Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘union membership’

Forget Elections—Labor Needs To Get Back to Its Roots

Friday, November 16th, 2018

With the midterms behind us, we have Nov. 4, 2020, to look forward to—labor’s next morning after. On Nov. 5, 2008, we were euphoric and full of delusional hope over the imminent passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and the restoration of labor. On Nov. 9, 2016, we were paralyzed by despair and denial.

At this point, betting our future on the next brutal mating ritual of Republicans and Democrats is not a bet most workers are willing to take. Since the 1950s, union membership decline has been a straight line downward, regardless of which political party is in power. Only 10.7 percent of workers are unionized; an enormous 89.3 percent are not. That’s too low to make much difference for most people in most places—more molecular level Brownian motion than labor movement. No threat to wealth, the wealthy, or powerful. Much worse, no voice or power of, by, or, for workers. Instead, organized labor has become so marginal Donald Trump has been able to usurp its role as the emotional voice for workers.

The economy is doing great—apart from workers. Wages remain stagnant. Forty percent of adults don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense such as a car repair or medical crisis. Forty-three percent of families aren’t making enough to cover monthly living expenses. Uncertain work, unpredictable work hours, mandatory overtime, dictatorial bosses, miserable job standards, create day-to-day desperation with psychological and social tolls. The labor market is ripe for an organizing explosion, but it isn’t happening.

Blaming the rich and the Republicans is great sport. The income inequality research industry is booming and there is no need to catalog Republican offenses—they campaign on them. Long ago, labor outsourced its representation in the public sphere to the Democratic Party, and in the process become a dependent franchise and an easy target. But the truth is that the Democrats patronize labor on a good day, sell us out on a bad day, and ignore us on most days. (I speak as a recovering politician, a Democrat who ran and was elected four times to city council in my heavily Republican small town.)

Partisan and competitive thinking insidiously affects behavior. Fifty percent plus one passes for solidarity. Unionists succumb to political speak, sounding like Washington rather than “folks ‘round here.” We blame workers for voting for Republicans. If they’d only voted how we told them, then we could get things done. We estrange ourselves from large chunks of workers while giving ourselves an excuse for failure. We don’t have to do the hard work of building a movement, we only need to win an election.

Maybe we should rethink that.

Instead, start today from where we are and who we are. Simple collective self-representation without institutional, ideological, partisan or monetary artifice. Understanding who and where we are by our own compass; by our own position, not opposition. This requires radical respect for our fellow workers. For lack of a better term, this unadorned organizing is social organizing.

Abundant example are scattered across the globe and buried in history. I witnessed a jarring worker tutorial in social organizing in Poland in 1995, when AFL-CIO desperation over labor’s decline and my good luck resulted in a leave of absence from my elected Central Labor Council job to work in those early post-revolutionary years with Solidarnosc leadership and membership. Ironically, at one point, I was tasked with organizing a conference on American union organizing for Solidarnosc activists. Just as the accomplished, well-educated American organizer sent over by the union began his presentation, one Solidarnosc members interrupted to ask, “What do you mean “organize?” A moment of awkward silence followed. Then, charitably, another Solidarnosc member suggested, “Do you mean, join our organization and we’ll represent you?” The original questioner jumped in, “we had 45 years of that with the Communists.” The workers then came up with their own definition of organizing, “co-creating our own future.” Workers, not the organization, were the of, by, and for.

Post-revolution, the solidarity of Solidarnosc dissipated into political and institutional factions. Still, this incident illuminates the commitment to social organizing that helped spark this transformational worker movement.

When all we have is each other, social organizing is where we start.

Back to basics

Social organizing built the labor movement. When 19th-century American workers had virtually no institutional or political voice or power, they developed both by caring about and for each other. In nearly every inch of America, now-forgotten workers came together with that definition of solidarity.

In 1894, Coxey’s Army of unemployed workers marched on Washington, D.C., to press for defined jobs and meaningful work. As branches passed through cities and towns—including Fort Wayne, Ind., where I work—the Fort Wayne Sentinel reported that local residents lavished them for days with food and social support. That same year the Sentinel reported, during the 1894 streetcar workers strike, housewives directed garden hoses at scabs, horse drawn wagons inexplicably unhitched on the tracks, and riders boycotted the streetcars. Returning the solidarity, striking workers went back to work without pay for one day, Memorial Day, so citizens could visit the graves of their departed. Streetcar workers and the community won that strike.

Thousands of lost histories such as this were the roots of community-based solidarity in industrial America. This populist industrial solidarity spawned and supported Workingmen’s Associations, Knights of Labor chapters, Trade and Labor Councils. In turn, these organizations incubated worker organizing in workplaces and by trades. Local solidarity in railroad towns and company towns built the institutional, political and legal foundations for our now diminished labor movement. The gravity of solidarity drew workers into the inextricably intertwined labor market and community. This culture of solidarity included direct actions such as strikes and boycotts but, more consistently and importantly, direct education of, by, and for workers. Apprenticeships,“lectors” who read news and literature aloud to workers on the job, and intentionally educational union meetings with guest speakers were part of the culture. Railroad and industrial activities were regularly covered in newspapers, with the reporting focused more on workers than bosses or business. Journalists, whether Knights of Labor or just solid reporters, would commonly cover union federation meetings. Union leaders understood their role as representative in the community meant talking to reporters, not hiding from them. Everybody had something to teach and everybody had something to learn and an obligation to do both. A culture of solidarity meant educate to organize and organize to educate.

