Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Strike’

“Bezos, Our Backs Are Tired”: Amazon Workers Strike on Prime Day

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

On Monday afternoon, in the blistering heat of a 95-degree day, approximately 50 Amazon workers and community supporters rallied outside of a suburban Minnesota Amazon warehouse chanting, “We work, We sweat, Amazon workers need a rest!” That chant was followed by, “Hey Jeff Bezos! Our backs are tired and our funds are low!”

The crowd was picketing to support workers at the Shakopee, Minnesota warehouse (or “fulfillment center”) who timed their strike to coincide with “Prime Day,” one of the company’s key online sales events. Prime Day is being promoted on Amazon’s website as a “two-day parade of epic deals,” when monthly subscribers to the company’s Prime service can shop for discounted items and expect fast home delivery.

Workers say these deals are taking a toll on those tasked with fulfilling customer orders at a breakneck pace. From 2:00 p.m. to at least 8:00 p.m. on July 15, approximately 100 warehouse employees at the Amazon facility in Minnesota are expected to walk off the job in hopes of calling attention to what they say are unfair working conditions, as well as the company’s reliance on temporary employees.

They are joined by workers at Amazon facilities across Europe who are also be walking off the job, according to Mike Murphy of Quartz, to call attention to labor issues such as stagnant pay and unrealistic work quotas.

The majority of workers at the warehouse are East African immigrants, according to an event announcement for the July 15 strike. There are more than 100 such centers in the United States, but this is the only known facility participating in the walkout. These workers are being assisted by a Minneapolis-based labor rights group called the Awood Center, whose stated mission is to “build economic and political power amongst workers in the East African community of Minnesota.”

Meg Brady has worked at the Shakopee fulfillment center for nearly 18 months, although she says she is currently off the job due to a workplace injury. She joined coworkers and local labor activists on the picket line outside the Amazon facility. As a hot, blustery wind took hold, Brady described the stress fracture in her foot that is keeping her from her work as a “rebinner,” or someone tasked with grabbing items off a conveyor belt and putting them in a cubbyhole.

“I group items for orders,” she said, noting that she has to pull 600 products off the conveyor belt per hour. A big screen mounted in front of her keeps tabs of her work speed. There is pressure to keep up, Brady insisted, as she has seen fellow warehouse workers get written up and sometimes fired for being unable to meet Amazon’s requirements. All of this has led to a repetitive stress injury—one she says she had to fight to get recognized as job-related.

She joined the walkout in solidarity, hoping the workers’ actions will lead to reduced work rates, as well as an investment from Amazon in ergonomics. “Right now, we have poorly designed workstations,” Brady said.

Bryan Menegus of Gizmodo notes that workers at this “infamous” Amazon facility have spent the past year engaging in walk-outs and other actions on behalf of religious freedom and other labor concerns. Thus far, workers have won some concessions, including the right, in 2018, to honor the Muslim holiday of Ramadan during that year’s Prime Day event.

William Stolz also works in the Shakopee fulfillment center and helped organize the strike. In a July 9 interview with National Public Radio, Stolz described his work as a “picker”—someone who works in tandem with robots to put customer orders together, at a rapid pace dictated by Amazon.

Workers want to be treated like “human beings, not machines,” Stolz told NPR, before citing other labor concerns—such as Amazon’s use of temporary workers—as reasons for the planned walk-out. Currently, around 1,500 employees work at the Shakopee facility.

As the strike got underway at 2:00 p.m., a small but growing group of workers and labor activists began to hold picket signs demanding workplace concessions from Amazon, including reduced work rates and allowing more temporary employees to become permanent workers with access to benefits. In response to news of the planned action, Amazon has insisted that it provides competitive wages and benefits in Minnesota.

Still, the July 15 strike comes amid a year of increasing pressure on Amazon to alter its business practices and put labor, climate and human rights first. In 2018, thousands of Amazon workers in Europe mounted their own Prime Day strike, citing such concerns as unfair labor practices and union-busting. Similarly, the company backed off plans for a proposed second headquarters in New York City, thanks in part to union-led pressure.

Amazon began doing business in 1994 and has grown to become a global company with billions in annual earnings. In 2018, the company raked in over $232 billion in revenue and paid zero dollars in federal income taxes, according to sources such as CNBC. First-quarter earnings for 2019 have come in at close to $60 billion, putting Amazon on track to surpass last year’s revenue totals.

One of the company’s central income-boosting strategies has been increasing speed of its product-delivery rate, especially through its fee-based Prime service. The company recently announced plans to pour $800 million into making one-day delivery the standard for Prime members, who pay a monthly fee in exchange for free shipping on millions of products.

Amazon has said that its quick order-turnaround system is accomplished not just by human labor but also by technological advances, including its own Amazon Robotics design.

While Amazon’s earnings continue to grow, however, workers charged with filling orders at faster speeds are working under “endlessly brutal and punishing conditions,” as reporter Ravie Lakshmanan put itThe Guardianhas described warehouse workers being injured on the job and then denied benefits or help. In another case, a former Amazon employee said he was fired for supporting unionization efforts.

These conditions led Amazon workers across Europe to go on strike on Prime Day in 2018. This year, Amazon workers at the Shakopee fulfillment center will take up the mantle and engage in a six-hour work stoppage.

