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Posts Tagged ‘Labor Unions’

Labor Needs To Embrace Social Justice Unionism

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Construction workers prepare to battle former ally Trump

Friday, August 16th, 2019

Ian Kullgren March 9, 2018. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)

A powerful union group uneasy about a Labor Department apprenticeship proposal has “the potential to be a significant force in the 2020 election.”

One of the nation’s largest labor groups embraced Donald Trump at the start of his presidency, in hopes he would create construction jobs and retreat from proposals that might reduce workers’ wages.

But now the two sides are on the brink of war, endangering a key bloc of Trump’s support in Midwestern swing states in 2020.

At issue is a deal gone bad between Trump and North America’s Building Trades Unions over a Labor Department apprenticeship initiative, the politics of which have grown more complicated since last month’s ouster of Secretary Alexander Acosta. Leaders of the union federation worry that the final version will undermine their own job-training programs and create a supply of cheap labor for developers, undercutting high-skilled construction workers who rely on prevailing-wage jobs to make ends meet.

“It’s an existential threat to the Building Trades,” said a former administration official with knowledge of the discussions. And it has the powerful group — a union federation that represents millions of construction workers across the U.S. — seeing early signs of a member-driven revolt against Trump in 2020.

Such a turn could further weaken Trump’s already-declining support in the Midwestern states that won him the presidency in 2016, when many Building Trades members embraced his pledge to create working-class jobs and improve the nation’s infrastructure.

“The Building Trades have the potential to be a significant force in the 2020 election,” said Steve Rosenthal, a strategist and former political director for the AFL-CIO, “particularly in some of the key swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Iowa.

“The Building Trades know how to mobilize their members and move votes,” he added. “And their opposition to Trump can have a ripple effect beyond their members and their families to other voters in the communities where their members live and work.”

Trump sought to shore up support with the Building Trades this week at an appearance in Pennsylvania. Aninstruction sheet given to workers attending the event said the president hoped to “promote good will from the labor unions,” and he wasted no time doing so.

“I love the unions and I love the workers,” Trump said. “And, you know, when I built buildings in New York … I built them exclusively with unions. People don’t understand that. I was exclusive.” (Until recently, it was virtually impossible for anyone to build anything in New York City without union labor.)

Though its leadership endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign, NABTU has always been viewed as more conservative than other labor groups, and since Trump’s victory it has weathered criticism from the left for that reason. Trump — who won the majority of white male union members — made a point of meeting with the leaders of several construction unions on his third day in office, after which NABTU President Sean McGarvey exalted their “common bond with the president.”

“We come from the same industry,” McGarvey told The New York Times after the meeting. “He understands the value of driving development, moving people to the middle class.”

In April 2017, McGarvey praised Trump as “the very definition of an American success story” before an audience of members in Washington.

McGarvey’s group had a keen interest at the time in securing construction jobs from the Trump administration’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure program, which never came to fruition. McGarvey also had an interest in dissuading Trump from an early impulse to push repeal of the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act, which requires the federal government to pay prevailing wage — typically union scale — on construction projects. Trump backed off the idea after floating it early in his presidency.

But the Building Trades and the administration are increasingly at odds over the apprenticeship initiative, a proposed rule that would create industry-supervised job training programs. The Labor Department’s proposal has received more than 160,000 comments, the vast majority of them from union members vouching for the strength of the unions’ existing training programs. Most of the comments implicitly rebuke officials in the White House who have sought to make the proposal less favorable to unions.

The two sides appeared more in agreement in June 2017, when Trump issued an executive order aimed at “easing the regulatory burden” on apprenticeships. In an effort to expand job training to new industries, the administration proposed to create a class of “industry-recognized” programs with fewer restrictions than existing government-sanctioned programs.

McGarvey agreed at the time to join Trump’s committee to help create the apprenticeship system — with the understanding that NABTU’s own government-supervised apprenticeships would be untouched, according to his chief of staff, Michael Monroe.