We could take solace and avoid the hard work of organizing by saying America and the world are different now. Our mid-twentieth century institutions, economy, and democracy have decayed or been hijacked. Our social divisions can feel insurmountable. We’ve been sliced, diced, monetized, politicized and controlled. But are we so special that we now believe we are the first ones to have ever been so seemingly screwed? Or do we try to work through it, experiment based on what we can learn from other times and places and most importantly, each other?

Social organizing after the 2008 Recession

Since 1996, the folks I’ve been working with at the Workers’ Project, a research and education nonprofit, have experimented scores of times with worker representation through social organizing. We are confident and hopeful various configurations of workers have been experimenting elsewhere. We have learned some lessons from our successes and failures.

One instructive experiment focused on unemployed workers’ social organizing for voice and power during and after the Great Recession. A torrent of mostly non-union workers, newly jobless after the economic crash, were overwhelming Indiana’s unemployment offices. The state offices were disinterested or actively hostile toward unemployed workers. Meanwhile, a union foundry in Kendallville, Ind., was closing. Busted up from years of foundry work, the union president, the late Leonard Hicks, was ready to quit working but unwilling to stop representing his folks as their lives became even tougher.

To address both problems, we brought together union and non-union unemployed workers to bargain with the state through a social organizing movement, Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers’ Initiative (UAEWI).

First, we listened as workers talked about problems and possibilities. We developed a survey. In the unemployment office parking lot, we surveyed unemployed workers about how the office was doing, giving them a report card style survey to fill out, with a voluntary contact information form. The state immediately called in the police to stop us—claiming that we were trespassing on private property, because the public office was housed on private land. We alerted the media and the state received reams of bad press.

The media coverage revealed to unemployed workers they could have a voice and some grit. They began coming to UAEWI meetings, along with the union foundry workers in Kendallville and other union shops experiencing mass lay-offs.

Our ranks of unemployed included workers with education and experience in sociology. With their assistance, the UAEWI members developed and collected a broader survey. The survey was not for academic publication, or for an institutional or partisan agenda, but instead for collective self-representation. It had real value for public policy discussions. While the political class talk about or for unemployed workers, UAEWI represented themselves.

Membership was determined solely by a worker’s decision to participate in the survey—to voluntarily add their voice to the collective voice. We conducted education and training classes as well as group talk sessions. Within a few months, the State’s unemployment office management found themselves in a union hall across a bargaining table with the UAEWI members. Unemployed workers gained improvements in services including increased staffing and training but most importantly, a change in attitude. Most UAEWI members had never been union members; they learned how collective representation worked.

For seven more years, we continued and broadened annual UAEWI surveys. We gathered responses wherever we found voiceless workers: from folks leaving food banks, township trustee office, social service agencies, a mobile Mexican consulate. Our sampling exceeded 500 workers in 2012 and was conducted in English, Spanish and Burmese. We asked more wide-ranging public policy questions about issues such as economic development.

UAEWI members bargained in the public sphere. They provided local, state, national, and international journalists with reliable data, context, and access to socially organized workers willing to tell compelling stories. Some of the stories supported Peabody and Murrow investigative journalism awards. UAEWI members presented survey report results to other members and the public in very public formats ranging from traditional research reports to semi-theatrical presentations and even cinematic effort. UAEWI members attended and spoke before the local and state Workforce Investment Boards, Fort Wayne City Council, Indiana Economic Development Board meetings.

Just the modest act of asking drew workers out of their isolation and into solidarity. Many UAEWI members were personally transformed as they shaped public policies from the unemployment office to well beyond. They were co-creating their own futures. This was bargaining in the public sphere, bargaining with the state over the terms and conditions of our lives. Bargaining with state is foundational for worker representation in the 21st century, just as it was with Coxey’s Army in the 19th century. The UAEWI effort only updated representation with a bit of worker-driven social science.

In the last four years, learning from UAEWI effort, we have experimented with applying worker-driven social science and applying it to original NLRA intent in workplaces. In labor speak workers develop “non-certified minority status bargaining” with so-called private employers. (This less legalistic, institutional and technocratic organizing was envisioned when the NLRA was first implemented—the work of labor law scholar, the late Clyde Summers, as well as Charles Morris’s in Blue Eagle At Work documents this well.)

We helped workers develop their collective understanding and identity to, from the worm’s eye view, make things better at work. In each case, their self-organizing grew from “solidarity selfies” and a survey of co-workers’ thoughts on the terms and conditions of their employment. It is simultaneously concerted activity under the NLRA and, more importantly, intellectual property owned by the workers. We provided supportive research and education for Latina workers at a manufacturing plant; sub-contracted workers at a retail outlet; and Burmese workers at a manufacturing plant. One group faced unsafe work conditions causing miscarriages. The second faced a classic bullying boss culture. The third faced systematic ethnic and language discrimination.

We provided them access to social science, legal support, and social organizing talent, as well as a place in our community of solidarity. We supported their conversations to develop strategies to negotiate with the boss. They succeeded on their own terms. First the survey process overcame employer-imposed isolation. Workers experienced their own workplace “me too” revelations which led to collective voice. They built their representational power by developing a research report on their work lives that became collectively owned and copyrighted intellectual property with real bargaining value. Each unit could choose to share the findings with whoever they decide in the public-private spectrum: media, government regulators, elected officials, customers, suppliers, competitors, stockholders or, if willing, across the table with the boss.