So far, this is the only known action planned by Amazon employees in the United States. The striking Minnesota workers were joined, however, by a handful of engineers from Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, who  reportedly flew to Minnesota to join the protest and pressure the retail behemoth to take a more active role in addressing climate justice concerns.

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and former English Instructor. She is a 2015 Progressive magazine Education Fellow and blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.

Minnesota Amazon workers plan Prime Day strike, this week in the war on workers

Monday, July 15th, 2019

Consider there to be a digital picket line around Amazon’s upcoming Prime Day. Workers in a Shakopee, Minnesota, warehouse are staging a walkout for six hours of Prime Day to protest harsh working conditions.

Amazon’s answer to the workers’ protest is that it raised wages to a $15 minimum. Which is good. But it’s not what they’re talking about here. The workers are talking about the strict quotas they have to meet to keep their jobs, quotas that lead to physically punishing work. They’re talking about warehouse temperatures and broken sprinkler systems. And they want to push Amazon to turn more temp jobs into permanent jobs.

This will be the first U.S. work stoppage for Amazon, though the company’s European warehouse workers have held strikes. Minnesota Amazon warehouses, though, have been the site of successful organizing by Muslim workers seeking accommodations during Ramadan, when they’re fasting. Pilots who fly for Amazon—and have their own issues with the company—are sending a representative to the strike and said in a statement that “We hope that Amazon takes seriously these striking workers’ calls for change.

 

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

 

Workers Who Waged the Biggest Trump-Era Manufacturing Strike Just Struck a Deal—Here’s What It Says

Monday, July 1st, 2019

This article first appeared in Labor Notes.

Three months after the largest manufacturing strike of the Trump presidency so far, locomotive plant workers in Erie, Pennsylvania, have a deal. Electrical Workers (UE) Locals 506 and 618ratified a four-year contract on June 12.

In a qualified victory, the 1,700 members conceded a two-tier wage structure with a 10-year progression for new hires to reach parity with current workers, but beat back the company’s demands for a harsher version of two-tier and numerous other concessions.

“We’ve managed to preserve a lot of what we had,” said UE Local 506 President Scott Slawson. He added, however, “There were some gives on the union side for sure—there’s no two ways about it.”

Wabtec, which took over the plant in February following its purchase of GE Transportation, had threatened to move work out of Erie if the union refused a lower wage scale.

Thousands of jobs have been eliminated at the plant since 1955. In 2017, GE vowed to move all locomotive production to Fort Worth, Texas, where it opened a nonunion plant in 2013. But those plans never panned out, as the Fort Worth plant struggled to hire and retain enough skilled workers, with quality suffering as a result. Work has been moving back to the Erie plant over the last year.

The new agreement not only maintains the existing jobs at the plant but also guarantees 100 new positions in the Erie factory by the end of the contract. UE also beat back Wabtec’s demands to institute mandatory overtime and hire up to 20 percent of the plant’s workforce as nonunion temps.

Four hundred sixty previously laid-off workers will be given preferential treatment in hiring as jobs come open—an important gain in the face of Wabtec’s claim that it had no obligation to workers who were laid off by GE, not Wabtec. However, while they will maintain their seniority, they will come back on the new, lower pay scale.

The company and the union compromised on reorganizing to 31 job classifications; previously, workers had 43 classifications, which Wabtec was attempting to reduce to 17. UE argued the reduction would endanger worker safety.

The union maintains the right to strike based on transfer or subcontracting of work that results in permanent layoffs, or on a failure by the company to resolve grievances in a timely manner.

Wabtec—short for Westinghouse Airbrake Technologies—bought the $4 billion-a-year GE Transportation division last year, doubling the size of the company overnight.

The purchase led to the early termination of UE’s national contract with GE. The Erie plant was the last factory covered under the 70-year-old agreement; GE had spun off the other factories’ work in an ongoing series of corporate reconfigurations, or outsourced it, largely to nonunion plants in the U.S. or overseas.

When the sale was finalized in February, the new owner unilaterally stopped offering a pension and retiree health care, and imposed a host of other concessions, including mandatory overtime and two-tier wages starting as low as $16.75 an hour. That prompted a nine-day strike by Locals 506 and 618, ending with a 90-day interim agreement which restored the terms of the union’s previous contract with GE while the parties negotiated the new four-year deal.

During those three months, Locals 506 and 618 took a number of actions to pressure the company. Workers decorated their lockers with numbers counting down the days until the end of the interim agreement. They held pickets before work. They joined forces with UE Local 610, which represents workers at other Wabtec facilities, to rally in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania, where Wabtec is headquartered. And the union and its allies picketed Wabtec’s shareholder meeting in Pittsburgh.

Wabtec eventually moved off its demand for a permanent second tier. The company’s revised proposal would have started workers off at $17 an hour, with an 18-year progression to reach the top tier. But ultimately, with the threat of another strike looming, the union was able to shrink the progression to 10 years, and boost starting pay to $20.47 for the lowest classification. Existing workers on the lowest job classification currently earn $31.49.

