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Posts Tagged ‘union organizing’

How Bosses Use “Open Shop” Campaigns to Crush Unions

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

U.S. employers have never been particularly accepting of unions. Yes, there were a few decades after World War II when most employers engaged in a largely stable pattern of collective bargaining that recognized unions as junior partners in industry. Wage increases kept pace with gains in productivity, and union endorsements were courted by both parties. But, as heavily as that postwar labor relations compact features in the rosy rhetoric of union boosters who decry global capitalism and the modern GOP, the truth is that corporations have been periodically going to war against their workers far more often they’ve occasionally conceded their basic humanity.

Two new books shed light on the sustained union-busting campaigns that bookended that all-too brief period of labor-management détente. One focuses on the innocuously named “open shop” drive, which was a vicious nationwide union-busting campaign that began at the dawn of the 20th century and lasted well into the New Deal era. The other documents how the last great wave of worker militancy was smashed by a coordinated union-busting drive that anticipated Ronald Reagan’s presidency by more than a decade.

Reform or repression?

The unions that managed to survive the turbulent boom-and-bust cycle of the 19th century were largely organized on a craft union model that bears only a slight resemblance to today’s trades. Unions not only trained their members in their craft skills, but also determined the process, materials and speed of production. Employers had to contract with strong unions for a certain number of orders at prices that the unions determined.

The “open shop” drive was a coordinated effort by industry associations like the National Association of Manufacturers for bosses to gain complete control over production decision-making. This is the subject of Chad Pearson’s Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement.

As Pearson compellingly documents, open shop campaigners sought to place their movement within the mainstream of the vaguely-defined “progressive movement” that preceded the Great Depression.  Corporate executives railed against “union dictation,” and claimed their aim was to wrest control from union contracts in order to promote harder-working men. The breakfast cereal magnate C.W. Post claimed his union-busting work was necessary to protect children from picket-line violence. Some of the earliest appearances of the noxious slogan “right to work” come from this era.

That phrase was disingenuously employed to convey a sense of freedom for workers to not have to pay fealty to a union in order to get hired for a job. In practice, the “freedom” to not join a union was paired with a blacklist for those who chose to do so. Promoting “harder-working men” was a way of speeding up Taylorist production lines to sweatshop standards. And violence on picket lines was almost always instigated by privately hired armies of Pinkertons and other assorted spies and mercenaries.

Open shop campaigners did find allies within the broad political class of self-styled “progressives” who—then as now—did not root their efforts in the centrality of class politics. For example, it is somewhat shocking to read in Reform or Repression about “open shop” endorsements from Louis Brandeis—the attorney who negotiated the vaunted “Protocols of Peace” in the New York City garment industry. Without a base of actual workers, these earlier progressive men supported unions in the abstract, but were uncomfortable with the grisly details of strikes, boycotts and enforcing the union shop that were necessary to maintain unions as a permanent presence in the economy.

In this hair-splitting, open shop advocates probably found their biggest hero in Theodore Roosevelt. The trust-busting “progressive” was the first sitting president to weigh in on industrial disputes and mediate settlements that involved pay increases and other concessions to striking workers. He also steadfastly refused to endorse any deal that forced any employer to recognize any union as the exclusive representative of its workers.

Open shop organizations also recruited “free men” to be face of their drives. We can call them scabs, but forcing workers to join a union before they could get the job rubbed some the wrong way, and bosses exploited this.

Pearson has a good eye for vivid character studies. A particularly engrossing chapter contrasts the stories of two very different class traitors in the Cleveland open shop movement: John A. Penton and Jay P. Dawley. In the 1880s, Penton was president of a craft union of ironworkers that competed for worker loyalty with a more established union called the Iron Molders Union (IMU). In those days, unions competed to see who could organize the most militant protests. A campaign that ended in a union contract could mean terms that forced workers to join the victorious union—or face termination—If they wanted work. By 1893, Penton’s union had been forced to merge with the larger IMU.

The bitterness of that defeat curdled and warped Penton’s principles. He became an “open shop” advocate, ostensibly because men should be free to choose which organization to join—or not join. In practical effect, he served as a propagandist and recruiter of scabs for the industry’s campaign to break the Cleveland IMU in 1900, where he was regarded as “The Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde of the Labor Movement.”

