Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Strike’

2020 hopefuls are joining striking fast food workers Thursday — but who’s helping whom?

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

McDonald’s workers are striking Thursday in a dozen cities across the country.

The latest walkouts in the nearly six-year-old campaign for union rights and sustainable wages, timed to overlap with the fast food giant’s annual shareholder meeting in Dallas, will also feature a number of 2020 White House hopefuls.

Former congressman and Housing and Urban Development head Julián Castro (D-TX) will join striking workers in Durham, North Carolina, alongside Moral Mondays leader Rev. William Barber II. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will video conference in to the Dallas worker rally and take questions from the crowd.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) will attend walkouts in Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa, respectively. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) had previously planned to attend the Des Moines rally but had to switch things up after a Senate vote on federal disaster relief was scheduled for Thursday at the last minute.

The presidential contenders will likely create an additional media draw in those four cities. But the workers themselves will be their own headliner in nine others, including Miami, Orlando, and Tampa, as well as Milwaukee.

These White House hopefuls are arguably more in need of being seen with these workers than the low-wage toilers require these politicos’ imprimatur. Since 2013, when the first impromptu walkout in New York broke open an organizing terrain that traditional labor organizers had long regarded as impossible, the Fight for $15 has been a persistent and mounting force in U.S. politics.

And as those strikes spread nationwide, to dozens and eventually hundreds of cities and towns across the United States, the energy present among the fast food and retail workers also broke through longstanding roadblocks on minimum wage laws.

Prior to Fight For $15 bringing new electricity to the scene, statutory pay floors had stagnated and fallen far behind inflation for decades around the country. In the spring of 2014, minimum wage advocates in Seattle, aided by the combined pressure of workers in the streets working from the outside and newly elected socialist firebrand Kshama Sawant making the case from her city council perch, finally reached a breakthrough. Seattle became the first municipality to set its pay floor at $15 an hour in the United States.

Numerous cities and states have followed suit since. And the $15 minimum wage question haunted the 2016 presidential election. During that season’s Democratic primary, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s initial insistence that $12-per-hour was better policy eventually gave way to her embrace of the $15 demand.

If anyone still wanted to dispute the worker-led movement’s political gravity after that dramatic moment in the 2016 primary season, a little-noticed development this spring should have put such skepticism to bed for good. McDonald’s itself dropped its opposition to the campaign’s demands and withdrew its support for the National Restaurant Association’s long-running lobbying campaign against wage hikes and workers’ rights for the fast food industry.

The acquiescence of the industry’s leading burger chain has by no means ended the firm’s manifold conflicts with workers. McDonald’s workers have continued to file sexual harassment suits against the corporation, aided in recent months by the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union — as well as by 2020 hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who blasted out a profile of their efforts to her massive social media following Tuesday.

The chain’s workers have also brought attention to the violence employees routinely face from customers along with, they contend, the dismissive, not-my-problem response they frequently get from management when they attempt to raise their concerns internally.

It is telling that White House hopefuls from all tiers of the primary — heavy hitters and long shots alike — are looking to associate themselves directly with the workers who are bearing the risks and costs of a union drive their employers oppose. The continued success of this largely grassroots movement will likely continue to command influence over the Democratic primary long after Thursday’s rallies and walkouts.

Labor energy has traditionally fueled the retail politicking of Democrats, of course. When former Vice President Joe Biden (D) joined a Stop & Shop workers’ rally during their recent and ultimately successful 11-day strike, the political media barely batted an eye. This is just what’s expected of those who would bear the party’s banner.

But there are signs that the relationship between elected Democrats and rank-and-file labor is shifting. Sanders’ campaign recently harnessed its digital subscriber list in the service of encouraging supporters to show up for workers at picket lines and rallies. As ThinkProgress previously detailed, his presidential campaign will be the first run by a unionized staff.

Lower-profile unionization drives in other industries have drawn mass attention from the energetic online left and, in turn, from Democratic politicians working to figure out how to wed that vocal cohort to the party’s traditionally moderate wing. And the AFL-CIO, long one of the most significant power brokers outside the party’s official infrastructure, is embroiled in internal disputes about how it apportions resources between organizing workers and influencing elections. It remains to be seen how that turmoil will affect the party’s own ability to rely on the AFL to turn out members at campaign events and on polling days, and broker connections between office-seekers and working stiffs.

The Fight for $15 folks, meanwhile, have remained a mainstay in the broad panoply of labor activists since their first-ever national convention in Richmond, Virginia, three years ago. The emotion and excitement that has long attended the campaign’s activism — coupled with the moral and rhetorical leadership of Rev. Barber and his fellow clergymen — make the movement an attractive force with which to form an allegiance. With several Democratic primary hopefuls beating an early path to their picket lines, it seems likely many more will show up in the months to come.