This decade-long grow-in is similar to the Auto Workers’ compromise with the Big 3 automakers, where hires after 2007 take eight years to reach wage parity with pre-2007 hires. A key difference, though, is that these auto workers remain in a permanent Tier 2 when it comes to benefits. Everyone at the Erie plant will get the same benefits, and those in the lower tier will actually pay 20 percent less in premiums.

“The 10-year progression is not something that people wanted to happen, but the company would not let that go,” said UE General President Peter Knowlton. He believes that if the union had held out on the issue, it would have been forced to go on another strike—this one self-defeating. The union would have lost community support, he said, and ultimately would have left 460 already laid-off workers without a job to come back to because Wabtec was claiming it had no responsibility to them.

The good-paying jobs at Wabtec’s Erie plant are crucial not only to union members and their families, but also to the community.

Located between Buffalo and Cleveland, Erie falls squarely in the Rust Belt, and its fortunes mirror those of similar cities. It was once a proud manufacturing hub, but factory relocations and closures have sapped jobs and people. The population is 96,000, down from a peak of 131,000 in 1950. And the city is poor, with a median household income of just $35,800.

“Wabtec is one of the area’s largest manufacturers and it still pays a family-sustaining wage,” said Slawson. “I think there’s a relief in the community—we found a way, we found a path, hopefully for the future of Erie and Erie County.”

He is careful to note that this is the union’s first contract with a new employer, and the union will have to stay on its toes with Wabtec.

“We had 82 years of interpretation with GE,” he said. “I think both sides are going to go through some growing pains over the next four years.”

Still, he’s optimistic about the plant’s future, citing the highly skilled workforce and the possibility that Wabtec could shift additional work to the 4.5 million-acre complex.

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Saurav Sarkar is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes. Twitter Username: @labornotes

125 Years After the Pullman Uprising, We Could Be on the Verge of Another Sympathy Strike Wave

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019

Roaming the sleepy streets of Pullman on Chicago’s Southeast Side, it’s difficult to imagine a time when it was the chaotic center of worker struggle in the United States.

Many of the handsome red brick homes in the center of Pullman—once a bustling company town and now a Chicago neighborhood—are occupied and well-maintained, but the shuttered luxury hotel hasn’t hosted a guest in decades, the skeletal factory buildings are locked behind a chain-link fence while the hands of the derelict clocktower that helped govern the working lives of thousands of men and women remain frozen in time.

But in the spring of 1894, a company-wide walkout at the site’s factories snowballed into a two-month long nationwide “sympathy strike” that, at its peak, galvanized as many as 250,000 men and women in 27 states and territories. A sympathy strike, or solidarity action, is when workers strike in support of others involved in a labor dispute in a different company, but often in the same or a related industry.

Later known as the Pullman Strike, the struggle became the largest-ever organized work stoppage and the most significant demonstration of union strength in American history, up until the Great Steel Strike of 1919.

In 2019, 125 years after the monumental strike at Pullman, the area’s physical infrastructure continues to crumble. But the revitalization of sympathy strikes and mass labor organizing all across the country in recent years—from teacher walkouts to the work stoppage threat by flight attendants that helped end the government shutdown—suggests that the legacy of the Great Pullman Strike remains very much alive today.

In a fiery speech to a group of labor leaders and visitors at the 125th-anniversary celebration of the Great Pullman Strike on May 11, Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson said, “Look at how unions banded together during the Pullman Strike. The president of the Chicago Federation of Labor said at the time. ‘We all feel that in fighting any battle against the Pullman Company, we’re aiming at the very head and front of monopoly and plutocracy.’”

“This is again a time when people have a growing consciousness of the ruling class and those with an insatiable need for more money, power and control,” she continued. “Working people are just now understanding the power they have when they stand together and claim our share of the profits we create.”

“Well-wishing feudalism”

The Great Pullman Strike was likely a shock to outside observers who had previously visited and mistakenly considered it a capitalist utopia.

“Here, indeed, seems to be the coming paradise of labor,” wrote one writer in an article from an 1882 edition of The Railway Age MonthlyThe London Times declared Pullman “the most perfect town in the world.”

George Pullman, the town’s mastermind, certainly saw it that way.

The industrialist had made his fortune in the mid-19th century by cornering the market on upscale train cars for the wealthy at a time when the railroad industry held a stranglehold over the economy.

In 1877, Pullman built a luxurious mansion on swanky Prairie Avenue adjacent to Chicago’s elite like department store magnate Marshall Field. Three years later, Pullman purchased 4,000 acres of swamp-covered land near Lake Calumet and invested an estimated $5 million to build a series of factories and hundreds of houses to be rented to up to 10,000 workers. He also approved the construction of school buildings, parks, a library, a theater and the Midwest’s first indoor shopping mall to accompany the new production facilities.

At the time, Pullman stood as a company town: a planned community by which an individual corporation owns all of the businesses and housing in the name of centralizing production.

Hundreds of company towns have existed in some form or another throughout American history from the poorly constructed shanty towns of the mining or lumber industries to Milton S. Hershey’s grandiose amusement park-like model town built for his chocolate factory workers in Pennsylvania.

Like Hershey, Pullman’s intended his village to serve as a shining alternative to the squalor of Chicago’s industrial slums. The streets were paved and outfitted with modern sewers, every house had indoor plumbing and thousands of trees and flowers were planted.

