two rocks, there’s no one who’s going to take care of you but yourself. And in a union mine you can speak up with no fear of being retaliated against.

Mindy: Do you feel like you’re skilled as a mine worker, a skilled laborer?

Terry: I thought I was then. Some of the work that we’ve done—especially on the move crews—when you’re moving belts and power, people have been at it on these crews for years and they know every move to make. No boss has to tell them what to do, they already know what to do. Some of that work was very skilled. But the thing about it is working underground is a whole lot harder simply because you’re in close quarters, and things are not as simple underground as they are outside.

Mindy: I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but a couple of weeks ago, Joe Biden said, “Anybody who can go down 300 to 3,000 feet in a mine, sure in hell can learn to program as well, but we don’t think of it that way.” He was encouraging miners to learn to code as a transition away from mining. What do you think miners should be learning to do or transitioning towards with work? Do you think coding makes sense?

Terry: Just to be honest with you, I had to go look up what the hell coding was. I had no idea. Coding and programming is something I don’t have a clue about. And I don’t really know whether I could learn it or not. A lot of miners probably could. But the thing about this is, even if you could learn it, where in these areas are these jobs available at? Especially here in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, where these miners have lived their whole lives and want to live the rest of their lives. And where are these jobs that pay money like these miners were making in the mines and that also have health care? And especially if you worked for a union mine, a pension.

Biden, in a way, makes me mad for the same reason Obama and a lot of the Democrats make me mad—and I’m a liberal. I’m a progressive Democrat. I just think this is another one of these stupid remarks that the Democratic party makes at times.

The Democratic Party has become a bunch of pussy-footers. We have become a person that takes blue collar work and labor for granted. And that’s why they lost the damn election, that’s why we have an idiot in the White House now. So I want to know where those coding jobs are at, and what they pay, and if they’re gonna last for years to come, and if a person could actually stay in an area and buy a home, and live where he wants to live with something like this.

Mindy: Everyone deserves to live where they want to live.

Terry: I think they do. My family all worked in the mines. My dad worked 45 years in the mine. He died with silicosis (lung disease) after he’d been on a respirator for two months at Cabell Huntington Hospital. I’ve seen what mining does to people. It kills people. We live in an area here where they wanted us to be miners, and in a way they forced us to be miners. This is not as simple as what Biden makes it out to be—“just go ahead and do this if you can’t do that.”

We’ve put up with this for years in our area where we live. For many years, West Virginia was as blue as a state could be. But we ended up being first in the things that were bad, and last in the things that were good. So, I can see why the people in this state are mad. But I think we jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Now we have an idiot in there that tells us what we like to hear, but he definitely don’t do what we know needs to be done.

Mindy: And what do you think needs to be done?

Terry: For one thing, coal is not going to be around forever. And I’ll tell everybody that, I’ll even tell my union officials that. I’m a union miner, I’m not a coal miner. We understand it good in our local because we’re all retired. Retired people look at things differently than what the active coal miner would. We’ve already put our time in. We’ve already worked all we’re gonna work. So we’re looking to get what was promised, and coal companies certainly haven’t lived up to their responsibilities. So it’s kind of passed over to the taxpayers, and then the taxpayers are saying, “Why should I take care of something like your pension or your healthcare or stuff like that?”

And I would tell them, simply, that we’re in this shape mostly because these coal companies filed bankruptcy under laws that allow corporations to pass the responsibilities to the taxpayers. So if you’re angry because the coal companies’ responsibilities were passed on to you and you voted for these sons of bitches, don’t quarrel at me, honey, you’re quarrelling at the wrong man. Because we put our time in, we’ve done what was required of us. We worked a dangerous occupation.

Mindy: Do you have any ideas of jobs miners could do that are similar to the jobs they’ve already been doing?

Terry: We’ve been in the energy industry. We have provided our electric, we’ve provided the coal to make steel from, we’ve provided the things that the country needed to have during the time of war. And here in the southern part of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky and Southwestern Virginia, after they mined most of the coal underground, they started blowing the tops of the mountains off: mountain-top removal. And they blew them off under the pretense of creating jobs, when actually what it did was put underground miners out of work. It was a cheap way of making more money for coal corporations before they took their last shit on people and moved out of the area.

In our area right now, people think coal is coming back. I am under no impression at all that coal is ever going to be coming back. The county where I was raised in—Mingo—most of the coal there has already been mined. About all that’s left is coal that’s hard to get to and that they have to cut a lot of rock to even mine, which will cause more cases of Black Lung. And Black Lung is on the increase again, and that’s one reason why.

You asked me what could these areas do and what kind of jobs could these areas have. One thing I’ve always been hollering about is I’m sitting here—I’m in Nicholas County right now—we own a home in Nicholas County. We also own our home in Mingo County. The union allowed me to do that. Because of the union, because I’m union. My wife belongs to the union too, she was a school teacher. These jobs allow you to do things you couldn’t do.

But my whole point is, I’m looking right now as I’m talking to you, at dozens of wind turbines in Greenbrier County. And they’re building more. These things have to be built somewhere. Solar panels have to be built somewhere. Batteries and the technology that goes along with storing electricity has to be built somewhere. What other, better place to build them then these areas that have no jobs, that have sacrificed everything for this country already, than areas like this right here?

I know for wind turbines, there’s probably a lot of pipe fitting and welding and things along those lines, which miners are good at. As far as solar jobs, I don’t know what it entails exactly, but miners are smart enough to do those things if they’re trained. That’s the only thing I think that Biden was right on in that sense, that they’re smart enough to do some of these jobs with the right training. But to get people to get behind something like the Green New Deal, it’s difficult until you give them something to go on. Build one of these things and hire them, and you’d see them flood to your site. You’d see them flood to these jobs.

Mindy: If you could wave a magic wand in your area, what kind of jobs would you hope for? Would it be rebuilding coal towns, creating public gardens, cleaning coal ash? Anything you could think of in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, what would you want those jobs to be?

Terry: From what I do know of the Green New Deal, the transition off of dirty fuels onto newer energy sources, like solar jobs and building wind turbines and battery and storage power. It should be in areas that have had the coal mining, areas that are in a depressed state right now. We’re the ones that need those jobs, and it could create thousands of new jobs. It could create a different type of mindset. And we could do them, our miners could do those jobs. Miners can weld, they can build stuff, they’re great with their hands, and they’re great with their minds, too. We could do these things, but right now we have a country that seems like they want to shoot these jobs off to some other place where they can get them done cheaper instead of bringing them back here. And I think the Democratic Party is guilty of these things.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was a total screwup on Bill Clinton. It’s like what they said, that Bill Clinton got things done for Republicans that they could have never get done for themselves. He is what has happened to the Democratic Party, people like Clinton, and Obama to a certain extent. And that’s why Hilary got beat. People were tired of hearing the same old same old bullshit as they kept on going downhill.

Mindy: Who do you like for president right now?

Terry: There’s two I really like. I’ve been a Bernie man, and I could vote for Elizabeth Warren. I do not like Joe Biden, and I do not like Pete Buttigeg, because I think he’s a middle-of-the-road guy too. And I have to tell people the only thing that happens to middle of the road people is like a dog that sits in the middle of the road—most of the time they get run over. And that’s how I feel about Biden and several of the others too, including the senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar.

Mindy: I’m curious about your thoughts, and maybe some of the other retirees’ thoughts, around climate change. Does everyone believe in climate change? Are people resistant to it because they want coal jobs to come back?

Terry: I know that man is affecting climate, I know that. I think several of our members in our local know that, especially ones that are in positions of control know that. We have a very progressive local, and I do think we’ve had pretty good leadership higher up in the union. I think they’ve done a good job, especially on our healthcare and our pensions. But you know, they’re in a tough boat to tow right now, because they’re the leader of a dying industry. So when you’re the leader of a dying industry, you have to find other ways to grow union membership. And the union is not just coal miners, we have other workers who are members. And I think we need to be more worried about finding union people than we should be about finding coal people.

I’m an oddball: I’m a coal miner who’s an environmentalist. But I can see the mistakes in both the coal industry and in the environmental industry. Every time you take somebody’s job, there’s a face behind that, there’s a family behind that. There’s somebody that’s looking to have something for Christmas that don’t have shit, after you take their job and you don’t give them no hope for a future or anything.

That’s what some of the environmental people have done to this area, even though they were right—mountaintop removal should have been stopped. But they could have come in here and brought 500 good green jobs by building a solar plant, or something that people could have worked at. And instead of creating 500 miners or workers who are screaming at you, you could have created 500 environmentalists. Because they just need work. They don’t care if it’s coal mining. I’ve never met a miner who wanted his son or his daughter to go into the coal industry, to go underground between two rocks, because of how dangerous it is. But we kept electing people who decided that’s the only thing we could do.

