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Labor unions are trying to take back politics in the Midwest

Monday, September 4th, 2017

On Labor Day — designated a federal holiday in 1894 to honor America’s labor movement — at least eight Democratic candidates will hold rallies in five Midwest cities to tell workers just how far the country has veered from its pro-labor roots.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) has helped turn the state red by decimating public-sector unions. In Iowa, Republicans rolled back an increase in the minimum wage in March. Just last week, Illinois’ Republican governor vetoed a billthat would have raised the minimum wage. And Republican governors in Michigan and Ohio have also pushed for regulations that would cripple workers.

In 2018, each will face challenges from unconventional, labor-aligned candidates inspired to run by President Trump’s election and the decline of pro-worker lawmakers, which has resulted in a political system in the Rust Belt that favors the wealthy over the working class. Each candidate will center their campaigns on their support for a $15 minimum wage, progressive health care, and pro-union policies.

Cathy Glasson, a registered nurse and union leader in Iowa who will officially announce after Labor Day her campaign for governor in 2018, said that before this year, she had never considered running for elected office.

“This wasn’t in my plan, but as a union leader, you take action when you see the problems ahead and you don’t sit back and wait for things to change,” she told ThinkProgress. “That’s why I decided when I saw what happened with the legislature and the rollback of the minimum wage. We had raised the minimum wage in five counties in Iowa and this administration literally took money out of the pockets of Iowans — 85,000 Iowans were affected by the rollback here.”

Like other first-time politicians throwing themselves into 2018, Glasson has been a union member for decades and will prioritize the need for more American workers to join unions and employee associations.

“The number one job of any elected official, particularly the governor, should be to raise wages and improve the standard living for all Iowans,” she said. “The union movement and the Fight for $15 and its allies realize that low pay is not okay.”

Glasson’s campaign will have the backing of her union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). One of the country’s largest labor unions, SEIU and its Fight for $15 arm — a national campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 — will announce Monday a push to elect labor-friendly candidates in 2018 in the Midwest states where unions once held tremendous power. The union will budget roughly $100 million for the 2018 midterm elections — around $30 million more than it spent in 2016 — to flip the once-Democratic states back to blue.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Mahlon Mitchell, the president of the Professional Fire Fighters Association of Wisconsin who announced he’s considering a run for governor in July, will rally with workers at a hospital. In Cleveland, Ohio, talk show host and former Cincinnati Mayor Jerry Springer, who is considering a run for governor next year, will join workers at a march. In Des Moines, Iowa, Glasson will also rally at a medical center. In Chicago, Daniel Biss, Chris Kennedy and J.B. Pritzker, three leading 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidates, will rally with SEIU’s president. And in Detroit, Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, another gubernatorial candidate, will also rally at a hospital.

“With the election of Donald Trump, we’re seeing a wave of first-time candidates excited about creating change in each of our states,” Glasson said. “We need to give people something to go to the polls and stand in line and vote for.”

Randy Bryce, a Wisconsin ironworker known as “Iron Stache” who launched a challenge to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) in June and saw his campaign video go viral, will also be participating in Labor Day events across Wisconsin. He told ThinkProgress that, other than his son’s birthday, Labor Day is his favorite holiday.

“Especially in Wisconsin, with all the blatant political attacks, it’s great to see people still getting together and the numbers seem to increase every year, instead of what they’re trying to do, which is decrease our membership,” he said. “It’s great seeing more people get angry, frustrated, and want to fight back at the attacks because the government isn’t doing anything to stand up for workers’ rights.”

In Wisconsin in particular, the labor movement has struggled to fight back against the “banana republicans” in office, as Bryce calls them. “The labor movement took everything that we had for granted up until Scott Walker got elected,” he said.

Republicans in Wisconsin have gerrymandered the state so they do not fear losing their seats, Bryce noted, but the union movement is going to latch onto policies that he believes will resonate with voters across party lines, like wages and health care.

“Iowans and Americans in general are just tired of not fixing the problem, and states like Iowa should lead on this,” she said. “We can do that because it’s a reasonable size states, we can figure out how to pay for it, we can put policies in place that can move that agenda.”

Bryce agreed. “It’s the right thing to do but it’s also going to help create jobs,” he said.

SEUI’s campaign will include a voter engagement drive aimed at expanding the turnout on Election Day in 2018. According to the New York Times, the union conducted a pilot project during the 2016 campaign in which it canvassed voters in two largely African-American neighborhoods of Detroit to spread information about which candidates support workers and higher wages.

“Over all, about 62 percent of voters the union talked to during the pilot project cast ballots in the presidential election, versus turnout of about 38 percent of voters who it did not talk to, according to data provided by the union,” the report noted. “Applying the same percentage to all of Detroit’s voters would have produced about 40,000 more total votes in 2016, an amount that would have almost certainly secured the state for [Hillary] Clinton.”

While the need to push out anti-worker Republicans in the Midwest is paramount, many of the labor-aligned Democrats are also running to provide a counter to the Trump administration. As Glasson noted, the administration has been a disaster for working families and has alienated labor more and more as the year progresses. In August, in the wake of the president’s comments about Charlottesville, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka left the president’s manufacturing councilsaying that some White House aides “turned out to be racist.”

Glasson said that because of the administration’s hostility toward labor, its critical to have pro-union individuals get involved in politics.

“Unions have been the only way that workers who drive our economy have a voice in politics,” Glasson said. “By collecting and pooling union members’ money, we are a force to be reckoned with in politics, and so the intentional attack on unions in the state of Iowa and the Midwest and beyond is intentional to silent the voice of everyday workers that need to have a voice in politics.”