“I want the people who work at Pullman to have the advantages of seeing the best,” Pullman said. “I want no cheap, crude, inartistic work in any department. I have faith in the educational and refining influences of beauty and beautiful and harmonious surroundings, and hesitate at no reasonable expenditure to secure them.”

In other words, Pullman believed he could to increase his profits while also responding to the poor conditions of tenement housing that accompanied rapid industrialization. Protecting his workers from alcohol, disease and vice was good for them—and him.

“He genuinely had a vision for the future in which workers wouldn’t have to live in the slums of Chicago and they’d have this beautiful model town,” said Jack Kelly, the author of the recent book The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America. “His employees would have a better life and in turn would be more productive workers because they’d be sober, educated, and have shorter commutes. He saw it as a win-win.”

Many journalists agreed, especially after seeing it in person during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. “Future generations will bless his memory,” predicted the Chicago Times. Progressives also noted that African-Americans worked as porters on the company’s “Palace Cars” (bellhops serving passengers riding the company’s train cars) and Pullman became the largest employer of freed slaves in the country.

But while the press may have extolled Pullman’s virtues, critics claim that the amenities and bucolic surroundings of his company town served as window dressing for his paternalism and greed, and that his apparent race-blindness was self-serving: no African Americans were allowed to live in the boundaries of Pullman and he paid black workers lower wages than whites.

“The church he built was very telling,” noted Kelly. “He wanted to charge so much rent for it that no one could afford it and it just sat there empty, for decoration.”

Pullman also forced residents to follow a set of draconian rules. For instance, he reportedly required tenants to place decorative flowers in their windowsills and individuals were expected to wipe their feet on doormats before they entered their own apartments. Taverns—an important feature of working-class life at the time—were outlawed and the only bar in town (located in the hotel named for Pullman’s daughter Florence) was strictly for visitors.

No one could vote to change these rules because no democratic town government was put in place. To prevent anyone from unionizing the company, according to Kelly, company spies were planted across the town to report on any attempts to organize.

Not every outsider was taken in by Pullman’s vision. Writing for Harper’s in 1885, economist Richard Ely called Pullman’s system “benevolent, well-wishing feudalism, which desires the happiness of the people, but in such a way as shall please the authorities.”

“It went back to that idea that the Lord of the Manor knows best,” said Kelly. “And the problem is that Pullman’s strict rules built all sorts of resentments among the workers that only got worse over time.”

The Pullman Strike

These resentments were exacerbated by an economic crisis in 1893 that plunged the nation into a depression. Pullman responded to the company’s falling revenue by cutting his workers’ wages five times—including a single 30 percent cut—without reducing rents in his town while continuing to pay stockholders the same pre-depression dividends. By April of 1894, some families living in Pullman’s town were on the brink of starvation.

“There were guys who almost fainted on the job because they hadn’t eaten in days because they couldn’t afford it,” said Kelly. “One guy got a paycheck of two cents—he didn’t even cash it—he just had it framed. That really showed the contempt that Pullman had for working people.”

The workers had tried to negotiate. Forming a union was against the law, but some of them organized a 46-member grievance committee in secret in a nearby neighborhood outside of Pullman. The committee’s leaders met twice with company officials—including Pullman himself during the second meeting—to demand that he reverse the wage cuts and reduce the rents.

The company refused as Pullman argued that, “Arbitration always implies acquiescence in the decision of the arbitrator, whether favorable or adverse.” Six days later, on May 12, thousands of workers walked off the job. The two-month-long strike had begun. “We struck at Pullman,” the workers later testified, “because we were without hope.”

The strike may have been easily defeated or gone relatively unnoticed outside of Chicago if not for the American Railway Union (ARU), the powerful cross-trade railroad labor group founded the previous year and led by Eugene Debs. “Before you had these brotherhoods, these craft unions that bickered, competed and undercut each other,” said Kelly. “The ARU was different.”

In April 1894, the ARU successfully led Great Northern Railroad workers through a different dispute—just one month prior to the Pullman workers’ unrest. Voluntary arbitration had resolved the strike, and three-fourths of the Great Northern Railroad’s wage cut had been restored. In the following weeks, 35 percent of Pullman’s workers joined the ARU hoping that the new union could perhaps do the same for them.

“Pullman, both the man and the town, is an ulcer on the body politic,” the Pullman workers told the ARU in a statement at the union’s first-ever national convention in Chicago in June, 1894. “He owns the houses, the schoolhouses, and churches of God in the town he gave his once humble name. The revenue he derives from these, the wages he pays out with one hand—the Pullman Palace Car Company, he takes back with the other—the Pullman Land Association…And thus the merry war— the dance of skeletons bathed in human tears—goes on, and it will go on, brothers, forever, unless you, the American Railway Union, stop it; end it; crush it out.”

Debs’ response was ruthless in its criticism of George Pullman, calling him “the plutocrat with a soul so small that a million of them could dance on the little end of a hornet’s stinger.” He called for the ARU to support Pullman workers with a sympathy strike because it was not just a single fight but part of a greater movement for workers’ universal rights to higher wages, safer working conditions and other basic protections.