Dawley was a compatriot of Penton’s, a lawyer who secured injunctions against union picket lines and defended Penton’s efforts to arm his scabs with .38 caliber revolvers. The former president of the Cleveland Employers Association shocked his white shoe comrades by coming to the aid of the city’s striking garment workers in 1911. It was no small coincidence that Dawley’s conversion-by-fire came just two months after the actual fire at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That the picket lines were mostly full of women helped him finally see that the violence and law-breaking that he so abhorred in industrial conflict was a mostly one-sided affair—and that it was his (former) side that was perpetuating most of it.

Dawley spent the rest of his life as an advocate of union causes—albeit one who counseled peaceful bargaining and arbitration over strikes and boycotts. There’s a lesson about the power of narrative and visible leaders here. The average union member today is more likely to be a black or brown woman than some Archie Bunker cliché. Labor can pick up unexpected allies by putting the actual workers whose livelihoods are on the line front and center in our campaigns.

Knocking on labor’s door

How women and people of color began to organize themselves into the mainstream of the labor movement is the subject of Lane Windham’s new book, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970’s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. It is also a tale of how the open shop drive came roaring back to life.

This is an essential read for anyone grappling with the question of why modern union organizing isn’t more successful. It is also a much-welcome corrective to the false narrative that unions simply stopped trying to gain new members sometime after the merger of the AFL and CIO.

In fact, the early 1970s brought a major wave of worker militancy, the kind that periodically roils the United States. The massive teacher rebellion of unionization that began in New York City in the early 1960s was still in full-swing. Unprotected by the National Labor Relations Act and still with few public-sector labor laws to fill the gaps, teachers continued to stage illegal strikes for union recognition throughout the decade. Other public sector workers fought for union recognition, too. The 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which Martin Luther King was in town supporting when he was assassinated, was a notable flashpoint in that struggle.

The unionized private sector was also in the midst of a historic strike wave. Many of the strikes were formally sanctioned by union leadership seeking wage increases that kept up with record-high inflation. A large number of workers rocked the postwar labor relations framework by waging wildcat strikes in defiance of contracts that traded impressive-sounding wage increases for brutal speed-ups in productivity. There’s a whole bookshelf of material written about how one General Motors factory in particular—its Lordstown, Oh. plant—simply could not maintain smooth production between its periodic wildcats and the thousands of workers who quit every year. 

During this same period, unions sought to organize roughly half a million private sector workers a year in NLRB elections. Much of this organizing was led by women and workers of color. It represented, Windham argues, a second wave of the civil rights era, as regulations like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission opened up new industries and jobs to workers who had previously been excluded. Once in the job, women and minorities soon concluded that actual fair treatment would only come with unionization.

Although the number of eligible workers voting in union representation elections did not decline in the 1970s, the percentage of successful union yes votes did. For the first time since the NLRB was established in 1935, unions began to lose a majority of all representation elections—a decline that has continued to the present day.

Egged on by a then-new cottage industry of “union avoidance” consultants and anti-union law firms, employers aggressively pressed against the limits of labor law when campaigning against union organizing drives. They skirted the prohibition against threatening the jobs of union supporters by phrasing those threats as predictions of the negative impact that a union would have on the company’s bottom line. They threw out fantastical scenarios about how unions might trade away benefits. They swore the unions would make no gains unless the workers went on strike—and that the company would permanently replace them if they did so. They froze planned pay increases and told the workers that the unions and the law forced them to do so.

And when they got caught actually breaking the law—by being too obvious in their espionage of organizing activity or materially punishing a union leader—the paltry punishments that were meted out sparked a new union-busting revolution. Why obey the law at all? Paying an illegally fired union activist just the wages she was owed—minus whatever unemployment insurance or moonlighting money she earned in the years it took for the case to get adjudicated—was far less money that a successfully negotiated union contract would ever cost.

At the heart of American corporations’ renewed resistance to union organizing was the increase in domestic competition from foreign competitors. This was not strictly the dumping of products made cheaper in overseas sweatshops that we tend to think of as the driver of inequality in the global economy. The first pangs of competitive anxiety were triggered by German and Japanese manufacturers who had finally recovered from the world war and could export quality products at affordable prices. Their competitive edge was that the cost of their workers’ health and retirement benefits were not loaded onto their payroll and then passed on to consumers as a higher retail price: Those social welfare benefits were the responsibility of the state.

