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Posts Tagged ‘Labor Unions’

Future of workers uncertain as third-biggest US coal company declares bankruptcy

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

Coal’s decline is hitting workers first and worst. The third-largest coal company in the United States has declared bankruptcy, leaving the future of its more than 1,000 workers uncertain. The announcement is also the latest indicator that the faltering coal industry is spinning further into decline despite the efforts of President Donald Trump to save it.

Wyoming-based Cloud Peak Energy filed for Chapter 11 reorganization on Friday, a move that has been expected since at least the spring. The company has pointed to a weak market as a leading reason for its struggles, in addition to sluggish success in expanding exports. Officials said the company’s mines will continue to operate throughout the bankruptcy process; Cloud Peak operates two mines in Wyoming and one in Montana.

“While we undertake this process, Cloud Peak Energy remains a reliable source of high-quality coal for customers,” Cloud Peak President and CEO Colin Marshall said in a statement.

The company’s workers lack union protections. But even coal miners backed by unions are at risk — a ruling earlier this year allowed a coal company to abandon union contracts. And broader threats to federal funding for miner benefits are jeopardizing pensions for tens of thousands of workers.

Cloud Peak’s financial troubles reflect the broader realities of coal, which is being displaced by cheaper energy sources, including natural gas and renewables. Since 2015, major coal companies Alpha Natural Resources, Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Mission Coal, and Westmoreland Coal have all declared bankruptcy amid falling profits and increasing concerns over long-term viability.

While that trend has continued through several presidential administrations, more coal plants closed during Trump’s first two years in office than during the entire first term of the Obama administration.

In total, at least 50 U.S. coal plants have shuttered under Trump as of this month, according to a Sierra Club report released last week. The uptick reflects market realities but it also comes despite the White House’s best efforts to revive coal.

Trump has strongly supported the coal industry since becoming president, going so far as to advocate for a controversial bailout of the struggling sector. While that plan has fallen by the wayside amid pushback, the administration’s larger backing has not. Documents obtained recently under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that the Interior Department has even altered federal endangered species protections in order to help the coal industry.

Meanwhile, workers on the ground are being severely impacted. In February, a judge ruled that bankrupt coal company Westmoreland could legally abandon its union contract obligations with United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). That decision has compromised the health care benefits and pensions once promised to hundreds of current and retired miners.

At the time of the ruling, a representative for UMWA told ThinkProgress that many of those impacted are sick and unable to work after years spent in coal mines, leaving them in need of health care.

Westmoreland’s workers are unionized, but that isn’t the case for Cloud Peak. Bill Corcoran, regional campaign director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal project, said Monday that the Wyoming company’s approximately 1,200 workers lack union protections and that their future is uncertain following the bankruptcy news. As Cloud Peak has edged towards bankruptcy, Corcoran told ThinkProgress, the company’s workers have already endured the brunt of the fallout.

“[Cloud Peak] has typically slashed or eliminated health care benefits for their workers,” he said, pointing to a larger trend of coal companies cutting worker benefits while bolstering the bonuses given to executives in order to incentivize them to stay.

The impact of coal company closures on their workers has long been a concern for unions and coal communities, but the issue has gained heightened prominence recently. As climate change becomes a leading issue for the U.S. public, lawmakers have faced a conundrum over how to protect those most impacted by a shift away from fossil fuels — namely, workers.

Under the Green New Deal resolution proposed in February by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), coal miners and other impacted workers would see a “just transition,” one that would theoretically protect their livelihoods.

It has been unclear exactly what such a shift would look like, but unions and labor rights organizations have said a plan like this will be crucial to secure their support. Some unions have been skeptical of the Green New Deal precisely because they have not yet seen legislation that would guarantee the protections of current fossil fuel workers.

Meanwhile, outside of union protections nearly 100,000 coal miners are at risk of losing their pensions by 2022 or sooner as coal companies continue to edge towards bankruptcy. The average benefit provided by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) is only around $600 a month, but current and retired miners say that amount is critical to their well-being. The PBGC is heading towards insolvency, with bipartisan efforts in the Senate to rescue the fund currently stalled.

Corcoran emphasized that it is unclear what might happen to Cloud Peak’s current workers and that it is hard to say how the company might proceed. But he noted that the current downward trajectory of coal is at odds with worker security.

Efforts by Trump and lawmakers supportive of the coal industry are also failing to address that long-term problem, Corcoran said, noting that they have steered away from proposals to retrain workers in the renewables sector, for example.

“The real question,” he said, “is how are we helping workers transition?”

 

This article was originally published at Think Progress on May 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: E.A. (Ev) Crunden covers climate policy and environmental issues at ThinkProgress. Originally from Texas, Ev has reported from many parts of the country and previously covered world issues for Muftah Magazine, with an emphasis on South Asia and Eastern Europe. Reach them at: ecrunden@thinkprogress.org.

Maine’s Green New Deal bill first in country to be backed by labor unions

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019

The Maine American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which represents over 160 local labor unions across the state, announced its support Tuesday for the state’s recently introduced Green New Deal legislation.

This is the first Green New Deal-branded proposal to be backed by a state AFL affiliate.