Bryce agreed that if unions do not get involved now, the Trump administration could decimate the labor movement to a point of no return.

“You’re seeing a lot of people step up since this past election and see that if we don’t get our stuff together, what little we have left, it’s going to be totally gone.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kira Lerner is a political reporter at ThinkProgress, where she covers a wide range of policy issues with a focus on voting rights and criminal justice reform. Her reporting on campaigns, elections, town halls, and the resistance movement has taken her to a long list of states across the country (but she’s still working on hitting 50). A native of the Washington, D.C. area, she holds a degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Why Defending Workers’ Rights Means Fighting ICE’s Deportation Machine

Friday, August 25th, 2017

Last month, California Labor Commissioner Julie Su distributed a memo instructing her staff to turn away any Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who show up at labor offices without a federal warrant. This action came in response to three recent cases in which ICE sought workers’ information shortly after they filed claims against their employers. Su told The Los Angeles Times that, in two of these cases, ICE officials showed up at the employees’ labor hearing. In case ICE continues to show up at such hearings, Su provided suggested scripts to guide the interaction. “Would you please leave our office? The Labor Commissioner does not consent to your entry or search of any part of our office,” reads one portion of the text.

ICE’s targeting of labor hearings falls into a much broader pattern of workplace immigration raids. The second term of the George W. Bush administration saw a boom in such policies, with authorities carrying out hundreds of sweeps targeting workers. In May of 2008, hundreds of Homeland Security agents swooped into Postville, Iowa and arrested 389 employees at a kosher meatpacking plant. Nearly 300 of those workers spent five months in jail before being deported. In a town with a population of just 2,300 people, this meant that more than 10 percent of all residents were incarcerated as the result of one raid. “They don’t go after employers. They don’t put CEOs in jail,” said Postville Community Schools superintendent David Strudthoff at the time. “[This] is like a natural disaster—only this one is man-made. In the end, it is the greater population that will suffer and the workforce that will be held accountable.”

While Barack Obama deported more people than any other president, the tactic of targeting workers fluctuated on his watch. Data from ICE indicates that workplace immigration arrests peaked for Obama in 2011—but never reached the levels seen under Bush. The National Employment Law Project’s (NELP) Haeyoung Yoon told In These Times that, while we haven’t seen widespread examples of workplace raids under the Trump administration, this doesn’t mean they’re not coming eventually. “These efforts take a lot of time to plan,” said Yoon.

Underscoring Yoon’s point, 55 undocumented workers were detained in February in a series of Mississippi restaurant raids. After the arrests, ICE public affairs officer Thomas Byrd said that the federal search warrants were part of a year-long investigation.

State organizations like the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition are training employers to prepare for the possibility of such sweeps. NELP and the National Immigration Law Center have created a helpful guide for businesses concerned about ICE raids, which includes details on how to keep agents out, what to do if they enter and what actions can be taken after they leave. “Employers and their employees have rights when it comes to immigration enforcement in the workplace,” wrote NELP staff attorney Laura Huizar shortly after the guide was published. “Employers can and should take steps now to protect those rights and do what’s best for their business and their teams.”

In California, where almost half of the state’s farmworkers are undocumented, there have been recent legislative efforts to combat workplace raids. The SEIU-sponsored Immigrant Worker Protection Act (AB 450) is a bill, introduced this March, that would require all employers to demand a federal warrant if ICE shows up. The legislation, which was introduced by San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu, would also prevent businesses from handing over personal employee information unless they were subpoenaed.

But what is to be done about employers who willingly collude with ICE? While explaining her memo, Julie Su told the Los Angeles Times that she suspected businesses of tipping agents off to labor hearings, events where only the employer and employee would be aware of the scheduled time. Earlier this year, Jose Flores, a 37-year-old Massachusetts man, was arrested by ICE shortly after a workers’ compensation meeting. Flores’ lawyers believe that the arrest might have been retaliation from Flores’ employer, Tara Construction, looking for a way to get out of paying out the claim. Stephen Murray, a lawyer for Tara Construction, insists that his client made no contact with ICE and had no reason to believe Flores’ was undocumented.

A recent investigation by ProPublica and NPR reveals that this is hardly an isolated case. Their review focuses on Florida, where a 2003 law made it illegal to for workers to file compensation claims using false identification. In the 14 years since, at least 130 injured workers were arrested under the law. At least one in four of those workers was detained by ICE or deported. “State fraud investigators have arrested injured workers at doctor’s appointments and at depositions in their workers’ comp cases,” reads the report. “Some were taken into custody with their arms still in slings.”

The report also points out that the Florida model could be a preview of widespread things to come under the Trump administration. If this is true, then the labor movement could end up taking a closer look at Tom Cat Bakery in Queens, where a Homeland Security inquiry and promise of subsequent firings sparked radical protests. Employers who openly collude with Trump’s deportation machine might soon be targets of the same resistance.

 This article was originally published at In These Times on August 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

Hints of Progress for Labor in the United States

Friday, June 9th, 2017

With Donald Trump sitting in the White House and right-wing Republicans controlling Congress, there is not much for labor to cheer about on the American national political scene. In addition, the overall prospect for union organizing does not look very good. Republicans are pursuing policies at both the national and state level to further erode union membership. But with all the bad news, there have been some important victories at the state and local levels that can perhaps lay the groundwork for gains nationally in future years.