Since most U.S. corporations—to this day—are unlikely to embrace social democracy, those in the 1970s resolved to fight the global pressure by fighting their own workers. But union supporters must grapple with an uncomfortable fact about our system of labor relations, which bases the very existence of a union, as well as the additional expenses of pensions, health insurance and other “fringe” benefits, on the individual firm level. In any industry that is not 100% unionized, the decision by workers to form a union really can make a company less competitive. And high-union-density industries are just juicier targets for capitalist vampires like Airbnb and Uber to compete by undercutting those standards.

In her conclusion, Windham writes “As the twentieth-century version of industrial capitalism gives way to new forms, working people find themselves in need of a wholesale redefinition of collective bargaining.” She finds some hope in the “alt-labor” organizations that are “struggling to shore up workers’ economic security in new ways, such as through workers’ centers, new occupational alliances, and public campaigns to raise wages.”

Both Pearson’s and Windham’s books, by highlighting the controversies in two of labor’s roughest periods, help us sharpen the question of how we regroup and reform to fight back in the 21st century. I would encourage more creative thinking about “all-in” labor rights models. What if we pushed for laws to end the “at-will” legal doctrine and grant a “Right to Your Job” to all workers? And what if we looked to countries that we compare ourselves to that have labor laws that apply wage increases and work rules to entire sectors all at once?

What these books make clear is that bosses rarely stop trying to blow up whatever system workers have won to enforce basic standards of decency—and that their strategies evolve with the times. How much longer will we spend trying to patch-up a badly battered 70-year-old labor relations system?

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

This Lawyer Helped Reagan Bust the Air Traffic Controllers Union. Now Trump Wants Him on the NLRB.

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

Former President Ronald Reagan had a long history of clashing with organized labor, but his most infamous moment came in 1981, when he busted the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) and fired more than 11,300 air traffic controllers who were on strike. This act weakened the power of U.S. unions and set the stage for an all-out assault on organizing rights.

Thirty-six years later, Reagan’s lead attorney in the air traffic controllers case is poised to make decisions about thousands of unfair labor practices throughout the country.

As anticipated, President Donald Trump has nominated the management-side labor attorney Peter Robb, of Downs Rachlin Martin in Vermont, to serve as general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This is a four-year position, and the individual who holds it is responsible for investigating unfair labor practices. Obama administration general counsel Richard Griffin’s term expires this November and, if confirmed, Robb would take over the position.

In 1981, Robb filed unfair labor practice charges against PATCO on behalf of the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) after a court ruled that the air traffic controllers’ strike was illegal. The FLRA case led to the decertification of PATCO, and Reagan subsequently banned most striking workers from federal service for their rest of their lives.

Reagan’s move set a new precedent for employers, emboldening them to attack labor more openly. In an interview with The Real News Networkfrom 2014, Joseph McCartin, Georgetown history professor and author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed Americaexplained the long-term impact. “When Ronald Reagan replaced the air traffic controllers [in] 1981, it was still not common for American employers in the private sector to deal with strikes by trying to break them and by permanently replacing workers who’d gone out on strike,” said McCartin, “Employers saw that Reagan was able to do this and, in effect, get away with it. Many private-sector employers took a similarly hard line when workers went out on strike in the private sector.”

Robb’s connections to union busting certainly don’t end with the landmark PATCO case. In 2014, he was hired by the Dominion Nuclear power plant when the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) began organizing workers. The Downs Rachlin Martin website contains a blurb boasting that Robb “represented a major national corporation in a National Labor Relations Board representation case proceeding, which had 34-days of hearing over 3 months to resolve 80 contested classifications covering hundreds of employees.”

In an interview this September, John Fernandes, a business manager for IBEW Local 457, told Bloomberg BNA that Robb represented used “scorched earth” tactics to thwart the organizing efforts. Fernandes says the plant added workers to the proposed unit in order to water down the union vote and sent videos of managers explaining the dangers of unionizing to the homes of employees. Ultimately, the plant was able to add more than 150 workers to the original petition and defeat the organizing drive.

“[Robb] handled most of the direct examinations, and his witnesses were well-schooled in advance—he’d ask one question and they’d go on forever,” Fernandes told Bloomberg BNA. “I was at a disadvantage, not being an attorney, but [the legal fees] would’ve been overwhelming for our local to pay … we certainly viewed it as union busting—it was a very long case.”

Robb also has previous connections to the NLRB. He worked as an NLRB field attorney in Baltimore during the late 1970s. He returned to the agency in 1982 as a staff lawyer and chief counsel for former member Robert Hunter. As a Republican, Hunter was an important ally to then-Chairman Donald Dotson, a staunchly anti-union member. In 1985, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told The Washington Post that Hunter had been the, “most loyal supporter of Donald Dotson in the transformation of the NLRB into a fundamentally anti-union entity.”