“We face twin crises of skyrocketing inequality and increasing climate instability. Climate change and inequality pose dire threats to working people, to all that we love about Maine and to our democracy. The work of moving towards a renewable economy must be rooted in workers’ rights and economic and social justice,” Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said in a statement, emphasizing the need for workers and unions to “have a seat at the table in crafting bold climate protection policies.”

This endorsement comes after members of the national arm of AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee, the country’s largest union federation, criticized the federal Green New Deal resolution proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), calling it “not achievable or realistic.”

Millennial state Rep. Chloe Maxmin (D), who was endorsed by the youth-led Sunrise Movement during the 2018 midterm elections, first introduced the “Act to Establish a Green New Deal for Maine” in March.

The legislation would require Maine reach 80% renewable electricity by 2040, provide solar power to schools, set up a task force for job and economic growth, and guarantee a just transition in the shift towards a low-carbon economy.

“From the very first conversation that we had… labor was involved,” Maxmin said. For the past year, Maxmin has been speaking with constituents who voiced a “deep need for economic growth,” she said, noting that this bill is “very specific to Maine and rooted in rural and working communities.”

The goal, she said, was to “bring in voices that are traditionally not part of this conversation.”

In a statement to ThinkProgress, Sunrise executive director Varshini Prakash celebrated labor unions’ support for the state initiative, calling the broader idea of a Green New Deal “America’s biggest union job creation program in a century.”

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Across the country, states and cities are seizing on the interest generated by the Green New Deal and introducing their own ambitious climate proposals. The federal version — currently a resolution, not a piece of legislation — calls for meeting 100% of the country’s power demand with renewable, emissions-free sources in around a decade, all while using the transition to create jobs and enshrine social justice principles, like equal access to education and universal health care.

Local level efforts vary in their focus and ambition. Often, initiatives are exclusive to the power sector; as of last month, at least 19 states are considering or have already set 100% clean or renewable electricity targets. But others are working to capture the full spirit of a Green New Deal — which means incorporating social justice tenets into the plan.

Last week, Minnesota introduced its own Green New Deal bill built on close collaboration between youth activists and state lawmakers. Officials and activists in New Mexico, New York, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, as well as the city of Los Angeles, have all used Green New Deal language to frame and market their clean energy and climate initiatives.

A key component of any Green New Deal is its timeframe. As the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned last fall, without dramatic change to cut greenhouse gasses, global emissions are set to rise to a level that would usher in catastrophic consequences in just over a decade.

In Maine, global warming of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures means more flooding along the coasts and inland, as well as increased drought and extreme heat. Scientists have found that the Gulf of Maine is already warming faster than 99% of the world’s oceans, disrupting fishery patters and, in turn, the fishing industry.

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Next week, lawmakers will hold a public hearing for Maine’s Green New Deal bill. A few weeks later, it will be put up for committee vote. And Maxmin thinks there’s a good chance the bill will pass.

“It has a name that is drawing attention to it … [and it’s] really bringing people from so many backgrounds together,” she said. “I think it has a really good chance because it’s basically an economic and job growth strategy for Maine.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kyla Mandel is the deputy editor for the climate team. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Mother Jones, and Vice. She has a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, specializing in science, health, and environment reporting. 

Workplace Deaths Are Rising. Trump-Era Budget Cuts Could Make It Worse.

Monday, June 18th, 2018

In an alarming development in the world of workplace safety, the latest statistics reveal that the number of accidental deaths on the job in America is on the rise, reversing the longer-term trend toward fewer fatal incidents.

The number of deaths hit a total of 5,190 in 2016, up from 4,836 in 2015, according to an April 2018 report by the AFL-CIO. That’s about 14 deaths each day from preventable worker accidents. It’s also the third year in a row that the number has inched up, and the highest death rate since 2010, the labor federation reported.

Workplace safety systems are “definitely in the failure mode,” says Peter Dooley, a consultant with the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health who was worked closely with labor unions over the years. “In the last two years it is getting dramatically worse. It’s just outrageous.” 

The precise reasons for the rise are not simply stated, adds Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO’s long-time director of occupational safety and health. Overall patterns such as very high rates of injury in the logging and construction industries are consistent over time, she says, and there is no single employment trend that accounts for the recent rise. “The numbers are actually down in construction, but they are up almost everywhere else,” she says.

Inadequate enforcement of existing safety rules is the most commonly cited explanation for the rise, Seminario tells In These Times. A Jan. 8 report from NBC News estimates that the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) employs only about 1,000 inspectors to cover all workplaces in America—and that the number of inspectors has declined four percent since President Donald Trump took office. The number of inspectors is far too low to be effective, Seminario suggests, and OSHA has been “under resourced” for years, including during the Obama administration years.

“Construction is a good example. OSHA has a big focus on construction and construction deaths are down. The areas where OSHA has less interest are up,” she says

The figures cited by Seminario and Dooley are taken from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries published annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The way the figures are compiled is a problem in itself, Dooley says, because it zealously protects the anonymity of employers. That diverts attention from specific workplace behavior that needs close examination and corrective action to reduce accidental deaths over time, he says. 