This article was originally published at Think Progress on May 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Alan Pyke  covers poverty and the social safety net. Alan is also a film and music critic for fun. Send him tips at: apyke@thinkprogress.org or

Stop & Shop workers win pay, benefits concessions after 11-day strike

Wednesday, April 24th, 2019

New England grocery store workers have won significant concessions from the Dutch firm that rules their day-to-day lives after an 11-day strike, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) announced Monday.

More than 30,000 Stop & Shop employees walked off the job on April 11 after negotiators from Netherlands-based multinational food retailer Ahold Delhaize spent weeks insisting the grocer’s frontline workforce would have to absorb higher health care costs and major changes to retirement benefits.

Such collective action has become rare in the private sector, where union membership levels are at historic lows and complex ownership arrangements involving multinational holding companies have attenuated the connection between the people who do a business’ actual work and the well-to-do executives calling the shots.

But the nearly two-week work stoppage drew high-profile support from both local and national leaders. Multiple 2020 presidential primary contenders visited striking workers in person, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D), and former Vice President Joe Biden (D). Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) also showed their faces and shared supportive remarks at rallies with the strikers. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) tweeted their support for the cause.

Attention from such dignitaries doubtless helped tighten the screws on the Dutch negotiating team. But local reports are crediting a humbler source of moral leadership for the ultimate resolution of the conflict, which was announced late on Easter Sunday by both the union and the grocer.

A slew of rabbis and Christian clergy around southern New England urged their congregations to honor the strikers by taking their Passover and Eastern business elsewhere.

“We encourage our members to celebrate the upcoming holiday in a manner that honors both the Jewish value of freedom and workers’ dignity,” Rabbis Allison Berry and Laura Abrasley of Temple Shalom in Newton, Massachusetts, wrote to their congregants in an email.

“I just personally wasn’t comfortable crossing the picket line,” Rev. Laura Goodwin of Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Sutton, Massachusetts, told local reporters. “Flowers are nice, but they’re not as important as people’s livelihood.”

Civic solidarity of that kind can be essential to making a strike work.

When the private sector was more broadly organized decades ago, workers who voted to strike at any given firm knew they would be tapping into a resource much more powerful than any one store. Unionized suppliers and distribution partners would refuse to cross a picket line, amplifying the strike’s immediate impacts almost automatically. With union membership levels down by two thirds since the 1970s, however, modern strikes are a lonelier and more daunting prospect. Without assurances of meaningful support from colleagues, the success or failure of any given worker action rests more with customers themselves.

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Losing the holiday weekend likely put a substantial blemish on Stop & Shop’s 2019 books. Sales directly tied to Easter and Passover typically make up 3% of the firm’s yearly revenue, an industry analyst told Boston’s local NBC station, and the strike was probably costing the firm about $2 million a day even before factoring in the holiday.

That squeeze has now achieved what months of earnest discussion at the bargaining table could not, union officials announced Sunday night. The Dutch firm had reportedly sought sweeping cuts to compensation, including a higher employee charge for health care that would have dragged take-home pay lower. The firm also wanted to end pension offerings for new hires.

Neither side offered much detail about the deal struck Sunday. But both the UFCW and the corporate communications team for Stop & Shop described the new contract agreement as preserving the current terms on retirement benefits and health care cost-sharing. Workers across the 31,000-member union in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut stores will see wage increases as well, according to the statements.

Though private-sector workers have been less prone to strike lately than teachers’ unions and other public-sector labor groups, the apparent success of the protracted action in New England offers a reminder that collective-action tactics remain effective despite their declining use.

Fast food workers spent years agitating for union rights and a $15 hourly pay floor, racking up a series of local minimum wage victories while reshaping the lobbying alliances that have long protected the industry’s exploitative and publicly subsidized business model. Toys-R-US employees were able to extract a large payout from the private equity vultures that had seized the dying brand and stiffed loyal longtime staff thanks to similarly adamant protest work.

A protracted strike by Marriott hotel workers last fall also ultimately produced a negotiated agreement.

But it also afforded Americans a glimpse at how tenuous labor solidarity has become most of a century after unions forced robber baron capitalists to accept ideas like “dignity” and “safety” and “having a weekend.” Even athletes, perhaps the most culturally prominent union members in the modern U.S. economy, failed to respect the Marriott picket line during last fall’s Major League Baseball playoffs.

About the Author: Alan Pyke covers poverty and the social safety net for ThinkProgress.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 22, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

31,000 New England grocery workers strike

Monday, April 15th, 2019

More than 30,000 grocery store workers are on strike in New England after negotiations stalled between the workers, represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Stop & Shop, the region’s biggest grocery chain.