The most important of these battles has been the drive for an increase in the minimum wage. The national minimum wage has been set at $7.25 an hour since 2009. In the intervening eight years, inflation has reduced its purchasing power by almost 17%. Measured by purchasing power, the current national minimum wage is more than 25% below its 1968 peak. That is a substantial decline in living standards for the country’s lowest-paid workers.

However, the situation is even worse if we compare the minimum wage to productivity. From 1938, when a national minimum wage was first put in place, until 1968, it was raised in step with the average wage, which in turn tracked economy-wide productivity growth. If the minimum wage had continued to track productivity growth in the years since 1968, it would be almost $20 an hour today, more than two and a half times its current level. That would put it near the current median wage for men and close to the 60th percentile wage for women. This is a striking statement on how unevenly the gains from growth have been shared over the last half century.

The Obama administration tried unsuccessfully to make up some of this lost ground during his presidency. While it may have been possible in his first two years when the Democrats controlled Congress, higher priority was given to the stimulus, health care reform and financial reform. Once the Republicans regained control in 2010, increases in the minimum wage were off the table. Needless to say, it is unlikely (although not impossible) that the Trump administration will take the lead in pushing for a higher minimum wage any time soon.

Although the situation looks bleak nationally, there have been many successful efforts to increase the minimum wage in states and cities across the country in recent years. This effort has been led by unions, most importantly the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose “Fight for $15” campaign is pushing to make $15 an hour the nationwide minimum. The drive gained momentum with its endorsement by Bernie Sanders in his remarkable campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination last year. While Sanders was of course defeated for the nomination, his push for a $15 an hour minimum wage won the support of many voters. It is now a mainstream position within the national Democratic Party.

However, the action for the near term is at the state and local levels, where there have been many successes. There are now 29 states that have a minimum wage higher than the national minimum. The leader in this effort is California, which is now scheduled to have a $15 an hour minimum wage as of January 2022. With over 12% of the US population living there, this is a big deal. Washington State is not far behind, with the minimum wage scheduled to reach $13.50 an hour in January 2020. New York State’s minimum wage will rise to $12.50 an hour at the end of 2020 and will be indexed to inflation in subsequent years.

Several cities have also jumped ahead with higher minimum wages. San Francisco and Seattle, two centers of the tech economy, both are set to reach $15 an hour for city minimums by 2020. Many other cities, including New York, Chicago and St. Louis have also set minimum wages considerably higher than the federal and state levels.

What has been most impressive about these efforts to secure higher minimum wages is the widespread support they enjoy. This is not just an issue that appeals to the dwindling number of union members and progressive sympathizers. Polls consistently show that higher minimum wages have the support of people across the political spectrum. Even Republicans support raising the minimum wage, and often by a large margin.

As a result of this support, minimum wage drives have generally succeeded in ballot initiatives when state legislatures or local city councils were not willing to support higher minimums. The last minimum wage increase in Florida was put in place by a ballot initiative that passed in 2004, even as the state voted for George W. Bush for president. Missouri, which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in this century, approved a ballot initiative for a higher minimum wage in 2006. South Dakota, Nebraska and Arkansas, all solidly Republican states, approved ballot initiatives for higher minimum wages in 2014. In short, this is an issue where the public clearly supports the progressive position.

These increases in state and local minimum wages have meant substantial improvements in the living standards of the affected populations. In many cases, families are earning 20-30% more than they would if the minimum wage had been left at the federal minimum.

In addition, several states, including California, have also put in place measures to give workers some amount of paid family leave and sick days. While workers in Europe have long taken such benefits for granted, most workers in the United States cannot count on receiving paid time off. This is especially true for less-educated and lower-paid workers. In fact, employers in most states do not have to grant unpaid time off and can fire a worker for taking a sick day for themselves or to care for a sick child. So the movement towards requiring paid time off is quite significant for many workers.

This progress should be noted when thinking about the political situation and the plight of working people in the United States, but there are also two important qualifications that need to be added. The first is that there are clearly limits to how far it is possible to go with minimum wage increases before the job losses offset the benefits. Recent research has shown that modest increases can be put in place with few or no job losses, but everyone recognizes that at some point higher minimum wages will lead to substantial job loss. A higher minimum wage relative to economy-wide productivity was feasible in the past because the US had a whole range of more labor-friendly policies in place. In the absence of these supporting policies, we cannot expect the lowest-paid workers to get the same share of the pie as they did half a century ago.

The other important qualification is the obvious one: higher minimum wages do not increase union membership. The SEIU, the AFL-CIO and the member unions that have supported the drive for a higher minimum wage have done so in the best tradition of enlightened unionism. They recognize that a higher minimum wage can benefit a substantial portion of their membership, since it sets a higher base from which they can negotiate upward. Of course, it is also a policy that benefits the working class as a whole. For this reason, unions collectively have devoted considerable resources to advancing the drive to raise the minimum wage.

However, this has put a real strain on their budgets at a time when anti-union efforts are reducing the number of dues-paying members in both the public and private sectors. This will make it more difficult to sustain the momentum for raising minimum wages and mandating employer benefits. For this reason, the good news on the minimum wage must be tempered. It is a rare bright spot for labor in the United States in the last decade, but it will be a struggle to sustain the momentum in the years ahead.

This blog was originally published at CEPR.net on June 7, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:  Dean Baker co-founded CEPR in 1999. His areas of research include housing and macroeconomics, intellectual property, Social Security, Medicare and European labor markets. He is the author of several books, including Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer. His blog, “Beat the Press,” provides commentary on economic reporting. He received his B.A. from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Michigan

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.