The National Council’s answer to this problem is to publish its own “Dirty Dozen” list of employers notable for health and safety problems among their workforces. The Council uses a standard of measurement that includes non-fatal injuries and other factors, but the list stands out in that it names some very well-known companies. For example, the online retailer Amazon is on the list because it has seen seven of its warehouse workers killed since 2013. Lowe’s Home Improvement operations have seen a total of 56 deaths associated with paint stripping chemicals. And the largest garbage disposal company in the United States, Waste Management, has had an excessive number of OSHA citations and fines. Other companies on the list are Tesla Motors and Dine Brands Global (owner of IHOP and Applebee’s restaurants).

“There is injustice in the Bureau of Labor Statistics as a totally anonymous database. There is no public record of who is dying and who the employers are,” Dooley says. The information actually does exist deep in the Labor Department files, he adds, but government policy is to keep this information out of public hands, or for use by safety experts. “This needs to be changed,” he says.

Seminario and Dooley agree that the worker safety signals coming from the Trump administration are troubling, even if the statistics are not up-to-date enough to make a direct link to increased workplace deaths. Trump’s budget proposal last year called for a 21 percent cut in Department of Labor spending, and the initial proposal for this year call for a 9 percent cut. Congress pared back last year’s proposed cut, and is expected to do so again this year, but it is clear that current Labor Department officials have no plans to take the initiative against the rise in workplace deaths, Dooley charges.

In issuing its report, the AFL-CIO noted: “The Trump administration has moved to weaken recently issued rules on beryllium and mine examinations and has delayed or abandoned the development of new protections, including regulations on workplace violence, infectious diseases, silica in mining and combustible dust.”

“At the same time, Congress is pushing forward with numerous ‘regulatory reform’ bills that would require review and culling of existing rules, make costs the primary consideration in adopting regulations, and making it virtually impossible to issue new protections.”

The reference to workplace violence represents one of the most troubling statistics buried in the government reports. According to a press release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Workplace homicides increased by 83 cases to 500 in 2016, and workplace suicides increased by 62 to 291. This is the highest homicide figure since 2010 and the most suicides since the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries began reporting data in 1992.”

“It’s a very complicated problem,” observes Seminario. “You can devise safety regulations to avoid common and predictable accidents. But how do you do that with a homicide?”

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

The Right Wing Has a Vast, Secret Plot to Destroy Unions for Good. Here’s How to Fight Back.

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

The vast right-wing network of Koch brother-funded “think tanks” is now plotting to finish off the public sector labor movement once and for all.

In a series of fundraising documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy of Madison, Wis., and published in the Guardian, the CEO of a cartel of 66 well-funded arch-conservative state capitol lobbying outfits promises funders a “once-in-a-lifetime chance to reverse the failed policies of the American left.”

Tracie Sharp, the leader of the States Policy Network (SPN), goes on to explain that the pathway to permanent right-wing victory is to “defund and defang” unions that rely on the legal protections of state labor law.

Though less well-known, the SPN is something of a sister organization to the American Legislative and Exchange Council (ALEC), which writes cookie cutter “model legislation” for right-wing state legislators.

SPN affiliates, like Michigan’s Mackinac Center and Ohio’s Buckeye Institute, promote ALEC’s agenda in the public sphere and attack organizations that are opposed to it. Both networks have effectively nationalized the conservative agenda in state legislatures.

The One Percent Solution

What’s fueling this drive is a combination of the vast sums of money that flow into elections in the Citizens United-era along with the gerrymandering that has helped rig elections in favor of Republicans. The result has frequently been “triple crown” GOP-led state governments that hold little accountability to voters but tremendous debts to their corporate masters.

University of Oregon professor Gordon Lafer has documented the rise of the corporate legislative agenda in all 50 states in his new book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time.

Lafer found that state bills pushed by ALEC and the SPN, along with more traditional business lobbyists like the Chamber of Commerce, generally fall into four broad categories.

The first, and most obvious, are efforts to constrain or destroy institutions that empower working people to fight back, such as labor unions.

Second are efforts to privatize public services. Lafer found these efforts were primarily intended to diffuse the responsibility of providing these services. “If no public authority is responsible,” he writes, “demands become customer-service issues rather than policy problems that must be addressed by democratically accountable officials.”

Third are efforts to block—or preempt—rebel cities from passing living wage or fair scheduling laws, thereby foreclosing on the ability for localities to defend and advance progressive goals.

Finally, through tax cuts for the wealthy and austerity-driven cuts to vital public services, Lafer found that this corporate agenda seeks a downward shift in what people come to expect for a basic standard of living.

In other words, the One Percent’s solution is to convince the rest of us, as the Dead Kennedys song goes, that soup is good food; that each new indignity is simply our new standard of living and that we shouldn’t expect more.

“Give yourself a raise”

If the States Policy Network does really strive for this One Percent goal outlined by Lafer, then it’s no wonder that the group has been most dogged in pursuing its union-busting agenda. SPN and ALEC have long understood what many Democratic politicians are only just beginning to realize: strong unions help keep right-wing politicians out of office while protecting the social safety net.

SPN and ALEC have aggressively pursued so-called “right-to-work” legislation as a means of bankrupting unions and knocking out a key component of their opponents’ get-out-the-vote operation. Twenty-eight states now have these anti-union laws on the books. Five of them—all former bedrocks of union power—were passed this decade as a part of the anti-union drive described in the documents released by the Center for Media and Democracy.