“Stop & Shop’s parent company, Ahold Delhaize, saw over $2 billion in profit last year and got a US tax cut of $225 million in 2017,” the union said in a statement. “While Stop & Shop continues to propose drastically cutting worker benefits, Ahold shareholders voted on April 10 to give themselves an 11.1 percent raise in dividends over last year. The expected payout will be on April 25 for around $880 million.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren joined workers at a picket line on Friday, bringing donuts and telling them, “You fight for the dignity of working people.” Sens. Kamala HarrisKirsten GillibrandCory Booker, and Bernie Sanders also tweeted their support, as did fellow Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro and numerous Democratic members of Congress.

What you can do: DON’T cross the picket line. DO contact your local store to let them know you support the workers and want management to offer a fair deal. DO express support for workers on social media and, if you pass a picket line, in person. DO keep shopping at union stores if there’s one near you—see that list for options.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.
This article was originally printed at Daily Kos on April 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

“We Demand Food for Thought”: UIC Grad Workers On Strike for Living Wages and Respect

Thursday, March 21st, 2019

In front of the historic Jane Addams Hull-House Museum on March 19, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) graduate workers began an indefinite strike. The union is joining a national movement of higher education employees demanding livable wages and better working conditions in the often-unstable field of academia.

The strike is the result of more than a year of negotiations between UIC Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) Local 6297and the university administration. Since September 2018, over 1,500 teaching and graduate assistants have worked without a contract. An overwhelming 99.5 percent of UIC GEO members authorized a strike last month as part of a wave of educator work actions, from public school teachers in Los Angeles and West Virginia to faculty at Rutgers University and Wright State University. Jeff Schuhrke, co-president of the UIC GEO and labor history Ph.D. candidate, said the strike exemplifies the vital labor graduate students provide.

“The University of Illinois system just seems to not care about its employees and is always very hostile to collective bargaining and to unions,” Schuhrke told In These Times. “They just try to lowball us and they disrespect us. We’re fed up with it, obviously.”

UIC graduate employees make a minimum salary of $18,065 for two semesters of 20-hour work weeks, with $13,502 in fee and tuition waivers. Schuhrke said this doesn’t account for the amount and quality of labor, which can include teaching classes for up to 60 students. He said since the union was recognized by the university in 2004, “modest” raises haven’t accounted for increasing university fees, which cut into graduate employees’ salaries. Currently, UIC GEO is seeking a 24 percent pay increase over three years, with the university offering 11.5 percent.

“They can give us raises all they want,” he said, “but as long as they can just introduce new fees any time they feel like it or increase the fees, that just serves as a back door pay cut.”

In recent years, the university has boasted record-high enrollment and projects to improve existing infrastructure and invest in academic expansions, including recently acquiring the John Marshall Law School. Schuhrke said, “The reason students come here is for an education, not the shiny new buildings, and we’re the ones providing that education.”

The strike is already having an impact on campus with some classes canceled. On the sunny Tuesday afternoon outside the bustling UIC Student Centers, hundreds of graduate students and allies picketed with clever signs like, “We Demand Food for Thought,” and classic protest chants, such as, “This is what democracy looks like.” A giant inflatable Mother Jones representing the iconic socialist labor organizer watched over the crowd. UIC GEO also organized a GoFundMe to cover strike costs and potential docks in salary, which Schuhrke said the university might use as a scare tactic.

Many striking students said they don’t make enough to pay for living expenses and rely on food aid and other assistance. A Ph.D. student in the biology department who prefers to remain anonymous said he’s working on getting Medicaid for his young child, as he can’t afford campus health care, even with a waiver.

“Better salaries is an important step: lower fees, lower tuition,” he said. “Those things really impact us because we don’t have huge salaries, so every small amount that we can save is a huge help.”

International students who, according to Schuhrke, make up a little under half of the GEO UIC members, are also central to bargaining. They face an additional fee each semester, as well as work limitations, particularly during the summer.

Dominican Republic-native Natalia Ruiz-Vargas came to Chicago to complete a Ph.D. in biology, but said the financial strains can be alienating for people who are not U.S. nationals. “If you have family back home and you’re alone over here and someone gets sick, you can’t really find the money to go back, so it can be a little lonelier,” she said. “We can’t apply for any financial aid outside of what we already have from the university.”

When reached for comment, the university sent a press release that highlighted the union’s right to demonstrate, but stated, “We believe that this work stoppage is not in the best interest of the University, or our students.” While striking graduate assistants aren’t completing instruction, mentoring and coursework revision, many of their students are expressing solidarity.

English and political science undergraduate Joseph Strom is part of the UIC Student and Worker Advocacy Network. A resident assistant on campus, Strom said the strike is an opportunity to educate students about labor issues instead of pairing co-eds against their educators. He said some of his professors are expressing support by giving online work so they don’t have to cross the picket line. The UIC United Faculty union is also currently in negotiations, having worked without a contract since last fall.

GEO Co-President Schuhrke said, “We talked to a lot of our students beforehand and let them know why we’re doing this, that our working conditions are their learning conditions.”