Southern California SEIU Caucuses Call On AFL-CIO to Kick Out Police Union

Thursday, November 10th, 2016

In July 2015, the University of California’s student-workers union, United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865, passed a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to terminate the membership of the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA).

Now, after a series of meetings in Los Angeles throughout October, the same resolution is making its way through Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 721, a local representing public service and nonprofit employees in Southern California. Although SEIU is not part of the AFL-CIO, organizers for the resolution hope it will spark a wider discussion about the role police and their unions play.

The resolution was first approved by the African-American caucus of SEIU 721 on October 6, and later by the local’s Latino caucus on October 19. The endorsements came after collaboration and presentations by Olufemi Taiwo, a UAW 2865 member, and Julia Wallace, a member of SEIU 721.

“When I heard about the UAW’s resolution,” Wallace tells In These Times, “I thought this is great. This is a way for us, as union members to show our support for working-class people, but also to be clear that the police have played a role historically … not just [as] oppressors of Black people, Latino people, LGBT people, disabled people, but also against workers, against working-class people as strike-breakers.”

Wallace says her goal is to get the resolution approved by the executive board of SEIU 721.

“I think the best thing is a politicized, organized and educated workforce,” says Wallace. “That’s the best thing that we could have, because even if it doesn’t get passed through the executive board, then there’s a discussion within our union meetings. ‘Okay, so, what is the role of the police? What are we going to do to organize against them? How are we going to protest?’”

The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray at the hands of police, and the subsequent rise of the movement for Black lives, helped push the Black Interests Coordinating Committee (BICC), a UAW 2865 caucus, to write the original resolution.

The AFL-CIO did not officially comment on the resolution, but Carmen Berkley, the federation’s director of civil, human and women’s rights, told Buzzfeed’s Cora Lewis in January:

“We are not in the business of kicking people out of unions … What we are in the business of is having conversations with our law enforcement brothers and sisters about how they can have different practices … I do think there’s a lot of reconciliation that needs to happen between communities of color and law enforcement, and we want to be the bridge that helps them get there.”

When asked about Berkley’s remarks, Taiwo tells In These Times, “She’s posing the issue as if what it is—is there’s individual victims of police violence and individual perpetrators of police that need to sit down and have a mediation.”

“If what they’re for is protecting the ruling class, then it’s not an issue of mediation. It’s not an issue of reconciling individual differences or healing individual acts of violence,” Taiwo says. “It’s an issue of reconciling our union structures with what we’re trying to fight for as unions.”

Wallace says that as long as police side with “bosses” on the picket line and police unions “unequivocally [defend] the police murdering people” then they should not be members of labor organizations.

“They can defend themselves just fine. Their pensions aren’t challenged, their healthcare benefits aren’t cut, their raises continue to happen and ours are always on the chopping block,” Wallace says. “Ours are always in question and there’s a reason for that. It’s because they defend the wealthy.”

The IUPA responded to UAW 2865 shortly after the resolution passed, with IUPA legislative director Dennis Slocumb telling Workers Independent News: “It’s impossible to stand for the rights of working-class people while opposing the people in law enforcement. We are working class. And we think this is nothing but a publicity stunt for a group that’s struggling for some sort of attention.”

Slocumb noted that the resolution did not explicitly call out any other labor groups that represent and bargain for police.

“They don’t call on their own union to disgorge police officers. They haven’t called on AFSCME, or CWA or any of the other organizations that represent police officers within the AFL-CIO. The Teamsters and SEIU, who are outside of the AFL-CIO but certainly labor organizations, also represent police officers,” he said.

Moving forward, Wallace says she hopes to get other unions to endorse the resolution, while also organizing a project to build a general strike against police violence.

“People are talking about this and it’s just the beginning,” she says.

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on November 3, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Mario Vasquez is a writer from southern California. He is a regular contributor to Working In These Times. Follow him on Twitter @mario_vsqz or email him atmario.vasquez.espinoza@gmail.com.

Saving for retirement isn’t simple when earning poverty wages: The old adage of spend less and save more doesn’t cut it for adjuncts

Monday, October 31st, 2016

It’s National Save for Retirement Week, a time when financial services industry experts offer Americans conventional advice for preparing for their golden years. However, saving for retirement isn’t as simple as these people would have you believe.

A growing number of Americans are struggling just to get by—let alone save for retirement. I should know; I’m one of them. There’s no such thing as a retirement for me.

As an adjunct professor, my wages are so low that I haven’t been saving for retirement.  I’ll be working until they carry me out of my job. That’s what makes retirement terrifying for me.

Many of my colleagues around the country share my fears and retirement prospects.

Nearly a third of part-time faculty at our nation’s colleges and universities are living near, at or below the poverty line.

The old adage of spend less and save more doesn’t apply to us.

Although I’ve been teaching writing and literature at small Vermont colleges for more than 35 years, this year I will only earn $10,000. This makes it difficult to save for retirement or anything else. With the help of my modest Social Security income (which is about $900 a month) I just purchased my first home—a mobile home—last year. I’m 67 years old.

You see, saving for retirement isn’t as simple as opening an IRA at your local bank or diversifying your portfolio when you’re an adjunct instructor. In fact, this advice isn’t applicable to many working Americans in today’s economy.

Wealthy corporations have pushed down employee wages and benefits making it harder for the average person to save for retirement. They have also eliminated the pension plans that our parents and grandparents fought for decades ago.