The Latina factory workers met with the plant owner to present their findings. Safety conditions improved, maternity leaves were granted, healthy babies were born, and little Jose Manuel now attends our events. Some of the workers were fired, most moved on to other jobs, some won legal settlements. Most remain active in the Hispanic Workers Circle.

The subcontracted retail workers successfully confronted top national corporate management. They ended the bullying management culture and maintain an ongoing social “solidarity union” collecting no dues and participating in all Workers’ Project activities.

The Burmese factory workers efforts are ongoing. They constitute a significant portion of our Burmese Workers Circle which is developing as a workers’ and civil rights organization.

Stay tuned for more news: All groups continue full-throated participation in Workers’ Project activities and Fort Wayne’s huge annual Labor Day picnic.

We think collective intellectual property is an intriguing innovation. As workers we are robbed of our intellectual property as employers pick our brains, pick our pockets, only to pick up and leave us jobless. As consumers, our data has collected by others, monetized and politicized at our expense to benefit wealth. Intellectual property we own collectively can help us bargain with anyone in the power spectrum, from private employer to the state.

Owning our own voices and power, collective human agency, is our democracy where we work and where we live. Valuing each other, sharing our experiences, information, ideas, and respect seems a great place to start especially when you are starting at scratch. Social organizing, old school or innovative, is still solidarity.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on November 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Lewandowski is co-founder and director of the Workers’ Project in Fort Wayne, Ind.

When Janus Backfires: A Test Case In Labor Solidarity After Fair Share

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

In the aftermath of this summer’s Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision attacking public-sector unions, the University of Illinois at Chicago is rapidly becoming a bellwether for how those unions might sink or swim in a world without fair share.

UIC prides itself on being one of the most diverse college campuses in the country and one of the most welcoming to working-class students. The city’s only public research university and home to a vast hospital system, UIC employs a cross section of public-sector workers including nurses, teachers, clerical workers, and maintenance workers, nearly all of whom are unionized.

In recent years, university officials have rightly issued public statements critical of government actions that harm members of the campus community, including Trump’s Muslim ban, the Illinois state budget impasse, and the House GOP’s failed attempt to tax graduate student tuition waivers. But since the Supreme Court issued its anti-union decision in the Janus case this June—threatening the collective bargaining rights of thousands of university employees—the administration has been silent. Instead, through their actions, administrators have indicated a willingness to use Janus to engage in union busting.

In the first month after the ruling came down, the university payroll office failed to deduct dues from hundreds of card-signed union members from several unions on campus, including UIC United Faculty (UICUF), the Illinois Nurses Association (INA)SEIU Local 73, and my own union, the UIC Graduate Employees Organization (GEO). In the case of GEO, this cost our relatively small local of graduate student workers a whopping $10,000.

UIC’s failure to deduct member dues in July was not only illegal, but it also effectively silenced workers who actually want to pay dues because they enjoy having workplace rights. The administration openly admitted they hadn’t deducted dues, but said they weren’t going to do anything to remedy this obvious legal violation. Instead, they’ve forced the unions into a protracted grievance and arbitration dispute, apparently hoping they can simply tire us out or outspend us in legal fees.

Further, the administration is claiming the right to unilaterally process membership revocations without notifying the unions, which goes against university HR’s own policy. They also refuse to provide us with timely information about which employees are in our respective bargaining units, which is especially harmful for GEO since our bargaining unit changes dramatically every semester. Not knowing exactly who we represent at all times makes it difficult to sign up new members and impossible to ensure UIC is deducting dues correctly.

In August, GEO discovered that the university had mistakenly deducted dues from sixty nonmembers, individuals we had never claimed were union members in the first place. Mistakes like this put the union at legal risk, since the erroneously deducted money goes into our local’s bank account and makes the local liable for “taking” it. We alerted the administration immediately and they quickly corrected the error. What we still haven’t been able to figure out is why a handful of grad workers, overwhelmed with our normal teaching and research responsibilities and representing our union as volunteers, have to tell well-paid administrators at a multibillion-dollar institution like UIC how to do their jobs.

All of this comes as our unions are in the middle of contract negotiations. Even before Janus, UIC was already prone to bullying campus workers at the bargaining table and pushing us into going on strike. In 2014, faculty with UICUF had to strike to win their first contract. Last fall, the INA-represented staff nurses and administrative nurses at the UI Hospital came within a hair’s breadth of walking off the job before an eleventh-hour agreement was reached. This past spring, grad workers at the Urbana-Champaign campus had to strike for nearly two weeks in order to safeguard tuition waivers.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the administration has tried to exploit the post-Janus confusion around dues deductions to gain an advantage in bargaining, presumably to pressure us into making concessions on issues that matter to our members in exchange for the continued existence of our unions. When GEO first questioned why the administration had not deducted July member dues, they said they would only discuss it with us in contract negotiations—never mind that abiding by existing contract language and existing law is non-negotiable.

UIC grad workers—whose baseline pay is only $18,000 and who are forced to pay up to $2,000 in fees every year—are fighting for living wages and fee waivers. UIC’s tenured and nontenured faculty are fighting for increased job security, shared governance, and raises. That should be the focus of negotiations, not bureaucratic procedures around dues deductions.