Members of GEO University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in Southern Illinois are coming to Chicago to increase demonstration numbers, as they go up against the same administration. In February 2018, the UIUC GEO led an almost two-week long strike for higher salaries and guaranteed tuition waivers. The plastic buckets that provided a soundtrack to their picket are now being used by UIC students. UIUC GEO treasurer Allan Axelrod, who studies agricultural and biological engineering, is spending spring break making multiple trips with fellow graduate students.

“We understand all the issues that are going on there, especially things like the higher incidence of mental health issues that is a product of the poor working conditions of graduate employees,” said Axelrod. “When we show solidarity, we actually are paving the path toward improving our own working conditions because we’re under the same threat each bargaining cycle.”

For Axelrod and others, this extends beyond the public university system. A 2016 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision granting private university students employee status has galvanized student workers to organize through collective labor. Only a few miles from UIC’s Near West Side campus, University of Chicago graduate students have fought since 2007 for recognition of their Graduate Student Union (GSU). Last fall, they participated in one of their school’s biggest demonstrations in recent years, a response to their overwhelming vote in favor of unionization despite administrative pushback.

GSU brought its case to the NLRB, but withdrew along with Yale University and Boston College, worried that under President Trump, a business-friendly Republican majority would overturn the 2016 precedent. Further, last year’s Janus Supreme Court decision prevents public sectors unions from collecting dues from nonmembers. Co-President Schuhrke said they saw a slight membership decrease following Janus, but it “made them more militant and more angry.” No matter how long the UIC strike lasts, graduate students are clearly using it as a teachable moment.

“This [university] administration has a great responsibility,” said Schuhrke. “We hope our students are learning by participating in this and watching this how to stand up for your rights, stand up for justice and organize.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Atlas Obscura, Bitch Media, the Columbia Journalism Review, JSTOR Daily and Paper Magazine, among others.

West Virginia teachers strike (yes, again) to protest attack on public education

Monday, February 18th, 2019

This is not a blast from the recent past: West Virginia teachers are on strike again, just a year after they kicked off a wave of teacher uprisings that is still reverberating around the nation. The teachers won a badly needed pay raise last year, but now they’re protesting as their state legislature considers a bill that would undermine public education across the state.

Schools were open in only one of West Virginia’s 55 counties on Tuesday, ABC News reported, but “school parking lots were nearly empty anyway” in Putnam County. Teachers again flooded the state capitol. Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers in West Virginia, said “We are left with no other choice.”

The teachers are protesting an education bill that would chip away at the state’s already fragile and underfunded public education system by creating charter schools and allowing education savings accounts to pay for private schools. “It’s really disheartening to see the process play out and to see that people are using public education as a form of retaliation,” Mingo County high school English teacher Katie Endicott told USA Today. “But, at the same time, we’re really resolved in the fight and we’re not going to back down. We’re not going to quit because we know that the future of public education is at stake.”

One way to gauge the continuing rage among teachers and their willingness to keep up the fight is that, when the Denver teachers strike ended on Feb. 14, with the Los Angeles teachers strike having ended on Jan. 23, it seemed remarkable that Oakland teachers were on the brink of striking. The Oakland strike is planned to start on Thursday, Feb. 21—a week after Denver teachers got a deal. That seemed soon! But somehow West Virginia teachers have slid into that one-week gap to remind us all of their place in this movement, and of the severity of the attack on public education in the U.S.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on February 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

Denver teachers go on strike for the first time in 25 years

Tuesday, February 12th, 2019

Thousands of teachers from Denver Public Schools gathered at the state Capitol Monday to kick off their first strike in 25 years, demanding pay increases and a long-term solution to the state’s ongoing problem of underfunding schools.

The strike, which is led by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), will affect more than 200 schools in the district. Administrators plan to keep schools open by hiring substitute teachers, though pre-school classes have been cancelled. Depending on how long the strike goes on, school officials have acknowledged that they may have to close some schools if they are unable to hire enough substitutes.

Educators voted to strike last month after disagreements with school administrators over pay. As ThinkProgress previously reported, the major dispute is over a merit-based compensation system called “ProComp,” which began in 2005. It gives teachers one-time incentives beyond their base salaries as a reward for working in hard-to-staff positions or to teach in schools where students perform well on state tests.

The union, however, has pushed for a more traditional approach to salary structure, calling for a system that allows all teachers to get raises and cost-of-living increases. During negotiations, the district was $8 million short of what the union asked for to overhaul the compensation system. Teachers, meanwhile, argued that the district could reduce administrators’ bonuses and take money out of its reserve to pay for it.

At a press conference Monday, DCTA’s lead negotiator Rob Gould said he hopes school administrators “come to the table tomorrow ready to listen so we can get back to work cause our teachers want to be in the classrooms with their kids.”