As a result, the availability of retirement savings is often tied to income for today’s workers who have fewer savings options than previous generations. Nearly half of working-age households do not own any retirement account assets. Those of us who aren’t earning the big bucks are unlikely to have a retirement account. Those who do have retirement accounts have virtually no money in them.

According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, the median retirement account balance is $2,500 for all working-age households and $14,500 for near-retirement households.

If the financial services industry wants to help more working families prepare for retirement, it should acknowledge the old advice isn’t working.

Times are changing and so is my profession. Adjuncts around the country are standing together and forming unions to get better pay and benefits. We’re even winning retirement benefits for adjuncts, including those at my job, who didn’t have access to our employer’s plan.

I’m also hopeful that our approach to retirement planning will change too.  Several states around the country have begun to address the retirement security crisis faced by low income families by creating plans for people who don’t have access to one at work.

Plans like the California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program would help many adjuncts around the country achieve a simple, dignified retirement after lifetime of hard work and playing by the rules. Hopefully, Vermont lawmakers will pass a similar bill soon.

Also, more lawmakers need to do more to make it easier for our nation’s educators to retire by expanding Social Security to increase benefits.  After all, teachers do very important work.

This article was originally printed on SEIU.org in October 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Sharyn Layfield is an adjunct professor at St Michael’s College in Vermont.

BREAKING—Fight for $15 Organizers Tell SEIU: We Need $15 and a Union

Monday, August 15th, 2016

David MobergThe start to this weekend’s Fight for $15 convention didn’t go as planned.

As roughly 10,000 conference goers gathered in Richmond, Va., to talk about unions and low-wage work, organizers behind the nationwide campaign demanded a union of their own.

On Friday, Jodi Lynn Fennell, a child care worker organizer from Las Vegas, attempted to deliver a letter from a Fight for $15 organizers asking the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to acknowledge it was their employer and to give them the right to organize.

A small group of supporters accompanied Fennell as she approached the stage where SEIU President Mary Kay Henry was scheduled to deliver the keynote address. But security guards stopped them from delivering the letter and escorted them away from the stage. Later, according to the Union of Union Representatives (UUR), a supervisor told Fennell and four other organizers they had to fly back to Las Vegas early Saturday morning, at their own expense.

Roughly 75 SEIU organizers and other field staff outside of the union’s national headquarters belong to the UUR. But Fennell and UUR Vice President Nicholas Calderon say that SEIU has told the roughly 100 other Fight for $15 field organizers who might be eligible to join the staff union that it doesn’t employ them.

At first, Calderon says, SEIU maintained their employer was the payroll processing firm that handles their paychecks. Now, he says, the international insists they’re employed by the individual organizing committees that direct each city’s Fight for $15 campaign.

According to Calderon, nearly 99 percent of funding for Fight for $15 organizers, as well as vehicles and supplies, comes from SEIU.

SEIU did not respond by deadline to In These Times’ request for comment.

“As we have said from the beginning, we are strong believers in the Fight for $15 campaign organizers and workers planned yesterday’s action to try to minimize disruption while still having visibility,” Conor Hanlon, UUR president, wrote in a statement to In These Times on Saturday. “We have no interest in stopping the crucial work going on there but do think it important that workers and community allies are aware of how SEIU is treating the Fight for $15.”

“We are disappointed that SEIU chose to escalate and create divisions between workers and organizers rather than act on our shared principles and beliefs about the fair treatment workers deserve,” he continued. “Nonetheless, the Fight for $15 workers will not be silenced and UUR will continue to fight with them until they are recognized as SEIU employees and getting the treatment they deserve.”

Fight for $15 organizers have a long list of grievances against SEIU. They are worried about the instability of their jobs and a tendency of the union to ramp up staff for one campaign, then shift only some of the staff to the next project. Others argue that because of the long hours, their relatively modest salaries do not amount to $15 an hour by the time their pay is divided by work hours, often much more than 40 hours a week.

But the biggest grievance organizers express is that SEIU pays them to advocate for the right of every worker to join a union but denies that same right to its own organizers. Ultimately, some workers say, SEIU’s position may undermine public support and open up lines for employer attacks.

Hypocrisy scars an organization, says Fennell, and could weaken the union in its important fight.

“We don’t have the right to join a union that we’re fighting for other workers to have,” she told In These Times. “When we’re fighting for everyone to have $15 an hour, we should have it ourselves.”

The initial organizing of Fight for $15 focused on fast-food workers in New York but quickly spread to other occupations and across the country. It includes workers in child care and elder care, early childhood education, university research and teaching, manufacturing, fashion and other building services, many of whom may move frequently from low-wage job to low-wage job over their lives.

The campaign, almost entirely funded by SEIU, can claim credit for raising pay for about 17 million of the roughly 64 million workers less than $15 an hour, with 10 million on the path to $15.

Its progress has come mainly from winning stronger state and local laws—not from any dramatic uptick in low-wage workers forming unions. That is true even in the low-wage industries that, unlike fast food, were already often organized to varying degrees by SEIU and others.

Although the strategy for establishing unions is unclear, Fight for $15 appears committed to expanding the range of workers that SEIU is able to mobilize for direct action. Tactics include strikes at fast food outlets and legislative campaigns for higher minimum wages, whether across the board or piecemeal.

For the past couple of years, the campaign’s emphasis on politics has increased, as illustrated by the choice of Richmond, Virginia, for this weekend’s meeting—billed as the organization’s first convention.