The administration is waging its most vicious attack on the underpaid Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) with INA at the UI Hospital, who have also been in bargaining since Janus came down. Shortly after the ruling was issued, the university decided to bring in a new lead negotiator, who proceeded to tear up previously agreed-upon articles and introduce extremely regressive proposals in their place. Among other things, UIC is demanding LPNs surrender their right to engage in virtually any kind of concerted activity at the workplace, while demanding INA publicly disavow any kind of protest carried out by its members and threatening to single out union leaders for discipline.

UIC administrators seem to have assumed that Janus would leave our unions weakened and afraid, allowing them to ride roughshod over us and impose terrible contracts. But they miscalculated.

Thanks to the administration’s handling of Janus, the campus unions are working together closely. In late July, members of INA, UICUF, SEIU Local 73, and GEO held a joint march on the boss, showing up unexpectedly at the office of the head of university Labor Relations to demand accountability around the failure to deduct dues. Clearly rattled by this, the administration has since been far more careful around processing deductions and correcting errors when we point them out.

Meanwhile, all of our unions have filed or plan to file both grievances and Unfair Labor Practice charges. GEO and UICUF are ramping up our respective contract campaigns, both building towards possible strikes next spring which might easily coincide. This week, the LPNs will be going out on an indefinite ULP strike, and members from all four of our unions will hold a unified protest and rally as the UIC Board of Trustees gathers on campus for a meeting.

The budding coalition of UIC unions should be on every labor activist’s radar, as it’s emblematic of what a post-Janus world can look like for public-sector unions: a huge uptick in hostility from the boss met with more solidarity, more organizing, more direct action, more strikes, and a deeper determination to fight for our rights as public sector workers to ensure our students get the education they deserve, and our patients get the care they deserve.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 14, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times.

The Union Difference Is Even More Pronounced for Families of Color

Monday, September 10th, 2018

A new report from the Center for American Progress shows that union membership helps increase wealth and prosperity for families of color. The research comes on top of recent polls showing that more and more people are embracing the powerful benefits of collective bargaining.

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

When working people collectively bargain for wages, benefits and employment procedures, as union members they have higher wages, more benefits and more stable employment as a result of the bargaining agreement.

Household wealth is dependent on several factors, including income, savings, people having benefits like health insurance and life insurance.

Higher wages lead to higher savings, particularly when combined with job-related benefits, such as health and life insurance, since those benefits require union members to spend less out-of-pocket to protect their families.

Union members have higher job stability and protections, which lead to longer tenures at a workplace. This can lead to more savings as longer-tenured employees are more likely to be eligible for key benefits that accrue over time.

Nonwhite families with a union member in the household have a median wealth that is 485% as large as the median wealth of nonunion families of color.

Union members’ annual earnings are between 20 and 50% higher than those for nonunion members.

The benefits of union membership for nonwhite families is more significant than it is for white families because nonwhite workers tend to work at jobs with lower pay, fewer benefits and less stability. Union membership lowers the gap for everyone, but the gains are larger when you are starting from a lower level of income and benefits.

Union members also are less likely to experience a negative shock (a large change in income) and more likely to experience a positive shock.

Read the full report.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on September 11, 2018. 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.

Study: Popularity of Joining Unions Surges

Friday, June 22nd, 2018

After holding steady for decades, the percentage of American workers in all jobs who would say yes to join a union jumped sharply this past year, by 50%, says a new, independent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The evidence is clear: The popularity of the labor movement is surging as more people want to join unions than ever before. Every worker must have the freedom to negotiate in a union over pay, benefits and working conditions.

The national narrative that the economy is doing OK, while working people struggle and billionaires bask in their latest round of massive tax cuts, is all wrong.

The truth is more working people want collective power. From 1977 to 1995, the percentage of all workers who would say yes to a union drive stayed flat, at about 32% of nonunion workers. Today, that number is 48%, a remarkable 50% increase.

This independent study from MIT confirms a broad trend we’ve seen in recent months as teachers have marched and rallied en masse for better school funding and higher pay, as tens of thousands of workers have voted to join unions and as the concept of unionism has spread in countless other ways in America.

The rich and powerful still hold many of the levers of power in America, but working people are claiming our seat at the table. We demand that every worker have the freedom to form or join a union.

This blog was originally published at AFLCIO.org on June 22, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

Union membership rose in 2017

Friday, January 26th, 2018

This is somewhat unexpected: overall union membership rose by 262,000 workers in 2017, while union density stayed at 10.7 percent. The Economic Policy Institute’s Lawrence Mishel warns against reading too much into the numbers, but pulls out the following interesting data points:

  • Union membership became more common among men: some 32 percent of the net increase in male employment in 2017 went to men who were union members, leading union membership to rise from 11.2 to 11.4 percent of all male employment. Growth of union membership for men was strong in both the public and private sectors and for Hispanic and for non-Hispanic white men.
  • Correspondingly, union membership dipped slightly among women because women’s union membership did not rise in the private sector although employment overall did rise—private sector employment growth for women was concentrated in nonunion sectors. Union membership growth, however, was strong among Hispanic women.
  • Union membership grew in manufacturing despite an overall decline in manufacturing employment. Union membership was also strong in the wholesale and retail sectors, in the public sector and in information sector (where union membership density rose 1.9 percentage points).
  • Union membership density was stable or grew in a number of Southern states: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia with especially strong growth in Texas.