While educators were on strike, students at East High School in Denver took to the halls Monday morning in a show of support for their teachers. Video shared on Twitter showed students chanting, “Pay our teachers!”

Colorado is one of the worst offenders when it comes to public school funding. According to Education Week’s 2018 state-by-state assessment of public education, the state earned a D-plus for overall school finance. Colorado received an F for its spending on public education.

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A key reason for this is that Colorado legislators can reduce school funding in order to balance the budget, using a tool called “negative factor.” Over the years, lawmakers have trimmed billions of dollars in funding to rural schools, schools serving at-risk students, and those serving populations with a high cost of living. As the Coloradoan reported in 2017, Colorado spends an average of $9,471 on each public school student, $2,685 less than the national average.

Denver is the latest city where teachers have gone on strike to demand better pay and funding for schools. Last year, weeks-long strikes in red states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona led to pay increases and more money. Los Angeles teachers recently ended a weeklong strike, after achieving several of their demands, including a 50 percent reduction in standardized testing and smaller class sizes.

This article was originally published in ThinkProgress on February 11, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Elham Khatami is an associate editor at ThinkProgress. Previously, she worked as a grassroots organizer within the Iranian-American community. She also served as research manager, editor, and reporter during her five-year career at CQ Roll Call. Elham earned her Master of Arts in Global Communication at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and her bachelor’s degree in writing and political science at the University of Pittsburgh.

Meet the Militant Flight Attendant Leader Who Threatened a Strike—And Helped Stop Trump’s Shutdown

Monday, February 11th, 2019

The government shutdown introduced America to an audacious new voice in the labor movement: Sara Nelson. While receiving the MLK Drum Major for Justice Lifetime Achievement Award from the AFL-CIO on January 20, Nelson, the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, called for a general strike to support the 800,000 federal employees who were locked out or forced to work without pay. “Dr. King said, ‘their destiny is tied up with our destiny,’” Nelson told a cheering crowd of labor leaders. “We cannot walk alone.”

Absences among air traffic controllers on the 35th and final day of the shutdown, causing ground stops at LaGuardia Airport in New York and elsewhere, contributed to the eventual resolution of the standoff. Before the shutdown ended, flight attendants were mobilizing to walk out as well—as Nelson said, “if air traffic controllers can’t do their jobs, we can’t do ours.” Simply floating the idea of labor unrest raised the stakes. Nelson, who took over leadership of the AFA in 2014, broke an unwritten rule by expressing the logical endpoint of the power workers hold in their hands.

“I was very aware when writing that speech that it was going to be a moment and it was going to make a lot of things possible,” she told In These Times during an interview last week in Los Angeles. “There has been this hopelessness, this feeling that the problems are out of our reach. So setting a bold course and being bold about the action that we need to take was something that I knew people would respond to.”

That urgency has yet to dissipate. The shutdown was merely put on pause—government funding runs out again February 15. It’s entirely possible that workers could again get furloughed and cut off from pay. And Nelson wants everyone to understand how her members are willing to sacrifice in response.

“I know how dangerous a day 36 of the lockout would be,” she said, referring to a resumption of the shutdown. “We’re going to continue running as fast as we can right up to February 15, so that we can take action immediately on February 16 if necessary.” If flight attendants do take action, other unions and even the airlines themselves may get behind them. That’s because the shutdown inserted fundamental risk into the air travel system.

Nelson, a 23-year rank and file flight attendant with United Airlines who still occasionally works trips, thinks that it will take years for the aviation industry to recover from the shutdown and the issues that preceded it. Nearly 20 percent of all air traffic controllers are currently eligible to retire, a figure that rises to 40 percent in the New York City area, Nelson said. Staffing was at a 30-year low before the shutdown. The political uncertainty could easily convince air traffic controllers into cutting their careers short. And the training required for such a difficult job means that replacing these workers will take time.

“If you have a 99.5 percent efficiency rate in a job, people applaud you, you get awards, right?” Nelson explained. “If an air traffic controller has a 99.5 percent efficiency rate, 50 planes go down a day.”

Fewer people managing plane traffic means reduced capacity in the air. That has an economic impact, compounded by the shutdown’s temporary halt on installing improved safety measures like the NextGen modernization—an FAA-led effort to modernize the United States’ transportation system. Even after the shutdown, NextGen has not rolled back to life, Nelson said. “No contractor is going to come to work when they think they’re going to have to shut down in two weeks possibly.”

Amid this economic uncertainty and threat to safety, Nelson has signaled a critical need for worker action. The labor strike is having a renaissance in America. Teachers across the country—even in states like West Virginia where striking is illegal—have withheld their labor to bargain for better pay, conditions and outcomes for their students. Hotel workers at Marriott spent two months on the picket lines this winter to win concessions from management.