The decision to meet in the capital of the Confederacy also reflected an intensification of efforts to link the problems of America’s low-wage economy to continued structural racism with its roots in slavery. Fight for $15 must fight for both racial and economic injustice, SEIU president Mary Kay Henry told the opening session of the meeting.

“You can’t have one without the other,” she said.

Likewise, you can’t advocate effectively for unions, some Fight for 15 organizers say, without having the right to join one yourself.

It is true that over the labor movement’s long history, many unions have fought with their staff over whether staff could or should organize.

But a movement like the Fight for $15, which is founded on the right of every worker to join a union, is more likely to win broad support if it follows the old adage: Practice what you preach.

At a time when the labor movement is especially vulnerable, unions need to avoid any grounds that could cost them public support—especially in a campaign as promising and crucial as the Fight for $15.

Senate Dining Room Workers Win $1 Million in Back Wages

Monday, August 1st, 2016

Bruce VailThe Department of Labor [last] week confirmed persistent charges of labor abuses at the U.S. Senate dining room on Capitol Hill, ruling that workers there are owed more than a $1 million in back wages.

An investigation found that 674 workers are owed back wages of $1,008,302, and that the employers—food service contractor Restaurant Associates and labor subcontractor Personnel Plus—violated the Service Contract Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“Workers in the restaurant industry are among the lowest paid workers in our economy. Most struggle to afford life’s basic expenses and pay their bills: they shouldn’t have to deal with paychecks that don’t accurately reflect the hard work and the wages to which they are legally entitled,” says David Weil, administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division.

The ruling is a victory for a union organizing campaign taking place among the cooks, waiters and other food service workers. They are seeking a minimum wage of $15 an hour and representation by the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ.

In the campaign assisted by union advocacy group Good Jobs Nation, the workers have been charging Restaurant Associates with an array of labor abuses, including job misclassification, failure to pay legally required overtime rates and unfair efforts to block union organizing.

Labor law violations “are happening all the time right under the noses of the lawmakers,” says Good Jobs Nation spokesman Paco Fabian. “If it’s happening here, it’s likely happening at other sites,” where the federal government employs non-union contractors to do food service work and other essential tasks, Fabian says.

Restaurant Associates Senior Vice President Sam Souccar provided the following statement regarding the Labor Department decision:

“Restaurant Associates understands that our Associates are the heart of our business and we value and respect them. We conduct business in a professional, safe, ethical and responsible manner. Since January we have worked diligently with the Department of Labor in regard to our contract … We discovered as a result of the DOL’s review that some of our Associates were not properly classified in appropriate job categories under the Service Contract Act (SCA). The misclassifications were largely attributable to administrative technicalities related to our Associates’ evolving day-to-day work responsibilities, which in some cases crossed multiple job categories. Restaurant Associates has corrected the classifications and is working closely with the DOL to ensure payments are made as soon as possible to all impacted Associates. We are 100 percent committed to ensuring classifications are accurate going forward, and have implemented enhanced monitoring and training at the US Senate and in all accounts where the SCA applies.”

Dione Tellez, 57, a food service worker and cook at Senate dining facilities, tells In These Times that she has been classified as a food service worker even though she often labors as a grill cook, which is a better-paid position. A nine-year veteran on the job, she is earning $14.21 an hour, she says, and lives with her adult son because she cannot afford to rent an apartment in the pricey Washington, D.C., area.

Speaking in Spanish (translated by Fabian), Tellez says, “I want to be paid for the job that I do. It’s about respect. I am entitled to get what I have earned … I am sick and tired of being treated unfairly.”

Restaurant Associates is a subsidiary of U.K.-based multinational Compass Group, which claims to have about 500,000 employees in 50 separate countries. In Washington D.C., the company also has a contract to operate cafeterias and dining facilities at the Smithsonian Institutions, where workers are represented by the UNITE HERE Local 23.

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on July 28, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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

Hundreds gathered in DCA yesterday, but it wasn’t for what you think.

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

seiuYesterday I joined my brothers and sisters around the world at Ronald Reagan national airport in the demand for higher wages, better trainings and working conditions for airport workers. I got involved with the union and Fight for 15 because I saw the imbalance of power that is hurting people.

As a cabin cleaner at San Francisco International Airport, I am proud to say that because we have a union, we have some of the highest working standards in the country, but I know there are many more who don’t and need our support. Folks like Ababuti Ogalla, a wheelchair assistant at Boston Logan Airport. Like many, he is an immigrant who came to America to build a decent life for his family.

“I started working at Boston Logan in 2011, but I quickly realized that with two kids and a wife to support, my pay doesn’t even cover my rent and bills. That’s not the America I believed in. Now I work two jobs, barely have any time to spend with my family, and still struggle to make ends meet.”

Ababuti is right. That’s not the America any of us believe in. We continue to fight because we know we can raise the minimum wage and support the ones we love with dignity and respect.

Too many airport workers are paid minimum wage or less and that’s not right. We take pride in our jobs and play a key role in helping more than 393 million passengers yearly enjoy a safe and secure travel experience. But without health insurance or sick days, we risk losing our jobs every time we are sick or have a family emergency. It doesn’t make sense; America spends billions annually on airport security, yet the very people charged with implementing security measures are paid poverty wages.

The rally at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport was just one of a series of events this week. We hosted our first ever National Airport Worker Convention, where we developed a national strategy to win $15 and union rights for all airport workers. We then took to Congress to urge our representatives to seek a federal solution to the problems faced by contracted out workers at our nation’s airports. Many pledged their support to our fight, knowing that both, $15 and union rights, will ensure better standards for workers and passengers.