That last point is particularly interesting, since the South has long been such a challenge to union organizing, and since Republicans are bent on making the union organizing environment in the rest of the nation much more like the South has historically been.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on January 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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

How Business Unionism Got Us to Janus

Friday, November 10th, 2017

In September, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus vs. AFSCME, a case that has the potential to undermine public sector unions by curtailing unions’ right to charge non-members an “agency fee.” This fee covers the protection and services the union is obligated to provide all employees in the bargaining unit.

Many labor leaders and pundits have identified unions’ loss of revenue as the most dire consequence of an unfavorable ruling in the Janus case. Others have pointed out that the forces behind Janus don’t only aim to weaken public employee unions: they are seeking to destroy the public sector and public ownership of resources across the board.

However, the Right’s deeper, darker strategic purpose has been mostly ignored, even by unions: Janus fits in with a larger project, led by the State Policy Network—a network of right-wing think tanks—that aims not only to “defund and defang” unions but to “deliver the mortal blow to permanently break” the Left’s “stranglehold on our society.”

Anyone who cares about democracy and the social and economic well-being of workers has a stake in how unions will respond to the Court’s decision. And with Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch now sitting on the bench, it appears likely that the ruling will not go in labor’s favor.

The real crisis at hand

The tacit assumption of Janus supporters and foes alike is that, when faced with a choice between being a union member and paying dues or not, significant numbers of members will bolt, and non-members who have been paying “agency fees” will not join. Because unions understand the danger posed by Janus as largely financial, they have focused on saving money, cutting staff and pursuing mergers. Some have also determined that they must be proactive to stave off mass desertions and are reaching out to members to solidify their support as dues payers.

Belt-tightening and talking to members may temporarily fortify union apparatus, but this approach ignores the question Janus demands we ask: Why is labor predicting members will desert their unions and that agency-fee payers will refuse to join?

These assumptions labor holds around Janus exemplify the real crisis unions confront—one not often discussed, even behind closed doors. In defining their purpose primarily as protecting members’ narrowly conceived economic interests and shaping the organization to function like a business, unions construct a very limited role for the workers they represent. Under this status quo, members are generally considered passive, with limited authority and voice. Their sole “power” is to pay dues and cast votes in what are generally uncontested elections for officers.

The right-wing forces behind Janus have used their frighteningly vast financial resources to exploit this weakness. The Janus brief, filed by the National Right to Work Foundation on behalf of Illinois public employee Mark Janus, articulates anti-union arguments familiar to any union activist who has tried to recruit skeptical co-workers. The plaintiff’s claims interrogate AFSCME’s purposes, its presence as a political force and whether it serves as a collective voice for working people on the job and in the larger society.

The brief reads:

Janus objects to many of the public-policy positions that AFSCME advocates, including the positions that AFSCME advocates for in collective bargaining. For example, he does not agree with what he views as the union’s one-sided politicking for only its point of view. Janus also believes that AFSCME’s behavior in bargaining does not appreciate the current fiscal crises in Illinois and does not reflect his best interests or the interests of Illinois citizens.

In building support for Janus, the Right has questioned the meaning of union membership while also criticizing public employee unions’ engagement in politics. Unions have frequently been ineffective in responding to the charge that they are just another special interest group, buying politicians for their members’ benefit. Unions have disarmed themselves in this assault by adopting the mentality and tactics of special interests. Labor has by and large accepted the Right’s definition of the contest (winning over “friendly” politicians in either party), the weapons (campaign donations), and the opponents (workers in other countries as our competitors). In doing so, labor has turned its back on its unique and most powerful resource—an informed, empowered and mobilized membership.

Instead, labor has countered the Right’s arguments on narrow grounds, railing against “free riders,” who they say will require unions “to represent non-members, who would be paying nothing at all, passing that burden off to dues-paying members.”

But this argument has little resonance to workers who already feel they are not well-represented. Like Mark Janus, they don’t feel their voices count. The “union” exists apart from them, with staff and officials insulated from even hearing, let alone responding to, members’ opinions and needs. The economic payoff from union dues can be hard to see when your paycheck hasn’t increased or in some cases, has decreased, despite your union having bargained in your name.

And this argument also avoids addressing the larger case made by the Right: that joining a union is not in workers’ best interest. The Right has confused workers by selling an individualistic, competitive ideology. And unions have been too slow to address why this ideology is harmful and antithetical to principles of collective action and solidarity. As others have observed, organized labor has by and large forgotten the grammar and vocabulary of class struggle.

From “it” to “we”

Though we shouldn’t adopt their methods or mentality, labor can learn a great deal from the Right’s victories. To move from defense to offense, labor needs to develop a new mindset. The strategies being discussed to avoid disaster post-Janus reflect many unions’ unwillingness to reimagine themselves.

One of these strategies is to eschew the legal responsibility to be “exclusive representative” of the bargaining unit, thereby creating competition between unions. Multiple unions representing workers for a single employer is the norm in other countries, where unions are allied with political parties. And some might consider it an idea worth pursuing. But encouraging competition among unions is a disaster, as Chris Brooks demonstrates in a close study of what occurred in Tennessee when an NEA affiliate lost exclusive representation. Workers turn against one another, viewing one another as rivals. Company unions, masquerading as professional groups that offer low insurance rates, compete, successfully, against traditional unions.