NABTU says it had a deal with the administration to exclude construction jobs from the new proposal, to protect the Building Trades’ existing programs for training pipe fitters, iron workers and roofers, among others. But that agreement was with Acosta. Now NABTU’s leaders fear that White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and his deregulation hawks won’t honor the bargain.

Trust between the Building Trades and the White House began to unravel in May, when the White House forced out Acosta’s chief of staff, Nick Geale, after an inquiry raised questions about his treatment of subordinates. But there was perhaps a deeper source of tension: Mulvaney and some domestic policy advisers judged Acosta too cautious on deregulation and too accommodating to unions.

When he took over as acting chief of staff in January, Mulvaney had judged the situation so dire that he seized Acosta’s rulemaking authority, commanding final say on policy matters. Then came the Labor secretary’s resignation in July, days after Mulvaney urged Trump to fire him over a lenient 2008 plea deal that Acosta, then the U.S. attorney for southern Florida, had struck with wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Before he left, Acosta persuaded Ivanka Trump, who was involved in the apprenticeship rulemaking, to keep construction out of the new industry-led program, according to the former administration official. The Building Trades had told Acosta that letting developers pay industry-recognized apprentices less than prevailing wage would create price competition with NABTU’s program.

“It would lower standards, it would put workers at risk, it would put projects at risk, it would put communities at risk,” Monroe said. “All the features that make ours successful, to undermine that is to undermine the veracity of the system at large.”

Acosta’s decision was also driven by politics, according to the former official, who noted the Building Trades’ strong grassroots operation in the Midwest. Democrats on Capitol Hill were sounding alarms about the Labor Department’s new industry-led program, too, warning that it risked creating low-quality programs with lax oversight.

Acosta and three White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.

In the proposed rule published in June, the Labor Department said it would not “initially” accept industry-led apprenticeship applications for the construction sector, but didn’t rule out doing so later. That language stirred deep anxiety among Building Trades leaders, and prompted NABTU to direct a torrent of public comments to the Labor Department about the proposal.

NABTU leaders say they’ve observed a high volume of comments from the Midwest. An iron worker from Indiana, encapsulating the sentiment, told the Labor Department that his union apprenticeship provided a pathway to the middle class — and expressed concern that it would “disappear” under the administration’s proposal.

In April, meanwhile, McGarvey said the Building Trades might not endorse any candidate 2020. Hacked emails released by WikiLeaks showed internal dissent from some member unions, including the Teamsters and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, following the federation’s endorsement of Clinton — demonstrating how tenuous NABTU support was for any candidate.

Clinton performed poorly in 2016 among union households, winning only 51 percent — the narrowest margin of victory for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1984. In Ohio, Trump bested Clinton among union households by 9 percentage points. But the next Democratic nominee could poll more strongly with that group in 2020, Building Trades brass argue, if their voters feel betrayed by Trump.

“This is not necessarily what people supported or thought they would get out of this administration,” Monroe said. “The fact that they’re out there engaging on this is something I would think that people in more political circles than I am would probably take notice of.”

This article was originally published by Politico on August 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Ian Kullgren is a reporter on POLITICO’s employment and immigration team. Before joining POLITICO, he was a reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. and was part of a team that covered a 41-day standoff with armed militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their efforts earned the Associated Press Media Editors grand prize for news reporting in 2017. His real beat was politics, though, and he spent most his time at the state capitol covering the governor and state legislature.

The Fight for a Green New Deal Can Start with Your Union Contract

Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

Image result for Jared OdesskyNews coverage of the Green New Deal portrays organized labor as a major obstacle to its enactment. But our new report for Data for Progress paints a different picture. In a poll conducted for the think tank by YouGov Blue, union members overwhelmingly favored the proposed reforms, with 62 percent in support and 22 percent against. In a memo for Data Progress, where I am a legal fellow, I show how union contracts can be an effective way to fight for a Green New Deal.