Mindy: I know you said you’re an oddball because you’re an environmentalist coal miner, and I am wondering what you think UMWA and other miners think about the Green New Deal and climate change? Do they believe it’s real?

Terry: It’s hard to get somebody to believe in something if your job depends on not believing in it. So, we have that group. But we have other people, especially in locals like ours, that actually do believe that we’re going to have to do something else to make a living in our area if we’re going to live here and our children are going to live here. We’re going to have to get our people to look at the facts. And train our people, and train our union people to be smarter than these idiots that are friends of coal people. And I think we can do that, I think we have good leadership in the UMWA. I think getting 100,000 miners pensions and healthcare secured is a pretty big hurdle.

The one thing I think that would probably help to unionize this whole country is if we would take the healthcare issue off of the table to start with, and just give everybody government healthcare like they should have. You know, when you start bargaining, that’s the first thing now that comes up. So take that off the table and we’ll bargain for what we need to be bargaining for: wages and pensions and days off and safety and things.

Mindy: What do you think the union could do to lead on climate change? It feels like we’re trying to hold on to these industries that are dying, and like we are banging on this door that’s closed. What do you think union leadership could do to embrace the Green New Deal, and accept the fact that climate change is real and move forward from there?

Terry: As far as transitioning to something else, they need to be looking at other industries. Take Walmart for one thing. If Walmart was unionized, it would be the biggest union in the world. That probably won’t happen because people don’t believe that it could happen.

We keep telling people about how good the economy is and everything, but yet, if you look at it—I read something today that about 40% of people, if they miss their next payday, they couldn’t pay their bills. And the primary reason for that is low wages, no healthcare, and no pension system. Something that unions brought us.

Mindy: How do you think the labor movement and the climate movement can link their struggles together more? Like with mountaintop removal—the environmentalists were right, but it didn’t mean that union members were on board or on their side. So what do you think can be done to get those two sides united for good green jobs?

Terry: People who are really pushing the green jobs need to push for are for jobs to go into these areas that are struggling right now, and to let them be union. I know that would break some of their hearts—to come in here and give something in these areas and let them be union. But you’ll see what that does about switching some of the coal miners’ mindsets in these areas.

We need to go into these areas where the fight needs to take place and build these plants. Build them in these areas that have supplied the energy and the needs for this country for the last hundred years, and build them in these areas where people have suffered—both environmentally and physically, in the sense that the land has suffered and also the people have suffered. I think if you do that, and have them to be union, then you’ll get the union in on it. Because the UMWA is, I believe, a union that will be open to any industry that wants to become a member of the UMWA. It’s like I said, are we coal miners or are we union miners? I’m a union miner.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on January 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.

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Discrimination Based on Hair Styles is Now Illegal Under California Law

January 16th, 2020 | Patrick R. Kitchin

Image result for patrick r kitchinThe Public Shearing of Andrew Johnson’s Dreadlocks

In December 2018, a video showed a white high school trainer in New Jersey cutting dreadlocks from 16-year old African American wrestler, Andrew Johnson. The lead referee had instructed him, ‘Cut your hair in the next 90 seconds, or you will be banned from today’s competition.’

The image is shocking: a white woman roughly cutting a black teenager’s hair in front of an auditorium filled with parents and children.  Andrew stared straight ahead.  The school initially argued haircut was needed for the safety of the wrestlers in accordance with standard rules about wrestlers’ hair length.

The justification for the act quickly was overpowered by its dreadful significance.  In response to the public outcry, the state attorney general’s office suspended the referee for two years, and ordered educators in all high schools in New Jersey to undergo implicit bias training.

A Conversation Begins

Public reactions to the video ranged from outrage to denial.  According to an April 17, 2019 Washington Post article about Mr. Johnson, residents of his hometown, in New Jersey had mixed reactions too.

Many who attended the match that night, saw the cutting of Andrew’s dreadlocks as an act of racial intolerance.  Others blamed Andrew himself for failing to follow hair length rules applicable to all wrestlers.  Some saw the event as proof that racism in America is endemic.  Others argued it was racist to claim that the cutting of Andrew Johnson’s deadlocks was an act of racial discrimination.

California Leads the Way

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) does not lay out an exhaustive list of acts and attitudes that violate the rights of job seekers and employees.  That is part of its strength.  If gives us the flexibility to decide whether an act or process is discriminatory based on the evidence in specific cases.

Instead of relying on a limited number of examples, FEHA sets out protected categories of people and conditions. One’s race falls into one of the protected categories.  Being disabled places a person into another.  A person cannot be harassed or discriminated against based on their status as a member or one or more of these categories.

Beginning January 1, 2020, policies and practices that target hairstyles associated with race constitute acts of discrimination in both education and employment.  Known as the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair), Senate Bill 188 modifies the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and the Education Code.  The newly defined additional category states that discrimination based on race now includes “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”

Senate Bill 188 Expands Protections Against Discrimination in Employment and Education

California has some of the most broadly protective employment discrimination laws in the nation.  The CROWN Act adds “Protective hairstyles” as an additionally protected category under the Fair Employment and Housing Act.  SB-188 also amends the California Education Code to prohibit discrimination based on “Protective hairstyles,” which “includes, but is not limited to, such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists.”

In a world where physical appearance continues to be employed as a weapon for denying equal protection under the law to all citizens and residents, the new law makes a powerful statement about race and ethnicity-based discrimination.  “Hair remains a rampant source of racial discrimination with serious economic and health consequences, especially for Black individuals,” the Legislature declares.

The Legislature’s Preamble to SB 188

The Legislative preamble to SB-188 makes a powerful statement about hair in the context of the history of race discrimination and toxic ethnocentrism in America.

To combat bigoted ideas that have permeated “societal understanding of professional,” the preamble states, “Workplace dress code and grooming policies that prohibit natural hair, including afros, braids, twists, and locks, have a disparate impact on Black individuals as these policies are more likely to deter Black applicants and burden or punish Black employees than any other group…, The Legislature recognizes that continuing to enforce a Eurocentric image of professionalism through purportedly race-neutral grooming policies that disparately impact Black individuals and exclude them from some workplaces is in direct opposition to equity and opportunity for all.”

Watershed Moments

The public shearing of Andrew Johnson’s dreadlocks in 2018 is another watershed moment in the history of race relations in America.  The public haircut of a black child surrounded by white adults generated discussions across our country about who we are and how we think about, and treat, others.

Bigotry is almost always accompanied by insults denigrating others based on their physical characteristics, whether it be skin or hair.  The legislative preamble to SB 188 should be required reading for every HR manager, supervisor and educator in California.

Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:Patrick R. Kitchin is the founder of Kitchin Legal APC, a San Francisco, California employment law firm. He has represented thousands of employees in both individual and class action cases involving violations of California and federal labor laws since founding his firm in 1999. Patrick also represents employers requiring guidance in California employment law. Patrick is a graduate of The University of Michigan Law School and rated AV-Preeminent by Martindale-Hubbell, its highest ranking for legal knowledge, skill, experience and ethics.

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Raising the minimum wage prevents suicides, but Republicans won't do it

January 15th, 2020 | Laura Clawson

third study in less than a year has found that raising the minimum wage would prevent suicides. The latest study, in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, adds the finding that a higher minimum wage would be an especially strong suicide prevention measure during times of high unemployment.

The researchers used states with minimum wages above the federal level to analyze the years from 1990 to 2015, writing that “We estimated a 6% reduction in suicide for every dollar increase in the minimum wage among adults aged 18–64 years with ?high school education.” Accounting for other factors lowers it to a 3.5% reduction in some cases. There’s no effect for people with a college education—a finding that both supports the result for people with a high school diploma or less and one “suggesting that minimum wage increases may reduce disparities in mental health and mortality between socioeconomic groups.”

We’re talking about 27,000 lives that could have been saved by raising the minimum wage by $1.

Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbia have minimum wages above the federal level of $7.25 an hour. The House, controlled by Democrats, has passed a $15 minimum wage bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republicans have blocked even a vote.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on January 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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House Democrats plan push to pass PRO Act strengthening workers' organizing rights

January 15th, 2020 | Laura Clawson

House Democrats are getting ready to pass another pro-worker bill in the coming weeks, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced Friday, tweeting that “House Democrats are proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with working men and women across the country. I look forward to bringing the PRO Act to the House Floor for a vote prior to the President’s Day district work period to protect the right to organize and bargain collectively.”

The PRO Act would strengthen the right to organize in several ways. It would create real penalties for employers that fire workers for exercising their National Labor Relations Act right to organize, and get those workers their jobs back much more quickly than in the current system. It would streamline the union representation election process, preventing employers from holding captive-audience meetings at which they try to intimidate workers away from union support, forcing companies to disclose the money they spend on anti-union consultants, and “If the employer breaks the law or interferes with a fair election, the PRO Act empowers the NLRB to require the employer to bargain with the union if it had the support of a majority of workers prior to the election,” the Economic Policy Institute explains.