Is a “Workers’ Bill of Rights” an answer to Janus and the anticipated loss of collective bargaining in more states, as has been proposed in this publication? This is an interesting strategy but its limitation is that it’s a legalistic solution, not a political one. It doesn’t speak to the reasons workers choose not to join unions when they have that right, or to why they vote them down in elections.

Further, as Nelson Lichtenstein points out, the “rights discourse” is limited by being individual. What makes unions unique is that they represent members’ individual interests through struggle for their collective interests. Moreover, such a bill of rights ignores social oppression that workers experience on the job and separates their lives and rights outside the workplace from those they have inside. This strategy’s major flaw is not in what it tries to do but that it substitute for labor’s ability to critically analyze its losses.

One way to understand what adopting a new mindset would mean is looking to what occurred when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the reform caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), won the union’s leadership. This caucus conceived of the CTU as a member-driven union that served members’ economic interests best when it supported social justice issues across the board. The newly elected leadership altered the way the union made its purpose evident and worked to make all the union’s operations support this new mindset.

CORE put the people it represented, employees of the Chicago Public Schools, at the center of its organizing, as Jane McAlevey puts it. A member-driven union gives people a reason to be union members and not agency fee payers. The goal? Shift the union from being an “it” to being “we.”

Democracy or bust

Putting workers at the center of organizing requires union democracy. It also demands moving towards international solidarity. What Kim Moody calls “labor nationalism” has weakened the unions by allowing workers to fall prey to Trump’s xenophobia. “’Buy American” is very close to “Make America Great Again.” Such slogans lead workers to become hostile to their counterparts in other countries rather than to the transnational corporations and elites that set economic policy.

Overcoming the fallout from Janus will require reimagining union membership by inverting hierarchical relations that replicate disempowerment on the job. To do this, unions need to grapple with a number of pressing questions:

Why have professional negotiators or paid staff sent to the bargaining table by national- or state-level unions rather than members who have been elected based on their leadership and ideas? Should union organizers be elected rather than being hired and appointed? Why aren’t members allowed to know how their representatives vote in the unions’ executive council meetings? Should endorsements for political office be made by the membership in a referendum? Should unions use “participatory budgeting” to have members decide priorities for where their dues are allocated? What is a member’s responsibility for recruiting and educating co-workers about the union?

Activists who have tried to recruit co-workers to their union know that changing people’s minds about joining can be slow and hard work. It requires listening and a deep commitment to union ideals because people often hold beliefs that are inimical to collective action. This work also requires having a union you trust will make a difference in the lives of its members. Like democracy anywhere, union democracy is difficult to obtain and fragile. It can be inefficient and it creates tensions. But it’s also the key to union power. Vibrant democracy and a mobilized membership are crucial to winning at the bargaining table and to enforcing any agreement in the workplace. Like all legal rights, the contract is only as strong as members’ knowledge of its provisions and willingness to protect it.

This is a moment of truth for unions and their supporters. We need to look in the mirror and see that Janus has two faces. The case could reduce organized labor to a shell, or it could be the start of a remarkable revitalization that draws strength from the widespread social movements that have emerged from both the Bernie Sanders campaign and Trump’s election. The latter is possible, but it will be up to all of us to make it a reality.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University who is on the editorial board of New Politics. Her newest book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.

The UAW Vote in Mississippi is a Battle for the Soul of the U.S. Labor Movement

Friday, August 4th, 2017

After years of painstaking work by United Auto Workers (UAW) organizers to build support for a union at the big Nissan auto and truck assembly plant near Canton, Miss., the workers themselves will vote today and tomorrow on whether to accept UAW their collective bargaining voice at the plant.

“I think it [union approval] will pass,” UAW president Dennis Williams told a press conference just days before the vote, “but we’re doing an ongoing evaluation. We’ve been thinking about it for six to seven months,” roughly since the UAW held a large march and rally at the factory attended by Bernie Sanders. The union says it is particularly concerned about a surge in the kind of unlawful management tactics to scare workers that brought charges against Nissan this week from the National Labor Relations Board.

The Canton factory is one of only three Nissan factories worldwide where workers do not have a union. Built in 2003, it is one of a spate of auto “transplants,” or foreign-owned factories built with state subsidies for the past three decades, largely in the South and border states.

Many see the upcoming vote as another test of whether unions can thrive in the South, where union membership has historically been well below the national average. However, the battle is far greater. Now the corporate strategies and values of the South have persisted and influenced multinational companies, as well as labor relations and politics in the North. The Nissan campaign is best conceived as a battle for the U.S. labor movement.

Nissan has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Organizing the South

Organized labor, usually prodded by leftists in the movement, has undertaken high-profile campaigns in the South to organize unions across the racial divides. Such drives were especially prominent during the 1930s-era organizing upsurge and the post-World War II “Operation Dixie,” which lacked adequate support from existing unions and was plagued by internal political divisions.

The UAW has, at various times, escalated organizing in the South, especially when General Motors was considering relocating much production there in the 1960s—and when the transplant growth surged in recent decades.

Despite the shortcomings of labor’s campaigns, many union strategists think that unions can only reverse their decline by directly tackling the racist strategy of employers and their conservative political allies. But employers have many tools to divide workers, such as Nissan’s employment of temporary, contract workers to divide a predominately African-American workforce.