In step with the rank-and-file, some union leaders have already backed the ambitious plan. In a resolution adopted in June by its executive board, the Service Employees International Union called the Green New Deal “an unprecedented opportunity to unite the fights for environmental, racial and economic justice.” Los Angeles County Federation of Labor secretary-treasurer Rusty Hicks said in March the “framework is vital to fighting” inequality and climate change. Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson explained in April that it is “not the solutions to climate change that kills jobs,” but climate change itself. To be sure, a handful of union leaders, such as United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers president Lonnie Stephenson, have come out against the proposal. Yet even Roberts has said that he and Green New Deal supporters “agree on 75 percent.”

Even as union support for the measure continues to grow, the current political stalemate in Washington means that passage of the Green New Deal is unlikely in the near future. But labor leaders have an immediate way to translate member support for the Green New Deal into tangible wins: bargaining green union contracts.

American workplaces are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, even in industries without a direct connection to the production of fossil fuels. Individual workers are relatively powerless to change a company’s carbon culture on their own, but through unions, workers can join together and put real pressure on employers to agree to binding commitments to combat a warming world.

Efforts to build climate protection goals directly into collective bargaining agreements are already being undertaken by labor unions in countries like Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Work in a Warming World (W3), a Canadian research project linking academics and community partners to recenter the role of work in the fight against global warming, has undertaken an extensive project to document green clauses in union contracts across the globe. Their research provides a roadmap for American unions seeking to create sustainable workplaces.

For one, unions can bargain for the establishment of workplace environment committees that give workers real power to set sustainability benchmarks and to play an active role in implementation. In an agreement with a leading Canadian metals and mining company, the United Steelworkers Local 408 won contract language establishing a committee for workers and management to jointly develop programs aimed at preventing pollution, minimizing environmental impact and protecting employee health. The clause included an enforceable requirement that management furnish the union with all relevant data about the company’s environmental impact. Union involvement in designing sustainability initiatives can be particularly critical to ensuring there is real bite behind green programs that can otherwise be empty public relations ploys. When several American hotel chains rolled out a program that rewarded guests who forwent housekeeping services, it was hotel staff who spoke out about the pervasive problem of guests who “cheat a bit” while reaping the program’s perks.

Unions can also demand that employers commit to specific environmental goals directly in their contracts. Some activists have sought to get employers to agree to annual carbon footprint reductions, or to purchase union-approved carbon offsets if reductions cannot be achieved. Othershave successfully bargained for building efficiency improvements and recycling programs. Seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by transportation, some unions have even won telework provisions that give employees more flexibility to work from home. Where in-person work is required, unions have obtained employer support for employee transit programs that promote the use of public transportation, bikes and carpooling.

Bargaining green contracts will surely be most difficult in fossil fuel-linked industries, where the work itself contributes to the degradation of the climate. But union contracts have an important role to play in ensuring a just transition to a green economy. Employees worried about a Washington-negotiated Green New Deal can take control of planning for our climate change future at their own workplaces. To ensure that workers can compete for the growing number of green jobs, unions can bargain for employer-sponsored training programs that give employees an opportunity to learn new skills. They can also negotiate for robust severance pay and layoff benefit plans and even early retirement to ensure workers and their families are not left behind as transition nears. And while the National Labor Relations Act does not require employers to bargain with workers over entrepreneurial decisions about the firm, unions can push management to pursue green projects themselves, so that workers can stay on as the company itself shifts missions.

Each of these goals will be far easier to achieve with government intervention, which is why passing the Green New Deal is paramount. But we have no time to wait. American workers may not have a seat at the table in Washington, but unions can take advantage of their seat at the bargaining table now. If they negotiate green new deals at work, we can promote good jobs while averting a climate disaster.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on August 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jared Odessky is a legal fellow at Data for Progress. He is also a law student at Harvard, a regular contributor to the blog OnLabor, and a former union organizer. His writing has been featured in The New York Times, Slate, and the Harvard Law and Policy Review.