More recently, Robb’s firm harshly criticized the Obama-era NLRB, as captured in a slideshow compiled by Robb and Downs Rachlin attorney Timothy Copeland Jr. The presentation took aim at some of the pro-labor positions made by the NLRB under the previous administration. “The [Democratic] NLRB majority continues to narrowly define NLRB supervisory status, sometimes defying all common sense,” one slide reads. New Republican members are “likely to agree that the Obama board went too far,” the slideshow explained.

One of the decisions that Robb objects to is a 2014 rule that cuts back the amount of time between the filing of a unionization petition and the union vote to 11 days. The GOP has been attempting to extend the number of days to at least 35. This move would give businesses more time to construct a plan to stomp out union activity, like the aforementioned Dominion Nuclear strategy.

“The NLRB has made it clear that the intent of the new regulations is to run an election as quickly as possible which, of course, will give the employer the shortest period of time to respond to a union election petition,” Robb and three other Downs Rachlin lawyers wrote in a 2015 advisory.

The Trump administration has already quietly laid the groundwork for the NLRB to emerge as a much more business-friendly entity. This reality was underscored in August, when Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta announced that Ronald Reagan would be inducted into the department’s hall of fame. Trump’s previous NLRB nominees all have connections to union-busting, and the expected nomination of Robb would effectively make the NLRB—responsible for enforcing labor law—an anti-labor agency.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

The Skies Just Got Friendlier for Working People: Worker Wins

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

Our latest roundup of worker wins begins with flight attendants and air traffic controllers standing together to make the skies safer for working people and travelers and includes numerous examples of workers organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life. 

Flight Attendents Reach Tentative Agreement with Mesa Airlines: Flight attendants at Mesa Airlines, represented by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), stood together in efforts to have the work they do as aviation’s first responders recognized. They successfully announced that they have negotiated a tentative agreement with management on a four-year agreement that would provide more than 1,100 flight attendants with economic and quality of life gains.

Teachers Who Train Air Traffic Controllers Join IAM: In an effort to make the skies safer and improve the lives of working people, more than 280 instructors at SAIC in Oklahoma City have joined the Machinists (IAM). Facing a strong anti-union campaign from SAIC, the instructors successfully organized and now have more leverage to make sure the public is safer.

Swissport Workers Stand Together and Put Employer on Notice: Cleaners and ramp agents at Bush Intercontinental Airport voted to join the IAM, citing broken promises on pay, scheduling, overtime, and working conditions. IAM Organizer Fabian Liendo said: “Workers stood together throughout the campaign and put Swissport on notice. These new IAM members sent a clear message and are prepared to fight to secure much-needed job improvements. They should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished.”

Graduate Employees at University of Chicago to Hold Election in October: When the university attempted to deny its’ graduate employees right to come together to negotiate for a fair return on their work, the working people fought back. Their efforts were rewarded when the National Labor Relations Board rejected the university’s argument and ruled that a union election can go forward. The election is scheduled take place in October.

In Near-Universal Vote, Nurses in Turlock, Calif, Vote to Join CNA: Nearly 300 registered nurses at Emanuel Medical Center in Turlock, California, voted overwhelmingly (284-4) to join the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United. Chelsey Jerner, an emergency room RN, said: “As patient advocates, we voted yes to have a collective RN voice to enhance positive patient outcomes at our hospital. Patient safety is our number one priority.”

Oregon Service Industry Workers Earn Protection from Unfair Scheduling: A coalition led by the Oregon Working Families Party fought for legislation that would protect retail, hospitality and food service workers from unfair scheduling practices. Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed the bill into law earlier this month. Working Family spokesperson Hannah Taube said: “This is a huge moment for labor rights in America. Oregon’s Fair Work Week legislation is one of the most important labor victories in decades for low-wage workers. We hope Oregon is the first of many states to expand scheduling protections for workers—knowing when you work more than a day in advance is essential to parents, students and many other workers trying to make ends meet with two or three different jobs.”

More than 40,000 Educators in Puerto Rico Join AFT to Fight Education Austerity: On Aug. 3, the Asociacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR) signed a three-year agreement with the AFT in order to fight back against austerity and privatization in education that is having a devastating impact on students and teachers in Puerto Rico. AFT President Randi Weingarten said: “The people of Puerto Rico didn’t cause this crisis, but they’re forced to shoulder most of the burden because of the actions of hedge funders and irresponsible government deals.”