In recent years, the South has suffered key organizing blows, including the big defeat in January for the Machinists’ union trying to organize the new Boeing factory in Charleston, S.C., and the limited UAW success organizing a skilled trades union at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn. against a supposedly neutral employer. Such defeats typically inspire funereal chants for labor rights and unions, but sound like party music for managers and investors.

Yet, some organizers dispute that the South is impossible territory. One veteran organizer with the AFL-CIO, who has overseen many organizing drives in the South and asked not to be identified or directly quoted, said that he thought it was not significantly more difficult to organize in the South. It just took more time and more money.

The organizer cited one success that defied expectations: the campaigns over roughly 15 years to organize 26,000 workers and preserve business at Louisiana’s giant Avondale shipyards for a shifting cast of corporate owners doing repair and rebuilding work mainly on military contracts. Ultimately, a decline in military orders led its latest owner to close the shipyards, wiping out the organizing victory.

“The unions often do not realize it, but they have been winning in the South more than in the Midwest for years,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell University labor relations professor who specializes in research on union organizing. “Because [in the South] there are more women working, more African Americans, and because there’s less high-tech work.” Each of those categories of workers is more pro-union than their counterparts, thus building in a small theoretical advantage in the South.

The South’s poor labor standards are spreading

In the end, it may be that the poor labor standards of the South are spreading nationwide. The ascendant conservative political power of the new Republican Party, linked with the more aggressively anti-worker and anti-union policies of big corporations and financial firms, indicate that, in this country’s long Civil War, the South is gaining ground.

Consider what has occurred from 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” ads were on the horizon, as well as in 2016, when Donald Trump pledged to “make America great again.” Then and now, most people would consider Michigan and Wisconsin as typically northern, in terms of labor conditions and union density. Yet over that period, federal data shows that the percentage of all workers in Michigan who were covered by union contracts dropped from 32.8 percent in 1983 to 15.5 percent in 2016. For Wisconsin, the share dropped from 26.9 percent to 9.0 percent.

Unions are losing members and failing to gain new ones at an adequate rate to avoid the rough halving of the union share of the workforce over the past 15 years in most of both the South and the North.

Assault on workers knows no boundaries

It will be better for workers everywhere if the Canton, Miss., workers vote for the union, but management still has the upper hand. Workers are still weak and getting weaker nearly everywhere, with partial exceptions, like the Fight for 15 movement, which flourishes in nearly all of the country.

“Right to work” laws threaten unions nationwide, by prohibiting them from charging agency fees to workers who do not join the union but benefit from actions it takes. In recent years, the widespread passage of such laws outside of the South—now extending to half of all states—is a clear indication of the decline in union power.

Workers in Canton may win a union for a variety of reasons beyond the basic proposition that they need collective power to counter the power of their bosses. Or they may reject the union due to fear engendered by Nissan and its anti-union campaign, out of conservative political beliefs or for other reasons.

The best union organizers—and some very good organizers have played a major role at Nissan—understand how important it is to involve workers themselves as-organizers in reaching out to workers. In addition, organizers recognize it is vitally important to mobilize the progressive leaders and groups in the community for support, and employ a wide assortment of tactics to minimize the influence of the boss’s war on unions—a war conducted in large part on turf and terms favorable to the employer.

However, if the labor movement is striving to with significant gains for workers, it must create a progressive strategy for politics, workplace organizing and culture that focuses on the working class very broadly construed, including multiple levels of poverty, affluence and job histories. U.S. union organizing will need to strengthen and expand its community activities to develop a broader range of strategies to defeat racism. Within such a political context, union organizing might prosper—and workers might do so as well.

Whether the UAW does or does not win this summer, future successful organizing of workers in their communities and workplaces require an alternative political force that is more supportive and transformative.

 This piece was originally published at In These Times on August 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

This week in the war on workers: Union membership keeps dropping in 2016

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017
There’s bad news and … well, there’s bad news. Union density continued its long decline in 2016:

In 2016, the share of workers who were members of a union decreased 0.4 percentage point to 10.7 percent, continuing a downward trend that has occurred since at least the early 1980s, when directly comparable data became available[.]

It’s not just the union membership rate, it’s also the raw numbers:

In addition to a 0.4 percentage-point drop in membership rate, there were also 240,000 less union workers in 2016 than in 2015[.]

And that’s before Donald Trump gets his hands on things. Although plenty of other Republicans and their corporate bosses have been at work on this for years.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on January 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

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

This Labor Day, Thank Unions For Boosting Wages

Monday, September 5th, 2016

Bryce CovertLabor Day is now seen as the official end of summer and a day off (at least for those who actually get paid holiday leave) to grill or go to the beach one last time. But when it was originally conceived as a federal holiday, it was as a concession to the labor movement after bloody union unrest that left 30 striking workers dead. It was meant as a day to celebrate the efforts and sacrifices of unionized workers.