Sara Nelson: Democratic Socialists and Labor Share the Same Goal

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

Image result for Sara Nelson, the International President of the Association of Flight AttendantsSara Nelson in her own words on building a fighting labor movement, the proud history of democratic socialism in America, how workers ended the shutdown, and how they’ll stop Trump, too.

On May 10, 2019, Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson gave a speech to the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America’s annual Eugene Debs–Lucy Gonzalez Parsons–A. Philip Randolph Dinner. We reproduce the speech here in full, lightly edited for online publication.

Good evening, sisters and brothers. I’m here because aviation’s first responders did me the great honor of electing me to lead our union. I’m here representing them and stand in awe of their courage and care for all of us.

Our union, the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA, with fifty thousand members at twenty airlines, first formed to beat back discrimination that ranged from quitting at age thirty, or stepping on a weight scale until 1993. We fought for men to have the same rights as women on the job, and we were at the forefront of LGBTQ rights.

That spirit is what led flight attendants to declare we wouldn’t work flights that facilitated the Trump Administration’s evil policy of immigrant family separations. And it’s that spirit that led us to take a firm stand during the government shutdown, when millions of people were out of work, others were forced to work without pay, all of us were increasingly unsafe, and our entire economy was on the line. With access to 360 million voters in our workplace, we intend to continue to use the spirit of our union for good.

And let me tell you I’m proud to be with you, the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America. You have won some great victories here in this city this year. You have helped elect some incredible leaders.

Still, some ignorant political hack or media purveyor of hate is likely talking trash right now about democratic socialists. And here’s what I have to say. Helen Keller was a democratic socialist. And so was Albert Einstein. And so was George Orwell. And Bayard Rustin. And the Reuther family.

When Nazi troops came to the Warsaw Ghetto to kill the last Jews left, the men and women on the rooftops who met them with gasoline bombs were democratic socialists, and democratic socialists stood up against dictatorship throughout the twentieth century, they filled Stalin’s camps and Siberian graves.

The minimum wage, national health care, worker safety rules, Social Security — before the Great Society and before the New Deal, this was the democratic-socialist agenda.

And of course our democratic-socialist working heroes, Eugene Victor Debs, A. Philip Randolph, and Lucy Gonzalez Parsons. The police called Lucy Parsons “more dangerous than a thousand rioters” because of her skills as an orator, organizer, and rabble-rouser.

Her cry that only direct action — or the threat of it — will move the boss is a lesson we can all do well to remember.

Especially today, in this moment of crisis. Just one in ten workers in this country is a party to that charter of freedom and badge of dignity called a union contract. Our republic is mocked every day by the president who swore to defend it and by those who made him in the Republican Party.

Around the world, the dark forces of hate driven dictatorship are on the march, much as they were in the 1930s. Those who seek power through hatred feed on and inspire violence and madness, and leave behind random victims slaughtered in prayer — Christian, Jewish, and Muslim.

And yet we are gathered at a time of tremendous hope and possibility. And so I come here not to make you angry or tell you terrible things, but to bring you good news from America’s working people, and to speak to you in the language that Debs, Parsons, and Randolph spoke: the language of solidarity, of hope.

American Workers on the Offense

I want to summon in your mind’s eye the faces of all the people who walked a picket line this past year. Picture them: West Virginia’s teachers, and their mineworker parents and grandparents. Grocery workers in Boston, hotel workers here in Chicago, Google engineers in San Francisco, and Uber drivers in Los Angeles.

More working people in this country went on strike this past year than have done so in decades. These strikes were workers going on offense — workers demanding to be heard, workers striking for a better day. For one job to be enough.

These were the kind of strikes that Debs, Parsons, and Randolph would have understood, because they were visionary, because they built power, because they built right there on the picket line the kind of country we want to be; where we care for each other, where we fight hand in hand for our democracy, where our “manyness” — our many nationalities and races and religions and our diversity of gender and gender identity — is a source of pride and strength and love.

And because we won.