By marching, protesting, and striking at airports across the U.S., already 45,000 airport workers have won wage increases and critical improvements including healthcare and paid sick leave. But there is still so much more to do. And despite all of us coming from different parts of the country and world — the United States, Europe and Australia – we all left the convention committed to one fight and one collective voice.

I am excited to see the positive changes we’re going to bring to airport workers.

This article was originally printed on SEIU in October, 2015.  Reprinted with permission.

The Union Behind the Biggest Campaign Against Walmart in History May Be Throwing in the Towel. Why?

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

David MobergIn the pre-dawn chill of Black Friday 2012, a half-dozen yellow school buses pulled up at a South Side Chicago Walmart store, disgorging a small group of striking Walmart workers and nearly 250 supporters.

Along with strikers and allies in 100 other cities around the country, they had come out that day under the aegis of the year-old Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), created to give Walmart workers a vehicle to protest their mistreatment—including low wages, skimpy benefits, erratic scheduling and aggressive management suppression of employees’ voices at work.

“Somewhere, somehow, down the line, it’s going to make a big difference,” said Tyrone Parker, a striking night-shift stocker, at that first Black Friday action.

“If you weren’t excited after some of those Black Fridays, you were dead,” says formerUnited Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) President Joseph Hansen, who started OUR Walmart and the labor-community coalition Making Change at Walmart in 2005. “It was going to be a long haul, but I thought we had no choice.”

After Hansen’s retirement last fall, the union’s 55-member executive board elected Secretary-Treasurer Anthony “Marc” Perrone as the next president. Leading up to the vote, Perrone had questioned the amount of money that had been devoted to the Walmart campaign without gaining any new members for the union, whose membership has declined in recent years. Several sources close to the campaign, not named because they are not authorized to release financial information, estimate that the overall cost had been about $7 million to $8 million a year.

In April, four months into Perrone’s tenure, the Washington Post reported rumors of potential cutbacks to OUR Walmart. In These Times’s sources say the union plans to cut the campaign’s budget by as much as 65 percent.

Sources close to the new leadership say no cuts are planned, only realignments, such as spending more money on advertising and public relations campaigns to highlight Walmart’s faults. At the same time, UFCW will try to parlay the Walmart efforts into “a broader retail campaign,” according to new Executive Vice President Stuart Appelbaum, regarded as an ally of Perrone. This probably will encourage more organizing at other retailers to win contracts and dues-paying members.

As Buzzfeed reported in June, the union also removed two directors of the Walmart effort, Dan Schlademan and Andrea Dehlendorf, in May. Meanwhile, the board of OUR Walmart—five worker-members and the two directors—has sought and received new funding from two progressive donors, according to the director of a funders’ group to which both belong.

Most key labor leaders, whatever their view of OUR Walmart, are unwilling to talk very much, because they hope to continue to work with UFCW on the Walmart campaigns, if possible.

Although OUR Walmart and the Fight for 15 (the Service Employees International Union-backed fast-food workers’ campaign, which has targeted McDonald’s) have been expensive for the unions, they’ve stoked worker and public fervor against two of the mightiest global corporations.

“The union’s biggest accomplishment is the development of OUR Walmart,” says an ally in the campaign who feels that new spirit may be lost in the reshuffling.

How big is too big?

The UFCW largely ignored Walmart when it was a small-town, Southern five-and-dime chain. But as Walmart moved north and west and into groceries, the union had to challenge the mega-retailer to protect its contracts. A massive array of strategies has been tested, with little success: organizing department by department (when butchers at a Texas store voted for the union, Walmart eliminated all its butchers); organizing in Quebec, where laws favor unions (Walmart closed the store); organizing in strong union towns, like Las Vegas (several campaigns failed after supervisors intimidated a majority of workers out of unionizing).

UFCW has also tried educating the public about the high costs of Walmart’s low prices. In 2005, both SEIU and UFCW began publicity campaigns about the corporation’s misbehavior (called, respectively, Walmart Watch and Wake Up, Walmart). Walmart Watch revealed a 2005 internal company memo on how Walmart might cut its already low pay and benefits without incurring bad publicity by increasing the number of part-time workers. Such well-aimed, sharp darts wounded the company’s reputation and may have been a factor in declining profits, although customers have also faulted Walmart for badly stocked, disorganized stores, unattractive produce and poor service.

But these campaigns did not yield union members. By failing to organize the retail behemoth, which provides 8.9 percent of jobs in the sector (which in turn employs nearly 1 in 9 U.S. workers), unions lost power to set wage and labor standards. Since 1983, the percentage of retail workers who belong to unions has declined by half—to 4.4 percent.

When Schlademan started work at the UFCW in 2010 on what would become the new Walmart strategy, he tried to learn from workers and organizers in past campaigns, as he explained in an interview with In These Times in December. First, he concluded, the campaign had to break down the barriers isolating workers from each other, both within and among stores. Second, Walmart workers wanted to be “front and center” in the campaigns and in solving problems. Third, workers had to discover the power of collective action, primarily through strikes, which Schlademan called “probably one of the most liberating things labor does. Striking—just [the act of] striking—helps build leaders.”

Over the next three years, OUR Walmart’s key achievement was mobilizing workers to take direct action against the company. OUR Walmart members challenged management at both their workplaces and at shareholder meetings in Bentonville, Ark., often with work stoppages, sit-ins or similar protests. In the process, effective and committed rank-and-file leaders emerged.