Once workers have a union, employers often drag out and delay the process of negotiating a first contract. The PRO Act cracks down on that, pushing employers into mediation and even binding arbitration if they won’t bargain in good faith. On top of that, it “overrides so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws by establishing that employers and unions in all 50 states may agree upon a “fair share” clause requiring all workers who are covered by—and benefit from—the collective bargaining agreement to contribute a fair share fee towards the cost of bargaining and administering the agreement.” It protects the jobs of striking workers and lifts the prohibition on secondary boycotts. And it cracks down on misclassification of workers as either independent contractors or supervisors to make them ineligible for union representation.

Rep. Mark Pocan and Kenneth Rigmaiden, the president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, offered an example of workers the PRO Act could help. “[D]uring a construction project in Nashville, Tenn., 120 misclassified drywall finishers were never compensated for overtime work and two weeks of work at the end of the project,” they wrote in The Hill. “The Painters Union and other labor groups are fighting back to win these workers their fair pay. The PRO Act would ensure that employers could no longer dodge wage and hour standards by misclassifying workers.”

As usual, House Democrats will do something good for working people and then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will send it to his legislative graveyard. But when Republicans claim that Democrats are too busy with impeachment to do things for the American people, remember this and so many other bills. Democrats are getting shit done. It’s just that Republicans are determined to keep working people down.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on January 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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Major campaign to organize tech and video game industries launches, this week in the war on workers

January 15th, 2020 | Laura Clawson

There are increasing signs that workers in the tech industry are starting to see themselves as … workers. Maybe it’s the 100-hour workweeks as video game companies get products ready for launch, or maybe it’s the layoffs that come after a big release. Maybe it’s the increasing realization that companies such as Amazon and Wayfair are doing terrible work for the Trump administration, and that their employees are helping make that happen and have no control over it.

Workers at tech companies have staged a series of walkouts over a variety of issues, and subcontractors for Google recently unionized. Game Workers Unite, a grassroots group, has called for unionization in the video game industry. Now, following conversations with Game Workers Unite and with one of its founders onboard as a full-time organizer, the Communications Workers of America is launching a major organizing drive, the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE).

”We’ve been watching the amazing organizing of workers across the industry,” CWA organizer Tom Smith told the Los Angeles Times. “And workers themselves reached out to us while doing that amazing self-organizing, and said, ‘Can we do this in partnership with the CWA?’”

This could get very interesting—and it could really underline the point that unions are not just for blue-collar workers.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on January 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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Wild West: Firms interpret California’s privacy law as they see fit

January 13th, 2020 | Katy Murphy

Katy Murphy For all the angst it’s already caused in corporate America, the strongest data privacy law in the nation landed on the West Coast last week with a relative whimper. But the flurry of legal notices that accompanied the California Consumer Privacy Act point to regulatory and political drama ahead this election year.

The landmark California law — which has put Sacramento at the center of the national tech regulatory storm — has now been in effect for one week, giving residents the right to know what information companies collect about them and some measure of control over that data.

But a sampling of major retail, financial services and media websites found that companies are reacting to the Privacy Act in different ways based upon their own interpretations of the complex law and its unresolved regulations.

The patchwork of industry responses to California’s new privacy regime, which won’t be enforced until at least July 1, ensure the law will remain in dispute for many months to come. Adding to the uncertainty, a wealthy privacy champion is preparing a ballot initiative to rewrite the Privacy Act, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra expects legal challenges, and Congress is under intense industry pressure to pass a federal standard that would supersede state laws like California’s.

Perhaps the most visible change California promised to deliver to those tired of being tracked online is easy to miss, even if you are looking.

The law requires companies that sell consumers’ personal information to post a prominent “Do Not Sell My Info” link. But large retailers like Walmart and Lowe’s put their “Do Not Sell” links in the same footnote-like font and location commonly used for privacy policies. And they were nowhere to be found on other websites, such as Whole Foods Market, Albertsons-owned grocery stores, Visa or Bank of America. Those companies assert elsewhere on their sites that they don’t sell consumer data, which would mean they don’t have to include the links.

Likewise, “Do Not Sell” buttons or links do not appear on Google, Facebook, or Amazon’s homepages. Those companies — including two of the biggest players in online advertising and data collection — also contend that’s because they don’t sell consumer information anyway.

“We never sell your personal information,” read a pop-up window last week on Google search.

A “Do Not Sell” link appears at the bottom of the New York Times and Washington Post homepages, at least in California. The Los Angeles Times’ link takes readers to a page with information about their new rights — and a warning. Blocking the sale of one’s information also stops personalized advertising, it says, “an essential source of revenue” that “allows us to consistently deliver the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalism you’ve come to expect from the Los Angeles Times and its affiliates.”

(POLITICO’s homepage did not include such a link as of Wednesday. Brad Dayspring, the company’s vice president for marketing and communications, said that “POLITICO’s privacy policy is being updated and operational procedures to ensure compliance with CCPA are being finalized and will be visible in the coming days.”)

Spotify concedes in its California privacy notice that “it is currently unclear whether the use of certain types of advertising partners would be considered a sale under CCPA.” The company doesn’t offer a “Do Not Sell” link but gives listeners a chance to opt out of tailored advertising.

None of this hedging is a surprise to Jennifer King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. That’s especially true, she said, given that the Privacy Act won’t be enforced until July 1 and regulations are still being finalized.

“There is a six-month window where we’re going to see a lot of wiggling around,” King said. “No one wants to have to admit they’re selling if they can work their way around the regulations.”

As companies, consumers and the attorney general wrestle with the new law this year, here are other things to watch for:

— Cracking down: Only California’s attorney general will have the power to sue companies for most CCPA violations, and not until July 1, after the final regulations are expected to be released. But Becerra might weigh in earlier on the type of data-sharing that constitutes the sale of personal information under the law, and other murky areas. He also has repeatedly warned that the first six months will not be a free period, and that he can retroactively ding companies for early violations. Becerra recently told reporters that he will prioritize mishandling of children’s data. Companies may not sell data about children under 16 without permission from teens or the parents of young children.

— Opt-out outsourcing: The CCPA and its proposed rules allow for services that would help consumers exercise their privacy rights even if they are not inclined to spend their free time hunting down links and filling out forms. Brent Blackaby, who hails from the digital strategy and marketing world, is already beta testing such services for the Bay Area startup he co-founded, Confidently.com. Common Sense Media, a consumer advocacy group, did some of the legwork through its public awareness campaign by posting partially filled-out CCPA request forms for the publishers of three apps popular with kids: Snapchat, Spotify and TikTok. And GitHub has posted a directory of crowd-sourced links to dozens of companies’ CCPA pages.

 Data broker registry: How can you tell a company you’ve never heard of to stop selling your data? By the end of the month, those in the business of buying and selling details about people with whom they have no direct relationship will have to register annually on a new public database managed by the California attorney general. The registry, inspired by a similar one in Vermont, is live — but had no businesses listed — as of early Tuesday. Data brokers that don’t register by Jan. 31 will face fines of $100 per day.

 Already rewriting the rules: Just as the new law finds its footing, Californians might rewrite it. Bay Area developer Alastair Mactaggart, whose previous initiative pursuit led to the CCPA, is leading a new effort to qualify a November ballot proposal that would change the law. The initiative would create a separate agency to enforce the state’s privacy regime; add restrictions on the use of sensitive personal information; and prevent the Legislature from watering down the law, among other revisions. Tech and telecom companies have not taken public positions on the initiative, nor has a coalition of consumer privacy groups. Of course, businesses could just be waiting to see if proponents manage to qualify the initiative, as expected, before spending big to defeat it. Mactaggart said he is getting early reports that “folks are eager to sign” and “no one is saying no.”

This article was originally published at Politico on January 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Katy Murphy covers consumer regulations with a focus on data privacy for POLITICO California. Before joining the team, she was a one-woman Capitol bureau for the The Mercury News and East Bay Times and previously covered K-12 and higher education for more than a decade, based in the Bay Area.

A Chicago-area native, she graduated from the University of Notre Dame and had stints in Puerto Rico and Indiana before moving west. She lives with her husband and young daughter and has memorized every episode of Peppa Pig. In her copious spare time, she enjoys reading fiction, taking scenic hikes that aren’t overly strenuous and glamping in the mountains with people who really know how to cook.

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Climate Activists Can’t Afford to Ignore Labor. A Shuttered Refinery in Philly Shows Why.

January 13th, 2020 | Mindy Isser

In the early morning hours of June 21, 2019, a catastrophic explosion tore through the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) oil refinery in the southwest section of Philadelphia. The training and quick thinking of refinery workers, members of United Steelworkers Local 10-1, averted certain disaster and saved millions of lives. One month later, on July 21, PES declared bankruptcy—their second in as many years—and began to close down the refinery in the following months, laying off almost 2,000 people with no meaningful severance. According to workers who spoke with In These Times, the refinery stopped running crude oil in early August, although there are fewer than 100 workers who were kept on as caretakers for the waste water and steam generating units.