That’s hardly the extent of the role of these “think tanks” in busting unions. Flush with cash, they’ve begun volunteering their efforts as union avoidance consultants where no one has asked for their services.

In 2013, I was part of a drive to organize the workers at Chicago’s United Neighborhood Organization Charter School Network, under the terms of a neutrality agreement. The employer was getting rocked by a financial and insider dealing scandal that was a daily cover story in the local media. The schools’ employees joining the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS) was the only positive headline they had to look forward to when we launched the card drive.

That didn’t stop an SPN affiliate, the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), from harvesting teachers’ email addresses and spamming UNO’s e-mail lists with condescending admonitions to “not sign any union petition or authorization card unless you are certain that you want union representation.”

These union busters seemed to assume that the “launch” of our card drive meant a bunch of beefy goons were about to descend on the schools to strong-arm teachers. In fact, the public launch of the card drive was the union organizing equivalent of a touchdown dance. The representative, democratic organizing committee we had spent weeks training, educating and empowering signed up over 90 percent of their colleagues in time for a May Day card count certification.

The Illinois Policy Institute is better prepared for the upcoming Supreme Court case, Janus vs. AFSCME. Originating from Illinois, the case is a blatant do-over of the craven attempt to turn the entire public sector labor movement “right-to-work,” previously pushed in the Friedrichs case.

Should the Supreme Court vote to make union fees voluntary, the IPI and its sister organizations are prepared to run the mother of all “open shop” drives. They will likely FOIA the names and as much contact information as possible of every union-represented public sector worker and inundate them with glossy materials encouraging them to “give yourself a raise” by quitting the union.

How to fight back

The revelation of the SPN’s nakedly partisan agenda should open every one of its affiliates to challenges over their status as tax-deductible educational charities. These challenges are worth pursuing, if only to delegitimize their role in public debates. But this won’t really affect their bottom line—their funders have so much money they hardly need the tax breaks for donating to their favorite political causes.

In preparation for the post-Janus attacks, public sector unions should behave more like Chicago ACTS and confound the SPN’s moldy old assumptions about the source of union power. To do this, we need to greatly increase members’ democratic involvement in their unions. The slick “give yourself a raise” pamphlets will do the most damage in places where members think of the union as simply a headquarters building downtown. If that’s the extent of their interaction, workers could fall for the cheap trick of blaming the union for the stagnant wages and reduction in benefits that are actually the direct result of the GOP’s corporate agenda.

But where members are involved in formulating demands and participating in protest actions, they find the true value and power of being in a union. That power—the power of an active and involved membership—is what the right-wing most fears, and is doing everything in its power to stop.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Shaun Richman is a campaign consultant and writer with fifteen years experience as a union organizing director and representative. He is a contributing editor to In These Times magazine.

Canadian Mounties to the Rescue of American Workers

Friday, September 8th, 2017

The Canadian Royal Mounties have offered to ride to the rescue of beleaguered American workers.

It doesn’t sound right. Americans perceive themselves to be the heroes. They are, after all, the country whose intervention won World War II, the country whose symbol, the Statue of Liberty, lifts her lamp to light the way, as the poem at the statue’s base says, for the yearning masses and wretched refuse, for the homeless and tempest-tossed.

America loves the underdog and champions the little guy. The United States is doing that, for example, by demanding in the negotiations to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that Mexico raise its miserable work standards and wages. Now, though, here comes Canada, the third party in the NAFTA triad, insisting that the United States fortify its workers’ collective bargaining rights. That’s the Mounties to the rescue of downtrodden U.S. workers.

This NAFTA demand from the Great White North arrives amid relentless attacks on labor rights in the United States, declining union membership and stagnant wages. To prevent Mexico’s poverty wages from sucking U.S. factories south of the border, the United States is insisting that Mexico eliminate company-controlled fake labor unions. Similarly, to prevent the United States and Mexico from luring Canadian companies away, Canada is stipulating that the United States eliminate laws that empower corporations and weaken workers.

The most infamous of these laws is referred to, bogusly, as right-to-work. Really, it’s right-to-bankrupt labor unions and right-to-cut workers’ pay. These laws forbid corporations and labor unions from negotiating collective bargaining agreements that require payments in lieu of dues from workers who choose not to join the union. These payments, which are typically less than full dues, cover the costs that unions incur to bargain contracts and pursue worker grievances.

Lawmakers that pass right-to-bankrupt legislation know that federal law requires labor unions to represent everyone in their unit at a workplace, even if those employees don’t join the union and don’t make any payments. These dues-shirkers still get the higher wages and better benefits guaranteed in the labor contract. And they still get the labor union to advocate for them, even hire lawyers for them, if they want to file grievances against the company.

The allure of getting something for nothing, a sham created by right-wing politicians who prostrate themselves to corporations, ultimately can bankrupt unions forced to serve freeloaders. Which is exactly what the right-wingers and corporations want. It’s much easier for corporations to ignore the feeble pleas of individual workers for better pay and safer working conditions than to negotiate with unions that wield the power of concerted action.

Canada is particularly sensitive about America’s right-to-bankrupt laws because they’ve now crept up to the border. Among the handful of states that in recent years joined the right-to-bankrupt gang are Wisconsin and Michigan, both at the doorstep of a highly industrial region in Ontario, Canada.