“The forces of labor must unite. The salvation of labor demands it,” Debs said at the convention on June 12. “The dividing lines must grow dimmer day by day until they become imperceptible, and then labor’s hosts, marshaled under one conquering banner, shall march together, vote together, and fight together until workingmen shall receive and enjoy all their fruits of their toil.”

It was an important moment in the history of sympathy strikes. “Eugene Debs knew we all needed to stick together,” said Joe Burns, the author of the book Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America, “It was the hope and future of labor unions—class wide solidarity.”

On June 22, 1894 the delegates of the ARU agreed voted to boycott Pullman cars until the strike was settled. Despite threats from railroad companies that any worker who refused to handle Pullman cars would be fired, the sympathy strike officially began on June 26.

Within a matter of days, railroads west of Detroit were frozen for more than a month as workers either refused to touch Pullman’s cars or unhitched them from trains. Suddenly passengers were stranded, the price of food ballooned, power plants and factories ran out of resources and mines and lumber mills were forced to close.

The reverberations of the sympathy strike were being felt all over the country—especially after the strike had stopped the delivery of U.S. mail. For Debs, an outright struggle between the upper and lower classes appeared imminent as the strike, “has developed into a contest between the producing classes and the money power of this country.”

U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney, also a railroad lawyer and friend of Pullman’s, declared that America had reached “the ragged edge of anarchy.” Olney asked the federal courts to ban the ARU boycotts and on July 2 he received an injunction to end the strike. President Grover Cleveland deployed federal troops from Fort Sheridan north of Chicago to Pullman to enforce the court’s ruling.

On July 4, a thousand troops arrived and set up camp, joining thousands of armed police and guardsmen to break the strike while masses of unarmed strikers crowded the railroad yards. Over the next three days, riots broke out and hundreds of railcars were burned. Violence broke out after a railroad agent shot one of the boycotters and 26 civilians were killed in the weeks-long mayhem that followed.

The soldiers and railroad workers got the trains moving again and in the following weeks, Debs and other agitators were jailed for “ordering, directing, aiding, assisting, or abetting” the rebellion. The strike was officially broken on August 2.

Pullman won the battle, but the industrial kingdom he built would soon fall. His reputation was ruined among government officials, his fellow tycoons and those like Jane Addams—the famous activist and social justice advocate who had tried to help arbitrate the strike.

“She considered Pullman to be like a King Lear figure,” said Kelly.

President Cleveland ordered a commission to discover the causes of the strike, and the final report blamed the boss. “The aesthetic features are admired by visitors, but have little money value to employees, especially when they lack bread,” the report stated.

In 1898, the Illinois State Supreme Court ordered that Pullman either divest itself of the company or the residential property. He chose his company. In 1889, Pullman was annexed by the city of Chicago.

By the time George Pullman died in 1897, he was so despised that his family buried him under thick layers of reinforced concrete so that no one could descrecrate his grave. “It is clear the family in their bereavement was making sure the son of a bitch wasn’t going to get up and come back,” noted journalist Ambrose Bierce at the time.

Meanwhile, Debs, who would later found the Socialist Party, became a populist hero while in jail. Six months after being locked away, he re-emerged in Chicago triumphant—with 100,000 supporters cheering him on. By 1912, when a million Americans voted for Debs as President, both the Republicans and Democrats began to embrace progressive reforms advocated by Debs and other socialists: anti-trust and child labor laws, women’s suffrage, minimum wages and the eight-hour work day.

The return of solidarity

One-hundred and twenty five years after Debs’ speech to the ARU, Sara Nelson sounded ready to continue where the great socialist labor leader left off.

Nelson told the crowd gathered in the Pullman visitor’s center the story of how she called for a general strike in January during the Trump administration’s month-long government shutdown over funding for his border wall. After some air traffic controllers in key facilities called in sick, Nelson warned that flight attendants were “mobilizing immediately” to strike. Hours later, Trump reached a deal to reopen the government.

“Our entire country’s economy was on the line, our safety and security were on the line. If we could just communicate that to the public, and say what we were willing to do—we could end this [shutdown],” said Nelson. “The wonderful news is that no one knew what a general strike was, but it scared the piss out of them. It worked.”

Over the last two years, mass work stoppages have spread across the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 25,000 workers were involved in major work stoppage in 2017 but that numbered skyrocketed to 485,000 in 2018. These actions range from the wildcat strikes of hundreds of thousands of teachers and education workers in four Republican-dominated states to tens of thousands of hospital workers striking in 2018. The first half of 2019 has also seen major work stoppages, including the recent strike of 31,000 employees of the grocery chain Stop & Shop across three northeastern states—one of the largest private sector strikes in years.

These large-scale strikes helped bring victories for both workers and the labor movement as a whole. But Nelson believes that general and sympathy strikes are the logical next step in securing more significant wins.

Today, most solidarity strikes are illegal due to legislation pieced together over the last several decades, says Burns, ranging from the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 to the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. That’s part of the reason why they’ve fallen out of fashion since the days of the Great Pullman Strike.

But the flight attendant union’s successful threat of a walkout—as well as the wildcat teachers’ strikes—are proof that the law can be beaten by mass solidarity, says Burns. “Labor law is set up for workers to lose and it’s going to change through the courts,” he said. “It will only change with workers coming together and fighting for the right to strike and free speech.”