As Nelson understands, the willingness of workers to strike has powerful effects. The Association of Flight Attendants resolved a dispute in 1993 with Alaska Airlines—which led to as much as 60 percent pay raises for workers in some cases—by only striking seven flights. The union called it CHAOS: “create havoc around our system.” With air travel so interconnected and interdependent, the ever-present threat of CHAOS has helped lead to labor peace.

The right to strike is a privilege that federal employees are denied; they are legally prohibitedfrom walkouts, and they can be terminated, hit with the loss of a federal pension, and even personally prosecuted for defying the law. “Those federal workers were actually very courageous,” Nelson said. “Because in my view what the White House wanted here was for the workers to strike. They wanted to replace them so they could privatize the entire system.” This is not so far-fetched—President Trump has publicly supported air traffic control privatization.

Nelson believes that the heroic efforts of federal workers to show up to work without pay demands that the labor movement support them with solidarity strikes, part of her desire to shake up the status quo. “If we try to play by the rules, we’re only going to continue to decline,” she said.

Part of Nelson’s power derives from the union she leads. Flight attendants are a uniquely consumer-facing profession that comes into contact with millions of Americans every day. And they share with passengers the indignities of air travel, a by-product of corporate greed and industry consolidation that has left four carriers controlling 80 percent of all domestic routes. With few alternatives for passengers, shrinking seats and overhead bins have heightened tensions in the cabin, and flight attendants are bearing the brunt. According to Nelson, “Our union, our bread and butter issues are absolutely tied up in this overall fight that I think is really about, are we going to be about people or are we going to be about politics and profits?”

In the near term, that fight is translating into mass mobilization against the threat of another shutdown. Nelson’s union is leafleting at airports and communicating to the public between now and February 15 to identify the stakes, and making clear that members are committed to walking out if necessary. They’re also advocating for a permanent end to government shutdowns, and back wages for low-income federal contract workers who were furloughed.

One moment during the previous shutdown has stuck with Nelson, a reminder of the unifying force of cross-sector solidarity. “I was doing interviews on the shutdown in a cab ride” in Washington, D.C., Nelson recalled. “And when I got to the office and went to get out and pay my fare, the cab driver turned around and his chin was shaking and his eyes were watery. And he said, ‘Thank you, I know you’re fighting for me too.’ It was like, oh yeah, there’s been nobody on the streets, and he’s had no fares. And that really shook me, because we don’t really understand how much the effect ripples.”

This notion that we all have a stake in one another’s struggles has driven Nelson’s thinking throughout this government-created crisis, and it’s elevated her to a prominence that could portend a larger role in the future. Nelson begged off such thoughts, insisting that she was focused on saving the lives of her members and airline passengers. But she did leave some room to consider the broader lessons of collective action, in a moment when so many forces are aligned against the working class: “I’m very aware that if we do it well, it’s an opportunity for workers to taste their power.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 8, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: David Dayen is an investigative fellow with In These Times‘ Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. His book Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud won the 2015 Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. He lives in Los Angeles, where prior to writing about politics he had a 19-year career as a television producer and editor.

Los Angeles Teachers Stay Strong; Win Improvements

Friday, January 25th, 2019

Less than a month into 2019, the teachers of Los Angeles have proven that last year’s wave of collective action isn’t quieting down. After taking to the streets in a strike that has captured the country’s imagination, members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) are returning to classrooms today after overwhelmingly approving a paradigm-shifting contract that delivers on key demands.

For six days, more than 30,000 UTLA teachers went on strike to shine a light on the daily realities of a neglected and underfunded public school system. They demanded better, and by standing together, they won it. Here are just a few critical improvements in UTLA’s new contract:

  • A much-deserved 6% pay raise with no contingencies;
  • A nurse in every school five days a week;
  • A teacher librarian in every secondary school five days a week;
  • Hard caps on class size that will go into effect immediately in 2019–2020, with additional improvements every year after;
  • A commitment to reduce testing by 50%;
  • Hard caps on special education caseloads; and
  • A clear pathway to cap charter schools.

“For too long teachers have lived with a hard truth to tell—that for years our students were being starved of the resources they need,” said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl following the vote. “Our expectations were fundamentally raised by this strike. Together, we said we deserve better, our students deserve better. We must keep our expectations high and not let go of this moment, because the next struggle is right around the corner.”

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on January 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

L.A. Teachers on What Was Won—And Which Battles Are Next

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

Following a six-day teachers’ strike over inadequate public-school funding, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) reached a tentative agreement Tuesday. While tallies haven’t yet been released, UTLA has confirmed that teachers voted in favor of the contract and, as of Wednesday, have returned to their classrooms.

The agreement, which was preceded by a nearly 21-month bargaining period, reverses some of the trends the union was protesting, including bloated class sizes, insufficient staffing of nurses and counselors, excessive standardized testing and a lack of resources for special education. (UTLA’s protests, including the strike, were largely the product of a reform movement among educational unions nationwide.)