So now, the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan can whisper in the ears of CEOs, “Come south, and we’ll help you break the unions. Instead of paying union wages, you can take all that money as profit and get yourself even fatter pay packages and bonuses!”

Then those governors will make American workers pay for the move with shocking tax breaks for corporations, like the $3 billion Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker promised electronics manufacturer Foxconn to locate a factory there. That’s $1 million in tax money for each of the 3,000 jobs that Foxconn said would be the minimum it would create with the $10 billion project.

Right-wing lawmakers like Walker and U.S. CEOs have been union busting for decades. And it’s been successful.  In the heyday of unions in the 1950s and 1960s, nearly 30 percent of all U.S. workers belonged. Wage rates rose as productivity did. And they climbed consistently. Then, one wage-earner could support a middle-class family.

That’s not true anymore. For decades now, as union membership waned, wages stagnated for the middle class and poor, and compensation for CEOs skyrocketed. And this occurred even while productivity rose. By January of 2016, the most recent date for which the statistics are available, union membership had declined to 10.7 percent. The number of workers in unions dropped by nearly a quarter million from the previous year.

This is despite the fact that union workers earn more and are more likely to have pensions and employer-paid health insurance. The median weekly earnings for non-union workers in 2016 was $802. For union members, it was $1,004.

It’s not that labor unions don’t work. It’s that right-wing U.S. politicians are working against them. They pass legislation and regulations that make it hard for unions to represent workers.

It’s very different for unions in Canada. For example, union membership in Canada is growing, not dwindling like in the United States. In Canada, 31.8 percent of workers were represented by union in 2015, up 0.3 percentage points from 2014. That is higher than the all-time peak in the United States.

And it’s because Canadian legislation encourages unionization to counterbalance powerful corporations. In some Canadian provinces, for example, corporations are prohibited from hiring replacements when workers strike; striking workers are permitted to picket the companies that sell to and buy from their employer; labor agreements must contain “successorship” rights requiring a corporation that buys the employer to recognize the union and abide by its labor agreement; and employers must submit to binding arbitration if they fail to come to a first labor agreement with a newly formed union within a specific amount of time.

The second round of negotiations to rewrite NAFTA ended in Mexico this week. The third is scheduled for later this month in Canada. That’s a good opportunity for the northernmost member of the NAFTA triad to showcase its labor laws and explain why they are crucial to defending worker rights and raising wages.

Getting language protecting workers’ union rights into NAFTA is not enough, however. The trade deal must also contain penalties for countries that fail to meet the standards. This could be, for example, border adjustment taxes on exports from recalcitrant countries.

Canada’s nearly 20,000 Royal Canadian Mounted Police only recently filed papers to unionize. That occurred after the Canadian Supreme Court overturned a 1960s era federal law that barred them from organizing.

Canada’s Supreme Court said the law violated the Mounties’ freedom of association, a right guaranteed to Americans in the U.S. Constitution. Now, Canada is riding to the rescue of U.S. and Mexican workers’ freedom of association by demanding the new NAFTA include specific protections for collective bargaining.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on September 8, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Leo Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers (USW), took office in 2001 after the retirement of former president George Becker.

#CampusResistance rises today at colleges and universities nationwide

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

Students and faculty at America’s colleges and universities stand at the confluence of many of the most troubled waters springing from the Trump administration and its corporate-driven, deeply divisive agenda.

It’s on these campuses that millions of young adults wonder whether they’ll still have health insurance if Obamacare is repealed. It’s here where those whose parents are undocumented immigrants may be forced to seek sanctuary. Hate incidents have spiked. The arts, science and intellectual freedom are under attack. Countless professors were ensnared by the administration’s ill-conceived travel ban.

This deluge is flooding a higher education system in which so many were already barely keeping their heads above water. Families can’t afford to send their kids to college, student debt has skyrocketed and faculty in precarious jobs are earning so little, many must rely on public assistance to make ends meet.

Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that college campuses are emerging as centers of resistance in these first weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Today, nationwide, at dozens of colleges and universities from Boston to Seattle, students, contingent and adjunct faculty, their fellow working people and allies are standing up, teaching in, speaking out and reclaiming higher education for the public good. A national day of action is raising the banner of #CampusResistance.

At the University of Chicago, we are standing up for part-time faculty who struggle to pay for healthcare and are in danger of their losing insurance. Elsewhere across the country there are marches, rallies and teach-ins. The energy surrounding the campus resistance movement is real and growing.

As a contingent professor of Hindi and the executive vice president of a labor union, the two of us have different vantage points as we observe what’s happening in our nation and on our campuses. However, we see the same forces at work. New Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is unqualified and wrong for the job, which she has clearly demonstrated through her attacks on unionized workers and support for commoditized, corporatized higher education.

But college campuses are inherently optimistic places. That’s why we can see past Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. It’s why contingent faculty endure the challenges of the profession. It’s why graduate workers keep at it even when they are underpaid and overworked. It’s why students who wonder what kind of world they’ll graduate into are hitting the books harder than ever.

You can’t keep people down who are thinking about the future—their own and that of our country. It’s why students and faculty who joined or applauded as millions of women marched the day after Trump’s inauguration have turned their attention to what they can do right where they are.