The fire on June 21 and the mass layoffs that followed impacted more than just the physical site of the refinery and the workers who made it run. It also ignited a debate throughout the city about what would become of the refinery site, which has been in operation for more than 150 years. On the one hand, the explosion underscored the dangers the refinery posed to the community immediately surrounding it, and the city as a whole. On the other, the subsequent closure of the refinery meant that workers were suddenly out of work, with no plan from PES or city officials of how to put them back to work.

This debate, while focused on Philadelphia, reflects much larger questions roiling supporters of a Green New Deal: how to ensure a just transition for fossil fuel workers who lose their jobs, and how to build bonds between unions looking out for their members, and climate organizers trying to stop fossil fuel extraction. Interviews with community organizers trying to curb the refinery’s toxic pollution, and workers laid off from the refinery, indicate that the answers are not easy, but require listening to workers, many of whom are already thinking about climate change—and forced, right now, to deal with the hardships of losing their jobs. In the words of Jim, a former worker who requested only his first name be used due to fear of retaliation, “Fossil fuels need to be phased out aggressively. That being said, I’m in the industry. You can’t just allow the people in that industry to become like the coal miners, just floundering.”

A toxic polluter

Such questions have been the focus of ongoing organizing by community members who have long been concerned about the health impacts the refinery has on the soil, water and air. The refinery is in the 19145 zip code, which has one of the highest rates of hospitalization for asthma in the city, along with one of the highest cancer mortality rates, in a city that has the “highest cancer rate of any large city in the United States,” according to the National Cancer Institute.

The connection between illnesses and the refinery is not lost on community members, nor on Philly Thrive, an organization founded in 2015 to “win a just transition of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery, the largest and oldest oil refinery on the East Coast.” The organization knocked on doors around the refinery and embarked on a “listening project” in order to better understand the experiences of neighbors, most of whom are Black and low-income. Alexa Ross, co-founder of Philly Thrive, says that the organization exists outside of the “non-profit, white, middle class” environmental movement, and is currently focused solely on its “Right to Breathe” campaign, which is organizing around health and safety over profit, no fossil fuel expansion, and a green economy for all.

After hearing countless horror stories from neighbors about asthma, bronchitis, cancer and early deaths, Philly Thrive was unable to ignore the urgency of the crisis. Ross told In These Times that “you can compare the refinery to the next 100 sources of pollution all together, and the refinery is still the majority of toxic emissions.” The refinery was the number one source of air pollution in Philadelphia, responsible for 9% of the city’s fine particle emissions and 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Department of Public Health. It was also the single largest emitter of toxic pollutants, including known carcinogens, representing nearly 57% of such emissions in 2016.

A lack of trust

And although Philly Thrive also lists a commitment to a “just transition to clean energy and living wage green jobs” on its website, it also publicly acknowledges that “it has been very difficult to carve out substantial time in our organizing” to build relationships with workers at the refinery. Ross says Thrive was “told by our connections to USW that they wanted nothing to do with us if we were anti-fossil fuel. We’re one of the only environmental groups that hasn’t been invited to the table with labor, because we don’t think we can afford to say anything besides that we need to transition from fossil fuels now. So we’ve been denied access to the labor movement and USW in particular.”

This lack of trust between community members and refinery workers has been painful for both groups, and the challenges they’ve encountered connecting these two distinct, but ultimately connected, struggles have been difficult to transcend. Philly Thrive says that at public meetings about the future of the refinery, “fear, anger and grief have found likely targets in each other instead of the companies and executives responsible for the refinery.”

One former refinery worker even took to Twitter shortly after the explosion to slam Philly Thrive. Jim Savage, former President of USW Local 10-1, the union that represented workers at the refinery, wrote that “hypocritical opportunists ran to microphones, with fires still burning out of control, calling for the immediate shutdown of the refinery with an ‘oh, by the way, take care of the workers by doing x, y, and z.’ Workers that they didn’t bother to speak with first. A week later, they’re still doing it and still no conversation with the workers. Obviously, they prefer the flowery words of solidarity without any actual effort to create solidarity.”

Jim, the refinery worker mentioned earlier, says that workers saw Philly Thrive “as advocating for a total shutdown, no industrial use, which to people who work there is very scary. We talked about some transition with some relief for the workers and this wouldn’t fit that bill.” When pressed about what a transition with relief for workers would look like, he said that “it would include medical [insurance] while we are laid off with schooling or training included… A severance would have helped. This is just me though. A lot of workers wouldn’t agree but I think a substantial amount would. Some won’t be happy with anything less than their refinery jobs back.”

And it’s not hard to understand why. The PES refinery provided around 1,100 full-time jobs and as many as 850 contracted positions to workers largely in the Philadelphia area. Most of the workers I spoke with only had high school degrees, and ended up making at least $100,000 per year, often closer to $150,000 or $200,000 with overtime and bonuses, thanks to their strong union and the dangerous nature of their work.

B.N., who requested only his initials be used due to fear of retaliation, worked at the refinery since 2006 and is now a facilities manager at a university, making about half the money he previously made. He says “it’s much safer, but I do miss the money, and it’s very hard to go backwards.” He says that for his old coworkers, the job search is “brutal,” with people getting offered jobs that pay $17 an hour. Some haven’t found anything at all and are still relying on unemployment. Others have moved to Texas, Arkansas, or Louisiana, chasing refinery jobs on the Gulf Coast, leaving their families behind.

When faced with the option of either keeping well-paying jobs or putting what may feel like blind faith into hypothetical plans for a transition of the site in the spirit of the Green New Deal, it’s not hard to understand why refinery workers have fought to keep the refinery open—especially when they are not included in the discussions around what a transition could or should look like. The challenges facing community members and workers in Philadelphia over the future of the former PES refinery site are not unique, but rather, indicative of a wider gap that must be bridged in order to eventually win a Green New Deal.

The labor movement and climate movement have often been painted as unlikely allies, locked in a natural and consistent conflict. Although some unions have begun to embrace the need to move away from fossil fuels and seriously confront climate change, many unions have dug their heels in and reaffirmed their commitment to extractive industries, such as Laborers’ International Union of North AmericaInternational Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and United Mine Workers of America. The AFL-CIO infamously came out in support of building oil pipelines in the face of massive protests by Indigenous communities in the Dakotas.

While there’s a lot of talk of a “just transition” away from fossil fuels—both in Philadelphia around the refinery, and beyond—we don’t have any examples in this country to model this transition after yet. It makes sense that a union whose members work in the fossil fuel industry would see its interests as tied to the fate of that industry, especially given the tendency of many unions to see their role as fighting solely for the interests of their members, divorced from the interests of the working class as a whole.

A common enemy

It’s clear that a basis for a higher level of solidarity must be found to overcome this division. One potential way to do this is to identify a common enemy, one who is responsible for both exploiting and endangering the safety of the workers in these often dangerous industries, and for the devastation these industries have on the surrounding communities. This common enemy is, of course, the boss, who is often aided by tax breaks and political support from local and state governments.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provided PES with $25 million for refinery equipment upgrades and rail car infrastructure in 2012, along with numerous other tax incentives and write-offs. PES was also granted protection by the state for liability related to historical environmental contamination at the site, or contamination resulting from Sunoco’s (the previous owner) operations. Following the June 21 explosion and subsequent bankruptcy filing, PES executives were paid $4.59 million in retention bonuses. In a November 22nd filing with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, PES requested to create an additional bonus pool to payout executives, ranging from $2.5 million to $20 million if the sale of the refinery generates $1 billion in net proceeds. Philadelphia Energy Industries, created by former PES chief executive Phil Rinaldi and S.G. Preston, a biofuels company, have put in a bid to purchase the refinery in order to reopen it. Rinaldi left PES in 2017, but other executives with whom he had worked closely for years were the ones who closed the refinery, filed for bankruptcy, and received massive payouts for themselves. And in the aftermath of the devastation caused to the lives of refinery workers and the surrounding community, Rinaldi has cynically emerged as a key figure calling to restart operations at the shuttered refinery site.

Even though USW Local 10-1 President Ryan O’Callaghan has publicly bashed the executives for their lavish payouts, he also said, “The idea of retraining us for jobs that don’t exist is not the answer. The idea to put a solar panel farm on the site is not the answer. The answer is to restart the refinery now.” So even though union members were sold out by the owners of PES—who took giant payouts while leaving them with nothing—the union is indirectly allying with them to work to re-open the refinery.

But is it really about the refinery, or is it about good jobs? B.N. said that “If it was a solar or a wind farm, and they were paying what the refinery paid, [the workers] would be there in a second. It’s about the money. They’re not defending the industry—they’re defending their job and their paycheck. If they could make the same money working for Greenpeace, they would do it.” When the only option is to either defend the fossil fuel industry or have a poorly paying, insecure job, the vast majority of workers are going to defend the industry—no matter their personal beliefs about climate change.