It also calls for a greater reckoning with charter schools: publicly funded, privately operated schools boosted primarily by wealthy financiers and executives. UTLA members rebuke these schools for siphoning funding from public schools and view a pro-charter district agenda as the cause of the aforementioned problems.

The new contract would restrict school privatization, calling on California to establish a cap on charter schools. It also states that Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti will endorse the Schools and Communities First ballot initiative, which will ostensibly redirect $11 billion per year to California schools, community colleges, health clinics and other local institutions.

In These Times spoke to five teachers from five different LAUSD schools. While most of them contend that more could have been won, these rank-and-file members overwhelmingly consider the new terms an improvement and a testament to the power of strikes.

“I am pleased with the agreement for several reasons,” second-grade teacher and rank-and-file UTLA member Traci Rustin told In These Times. “I think we started a conversation about charter schools among those members of the community and UTLA who had not previously given it much thought.”

Rustin and some other teachers, however, found the vote bittersweet, arguing that while they’re eager to return to work, the proposed terms should have included more aggressive changes. The agreement prevents the district from “unilaterally ignor[ing]” all class sizes and promises a gradual reduction of class size—which routinely exceeds 40—over the next four years, imposing maximums of 39 students for English and math courses in secondary schools. While the change marks an improvement, some remain frustrated.

“There are classes with 45 students in them. Do we really think that 41 students, three years from now will be acceptable? Absolutely not!” a kindergarten teacher in West Los Angeles who wished to remain anonymous told In These Times. “I am glad that the school district cannot come in and change that on a whim, like they were initially trying to do. … But the reduction isn’t enough.”

The 2019-2020 school year will see additional full-time teacher librarians and counselors for secondary schools, and nurses for all schools. By the 2020-2021 school year, theoretically, each school will be equipped with one nurse, five days a week. In the 2014-2015 school year, California ranked below all other states in student-to-librarian ratios, while nearly 40 percent of LAUSD schools were staffed with a nurse only one day a week, according to UTLA.

Still, the proposed staff-to-student ratios continue to worry some. “I don’t think that having a ratio of 500 students to one counselor is acceptable,” said the kindergarten teacher. “Yes, the district is giving us 17 more counselors to meet that ratio, finally, but a 500 to 1 ratio for mental health is not showing our students that we’re there for them.”

“It’s a little disheartening to realize that we’ve gained no ground on school psychologists and librarians for elementary schools,” added fourth-grade teacher Anavelia Valencia.

To address the issue of rampant standardized testing, UTLA has also vowed to establish a committee with LAUSD to cut testing in half—a move teachers overwhelmingly approve. Teachers will also receive a retroactive raise of three percent for the 2017-2018 school year, as well as an additional three percent retroactive raise dating from July 1, 2018. While educators emphasize that their salaries are a low-level concern, the raises come at a time when many California teachers can scarcely afford to rent or buy a home, yet don’t qualify for public housing.

The contract also ensures a number of changes designed to bolster students’ wellbeing. Schools will curtail “random” searches of students—a practice that has elicited strong criticism for targeting and criminalizing Black, Latinx and Muslim students. Schools will also plan to replace some of their industrial environs—bungalows, asphalt—with plant life, which has been shown to have therapeutic effects. Furthermore, according to the agreement, the district will provide an attorney for immigrant families as part of an Immigrant Defense Fund initiative.

While teachers find many of these changes promising, the circumstances surrounding voting were somewhat contentious. Because UTLA teachers learned of the contract the same day they were expected to vote, “several members were upset about voting so quickly,” said Rustin. “I wouldn’t have minded having an extra day to vote, but I also understand the need to return to work ASAP.” Relatedly, some organized impromptu meetings to discuss the contract and the merits of voting either way.

Whatever the outcome of the new terms, teachers agree much more work remains on the local, state and national levels—especially as educators in Denver and Oakland are preparing for potential strikes in response to public-school funding issues—and are returning to the classroom intent on keeping the struggle alive. In the meantime, they look forward to a fairer—and more galvanized—labor landscape. “The future of public education depends on making informed decisions about charter schools versus community schools,” said Rustin. “We were successful in calling attention to this.”

“Teachers have been beat down,” UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said at a press conference on Tuesday night. “One of the things we’re most proud of is that this campaign… had our members say, ‘I deserve better.’”

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

Here’s Why LA Teachers Are Walking Out in a Historic Strike

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

After nearly two years of bargaining, public-school teachers in Los Angeles have initiated a strike in protest of their district’s policies. Starting today, teachers are picketing outside of their workplaces, underscoring an inveterate lack of investment in public schools made worse by a pro-charter-school “austerity agenda.”