For Nelson, sympathy strikes don’t have to represent the labor movement’s antiquated past. Today’s new Gilded Age is populated by a new generation of robber barons, and the Great Pullman Strike could help illuminate a path forward for American workers.

In what could be a hint of what’s to come, the United Mine Workers of America threatened a sympathy strike in support of West Virginia teachers in early June. The teachers are fighting state Republicans’ proposed retaliation to their 2018 walkout by creating new penalties for teachers who go on strike. Cecil Roberts, the international president of the United Mine Workers of America, said, “Let me make this very clear: If our state’s education workers believe they need to take to the streets once again, we will be there with them. And if someone comes to arrest them, they will have to go through us first.”

A large-scale general strike may not happen tomorrow but Nelson believes it may not be as far off as we think.

“We’re not quite there yet, but when I called for a general strike during the government shutdown, I absolutely expected people to say, ‘You’re crazy lady, you can’t do that!’ Instead what I got was, “What are we waiting for? Yeah, let’s go!’”

This blog was originally published at In These Times on June 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ryan Smith is a Chicago-based journalist. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Jacobin Magazine, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Belt Magazine and other publications.

New Haven teachers strike drags on for a 14th day this week in the war on workers

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019

Teachers in California’s New Haven Unified School District have been on strike for 14 days as of Friday. They were considering the school district’s “last, best, and final offer,” which falls short of the pay increases teachers are calling for. The school district entered negotiations offering zero raise, meaning teachers would be falling behind as the cost of living rises.

A group of frustrated parents is attempting a recall of three school board members, saying, “We have witnessed a total and complete lack of willingness and ability of this board to lead us through these difficult times,” and, “Teachers in this school district deserve more from this board of education and administration. The students deserve more from all of us.”

The New Haven strike follows teachers strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, California; Denver, Colorado; and West Virginia—all in 2019. Teachers in South Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; and Massachusetts have also held significant protests this year.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on June 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

West Virginia Senate passes sweeping education bill to ban teacher strikes

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

The bill would allow schools to fire workers for striking and withhold pay on strike days.

The West Virginia State Senate on Monday passed a sweeping education overhaul bill that would deem teacher strikes unlawful.

The chamber voted 18-15 to advance the measure — after Senate Republicans inserted an amendment during a special session Sunday that would ban public worker strikes, amid protests from teachers and workers in the chamber, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported. The legislation also allows for an unlimited number of charter schools in the state.

Democrats, as well as the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, criticized the ban on strikes as retaliation for the teacher walkouts that took place earlier this year and last year. The bill would allow schools to fire workers for striking and withhold pay on strike days, as well as forbid county superintendents from closing schools due to strikes.

The legislation, known as the Student Success Act, now moves to the House of Delegates, which is scheduled to reconvene on June 17. It is unclear whether Gov. Jim Justice (R) will sign the measure into law should it reach his desk. On Sunday, he told the Metro News, “We’re at a very, very difficult impasse.”

Teachers protested at the state capitol all weekend. On Saturday, hundreds of teachers chanted, “Charter schools, no! Public schools, yes!” Protesters also singled out Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R), who has been a staunch defender of the bill and has framed it as the key to fixing West Virginia’s education system.

“We have been accused of not listening,” said GOP State Sen. Patricia Rucker during Monday’s floor debate, likely referring to teacher protests. “I have to apologize if I sometimes slip into teacher mode. But listening is not the same … as agreeing. We can listen and we can agree or disagree … I’m here to represent more than just the unions in West Virginia.”

Protesters also called the measure just another iteration of a bill the legislature killed in February.

In February, West Virginia teachers took to the streets in protest of a similar omnibus bill that would allow a few charter schools to operate in the state and allocate money toward private school vouchers. Teachers argued that charter schools could drain money from struggling traditional public schools, which are already largely underfunded. The two-day strike was successful, with the Republican-controlled House tabling the measure.

Last year’s strike lasted almost two weeks, focusing on higher salaries and better benefits, as well as concerns over staff vacancies and the state’s insurance provider. An agreement was ultimately reached to provide teachers and state employees with a 5% pay raise, a fivefold increase from the original proposed raise. That proposal, however, died with the February omnibus bill. Monday’s bill includes the 5% raise. West Virginia teachers are among the country’s most poorly paid, with teacher salaries ranked at 48th in the nation, according to the National Education Association.

“I get sick of hearing how bad West Virginia schools are,” said Sen. Randy Smith (R) during floor debate Monday. “This is a start … I feel we have to start someplace … We need to stop sitting on our hands … Starting over again isn’t the right thing to do.”

This article was originally published in ThinkProgress on June 3, 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.

American Airlines Mechanics Are Threatening the “Bloodiest, Ugliest Battle” in Labor History

Friday, May 31st, 2019

Mechanics at American Airlines are threatening to strike if a new contract isn’t negotiated, and the union president has declared that employees are prepared for the dispute to erupt into “the bloodiest, ugliest battle that the United States labor movement ever saw.” The statement comes just one day after the airline sued its union workers, claiming that they had engaged in an illegal work slowdown to strengthen their hand at the bargaining table.