Lipton Tea Workers in Suffolk Organize for First Time in Plant’s 60-Year History: For the first time in the history of the Lipton Tea production plant in Suffolk, Virginia, employees have voted to unionize. The vote was 109-6 to join United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400.

This blog was originally published at AFLCIO.org on August 24, 2017. 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. Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History. His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

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

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How big is too big?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It starts with the workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

The Labor Movement Is a Lot Bigger Than You Think

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallWhile 11.3% of U.S. workers officially belong to unions, the labor movement is much larger. The movement isn’t limited to official union members and the last year showed that, as workers marched side by side, union members or not, to fight back against injustices championed by corporate interests that are out of touch with America’s working families. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at the federation’s constitutional convention in Los Angeles, “Politicians and employers want to divide us; they try it every single day. They want to tell us who can be in our movement and who can’t, and we can’t let them.”

An article at The American Prospect describes the trend of new ways workers are standing up for their rights:

Those government union membership statistics, however, don’t capture an entire swath of new, exciting and emerging labor activists—’alt-labor’ activists—whom alarmed employers would like to see regulated by the same laws that apply to unions. Yet, before we regulate them as unions, shouldn’t we first count them as unions?

Who isn’t being counted in those official numbers? A lot of people:

  • Striking fast-food workers who are calling for a $15-an-hour wage.
  • Walmart workers who went on strike for Black Friday.
  • Day laborers who have joined one of hundreds of workers’ centers nationwide.
  • Restaurant workers, home health care workers, taxi drivers and domestic workers organizing for workplace power outside traditional unions.
  • Millions of members of Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

These numbers also don’t count people like the college athletes who are seeking to unionize and the many workers who are trying to form unions but are thwarted by employers or weakened labor law.

Some of the extremists opposed to these groups want them limited in their ability to organize, while not wanting to count them in the official numbers, so labor looks weaker. As the Prospect notes:

However, in a 21st century economy in which collective bargaining has been so severely weakened by structural changes and the roll back in workers’ rights, these new labor activists represent an important frontier for people concerned about worker power and economic inequality writ large. You know that workers are on to something when employers start to get nervous. It turns out the low union membership statistics may not be as good a measure of labor’s future as employers would hope.

And the reality behind those official statistics, and the rise of alt-labor, should be heartening to supporters of working families.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on February 4, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

Strong Grassroots Actions Block Mass. Pension Scheme

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Image: Mike HallUnion members in Swampscott, Mass., this week showed just how grassroots democracy works when a coalition of unions from the North Shore Labor Council mobilized to turn back an attack on public employees’ health care and retirement security.

First a little background. In the Bay State, municipal employees’ health and retirement benefits, while negotiated on a local level, are part of a state-administered system. However, a Massachusetts “Home Rule Petition” law allows cities and towns to seek exemption from certain state laws and regulations.

In February, Swampscott’s Board of Selectmen voted 3-2 to seek a Home Rule Petition to cut town workers’ pensions by moving from the state system’s defined-benefit plan to a self-administered defined-contribution plan, and to change health care benefits. But a Home Rule Petition must be approved at a Town Meeting. In Swampscott, a town of about 14,000, that meant approximately 250 voter-elected Town Meeting members had to give the OK.

That’s when union members went to work to convince Town Meeting members that not only would the changes proposed for the teachers, firefighters, police officers, librarians and other public employees hurt the workers, it would save no money and be a major financial risk for Swampscott.

With a few months before the May 6 Town Meeting, unions and the labor council mapped out a mobilization strategy that included leafleting and neighborhood door knocking by union members, spotlighting the danger of the Home Rule Petition scheme. Postcards to each union member in town urged them to get in touch with their Town Meeting member—more than likely a neighbor or friend—to vote against the cuts to health care and retirement.

On May 6, the hard work paid off when the Home Rule Petition was defeated by better than a 3-to-1 margin.

The unions that carried the campaign to victory included AFSCME, Fire Fighters (IAFF), MassCOPS (an IUPA affiliate) and NEA.