From April of 2017 to January of this year, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA)—which represents more than 35,000 teachers, nurses, librarians and counselors in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)—had been in negotiations with the district, and eventually reached an impasse. The union’s proposals address grievances including preferential funding for charter schools, and such related problems as inflated class size, inadequate support for special and bilingual education, and excessive standardized testing.

The strike is the culmination of a protracted battle against the de facto privatization brought on by the growth of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated—that is, independent of local school board regulations. In Los Angeles County, charter-school enrollment has risen 35.7 percent since 2012 to 2013, rendering the county, among dozens of others in California, one of the fastest-growing hubs of charter-school education.

In recent years, Los Angeles charter-school advocates have generated unprecedented financing: Pro-charter groups, for example, were responsible for more than two-thirds of the $14.3 million in campaign spending in a May, 2017, LAUSD school board election. That election saw pro-charter candidates clinch a majority and, the following year, appoint former investment banker and deputy mayor Austin Beutner as superintendent.

Much of this growth can be attributed to charters currying favor with Wall Street and Silicon Valley as grounds for tax breaks, real-estate investments, and business opportunities. In Los Angeles specifically, charter schools have become the pet projects of prominent billionaires, including Netflix chief Reed Hastings and real-estate developer and financier Eli Broad.

UTLA contends that the political climate of the school board has stripped traditional public schools of funding. A 2016 report commissioned by the union found that charters had siphoned $591 million from traditional public schools. The union also says that the district has $1.86 billion in “unrestricted” reserves, which UTLA claims can be used to fund LAUSD’s public schools. Beutner argues that the reserve funds exist, but are already being spent.

According to UTLA treasurer Alex Orozco, there’s no evidence the reserve funds have been spent, and the current distribution of funds has bred untenable student-to-teacher ratios. Orozco told In These Times that he visits schools with average class sizes in the 40s—a number that LAUSD’s own statistics for middle- and high-school classes confirm.

Beutner responded to these concerns via an article in the Los Angeles Times, proposing “to add teachers and reduce class size at 15 middle schools and 75 elementary schools in communities that have the highest needs.” UTLA holds that this falls short. “You can just feel the disrespect,” Orozco said. “The proposal that he put out addressed class size, which in the 16 months that we were in negotiations, not once did they address class size. But they addressed class size at the bare minimum, which is focusing on our neediest schools.”

Availability of essential personnel outside the classroom, including nurses, librarians, counselors and school psychologists, has also been compromised. For the 2014 to 2015 fiscal year, California ranked as the worst state in student-to-teacher librarian ratios. Meanwhile, California suffers a troubling shortage of school nurses. UTLA maintains that nearly 40 percent of LAUSD public schools have a nurse for only one day a week. According to Orozco, many schools are forced to pay out of pocket for a nurse.

This scarcity disproportionately affects students with disabilities and special needs, who may benefit from more regular visits. After appointments, nurses and school psychologists “are spending a lot of time doing paperwork,” says special-education teacher and UTLA rank-and-file member Allison Johnson. “So if they’re only there one day a week, then how much time are they actually getting to provide care for the students?”

Johnson’s concerns raise questions about the district’s support for students who depend on accommodations for disabilities, language barriers, and other needs. Traditional public schools are legally required to provide for these students. Charter schools, however, aren’t held to the same standards. A report from the Los Angeles Board of Education found that, as of 2014, the percentage of total LAUSD charter students with severe disabilities was less than one-third that of traditional district schools.

Another symptom of charterization, UTLA says, is an excess of standardized testing. According to UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl, the district requires up to 18 discretionary standardized tests—despite mounting nationwide criticism of standardized testing—in addition to those mandated by the federal and state governments. Orozco told In These Times that these tests are administered so frequently in order to generate school performance data, which can be leveraged into justifications for charter models.

Tests “make it very easy for the charters to come and privatize our schools based on this data that was collected by these exams that really are not necessary,” he said. “We want our teachers to be able to use their professional judgment and assess the kids in many other different ways.”

When contacted for comment, LAUSD referred In These Times to its website, which includes the following statement: “We hear our teachers and want to work with them. Los Angeles Unified and teachers agree—smaller class sizes, more teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians in schools would make our schools better. We know teachers deserve to be paid more and a working environment where kids can have the best possible education.”

In addition to its class-size reduction proposal, LAUSD has offered a six-percent pay raise to teachers, back pay for the 2017 to 2018 year, and no changes to their health benefits. In anticipation of a strike, the district has already hired 400 non-union substitute teachers for its more than 600,000 students.

Still, UTLA, frustrated by “20 months of fruitless bargaining and lies and manipulation,” as well as Beutner’s and other criticism in the media of the educators for their demands and decision to strike, feel this is far from enough. Echoing the concerns of many of her colleagues, Johnson argues that while a strike isn’t ideal, teachers have been left with no choice.

“It’s not about the raise,” she said. “People are mad. They want things to change. They want the profession to be respected and to have what we need to be able to function as educators.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

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