American Airlines merged with US Airways in 2013 to become the largest airline in the world. The 31,000 mechanics who fixed planes for both airlines had existing contracts, but the merger didn’t produce a joint contract. American Airlines mechanics had contracts with the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and US Airways mechanics had contracts with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). American Airlines has been trying to update the collective bargaining agreement with the TWU-IAM Association (a partnership between the two unions that developed as a result of the merger), through contract talks since December 2015, with the National Mediations Board serving as a federal mediator between the two sides. But talks were suspended in April after reaching an impasse. In addition to issues of pay and benefits, the union is concerned that the company is potentially looking to outsource thousands of jobs.

Timothy KIlima is an Airline Coordinator for the IAM who has been personally involved with the negotiations. “The employees represented by the TWU-IAM Association want to preserve the work they do, the healthcare they have and to reach parity in benefits between the two pre-merger workgroups,” he told In These Times via email. “American Airlines demands to reduce the amount of work performed by their employees and a corresponding headcount reduction; to eliminate the better healthcare choices the employees already have; and refuses to improve the profit sharing formula that is one of the worst among their peers. In short, the employees desire to grow with a healthy American Airlines but at least want to keep what they have coming into the merger.”

On May 20, American Airlines filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of Texas federal court claiming that mechanics have purposely slowed down their work in an effort to hinder the company’s day-to-day operations. According to the lawsuit, the mechanics’ actions have resulted in 650 flight cancellations and over 1,500 maintenance delays since February.

The union denies that there was ever a purposeful slowdown. “American Airlines should focus its time and effort to reach contractual agreements with its employees instead of falsely accusing them of trumped-up job action charges,” said Klima. “Collective bargaining agreements cannot be reached in courtrooms, in the media or by lobbying politicians. The TWU-IAM Association is eager to return to the bargaining table, which is the only arena where our contract disputes can be resolved.”

Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also criticized the legal action, tweeting on May 21, “Instead of recognizing and addressing the concerns of workers, American Airlines has moved to sue @MachinistsUnion. Machinists keep passengers safe and on time. My message to American Airlines is simple: Stop the intimidation and bullying!”

On May 21, during one of the airline’s regular town hall meetings with employees at LaGuardia Airport, TWU president John Samuelsen confronted American Airlines president Robert Isom and told him that the union was prepared to strike. “I stand here to tell you—in front of this whole room, in front of everybody, anybody who’s listening—that you’re not going to get what you want,” said Samuelsen. “If this erupts into the bloodiest, ugliest battle that the United States labor movement ever saw, that’s what’s going to happen. You’re already profitable enough.”

Samuelsen also told Isom that workers are desperately trying to avoid what’s called a “self-help” situation under the Railway Labor Act. That means the company would be able to force employees into a contract without union approval if the government condones it. “If we ever get to a point where there’s self-help, we are going to engage in an absolutely vicious strike action against American Airlines to the likes of which you’ve never seen,” said Samuelsen. “Not organized by airline people, but organized by a guy that came out of the New York City subway system that’s well inclined to strike power, and who understands that the only way to challenge power is to aggressively take it to them. … We’re going to shut this place down.”

Isom replied, “I will tell you this, that anybody that seeks to destroy American Airlines, that is not going to be productive. It just won’t. We have to be able to work together to see the views of both sides. And I, believe me, I will send people back to the table.”

The airline industry has seen its share of labor unrest over the last few years, and workers have been able to celebrate a number of organizing victories. The American Airlines battle mirrors the recent fight between Southwest Airlines and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA). In March, Southwest sued the AMFA and alleged that workers had participated in an illegal slowdown, but employees were ultimately able to win an agreement that established pay raises, new bonuses and an end to the legal dispute. Last year, JetBlue flight attendants voted to unionize, and in February the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) helped end Trump’s government shutdown by threatening to strike.

Organizing efforts have been met with extreme resistance from the airlines beyond the aforementioned lawsuits. In February, The Guardian revealed that JetBlue president Joanna Geraghty sent employees an email warning that the company would cease to be successful if workers unionized. “So if anyone asks you to sign a card, I’m asking you to decline,” the email eads. This month, details of Delta’s union-busting campaign emerged, which included breakroom literature encouraging workers to spend their money on video games and alcohol rather union dues.

According to The International Air Transport Association, the airline industry is expected to generate net profits of $35.5 billion in 2019, better than the $32.3 billion netted in 2018. American Airlines is the world’s largest airline. Its parent organization, American Airlines Group, reported a fourth-quarter 2018 pre-tax profit of $387 million. “We expect our total revenue per available seat mile to grow faster than our network competitors, and to deliver strong pre-tax earnings growth in 2019,” the group said in a statement.

Last week, the TWU-IAM Association sent a letter to the National Mediation Board calling on the agency to compel further negotiations between the two sides, as the company has refused to engage in talks without a mediator. “These negotiations have reached the critical end stage with the largest scope and economic issues yet to be resolved,” reads the letter.

This article was originally published at In These Times on May 30, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements.

Teamwork On and Off the Ice: Worker Wins

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019

Our latest roundup of worker wins begins with women’s hockey players forming a union and includes numerous examples of working people organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life.