The campaign also won praise for its effective use of online organizing. Organizers and members used the web to move workers into reallife collective protests, build small groups of leaders at individual stores, and arrange local and national direct actions. The online connections produced more direct, horizontal relationships between Walmart workers than in most unions, which have a more hierarchical organization.

OUR Walmart said the campaign was just trying to make Walmart a better corporate citizen, not organize a union. Technically that was true (and tactically necessary, given labor law restrictions on picketing employers for long periods). But in spirit, OUR Walmart resembled a strong minority union, without enough votes to win a formal union and collective bargaining, but with other tools that could be used to solve workers’ problems.

The campaign wrung several concessions from Walmart. Workers won a few pilot programs to reduce inconsiderate scheduling, and a worker-led campaign to “Respect the Bump” yielded better pregnancy accommodations. Accompanied by publicity campaigns attacking the company’s stinginess and its owners’ extreme wealth, worker actions undoubtedly helped prompt Walmart’s decision in April to raise its lowest wages to $9 an hour this year and $10 next year.

Hopes for transforming Walmart—and thereby the whole low-wage economy—rose among supporters.

OUR Walmart is “a little IWW-ish,” Schlademan said in December. In their early 20th-century heyday, the Industrial Workers of the World eschewed contracts in favor of direct action at work. In OUR Walmart, Schlademan sees a similar appetite for militant action and a more vigorous involvement in the collective, horizontal conversation.

At the time, Schlademan said, OUR Walmart was preoccupied with securing its right to exist without being attacked all the time: “Walmart must realize OUR Walmart is not going away.”

But sustaining an expensive campaign like OUR Walmart is difficult with voluntary dues of $5 a month per member. Schlademan has since been cut from the UFCW payroll but is still working with OUR Walmart. And rumors of UFCW withdrawing funds have begun circulating, although a network of progressive donors recently pledged money for OUR Walmart to maintain its work.

If UFCW, the organization’s sponsor, cuts back on OUR Walmart, how will managers—and workers—interpret the move?

Critics of the union’s focus on OUR Walmart believe that broadening the agenda to all retail will spread around organizing dollars more effectively, yielding more unionized shops and more dues-paying members. No organizing is easy, but looking beyond Walmart may provide more realistic targets. In New York—the historic stronghold of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (now a department within UFCW)—UFCW Vice President and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum has overseen successful organizing of clothing boutique workers, such as clerks at the Swedish-owned “cheap chic” H&M stores.

Victory at such companies will bring new members but will not necessarily transform the retail industry the way success at a major chain like Walmart or Home Depot could.

The union will almost certainly maintain some special focus on Walmart. “Nobody wants to walk away from or abandon effort on Walmart,” says one union staffer, who was not authorized to speak with reporters. But the union’s Walmart project “will be a more media-focused campaign,” relying on print and television ads, says the staffer.

Media buys can be very expensive, however. Forbes reported that UFCW “spent six figures” on a Fourth of July ad blitz portraying Walmart as unpatriotic for stashing $76 billion in 15 foreign tax havens. And if past attacks haven’t altered Walmart’s stance on unions, will more exposés do the trick?

On the other hand, the sweeping victories of the 1930s and 1960s in industries from automobiles to healthcare suggest the value of a sector-wide strategy for retail. But can one union take on a sector with 16 million workers?

It starts with the workers

Stephen Lerner is the architect of SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign, one of the most successful sector-wide organizing efforts of the past three decades. He argues that, with labor hanging by a thread, most U.S. unions have gone into defense mode—which only occasionally delays further slippage—rather than playing offense using creative, large-scale campaigns.

Though most analysts see the evershifting Walmart campaign as a defensive effort to keep Walmart from driving down labor standards at other, unionized grocery chains, Lerner believes OUR Walmart is an example of a sweeping, innovative effort. “It’s pretty impressive what workers in OUR Walmart have achieved so far,” he says. He notes that strikes have yielded concrete victories and that creative online organizing has allowed workers to help move people into action, not simply to “scream into the void.”

For workers to form a union against the will of an industry or a big company like Walmart requires “an enormous amount of time” to understand the issues, overcome fears, develop leaders, and formulate a “theory of how to beat the company,” which may vary from target to target, Lerner says. Justice for Janitors’ big breakthrough, in a 1988 organizing campaign in Denver, came in part from understanding that targeting building owners, for whom janitorial costs are minuscule, was essential to organizing the small, costsensitive cleaning companies. “There’s not one tactic or secret sauce to take on an entire industry,” he says.

As UFCW revises or expands its organizing mission, it would seem smart to look for ways to apply the strategy and style of work of OUR Walmart—that is, educating and empowering member-organizers and leaders—throughout its retail organizing. That includes recognizing the utility of the internet for real organizing, breaking barriers and building solidarity and expanding open, direct, horizontal lines of communication among members and workplace leaders. It also includes realizing the crucial role of strikes and direct action in building a sense of collective power and communicating with supporters and the public.

OUR Walmart member Tyfani Faulkner, 32, a high school graduate from Sacramento who knew nothing about the labor movement when she took her job, now loves going online to answer questions or solve others’ problems, or to work for legislation or a candidate she favors (most recently, Bernie Sanders). Her “proudest moment,” she says, was participating in a two-hour sit-in at Walmart this past November. OUR Walmart has produced many powerful worker-leaders and vocal progressives like Faulkner who organize effectively—and at no cost.

The emergence of leaders like Faulkner reinforces the urgency of taking seriously Lerner’s key advice, which is as simple as it is often ignored: “You can’t win without the workers.”

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.com on August 11, 2015. 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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