On January 17, the site will be put to auction, with multiple companies lining up to re-open the refinery. Residents and community groups like Philly Thrive don’t have a seat at the table in discussions about the refinery’s future, but USW does because it is a creditor in the refinery’s bankruptcy case. What would it be like if the union chose to partner with Philly Thrive instead of with the 1%, and signed on to their demands of health and safety over profit, no fossil fuel expansion, and a green economy for all? The union could stand with community members and commit to shutting down the refinery, for both the safety of the workers, the surrounding community, and our hope for any kind of fossil fuel-free future—but only if there is a plan for severance pay and health insurance for workers, along with training and job placements at either the old refinery site or elsewhere.

The people most affected by climate change will be in the working class, whether they’re members of USW Local 10-1, members of another union, or not union members at all. The Phil Rinaldis of the world, by contrast, will be much more insulated from climate catastrophe. This is a pressing challenge to both the labor and climate movement, given the particular urgency for drastic action to address the impacts of climate change before it’s too late. How can the labor movement move towards acting in the interests of their members, yes, but increasingly in the interests of workers as a whole? And how can the climate movement engage labor to help make the Green New Deal a more concrete program that workers can believe in? In order to fully confront the complexities of how to actually have a just transition away from fossil fuels, workers in those industries need to be at the front of those conversations.

As B.N. puts it, “We’ve done a lot of great things in this country. We can transition. Look at World War II, GM stopped making cars for commercial production—they started devoting all of their efforts to the war. We can do big things in this country.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on January 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.

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To Build a Left-Wing Unionism, We Must Reckon With the AFL-CIO’s Imperialist Past

January 13th, 2020 | Jeff Schuhrke

Two days after Bolivia’s socialist president Evo Morales was forced from office in a right-wing military coup last November, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka condemned the coup on Twitter and praised Morales for reducing poverty and championing indigenous rights. In doing so, Trumka joined Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other prominent figures of the Left in countering the US political and media establishments’ dominant narrative that Morales’s violent ouster was a win for democracy.

While it’s fitting for the president of the nation’s largest union federation to denounce a right-wing coup against a leftist foreign leader — which was endorsed by the State Department and CIA — it also represents an important break from precedent for the AFL-CIO. Though rarely discussed, the federation has a long record of supporting the US government in disrupting leftist movements around the world, including through coups d’état in Latin America.

Throughout the Cold War, the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council and International Affairs Department were run by zealous anticommunists determined to undercut the rise of left-wing trade unions overseas. Like their counterparts in the US government, George Meany, AFL-CIO president from 1955–1979, and Lane Kirkland, his successor who served until 1995, understood that if allowed to thrive, class-conscious labor movements would pose a serious threat to global capital.

Meany, Kirkland, and other AFL-CIO officials subscribed to a philosophy of “business unionism,” meaning they had no desire to topple capitalism but instead promoted the idea that class collaboration and limited workplace bargaining over “bread and butter” issues would bring workers all the prosperity they needed. They championed economic nationalism over transnational labor solidarity, reasoning that US workers would see higher wages and lower unemployment as long as US corporations had easy access to foreign markets to sell products made in the United States — a version of the kind of nationalist ideology that has fueled racism and xenophobia among segments of the US working class and aided Trump’s rise to power.

From aiding US-backed military coups in Brazil and Chile to cheerleading ruthless counterinsurgency wars in Vietnam and El Salvador, the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy during the Cold War was fundamentally geared toward the interests of US empire. By the 1970s — just as capital launched a renewed, decades-long attack on workers’ rights around the globe — the US labor federation had lost whatever credibility it might have had as a vehicle for international working-class liberation, derided by anti-imperialists at home and abroad as the “AFL-CIA.”

As we enter a new decade, the prospects for a rejuvenated US labor movement are strong: a new generation of exploited workers are eager to unionize, the number of workers on strike just hit a thirty-year high, the rapidly growing Democratic Socialists of America is aiming to pull unions leftward through the rank-and-file strategy, longtime labor ally Bernie Sanders has plans to double union membership if elected president, and militant labor leaders like Sara Nelson (who could be the AFL-CIO’s next president) are rising in prominence.

It’s a good time, then, for both labor activists and left labor leaders to reckon with the history of US labor imperialism — a history largely unknown to younger labor activists and leftists who came of age in the early twenty-first century. Wrestling with that history can help ensure that a resurgent US labor movement plays a positive and effective role in building global worker solidarity rather than one that props up an imperialist order that hurts the working class both within the United States and around the world.

Why Labor Imperialism?

Though decades of corporate propaganda have tried to tell us otherwise, there is power in a union. Not only the power to raise wages or win paid time off, but the power to overthrow governments and bring national economies to a screeching halt. During the Cold War, the US government understood this very well. To US officials determined to preserve and expand international capitalism in the face of an increasingly influential global left, trade unions around the world posed a serious threat.

Unions abroad therefore became a crucial target of US imperial intervention: rather than allow them to mount an effective challenge to capital by radicalizing workers and fueling leftist political movements, unions would need to be turned into instruments for containing the revolutionary potential of the working class. In the process, organized labor’s most powerful weapon — the strike — would be co-opted and used to pursue reactionary goals, namely, to undermine leftist governments.

To subvert overseas unions for their own imperial ends, the State Department and CIA found an enthusiastic ally in the AFL-CIO. The Cold War largely coincided with the period when the US labor movement was at its strongest. More US workers were unionized in the 1950s and 1960s than at any other time in history, giving labor leaders like Meany considerable political clout.

As anticommunists, AFL-CIO officials chose to use this power to assist the US government in undermining leftist influence in foreign trade unions. In practice, this meant interfering in the internal processes of other countries’ trade unions, stoking internecine rivalries, creating and financially propping up splinter labor organizations, grooming cadres of conservative business unionists, and using the power of the strike to sabotage progressive governments.

After decades of such imperial interventions, organized labor across the world was left divided and weakened, making it easier for transnational capital to exploit workers in the era of neoliberalism.

The AFL’s Early Cold War

Thanks to the Left’s steadfast resistance to fascism, the Communist parties of Western Europe won widespread popular support during World War II, especially among the working class. By the end of the war, labor federations like France’s Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and Italy’s Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL) were led or heavily influenced by Communists.

In 1945, the labor movements of the Allied nations — including Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States — formed the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), a sort of United Nations for labor. At this time, the AFL and the CIO were still separate, competing entities. Established in 1886, the politically conservative AFL included unions of skilled, craft workers, while the CIO — founded in 1935 as a breakaway organization from the AFL — represented workers in mass industries like auto and steel. The newer and more progressive CIO, which owed its growth to the work of Communist and other leftist organizers, readily joined the WFTU. But the larger and staunchly anticommunist AFL refused to have anything to do with the new global organization because it included unions from the USSR.

AFL leaders like Meany argued that leftists — particularly Communists — were inherently “totalitarians,” and that any unions they led were illegitimate as representatives of workers. He and the AFL’s other anticommunist internationalists contended that only “democratic” or “free” trade unions — that is, pro-capitalist, business unions — had any claim to legitimacy.

The irony of “free” trade unionists was that they frequently trampled on union democracy and autonomy while claiming to champion these very principles. Whenever Communists or other leftists attained leadership positions in foreign unions through democratic methods and with rank-and-file support, outsiders from the AFL would jump in to make sure their own handpicked, anticommunist unionists would have the resources to mount a robust, disruptive opposition.

In 1944, before the Cold War battle lines had even been drawn, the AFL established the Free Trade Union Committee (FTUC) with the goal of undermining Communist-led unions in Western Europe. Tapped to run the FTUC was Jay Lovestone, who had once been a leader of the Communist Party USA but was expelled in 1929, because Stalin believed he was too close to his Politburo rival Nikolai Bukharin.

Lovestone made his way into the labor movement in the 1930s through the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Eager for revenge against his ex-comrades, he then went to work for the UAW’s anticommunist president Homer Martin, using his intimate knowledge of the party to help Martin red-bait and oust his intra-union opponents. This experience made him the perfect choice to run the FTUC.

As FTUC director, Lovestone sent his associate, Irving Brown, to be his point man in Europe. From an office in Paris, Brown set about dividing the international labor movement by loudly accusing the WFTU of being a Soviet-dominated organization. He particularly worked to split the French CGT by backing its internal, noncommunist faction, Force Ouvrière. While Force Ouvrière started as a small CGT caucus willing to coexist with Communists, Brown helped transform it into a separate, anticommunist labor organization in direct competition with the CGT, propped up more by US funds than popular support.