We beat the Wall Street greedheads and their political pawns who wanted to destroy Los Angeles’s schools in the service of their profits.

We beat the techno barons of Google who thought they could reward sexual harassers with giant pay packages. (As hotel workers said in Chicago: “hands off, pants on.”)

We beat the giant multinational corporations who own our nation’s hotels and grocery stores — who make billions in profits but would have our kids go hungry.

Workers Beat Trump

And we beat the White House.

Donald Trump thought he could close our government, stop paying our nation’s public servants, hold our wellbeing as a nation hostage to his racist hatreds. And he thought he could bully everyone.

But that’s not how it went down.

Because the people who run America’s aviation system take our responsibility to the public seriously. So we started talking about a general strike because it seemed to be the only way to stop Trump’s henchmen from in the end getting people killed in America’s skies — killed because once the federal government started treating air traffic controllers and transportation security workers like slaves, making them work without pay and under the threat of indictment if they took action against it — more and more people simply couldn’t afford to come to work.

It was a race against time. But in the end we won that race when the Federal Aviation Administration closed La Guardia Airport to air traffic because there weren’t enough air traffic controllers.

The punch line here is that this year America’s workers have learned — we have taught ourselves — that we are as brave and strong and creative as our forebears, that we can hold our heads high with Memphis sanitation strikers, Flint sit-down strikers, the martyred dead of Pullman and Haymarket and Cripple Creek, Colorado, with the mill girls of Lowell, and the rebel slaves of Charleston — that if Eugene Debs came back today and went to an LA classroom or a Chicago hotel or a flight attendant union meeting, he would know where he was.

It was the Chicago Teachers Union, under the dynamic leadership of Karen Lewis and the teachers who organized at the grassroots as part of the Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE), who showed many of us how it’s done. With their incredible strike in 2012, they won not only a great contract — they rekindled the militant, rank-and-file organizing approach that built the early labor movement over a century earlier.

But one strike does not a labor movement make. Nor does five or ten strikes. Our great task today — your task and my task, is to build a labor movement for this new century — a labor movement for all of America’s workers — a labor movement as big and bold as America itself, a labor movement that is as the poet once said of this city, “singing so proud to be alive, bragging and laughing that under our wrists are the pulse and under our ribs the heart of the people.”

People Are Ready to Fight

During our contract campaign at United, we ran picket lines for twenty-four hours at airports around the world. Thousands of flight attendants showed up on only a few days’ notice. One flight attendant reported that she heard a woman stop to watch the picketing with her two teenage sons. She told them, “See, this is what people do when they believe in something. They fight for it.”

People are ready to fight. People are waiting for answers and we have those answers for them. We need to open our arms to all working people and help them join us in building power — for all of us.

And so I want to talk to you about what you must do — particularly young people. Because the labor movement we must build will be built by young people, or it won’t be built at all.

The truth is the organizers of the great moments of growth in American labor have always been young. The Reuther brothers were in their late twenties when they began to organize the United Auto Workers. The founders of the other unions of the CIO were often even younger than that.

And there is a reason why young people lead when the labor movement grows. To grow we have to build unions that reflect the experience and needs of the new workforce, and to challenge the entrenched power of employers. That was true in the 1890s when Debs founded the American Railway Union, it was true in the 1930s and in the 1970s when teachers and sanitation workers went on strike for the right to organize and bargain, and it is true today.

The labor movement needs you to help build it.

Part of that task is to build a labor movement that speaks for and to today’s workforce — working in jobs that are integrated with miraculous, and intrusive, and sometimes overpowering technology. And remember, technology will never replace a beating heart. Never fear a robot. Fear of robots is how the rich intend to keep us down. But Uber drivers reminded us recently that we have power together.

Part of our task is to build a labor movement that sees itself truly as a labor movement — not just a collection of separate unions but a movement that is big enough, broad enough, to lift up everyone who works in America. Because just as no individual worker can stand alone, no individual union, no matter how big, can stand alone either, or can survive long on its own.