What they can do—what they will do on today—is more than protest Trump, although it’s essential that we resist and oppose his agenda. Faculty and students will rise up to and stress how important a strong higher education system is to the well-being of the nation.

Americans deserve—and need—colleges that are gateways to a lifetime of opportunity for students. Institutions that are once again cornerstones of local and regional economies, providing good, stable jobs that can sustain a family. Places where children of immigrant families can pursue the American Dream without worrying they will be dragged away. Homes to robust intellectual inquiry that advances science and nurtures the arts, uncompromised by the pressures of partisan politics.

This is why we and thousands of others are a part of the #CampusResistance — today and beyond.

This article was originally printed on SEIU.org in March 2017 .  Reprinted with permission.

Jason Grunebaum has been a contingent professor of Hindi at University of Chicago for 12 years.
Heather Conroy
is an international executive vice president at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

BREAKING: Iowa Lawmakers Pass Sweeping Anti-Union Bill

Friday, February 17th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But workers aren’t giving up.

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

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

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

Texas Bill Would Require Workers Under 18 to Get Their Parents’ Consent to Join a Union

Thursday, December 15th, 2016

Last month, the highest-ranking member of the Texas Senate, Jane Nelson, pre-filed 11 bills to be considered in the legislative session that begins on January 10. A former teacher, Sen. Nelson has often focused her legislative attention on protecting children, and her new bills are no different—with five of the 11 bills dealing with children. However, nestled between SB 74, which affects children with high mental needs in the foster system, and SB 76, which allows municipalities to prohibit sex offenders from living near a “child safety zone,” is SB 75, which seeks to protect children from labor unions.

The bill would prohibit unions from accepting as a member anyone under 18 years of age unless the union first procures a signed consent form from the minor’s parent or guardian. According to a statement from Sen. Nelson’s office, the bill “protects parental rights by requiring consent before a minor may join a union, and it protects minors from entering into a contract they may not fully understand.” (Nelson’s staff initially responded to a request for an interview with the senator by asking questions about specifics, but then ignored attempts to schedule one.)

If the bill passes, children as young as 14 will be able to enter into an employment agreement with most employers without parental consent, but they will not be permitted to join a union without a signed parental consent.

The purpose of such a bill is not immediately clear. There appears to be no problem for which this bill is a solution. Texas has long been a right-to-work state, which means that any worker who is represented by a union can choose to pay no dues. It is also not clear how many unions even have minors as members in Texas.

Still, the proposed bill may be both symbolically and practically important, and could represent a new front in state-level attacks on unions. Symbolically, the bill positions unions as something that children need to be protected from. It hardly seems coincidental that the bill “protecting” children from unions is in the same packet as bills protecting children from sex offenders or a parent who sexually assaults the other parent. The bill treats unions not as organizations that represent and work on behalf of workers, but as something that preys on innocent children.

Practically, the bill may also have a significant effect. The number of workers between the ages of 16 and 24 that are represented by a union has increased steadily each year since 2013. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not measure union membership for the subgroup of those between 16 and 18 years old). Furthermore, in the past few years, some of the major labor campaigns—from Fight for 15 to a push for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to treat franchisors and franchisees as joint employers—have involved industries where younger workers represent a significant percentage of the workforce. Though workers at most fast food chains may still be far off from joining a union, a proliferation of bills such as the one being pushed in Texas would provide yet another roadblock in organizing.

Unfortunately, labor may be in a bind in terms of how best to respond to this bill. If it does not fight it, then the bill will likely become law in Texas and serve its onerous purposes. It may then spread to other states and become one more general state-level hurdle that labor has to contend with. However, if it does fight it, then it may serve to publicize the bill, and place itself in the loaded position of having to argue publicly that unions pose no harm to children.

The best approach may be to push a poison pill amendment that would either silently kill the bill, or, if passed, make the bill, on balance, a net positive. Such an amendment should similarly seek to protect young workers in the workplace, but from employers’ unscrupulous practices. It could take any number of forms, such as a just-cause provision for all workers under 24 years of age in order to protect young workers who may feel less confident in asserting their rights for fear of losing their jobs. A bill with such an amendment would have little chance of passing in Texas, but it would reframe the debate without publicizing the original bill’s faulty premise.

Conservatives have long tried, with some success, to portray unions as exploitative enterprises. Right-to-work laws position unions as organizations that stand as a barrier to work, while unfairly assessing dues. This proposed parental consent bill is of a similar vein—treating unions as something that harms or exploits workers, rather than as the representative of workers that they are.

This post originally appeared on inthesetimes.com on December 14, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.

Donald Trump just attacked a local union leader for telling the truth

Monday, December 12th, 2016
Chuck Jones is the president of United Steelworkers Local 1999, which represents the workers at the much-discussed Indiana Carrier plant. That put him in the spotlight when he had to be the person to correct not just Donald Trump but much of the media by pointing out that Trump’s deal with Carrier had saved not the thousand-plus jobs claimed but just around 800. And calling out a Trump lie made Jones Trumpic Enemy Number One, at least for Wednesday night:

Chuck Jones didn’t start his work life with a seven-figure loan from his daddy. He doesn’t have tens of millions of Twitter followers. He can’t offer Carrier hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in tax breaks. He can’t threaten its parent company’s federal contracts, or promise to rewrite the laws governing corporations in ways it likes. He is not the president-elect.