By 1947–48, the US government caught up with the AFL on the Cold War, creating the CIA and launching the Marshall Plan to ensure the “containment” of communism by reconstructing Western Europe’s war-shattered economy within a capitalist framework. Recognizing the labor movement as a crucial Cold War battleground, the CIA was drawn to Lovestone’s FTUC. In 1949, the Agency agreed to finance the FTUC’s efforts to subvert Communist unions abroad in exchange for intelligence on foreign labor organizations. AFL leaders Meany, David Dubinsky, and Matthew Woll were in on the new partnership, as were Lovestone and Brown, but other AFL officials and rank-and-file US unionists were kept in the dark and knew little of what the FTUC was up to.

That US union leaders forged a secret alliance with the CIA to undemocratically divide unions overseas may justifiably be difficult to understand. But AFL leaders and the CIA shared the belief that Left-oriented unions were literally capable of bringing about proletarian revolution.

To prevent this from happening, the CIA needed the expertise of the AFL. Since the AFL’s pro-capitalist, anticommunist officials were already working to undermine leftist labor movements before the CIA was even established, they didn’t need any convincing.

Now flush with CIA money, in the early 1950s, Brown was reputed to carry around suitcases full of cash, buying the loyalty of union officials in France, Italy, West Germany, and elsewhere. Wherever Communist unions were strong, anticommunist splinter unions were created and financially backed by the FTUC/CIA. The AFL similarly partnered with the State Department, which developed a corps of labor attachés and stationed them at US embassies abroad. Often plucked from the ranks of AFL unions and vetted by Lovestone, the State Department’s labor attachés used their diplomatic leverage to isolate and discredit Europe’s Communist-led unions.

Lovestone also dispatched FTUC operatives to Asia. After the 1949 Communist revolution in China, FTUC representative Willard Etter set up shop in Formosa (Taiwan). With resources provided by the CIA, Etter supported the Free China Labor League, which served as a front for espionage and sabotage activities. Teams of anticommunist Chinese agents secretly traveled from Formosa to mainland China, where they not only reported intelligence back to Etter via radio transmitters, but also blew up fuel supplies (causing substantial civilian casualties) and attempted to stir up worker unrest in state-owned factories.

Through the FTUC’s China operation, then, the AFL became complicit in CIA-sponsored terrorist activities, straying far from its basic purpose of empowering workers. Most of Etter’s agents were captured and executed by the Chinese government after the CIA lost interest and abandoned them once the Korean War started.

The relationship between the AFL and CIA was fraught. Lovestone chafed at the Agency’s bureaucracy and oversight, continuously demanding greater independence for his FTUC. For their part, some in the CIA’s top ranks — typically Ivy League-educated WASPs — looked scornfully at their AFL contacts, who were mostly Jews and Irish Catholics with immigrant and working-class upbringings. The feeling was mutual, with Lovestone frequently ridiculing his CIA partners as “fizz kids” in letters to Brown. Such acrimony though was a trivial byproduct of the unsavory partnership between the nominal voice of the US working class and the US imperial state.

Despite the interpersonal tensions, the FTUC-CIA alliance in Western Europe achieved its main goal of splitting the WFTU in 1949. Increasingly pressured by Cold War geopolitics, the CIO and British Trades Union Congress disaffiliated from the WFTU early that year. The break came down to disagreements over the Marshall Plan, which the Communist-led unions opposed on grounds that it constituted an attempt to undermine their influence and reconsolidate the international capitalist system with the United States at its center.

1949 was also the year that the US labor movement fell victim to the same divisions the AFL had been sowing abroad. Wanting to stay in the government’s good graces, CIO leaders took a decidedly rightward turn that year, purging Communist organizers from their ranks and chasing out their Left-led affiliate unions. The result was devastating. The CIO — which had previously been at the center of a multiracial, working-class movement for social and economic justice — was rendered a shell of its former self without its dedicated leftist organizers. Facing obsolescence, the CIO was absorbed into the larger, more conservative AFL in 1955, and the US labor movement began its decades-long decline.

In December 1949, the CIO and British Trades Union Congress joined the AFL and other anticommunist national labor centers to found the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which presented itself as the “free” world’s alternative to the WFTU. Thanks to the machinations of the AFL, CIA, and State Department, the international labor movement was now divided into two hostile camps, with US labor leaders more fixated on fighting the Left than fighting capital.

Targeting the Third World

Following the reconstruction of Western Europe, US labor leaders and their allies in the US government increasingly turned their attention to the developing countries of the Global South, or what was then called the Third World.

In the Western Hemisphere, Lovestone had a minimal presence. Instead, the AFL’s “Inter-American Representative” was Italian émigré and former socialist Serafino Romualdi. Forced to flee Italy for opposing Mussolini, Romualdi settled in New York. Like Lovestone, he found his way into the labor movement through David Dubinsky’s International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in the 1930s, working for the union’s news service.

During World War II, Romualdi toured Latin America on behalf of Nelson Rockefeller’s Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs before briefly returning to Italy as an operative with the Office of Strategic Services — the precursor to the CIA — where he attempted to sideline Communist influence in the CGIL.

In 1946, Romualdi became the AFL’s chief representative in Latin America and the Caribbean. Much as Irving Brown worked to divide the WFTU, Romualdi’s mission was to weaken the Left-led Confederación de Trabajadores de América Latina (CTAL), which had been founded by Mexican labor leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano in 1938 to unite Latin America’s class-conscious trade unions.

The CTAL served as an authentic voice for pan-American labor, led by Latin American unionists and free from US imperial dominance. Like the WFTU with which it was affiliated, it brought Communists and noncommunists together around the common purpose of improving the lot of workers. Romualdi and the AFL sought to undermine the CTAL and replace it with a US-led inter-American labor confederation, ensuring the Latin American working class would not become a strong, independent force capable of challenging North American control.

With the support of Latin America’s social-democratic parties and the State Department’s labor attachés, Romualdi succeeded in convincing many Latin American worker organizations to break from the CTAL, bringing the region’s anticommunist unions together in 1948 with the establishment of the Confederación Interamericana de Trabajadores. Three years later, it was reconstituted as the Organización Regional Inter-Americana de Trabajadores (ORIT) to serve as the ICFTU’s regional arm in the Western Hemisphere. Under Romualdi’s influence, ORIT would battle leftist, Peronist, and Catholic trade unions across the region throughout the 1950s, with the result that the Latin American working class remained fractured.

In the aftermath of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Meany, like his allies in the US foreign policy establishment, quickly made Latin America his new priority for “containment.” Unfortunately for him, the FTUC had recently been shuttered at the insistence of UAW president Walter Reuther, after Reuther’s CIO merged with the AFL.

Though an anticommunist in his own right, Reuther believed there could be peaceful coexistence between East and West and didn’t wish to escalate tensions with the Soviet Union. Despising Lovestone for his divisive tactics in the UAW years earlier, Reuther wanted the AFL-CIO to conduct its foreign policy through the multilateral ICFTU and not Lovestone’s FTUC. Although the ICFTU was formed at the urging of the AFL, during the 1950s, Meany had become disenchanted with the European unionists who ran it, believing they were not belligerent enough in their anticommunism.

Hoping to refocus labor’s Cold War in Latin America after the Cuban Revolution, but not willing to rely on the ICFTU, Meany wanted a new, unilateral organization in the mold of the now-defunct FTUC. He would get it with the creation of the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD — usually pronounced “A-field”). AIFLD would become the AFL-CIO’s most significant instrument for waging the global Cold War.

The idea for AIFLD was first proposed by Communications Workers of America president Joseph Beirne, who held a seat on the AFL-CIO Executive Council. In 1959, Beirne brought sixteen ORIT-affiliated union officials from Latin America to Virginia for a training course on how to be an effective business unionist. Beirne sought to scale up this program and turn it into a permanent organization, persuading Meany to get behind the plan.

Meany then convinced the incoming Kennedy administration that the proposed organization, AIFLD, would serve as the perfect labor auxiliary to the Alliance for Progress — a Marshall Plan-type initiative to provide generous US aid to anticommunist Latin American governments to prevent the outbreak of another Cuba-style revolution. As it had in postwar Europe, US labor would once again willingly assist the US government in carrying out its Cold War objectives.

In 1962, AIFLD went into operation. Almost exclusively funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to the tune of several million dollars per year, the Institute quickly extended its presence into nearly every country in Latin America, coordinating its activities with the US foreign policy apparatus.

AIFLD’s main activity was labor education, particularly training participants on how to combat left-wing influence in their respective unions. Trainees who were considered to have exceptional potential would be brought to a facility at Front Royal, Virginia for a three-month residential course — a kind of School of the Americas for trade unionists — before being sent back to their home countries with nine-month stipends to fund their anti-leftist organizing efforts.

The Institute also used its USAID funds to carry out development projects across Latin America, including the construction of affordable worker housing for members of ORIT-affiliated unions, signaling to workers the benefits of joining the US-sponsored “free” trade union movement (though the AIFLD often overpromised on how quickly it would complete its housing developments and how many units would be available). Prospective residents were required to fill out long, detailed questionnaires about their unions, information possibly supplied to the CIA.