We cannot be a movement of handfuls of workers here and there, or a movement that lives off of our political skills. We also cannot succumb to the temptation of company unionism, of turning into employers’ outsourced HR solution.

We must build a powerful, democratic labor movement — built on solidarity and power in the workplace, a labor movement that is ready to work together with business to build our country, but whose core purpose is to make sure that — whether business chooses to work with us or not, working people will get our fair share of the wealth we create.

It Has to Start in the Workplace

And part of that task is to build a labor movement that truly stands for something — a movement with a mission, a movement that embodies the best our country has been and can be, a movement that challenges all of us who are part of it to be our better selves.

And we can be that movement when we choose to be. In 2017, when the White House abandoned Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, we, the labor movement, did much more than send money. We filled ships with supplies, and we filled a giant plane with skilled union workers, who spent two weeks saving lives and rebuilding communities in Puerto Rico. We turned the power back on in senior centers, reopened schools, our union nurses and doctors went to remote villages where the wounded and sick remained untreated and were seen for the first time.

The flight attendants were proud to be part of the AFL-CIO’s Puerto Rico Relief Mission, and to have helped recruit United Airlines to provide us the plane that got our relief workers to San Juan.

We need as a movement to act in that spirit every day. To bring working people together — all working people. To demand that all who work in America have their efforts recognized, their dignity honored, their rights protected, their future fought for as our future.

The good news is that every time we fight we get stronger — and there’s no shortage of fights for labor. But it has to start in the workplace. It has to start in real people’s everyday lives. If we want to build power for our movement and for working people, start in the workplace, and the politics will follow.

When we start with what people feel and see in their lives, we can build solidarity. It’s amazing what solidarity on a worksite can do. People who may be on opposite ends of a political debate can find common ground when you ground that fight in their workplace.

Just a few months ago, my union went to bat for one of our members. Selene was a DACA recipient and graduate of Texas A&M who had arrived in the United States at the age of three and just begun her dream job as a flight attendant. She was assigned a trip to Monterey, Mexico. When she told her supervisor she couldn’t fly internationally because of her DACA status, she was told it was OK to take the trip. On probation and afraid to lose her job, she went.

But when she came back, CBP stopped her and turned her over to ICE. She was put in a private detention facility in prison-like conditions for six weeks.

When we learned about her case, our union mobilized and we got her released within eighteen hours. The comment I saw that sticks with me the most during that time was from a conservative member, a Trump voter who said that she wanted “strong immigration laws,” but this was too far.

Because the fight started in the workplace, because our members understand that in the union an injury to one is an injury to all, that flight attendant was able to see past her political beliefs to what was right and what was wrong. Now she’s someone we can mobilize to fight for a fix to the DREAM Act — and from there, who knows.

Using Power Builds Power

And always remember: if you start in the workplace, the candidates will follow too. They answer to us.

Our unions have long been at the forefront of fights for social justice, because we recognized that basic premise that if we’re not all equally protected, none of us is protected. For years, we outsourced our power while the bosses were outsourcing our jobs. We spent too much time trying to cut deals with the boss or build favor with politicians, and too little time mobilizing members to fight for what we deserve.

People think power is a limited resource, but using power builds power. Once workers get a taste of our power, we will not settle for a bad deal. And we won’t stand by while someone else gets screwed, either.

So the government shutdown was a humanitarian crisis, with eight hundred thousand federal sector sisters and brothers who were either locked out of work or forced to come to work without pay due to the government shutdown. And another million people doing contract work, locked out with no warning.

In the private sector, there would have been sixty days notice for the layoff. No worker would go to work without pay. Even in bankruptcy the first day orders include approval to pay the people who are working.