So, no. Chuck Jones could not singlehandedly save jobs at Carrier that, by the way, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence had not been able to keep in the state when he was a mere governor without a notorious bully backing him. Jones could only negotiate the best deal he could backed by the power his workers and his union had been able to build, person by person—and he was doing that in the face of an economy shaped by union-busters and greedy billionaires like Donald Trump.

Now, thanks to the president-elect deciding it’s a reasonable use of his power to attack a private citizen, Jones has a little bit of a platform. Let’s hear what he has to say:

Jones then responded to the tweet on CNN, saying of Trump: “If he wants to blame me, so be it, but I look at him and how many millions of dollars he spent on his hotels and casinos, trying to keep labor unions out, you know, so, I like my side, trying to work to make people’s lives the best they can be,” Jones said.

And:

Jones, who said the union wasn’t involved in the negotiations, said he’s working to lift his members’ spirits. He said he didn’t have time to worry about Trump.

“He needs to worry about getting his Cabinet filled,” he said, “and leave me the hell alone.”

Don’t forget—Jones is working to lift his members’ spirits because more than a thousand of them will be out of work while the president-elect runs around claiming to have saved their jobs.

And by the way, CNN and Politico, Jones is not a “union boss,” unless you want to start calling Trump “U.S. boss” (not that he’d mind). Jones is the elected president of his union local, not an autocrat.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on December 7, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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

The Hope From Audacity: Fight for $15 Pulls Off “Most Disruptive” Day of Action Yet

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

David MobergChicago—The movement known as Fight for $15 started in New York City as a surprise one-day strike. The workers’ demands then were simple and bold. They wanted a minimum wage of $15 an hour and the right to organize a union.

The workers who initiated the campaign could no longer tolerate lengthy debates over penny increases to the state, local and federal minimum wages. They called for more than double the federal minimum wage, which stood then—and now—at $7.25 an hour.

This was a dream that seemed not only aspirational but downright crazy when Fight for $15 first launched. And it was put forward by some of the workers with the greatest need—occupants of the virtually interchangeable jobs of the vast modern low-wage economy. These are the jobs that people take not just as a first job, but as the first of dozens of similar jobs in a career with little progress.

To mark its fourth anniversary this week, the Fight for $15 organization staged its largest and “most disruptive” national action to date, which included strikes, non-violent civil disobedience and actions at major airports like the Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

Even though it still has a long way to go, Fight for $15 had reason to celebrate.

A new report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) credits Fight for $15 with winning an increase of $61.5 billion in annual wages over its first four years, mostly through state and local minimum wage increases. In other instances, employers boosted workers’ pay under public pressure.

On balance, these victories for roughly 19 million workers yielded a total raise more than 10 times larger than the raise U.S. workers received from the last federal minimum wage hike in 2007, according to NELP. By Fight for $15’s accounting, its actions have raised wages for 22 million workers.

Still, employers in the United States pay less than $15 an hour to some 64 million workers.

Over the past four years, Fight for $15 has reached beyond its base in fast food restaurants and launched organizing efforts with a broad range of poorly-paid workers: home care and child care workers, early childhood teachers, university teaching assistants, Uber and other ride-share company drivers, airport workers and many others. It has also inspired more tightly organized, conventional unions to reach out to other low-paid, low-skilled workers, such as car washers and retail sales clerks.

As the organization has grown, Fight for $15 has taken up new tactics and demands, in part reflecting the preoccupations of its members. While its two core demands remain a $15 minimum wage and union rights, the organization now also calls for an end to structural racism, to police killings of black people and to deportations of immigrants.

A new report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) credits Fight for $15 with winning an increase of $61.5 billion in annual wages over its first four years. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

“We can’t keep living like this”

Before 6 a.m. Tuesday, a cool fall day, a crowd of several hundred protestors gathered outside a McDonald’s restaurant in the gentrifying but still largely working-class and immigrant neighborhood of Ukrainian Village on Chicago’s northwest side. Supporters unfurled a banner from a nearby grocery store. It read: “We Demand $15 and Union Rights, Stop Deportations, Stop Killing Black People.” The crowd chanted slogans, ranging from the humorously blunt (“We work, we sweat. Put $15 on our check!”) to the bluntly militant (“If we don’t get it. Shut it down!”) and the over-optimistically heroic (“El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido!” Spanish for “United, the people will never be defeated”).

The crowd included local politicians like Cook County Commissioner and recent insurgent mayoral candidate, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, and workers whose jobs worsened recently as well as many others whose jobs have never been good. Uber driver Darrell Imani represented one of the newest companies whose workers have turned to Fight for $15 to protect what they fear losing. When he started driving for Uber a couple of years and about 12,000 rides ago, he typically earned roughly $25 an hour, or $40,000 a year.

“Now we can barely pay for gas and services,” he lamented. “We can’t keep living like this. We can’t. Uber drivers are on strike for living wages. I love doing it, but I want to be able to pay the bills. I’m trying to organize the group to be a union. Uber is making billions of dollars, but we are the ones who are making it for them.”