To showcase the AFL-CIO’s commitment to class collaboration, AIFLD invited US businessmen with interests in Latin America to serve on its board of trustees, including the heads of the Anaconda Company, Pan-American Airways, and W.R. Grace & Co., among others. These companies were no strangers to union-busting, which made the AFL-CIO’s eagerness to partner with them especially disturbing. That they agreed to be part of AIFLD demonstrates how US capitalists saw no threat — only opportunity — in the kind of unionism the Institute was encouraging.

Romualdi directed the Institute for its first three years until his retirement, when he was replaced by William Doherty, Jr. Doherty, whose father had been both president of the National Association of Letter Carriers and US ambassador to Jamaica, was an alleged friend to the CIA and would serve as AIFLD’s director for the next thirty years.

In the early 1960s, AIFLD helped undermine the democratically elected, leftist government of Cheddi Jagan in the tiny South American nation of Guyana, which was then a colony called British Guiana. The colony was on the path to a planned transition to independence, and Jagan hoped to reorganize the economy along socialist lines. But the Kennedy administration, fearing Jagan would be another Fidel Castro, pressured the UK to stall the transition until he could be driven out of power.

In the summer of 1962, eight Guyanese union officials from a labor federation tied to Jagan’s political opposition participated in AIFLD’s training course in the United States, returning home with stipends provided by the Institute. The following spring, they helped lead a general strike to protest Jagan’s government. The three-month strike crippled the colony’s economy and escalated into a race riot pitting the Afro-Guyanese opposition against Jagan’s Indo-Guyanese base.

Representatives from two AFL-CIO-affiliated unions — AFSCME and the Retail Clerks — went to British Guiana to aid the strikers by coordinating food relief and replenishing the strike fund, using CIA money secretly channeled through private foundations. What turned out to be one of the longest general strikes in history was sustained by the US imperial state, with help from US union officials, in order to weaken a democratic, progressive government.

Elections were held a year later, with British Guiana still reeling from the strike. Again using secret CIA funds, a representative from the AFL-CIO-affiliated American Newspaper Guild traveled to the colony to saturate the electorate with anti-Jagan propaganda. After the bitter divisions sowed by AIFLD, the AFL-CIO, and CIA, Jagan’s People’s Progressive Party was unable to win a majority of parliamentary seats, losing the election. The British then allowed the transition to independence to move forward. The new leader, Forbes Burnham, soon revealed himself to be a corrupt autocrat, remaining in power until his death twenty years later.

AIFLD also played an important role in the US-backed military coup against Brazil’s left-wing president, João Goulart. Like their fellow travelers in the US government, AFL-CIO leaders believed Goulart was too close to the Brazilian Communist Party and needed to be replaced. In 1963, AIFLD’s training program hosted an all-Brazilian class of thirty-three unionists. Their course included fifty hours’ worth of instruction on how to fight Communist influence in their unions, taught by Lovestone and Romualdi.

When the coup against Goulart was executed on April 1, 1964, the AIFLD graduates helped ensure it went smoothly. While leftist unionists called for a general strike to disrupt the coup, the Institute-trained union officials convinced their fellow workers to ignore these calls and allow the military takeover to proceed unobstructed. The new military regime put allegedly Communist-led unions into trusteeships, sending “intervenors” — some of them AIFLD graduates — to purge these unions of leftists and Goulart sympathizers.

Three months later, Doherty boasted in a radio interview that AIFLD’s Brazilian trainees “became intimately involved in some of the clandestine operations” of the coup. “Many of the trade union leaders — some of whom were actually trained in our institute — were involved in… the overthrow of the Goulart regime,” he said. Doherty also defended a wage freeze that was imposed by the new government, arguing the Brazilian poor would need to “suffer” no less than the rich in the pursuit of national economic growth. The coup regime turned into a nineteen-year dictatorship, imprisoning, torturing, and murdering untold numbers of trade unionists.

The State Department and USAID were so pleased with AIFLD’s work that they gladly accepted the AFL-CIO’s proposal to create similar institutes for Africa and Asia. In late 1964 to early 1965, the African American Labor Center was established, and in 1968, the Asian American Free Labor Institute was launched. Like AIFLD, both of these nonprofits were almost entirely funded by USAID to carry out training and development programs in order to prop up anticommunist, anti-Left unions. In 1977, a fourth nonprofit — the Free Trade Union Institute — was created to focus on Europe.

Internal Dissent

At the 1965 AFL-CIO convention in San Francisco, Meany presented a resolution, written by Lovestone, pledging the labor federation’s “unstinting support” of President Lyndon Johnson’s policy of escalating the Vietnam War. When the resolution was about to be voted on without discussion or debate, a group of college students, observing the proceedings from the balcony, stood up and chanted “Get out of Vietnam!” and “Debate!” Meany responded by having them thrown out of the convention hall, dismissing them as “kookies.” The pro-war resolution was then adopted unanimously.

A handful of independent unions, union locals, and mid-ranking labor officials had already expressed skepticism about the war, if not outright opposition. After witnessing Meany’s hostility toward the anti-war movement and his unwillingness to allow debate, more union leaders — particularly from the UAW — began to openly voice their disagreements with the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy.

Reuther, president of the UAW, tepidly opposed military escalation in Vietnam, wanting to see the war end through peaceful negotiations. Further, he disliked Meany’s aggressive, go-it-alone approach to international issues, preferring to work through the ICFTU. Reuther also did not trust Lovestone, who by now was the director of the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Department. Still, he was reluctant to make his disagreements public, not wanting to create a rift between the UAW and AFL-CIO.

Instead, Victor Reuther — Walter’s younger brother in charge of the UAW’s foreign relations — decided to speak up, telling reporters in 1966 that Lovestone and the AFL-CIO were “involved” with the CIA and criticizing AIFLD’s role in the Brazilian coup. The following year, a series of journalistic exposés helped substantiate Victor’s claim by revealing the CIA’s ties to the labor federation and its affiliates going back to the FTUC. Of course, Meany and the AFL-CIO’s other internationalists vigorously denied any relationship with the CIA.

Along with Meany’s hawkish stance on Vietnam — which included attempts to bolster South Vietnam’s anticommunist Confédération Vietnamienne du Travail — the CIA revelations badly damaged the AFL-CIO’s credibility among liberals and members of the New Left. Disagreements over foreign policy, as well as several domestic issues, finally led the UAW to disaffiliate from the federation in 1968. (The union would return to the AFL-CIO in 1981.)

Despite these controversies, Meany, Lovestone, and AIFLD did not alter course. When the socialist Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile in 1970, they decided to assist the Nixon administration in destabilizing his government. While the Chilean working class was overwhelmingly behind Allende, AIFLD supported gremios — associations of right-wing, middle-class professionals — along with the country’s conservative union of maritime workers. In 1972, at least twenty-nine Chileans attended the Institute’s training course in Virginia, far more than had ever attended in previous years.

With the help of AIFLD, in 1972 and 1973, truck-owners and merchants across Chile staged a series of strikes aimed at creating economic chaos and subverting Allende’s government. As in British Guiana nine years earlier, the strikers were supported with funds from the CIA. US efforts to undermine Allende culminated in the violent military coup on September 11, 1973. The new military dictatorship AIFLD helped bring to power by using traditional working-class tactics like the strike would ironically — and tragically — trample workers’ rights, jailing and murdering thousands of Chilean labor activists.

After researchers like Ruth Needleman and Fred Hirsch helped expose the Institute’s role in the Chilean coup by obtaining documents, conducting interviews, and circulating their findings, rank-and-file union members across the United States began demanding more transparency around AIFLD in the mid-1970s. Several union locals and local labor councils called on the AFL-CIO to fund its foreign programs independently instead of relying on USAID. While these demands went ignored, Lovestone finally retired in 1974, with Meany following suit five years later.

Upon Meany’s retirement, his longtime lieutenant Lane Kirkland became president of the AFL-CIO. Like his predecessor, Kirkland was a hardline anticommunist. Groomed to be a diplomat at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, he was a close personal friend of Henry Kissinger, spending every Thanksgiving with him.

Under Kirkland, the AFL-CIO applauded the Reagan administration’s aggressive foreign policy aimed at reigniting the Cold War, even as Reagan ushered in a new era of union busting by firing 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981. At the AFL-CIO’s urging, Reagan oversaw the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in 1983, a government-funded grant-making foundation to disburse monies to the same kinds of overseas anticommunist organizations previously funded covertly by the CIA. With Kirkland serving on NED’s board of directors, AIFLD and the AFL-CIO’s other foreign institutes became core grant recipients.