Only because of our unions, we heard the stories of real people who are faced real consequences of being dragged into the longest shutdown in history. No money to pay for rent, for childcare, or a tank of gas to get to work. The federal worker stretching insulin through the night and wondering if she will wake up in the morning. The transportation security officer in her third trimester with no certainty for her unborn child. The corrections officer who tried to take his own life because he saw no other way out. The air traffic controller who whispered to his union leader, “I just don’t know how long I can hang on.” The TSA Officer in Orlando who took his life by jumping eight floors to his death in the middle of the security checkpoint.

When two million workers were locked out or being forced to work without pay during the government shutdown, and the rest of us were going to work when our workspace was becoming increasingly unsafe, I asked, “What is the labor movement waiting for?”

It was time for us to act with urgency and end the shutdown with a general strike.

The GOP had no idea what that meant, but they knew it didn’t sound good. They knew it sounded like workers might get a taste of our power, and they couldn’t have that. We ended the shutdown because we nearly toppled their entire stranglehold on our country.

Many people wanted federal workers with no right to strike to fix this situation for us. We said, don’t put it on the backs of people who are already locked out — what are you willing to do? Flight attendants made clear our rights allowed us to refuse to work in unsafe conditions, and we made clear we were going to exercise those rights. We had to define what was at stake and what leverage we had to fix it.

Solidarity Is a Force Stronger Than Gravity

And here we are — with this White House, recognizing that the last thing we can do is take the rights we’ve gained for granted. Mother Jones told us, “We will fight and win. Fight and lose. But above all, we must fight!” Our rights are never absolute. They exist because generations of workers died to give us these rights.

They were shot down at Homestead, Pennsylvania and in the hills of West Virginia. They were hanged for the Haymarket affair in Chicago, and beaten on an overpass near Detroit — all for taking a stand for the rights of working people.

There were beatings at Stonewall and murders in San Francisco City Hall. These activists thought it was important enough to stand up against all odds and put everything on the line to make it better for their families — and for our families. Today it’s our turn.

Sisters and brothers, it’s our turn to shape our labor movement. Unions in this country have led mobs against immigrants, and we have lifted up immigrants. We have written union constitutions that excluded African Americans, and yet Dr. King gave his life on a union picket line.

We as a movement are not automatically on the right side. We have to choose to be. And we have to live that choice.

And today the choices haven’t gotten easier — they have gotten harder.

Our lives and our wellbeing are completely tied together with workers in Mexico and Canada, China and Germany. Yet politicians in every country seek to divide us, pit us against each other.

The energy sector employs millions of workers. Our communities depend on coal, oil, natural gas. Yet carbon emissions threaten our very civilization.

We can fight climate change and create good jobs with rights and benefits. That’s why I support a Green New Deal. But we can only fight climate change if we stand together, if we listen and respect our brothers and sisters in the energy sector, and we demand the rich and the powerful pay their fair share in the fight against climate change. And that we begin by honoring the promises we made to the people who have kept our cities lit and our homes warm — promises that they would have a pension and health care they could count on when they retired.

And finally, unless you have forgotten, we live in a country where Donald Trump is president. Where we take refugees from persecution and violence and put them in cages, where we separate mothers from children, where our president makes excuses for Nazis and attacks local union leaders, gives trillions to corporations and threatens to take health care away from the poor.

And let me tell you, people like Donald Trump have always tried to woo working people, here in America and around the world. And after a generation of falling wages, of lost pensions and bad trade deals, a lot of people are open to anything. At least at first. But now we call him and his buddies what they are — frauds, con men, people who with one hand shake their fists at imagined enemies and with the other hand pick your pocket.

Sisters and brothers, I learned the hard way, at the bargaining table with some of the world’s most powerful corporations stacked even with the power of the bankruptcy court — that the solidarity and courage of working people is the greatest force for good in human history.

As someone said in this city long ago, “In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold, greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand fold.”

Solidarity is a force stronger than gravity and with our collective power comes respect.

This is true today. In this city, in this country, in this world. But only if we make it so.

This article was first posted by Jacobin.

This blog was originally published by In These Times on May 24, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sara Nelson is the president of the Association of Flight Attendants–Communications Workers of America.

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.
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