Also in the crowd was Keith Kelleher, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas, a large local union. He has a long history of trying, and often succeeding in organizing implausible groups of workers. In Detroit, Kelleher briefly organized hamburger chain outlets. He managed to organize widely dispersed home care workers in Chicago and other parts of Illinois. And just a few years ago, he led a march of retail clerks and fast food workers down North Michigan Avenue, the swank shopping strip of downtown Chicago.

“It has solidified in my mind that organizing can’t just be about wages, hours and working conditions,” Kelleher says. “It also is not just traditional organizing. This [Fight for $15] is the wave of the future. Workers want a union, and you can build organizations off of this. That’s the challenge.”

Organizing in the future may look much more like earlier periods of American labor history when “open shops” were common, meaning that individual workers could join or not join a union, Kelleher said. Open shops could become the rule again, as a result of the spread of right-to-work laws and the possibility of conservative judges overruling unions’ right to collect a “fair share” of normal dues to cover expenses of representing workers who do not join the union.

Kelleher’s home care workers’ union started along the model of an open shop, then won an agreement to have the state government “check off,” or collect, dues. But the Supreme Court later ruled that the home and child care workers in Kelleher’s union were not full-fledged state employees and, therefore, the union could not have dues deducted from their paychecks. The union now collects dues itself from about 65,000 of its more than 90,000 members, a remarkable achievement given how dispersed those workers are.

If employers think an open shop will weaken unions by making them less stable, Kelleher cites an unattributed maxim: “Where you don’t have permanent organization, you have permanent war.”

“With a union, you’re stronger”

The airport strike at O’Hare, the world’s fourth busiest airport, was one of the more dramatic actions. A year ago, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 launched a campaign to organize about 2,000 O’Hare workers, employed by a modest number of contractors for tasks that include cleaning airplane cabins, providing transport for passengers with mobility problems, handling baggage and other services.

Forty years ago, these workers were employed directly by each airline and wages and benefits were attractive. But those arrangements collapsed under pressure from strong outside forces. Airlines increasingly subcontracted work to independent, specialized firms, which competed for work from the airlines and thus felt pressure to cut labor costs.  And with deregulation of the airline industry, the carriers were subject to pressures to cut cost, which was easier to do when they employed contractors rather than direct hires.

Also, there was an economy-wide shift towards what David Weil, now the administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, called the “fissured workplace,” where more powerful elements of the enterprise or workplace try to minimize their responsibility for anything except maximizing profits. President Ronald Reagan’s breaking the strike and union of the air traffic controllers further legitimized an anti-worker strategy that airline managers can deploy. One of the consequences is that from 2002 to 2012 outsourcing of baggage porter jobs more than tripled from 25 percent to 84 percent.

Despite having multiple employers, with a varied workforce, “workers’ resolve is very strong,” says Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU Local 1. An estimated 400 workers at O’Hare took part in the strike Tuesday.

“I think workers know the airlines can pay,” Balanoff says. “The airlines haven’t talked to us yet, but I think we got their attention,” and he believes the union has the political as well as industrial strength to prevail.

Andrew Pawelko hopes that’s true. A former auto paint detail worker, he now works as the lead in a cabin cleaning crew for Prospect, a major contractor to big airlines.

“I like cleaning and detail work,” he says, but “the job needs more pay.”

Pawelko, who took part in the strike, makes $12.50 an hour; members of his crew make $10.75. At a previous job, the employer persuaded workers to get rid of their union. A short time later, Pawelko’s benefits were cut.

“Union rights,” he says, “100 percent we need it, all of us.”

Rasheed Atolagbe-Aro, 50, a recent immigrant from Nigeria, is another strong union supporter who joined the strike, partly because of issues concerning safety and the high pressures at work.

“It’s high risk,” he says. “The spray used to clean is at a very serious level. But you’re fired if you refuse to come to work. With a union, you’re stronger.”

Although Fight for $15 is not a union, it can provide a way to fight on behalf of broad policies that help all low-wage workers, even if it has not yet created or even defined more localized vehicles to deal with individual member grievances, contracts and other traditional union tasks like signing up members, collecting dues and providing services. Such are some of the concerns about the group’s unconventional, loose structure, its lack of emphasis on formal membership and dues and its heavy financial dependence on the 1.8 million-member SEIU.

Can even a financially-strong union continue to underwrite such an ambitious undertaking?  What is the optimal amount of SEIU control over Fight for $15?

“We’re hoping to build this movement,” Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, said as she stood on a balcony at O’Hare along with more than a thousand members and supporters of Fight for $15, noting that Fight for $15 mustered actions in 340 cities and 20 airports in a single day, combining rallies and marches with more logistically-complicated tactics, such as civil disobedience. “Our plan is not to shape the organization into unions as we have known them, but something different.”

Henry takes inspiration from the way that the labor movement in Denmark, for instance, has raised fast food worker wages and workplace standards dramatically by sitting down and talking with corporate leaders in the field to negotiate an agreement. She says she hopes to do the same, perhaps within the coming year, by sitting down with McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s—the big three in burgers—to negotiate an industry-wide agreement.

“Workers say a union is the way jobs become good jobs, the way to have a voice,” she said. “Organizing is the way to improve our lives.”

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on December 1, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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

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