Kirkland backed Reagan’s Central America policy of arming repressive state security forces in El Salvador and terroristic counterrevolutionaries in Nicaragua. AIFLD was especially active in El Salvador in the 1980s, playing a critical role in the development and implementation of an agrarian reform program meant to undercut rural support for the leftist revolutionary movement. El Salvador’s counterinsurgency government — entirely propped up by generous US military aid — combined the agrarian reform with a state of siege that saw thousands of campesinos brutally murdered in a wave of massacres.

Alarmed by Kirkland’s support for Reagan’s foreign policy, rank-and-file US union members became active in the Central American peace and solidarity movement, demanding the AFL-CIO change direction. In one of the most significant developments for US labor internationalism since the start of the Cold War, the presidents of several national unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO came together to form the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador (NLC).

The NLC openly opposed Kirkland and the Executive Council, lobbying Congress to cut off US military aid to the Salvadoran government. The NLC also sent delegations of US union members to El Salvador and Nicaragua to witness first-hand how US assistance was helping rightists murder and intimidate Central American workers. The NLC would later evolve into an anti-sweatshop organization, helping expose the complicity of major clothing brands in worker rights abuses in Central America, the Caribbean, and Asia.

While facing internal opposition to its Central America program, the AFL-CIO gave financial and political support to Solidarno??, the Polish trade union led by Lech Wa??sa that eventually helped bring down Poland’s Communist government. Opposed by foreign policy officials who feared stirring up hostilities with the Soviet Union, the AFL-CIO’s foray into Poland has since been touted by interventionists as a case study in the heroics of “democracy-promotion.”

Though Kirkland claimed a victory for “free” trade unionism in Poland, by the 1990s, the labor leaders associated with the NLC were convinced the federation badly needed to improve its overseas image. What’s more, several union presidents on the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council believed the federation had become lethargic in the face of years of declining union density.

Following the AFL-CIO’s failure to stop the passage of NAFTA, a group of labor officials led by SEIU president John Sweeney gathered enough support to force Kirkland to retire and take control of the federation in 1995. Calling themselves the “New Voice” slate, Sweeney and his allies aimed to revitalize the AFL-CIO by organizing new workers and abandoning outdated anticommunist priorities.

Under Sweeney, in 1997, AIFLD and the other foreign institutes were shut down and reorganized into a new NGO called the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, or Solidarity Center, which continues to be the AFL-CIO’s operational arm in the Global South.

Centering Solidarity

Active in over sixty countries, the Solidarity Center does good work, helping to improve safety standards in the Bangladeshi garment industry, amplifying workers’ voices at the International Labor Organization, and bringing workers from the United State and the Global South together to share stories and strategies.

But like its predecessor organizations, the Solidarity Center is primarily bankrolled by the US government, particularly USAID, the State Department, and NED. It is one of only four NED core grantees. NED is known for meddling in the democratic processes of other countries and promoting “regime change” to maintain US global dominance, including in Venezuela, Haiti, Ukraine, and multiple Central American nations.

Given the history of the FTUC and AIFLD, the Solidarity Center’s dependence on government funding and association with NED should be a cause for concern in the labor movement and merits closer inspection. But there is virtually no discussion about it within the AFL-CIO.

This is not especially surprising considering the federation has yet to formally acknowledge or apologize for the significant role it played during the Cold War in dividing labor movements abroad, undermining foreign democracies, and endorsing militarism — all of which only served to strengthen transnational capital and weaken the power of workers.

In 2004, the California Labor Federation passed the “Build Unity and Trust Among Workers Worldwide” resolution, which called on the AFL-CIO to “clear the air” by fully accounting for its record of hostile foreign interventions and renouncing its CIA ties. The resolution then headed to the national AFL-CIO convention in Chicago the following year, where it was effectively killed in committee. Since then, there has been no coordinated, sustained attempt to confront the federation’s imperialist history.

In 2006, the ICFTU merged with the traditionally more progressive World Confederation of Labour to form the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), of which the AFL-CIO is an affiliate. Meanwhile, the WFTU, now headquartered in Greece, continues to be led by Communists as it has been since the 1949 split. Today’s WFTU routinely accuses the much larger ITUC of being class-collaborationist and pro-imperialist.

While the ITUC is far from being an explicitly radical organization, it frequently levels strong criticisms of the World Bank and IMF, has repeatedly condemned Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and wasted no time in denouncing not only the recent coup in Bolivia, but also Juan Guaidó’s attempted coup in Venezuela and the US assasination of Qassem Soleimani. That the AFL-CIO is a prominent member of such an organization is a positive sign given the history described here.

Whether the trade unions of the world can ever be truly united remains to be seen. But perhaps hope for transnational labor unity lies less in the politics of large bureaucracies like the ITUC and WFTU, and more in the ability of workers to put class solidarity before national allegiance and to take action with our fellow workers, whoever and wherever they may be, for our collective liberation (and, in the context of a planetary ecological crisis, our collective survival).

Discovering the extent to which the AFL-CIO is willing to use its resources and influence to encourage this kind of solidarity-driven consciousness — which would necessitate a thorough reckoning with its own ugly history of assisting US imperialism — will be crucial in determining whether the federation serves any real purpose for the working class.

First published at Jacobin.

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 10, 2020. 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.

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Labor 101 for Undergraduate Workers Seeking To Unionize

January 9th, 2020 | Olivia Gieger

Image result for Olivia GiegerDolly Parton’s “9 to 5” plays in a classroom at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst) as students mill about with pink “Undergraduate Workers UNITE!” buttons pinned to their shirts.

Nearly 40 students from 10 institutions across the Northeast gathered Nov. 15–17, 2019, at UMass Amherst, a highly unionized workplace, for the Northeast Undergraduate Worker Convention (NEUWC). The convention is the first in the nation aimed at training undergraduate student workers in collective organizing. UMass Amherst is home to one of the country’s only undergrad unions, known as RAPMU, which represents residential assistants (RA) and peer mentors.

The event gave students a space in which to unpack attitudes surrounding undergraduate labor, and to understand how such attitudes can lead to poor working conditions. “When I’m employed on campus, the way [my supervisor talks] about my employment is very much like, ‘This is you building your skills, it’s a good opportunity for you,’” says Ben Hayes, 23, a senior at Skidmore College. “It’s using the idea that you’re a student and therefore not a worker [who has] to be paid a fair wage and have good working conditions and be treated right.”

Led by labor organizers and educators, the workshops covered unique organizing challenges faced by undergrad workers. For starters, many students are unaware that unionizing is even possible. The largest logistical hurdle is the high turnover rate for student workers: Students graduate, study abroad, take on extracurriculars and leave campus for breaks, often interrupting organizing momentum.

As the price of higher education skyrockets, working has become a necessity for many. “I feel strongly that everyone who has this job needs it,” says Violet Daar, 19, an RA and sophomore at Wesleyan University. Emma Rose Borzekowski, 23, one of the convention organizers and a recent Wesleyan graduate who worked as an RA, says that RA positions are one of the highest paying jobs on campus.

A position as an RA is a particularly fraught one because students live in the same place they work, so it becomes more difficult to take needed breaks. Many attendees are frustrated that their work stipends don’t cover the cost of housing, despite the job requiring residing on campus. At UMass Amherst, RAPMU has bargained for higher pay and more dignified working conditions.

Elizabeth Pellerito, director of the UMass Lowell Labor Education Program, presented on the importance of inclusion. She noted that, historically, cis white men have been overrepresented in union leadership, and that there’s still a long way to go before leadership truly reflects membership. “We are a movement that’s about power, so how are we sharing the power and recognizing the privilege?” she asked.

Though the convention attendance itself was overwhelmingly white, many expressed a need to change. Conference organizer James Cordero, 21, a senior at UMass Amherst and RAPMU member, explained how RAPMU incorporated racial justice training for RAs in its bargaining contract after racist incidents on campus in 2018. “We are building a new chapter of the labor movement to improve upon past mistakes, incorporating more social justice into the movement,” Cordero says.

“The big takeaway for me is to have union organizers who are racial justice organizers, who are environmental organizers,” says Joy Ming King, 22, a Wesleyan senior.

Convention organizers stressed relationship-building as central to the success of student unions. “We wanted this [convention] to be a chance for undergraduates to meet each other [and] know they’re not alone,” Borzekowski says, which the convention facilitated. Over an afternoon break, students shared curly fries and contact information, and brainstormed strategies to bring back to their campuses.

Most convention attendees were students at private institutions, who face a pivotal moment: The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) proposed, in September 2019, to overturn its 2016 ruling which designated student workers at private institutions as “employees”—and allowed them to unionize.

Though the young organizers worried about the NLRB’s proposal, the mood at the conference was hopeful. “We still have all of the power that selling our labor gives us and that building relationships with one another gives us,” Borzekowski says. For Lucy James-Olson, 19, a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College, “underlying all of the conversations about organizing and improving the material conditions of workers is just a conversation about love and care for each other.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on January 9, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Olivia Gieger is editor-in-chief of the Amherst Student newspaper at Amherst College, where she is a junior.

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