A shrinking share of Americans are union members today. But the benefits brought about by the union movement are still just as strong, particularly when it comes to workers’ pay.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Bryan R. Smith

CREDIT: AP Photo/Bryan R. Smith

Being in a union is particularly helpful for marginalized groups that tend to be paid less than white men. A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that black union workers earn wages that are, on average, 16.4 percent higher than black workers who aren’t in a union. The same is true for women: a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that women in a union earn 30.9 percent more than women who aren’t unionized.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

Unionization also yields salary benefits for white men, who get a 20.1 percent boost for being in a union. But the wage-boosting power of unions has been hampered as the share of workers who belong to one has declined. In 1983, the earliest year the Bureau of Labor Statistics has data for, 20.1 percent of the workforce belonged to a union. Today that share has been cut nearly in half, down to 11.1 percent.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

That’s hurt everyone’s wages, not just unionized workers. The wage-boosting power of unions usually spills out into other workplaces because they set standards that everyone ends up adopting. A new report from the Economic Policy Institute found that for men working in the private sector who aren’t in a union, their weekly wages would be about 5 percent higher if union membership had stayed at the same rate as it was in 1979. That would mean an extra $2,704 per year on average. Non-union women would also benefit, but the impact would be smaller- a 2 to 3 percent increase in wages- because women have historically been a much smaller share of union workers.1-7CCL6l2MCZiQP3S-rXrB4Q

The drop in union membership, and the subsequent erosion of the wage benefits for all workers, has played a role in widening wage inequality, holding down pay at the bottom of the scale but less so at the top. In fact, other researchers have found a strong correlation between the fall of union power and the rise of income inequality.

This article was originally posted at Thinkprogress.org on September 5, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert  is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.

 

 

Is Perelman Jewish Day School the Hobby Lobby of Union-Busting?

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Bruce VailA small group of teachers in Philadelphia are finding their union rights under attack on questionable religious grounds, much the same way that women across America found their right to healthcare assaulted this week in the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case.

Some 55 teachers at the Perelman Jewish Day School, which has two K-5 campuses in the Philadelphia suburbs with some 300 total students, were stunned March 24 to be notified that the school’s board had decided to cease recognizing their union. The teachers were told that the current union contract will be allowed to expire and they will be required to negotiate individual one-year contracts with school administrators. Normally, revoking union recognition would be considered a blatant violation of collective bargaining law. But board vice president Aaron Freiwald says the action is justified by a Supreme Court decision. The case he’s likely referring to is the obscure 1979 NLRB v. Catholic Bishops of Chicago, in which the Supreme Court found that religious schools are exempt from certain provisions of the National Labor Relations Act.

The teachers, some of whom are observant Jews themselves, are not going to meekly allow their union to be dissolved, says Barbara Goodman, the communications director for the AFT Pennsylvania, the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the union with which the Perelman Jewish Day School Faculty Association Local 3578 is affiliated.

Members held an emergency meeting March 27, Goodman says, and unanimously passed a resolution to fight for their union. It read:

We categorically reject the terms and conditions in the materials that were handed to us, and we authorize all of our local, state and national officers to pursue all legal means to have this action reversed and to return to the bargaining table, where we can negotiate in good faith a contract that is good for the students and the teachers.

Equally offended by the board action is Jesse Bacon, whose daughter is a student at the exclusive private school, where tuitioncan be as high as $20,000 a year. Bacon tells In These Times that he’s firmly on the side of the teachers and regards any claim to religious legitimacy for the board’s high-handed action as bogus and offensive. “This is just rank hypocrisy. … It makes my blood boil,” he says.

Hypocritical or not, the teachers just may have a real legal fight on their hands, says Dan Kovalik, who is on the legal staff at the Pittsburgh headquarters of the United Steelworkers (USW). The little-known Catholic Bishops decision does allow religious schools to claim exemption from the NLRA, he says, although it is not clear that it would apply to the Perelman school. The USW is fighting a Catholic Bishops case right now, he adds, as the union attempts to organize the part-time faculty at the Duquesne University, a Catholic school in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. And there are a number of other cases where religious schools have successfully used the Catholic Bishops defense to fend of unionization of the faculty, he says. Indeed, labor lawyers are closely watching a National Labor Relations Board decision right now in a case involving Pacific Lutheran University, which may clarify the law.

The claim of religious exemption doesn’t mean much to the AFT’S Goodman. “Perelman School has been unionized for 38 years. I’m Jewish myself and I can tell you for sure that nothing about Judaism has changed in the last week to justify” attacking the teachers union, she says.

Nor does it hold much water with Bacon. He tells In These Times that his great-grandmother became a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union while a seamstress in New York City a century ago. There is a proud tradition in his family of progressive Jewish unionism —some were lifetime members of the socialist-leaning organization Workman’s Circle—and any attempt to justify union-busting with Judaism is offensive, he says. He also notes that the board at the Perelman school chose to move against the union on the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the tragedy that helped catalyze the unionization of Jewish workers in New York’s garment district.

Pennsylvania AFT President Ted Kirsch said the full resources of the union are being marshaled to defend the teachers. “You wouldn’t believe the calls I’ve gotten from around the country. This is just so against the Jewish tradition that people can’t believe Perelman is trying to get away this this,” he says.

Freiwald, a Philadelphia lawyer, turned down requests from In These Times for a phone interview but invited queries by email. He declined to answer most of the e-mailed questions, but did however identify himself as the chairman of a special board task force that recommended the vote against the union and stated that the vote was unanimous. He provided a press release and aprepared FAQ sheet [PDF] as the school’s only public comment.

This matter exploded the same week that the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Hobby Lobby case, in which an employer argued that his religious convictions against birth control trumped the healthcare rights of his workers. Bacon sees a clear parallel between the two: “That seems like phony religion to me. So does this.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on March 28, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

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

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