Top Women’s Hockey Players Form Union in Pursuit of Pro League: More than 200 of the top women’s hockey players in the world have come together to form the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. Among the goals the union is pursuing are a “single, viable women’s professional league in North America,” coordination of training needs and the development of sponsor support. Olympic gold medalist Coyne Schofield said: “We are fortunate to be ambassadors of this beautiful game, and it is our responsibility to make sure the next generation of players have more opportunities than we had. It’s time to stand together and work to create a viable league that will allow us to enjoy the benefits of our hard work.”

New England Macy’s Workers Reach Tentative Agreement to Avoid Strike: Workers at several Macy’s stores throughout New England have agreed to a tentative deal that will avoid a strike. Nearly 1,000 workers, represented by UFCW Local 1445, agreed to a three-year deal that includes better wages and health care options, among other gains. The union said: “Thanks to the strength of the Macy’s members who with the support of the UFCW Local 1445 membership, allies, customers and other unions around the country won a tentative agreement security time and one half on Sundays, reduced cost of health insurance premiums and good wage increases and no give backs!”

Educators at D.C. Public Charter School Join AFT: Educators at Washington, D.C.’s Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School have voted to join the AFT. The teachers are currently bargaining on their first contract and chose the union because they want to make sure that the school is a place where kids will thrive, teachers want to work and parents want to send their kids. Kindergarten teacher Andrea Molina said: “While we teach our kids about social justice and equity, we do not always experience it ourselves. Our teachers and staff are a strong, dedicated team; they work around the clock to make our school an amazing place to teach and learn and to set an example for other schools in the district. Our victory tonight will ensure we are treated with the dignity and respect that reflects the commitment we each have made to our school.”

New York Tenement Museum Workers Join UAW: Workers at the Tenement Museum in New York voted to join UAW Local 2110. The workers are joining together to make sure they maintain the things about the job that are working and to improve things that aren’t. Nicole Daniels, a museum educator, explained: “A big part of it is we want to protect the things that are working and secure the things that are already keeping so many of us here….So a lot of it is about preserving the things that work already, but also standardizing systems….There’s a huge range of people across the departments, some of whom are part-time and others full-time, some of whom have benefits through the museum and others who don’t. Some of the ones who don’t have benefits through the museum get them from their parents or their partners. We want to serve the whole group, so we’re just going to have to see what’s needed.”

New Lear Manufacturing Facility Workers in Flint Join UAW: Nearly 600 employees at the new Lear manufacturing plant in Flint, Michigan, voted to join the UAW. The new plant makes automotive seats. UAW President Gary Jones said: “We are thrilled to bring Lear’s exceptional workers into the UAW family and are excited about the prospect of new jobs available in Flint. The UAW represents more than 400,000 members and has welcomed over 10,000 new members since August. We welcome these workers and the opportunity to be a part of Flint’s rebirth. We look forward to getting down to business, bargaining great contracts and helping our new members make a positive impact on the community.”

Stop & Shop Strike Leads to Victory for Working People: After an 11-day strike that followed more than three months of negotiations, more than 30,000 Stop & Shop Workers, represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers, reached a tentative agreement with the supermarket chain. The employees work at more than 240 stores across Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In a statement, the union said: “The agreement preserves health care and retirement benefits, provides wage increases, and maintains time-and-a-half pay on Sunday for current members. Under this proposed contract, our members will be able to focus on continuing to help customers in our communities.” Stop & Shop workers have since ratified the contract.

Rutgers Faculty Avoids Strike with Tentative Deal: Faculty members at Rutgers were able to secure a new tentative contract in the proverbial last minute before they went on strike. The 4,800 full-time faculty and graduate workers represented by Rutgers AAUP-AFT will need to vote on the contract. Rutgers AAUP-AFT President Deep Kumar described the terms of the deal: “We made history today. For the first time in the union’s nearly 50-year history, we won equal pay for equal work for female faculty, faculty of color, and for faculty in the Newark and Camden campuses. We won significant pay raises for our lowest paid members, our graduate employees who will see their pay increase from $25,969 to $30,162 over the course of the contract. In other historic firsts, the union won $20 million for diversity hiring and a guarantee of a workplace free of harassment and stalking, enforced with binding arbitration. Academic freedom now applies to social media.”

Quartz Editorial Staff Vote to Join NewsGuild: Editorial staff at news outlet Quartz, which covers the economy, tech, geopolitics, work and culture, have voted to be represented by The NewsGuild of New York/CWA Local 31003. The union has asked Japanese media company Uzabase, which owns Quartz, to voluntarily recognize the union. The editorial staffers are looking to swiftly begin the bargaining process and are looking to strengthen existing benefits and improve pay equity, diversity and job security. “We love Quartz, and we love working here. For us, organizing is a way to double down on our commitment to the publication and the continued pursuit of its excellence. We are excited about the future of Quartz, and we want to make sure we are a part of it,” said Annalisa Merelli, Geopolitics reporter.

Researchers in University of California System Launch New Union: Researchers in the University of California system are in the final stages of forming the first union exclusively for researchers who are not faculty or graduate students. The new union, Academic Researchers United (ARU), is a unit within UAW Local 5810. ARU members are seeking better pay and benefits, job security, transparency in hiring and promotion, and other protections. “At this moment, academic researchers have no job security and are facing super uncertain career paths,” said Anke Schennink, president of Local 5810.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on May 24, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

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. 

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