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on May 10, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

Transit Union Head: Future Depends on Organizing Riders

Monday, July 9th, 2012

eidelson-headshotFollowing labor’s loss in Wisconsin’s recall, the leader of the nation’s largest transit union says building coalitions with riders, not organizing more drivers, is the top priority for his union’s future. Interviewed at last month’s Netroots Nation conference, Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley said that Wisconsinites’ willingness to keep their union-busting governor in office demonstrates the urgent need to change the relationship between public workers and the American public. “No matter how much money we put into electoral politics,” said Hanley, “if we can’t change the attitudes of people…we’ll lose. It’s just a matter of when and how hard.”

“I think Wisconsin shows,” says Hanley, “that at this moment in time, the right wing and the billionaires who support them have been successful in convincing a significant minority of working people that their interests are tied to falling wages in the public sector.” Hanley adds that Walker’s re-election demonstrates politicians’ success in framing unions as a “special interest,” and “saying there are working people, and then there’s organized labor.” Hanley noted he was particularly surprised by polls showing a substantial minority of union households backing Walker. “We have to – starting with our own members – make sure that people understand that we’re all in this together, we’re not all in this alone…it’s going to be a long process.”

ATU represents over 190,000 workers in the US and Canada. The majority are public workers, although the majority of ATU’s contracts are with private companies like Greyhound. A year and a half ago, ATU began shifting resources into organizing coalitions with transit riders to support public transit. With the policy resource center Good Jobs First, ATU has held two rider organizing “boot camps” for activists and union leaders from 95 cities. Last month, those efforts entered a new phase with the launch of Americans for Transit, a new national organization backed by ATU and GJF. Hanley chairs Americans for Transit’s Board; GJF Executive Director Greg LeRoy is its secretary-treasurer. They tapped Andrew Austin, the former field director of Washington State’s Transportation Choices Coalition, as the organization’s founding executive director.

Austin highlights his group’s success in getting a King County, WA Republican councilmember to back a tax increase in order to stave off a 20% service cut. He says aggressive turnout efforts, including leafleting on buses, paid off when riders formed a line “almost a mile out the door” to attend the first hearing on the issue. “The story in all the major media switched from about King County Council wants to raise your $20 car tabs to pissed-off bus riders angry about losing service…the story never went back.”

While some major cities have well-established permanent riders’ organizations, Austin says in “a lot of places there’s just no sustained effort.” Unlike bike riders, Austin says that for most bus riders, “it’s just what they do…they don’t identify themselves as that, so that’s one of the challenges.” Austin adds that, “The transit union can’t succeed if there’s not a grassroots movement for transit and transit riders and transit advocates across the country…Most drivers are working class or poor people, so I think there’s a natural solidarity there.” But he says absent organizing, anecdotes about outrageous union benefits can still get traction.

The context is austerity. ATU and GJF note that in the recession, ridership has reached its highest level in decades, just as 85% of transit agencies have raised fares, cut service, or borrowed money. Hanley sees a dual threat: proposals to balance budgets by slashing service, and calls to cut workers’ benefits so service can be saved. Hanley says local politicians “create a fiction in which only the people who depend upon the service and the people who depend upon the service for jobs are the players, and they take out all the other taxpayers from the discussion.” As Mike Elk reported, among the budget alternatives pushed by ATU and its allies is a call for banks to renegotiate interest rate swaps deals signed with cities early in the financial crisis.

Hanley charges that in order to “cleave the working class,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel “lied” about the drivers’ union contract, portraying the ten minutes provided for drivers to inspect their vehicles at the beginning of their shifts as an indulgent paid “coffee break.” He says Emanuel’s willingness to mislead the public shows that the “very powerful” see the importance of allying themselves with transit riders, and his union has to do the same.

Hanley says that with “about 100 riders for every member” of ATU, the union needs “to get, first of all, our members talking to the riders in a more political sense than they have been. I mean everyone says good morning and good night, but there’s not much more going on in most places.”

If the coalition effort is successful, says Hanley, raising transit fares will eventually become politically dangerous in the same way that raising taxes is today. Attempts to cut service will be met by “an organized lobby screaming and saying we need better transit. Don’t build the bridge to nowhere—build the bus to someplace.” He adds, “we want our pastors to see us as allies, and we know when that happens, then people like Rahm can’t come in and say, ‘Oh, they make too much money.’”

ATU’s new focus comes with a cost: a shift of resources away from organizing more drivers—public sector or private—into the union. While ATU has continued to do some new worker organizing, Hanley says, “I could go out and organize 100,000 people and spend a fortune trying to get them contracts, but what am I doing to change the overall picture by doing that? Not enough…we’re on a trajectory that has to be turned around too quickly.”

Hanley argues that the US labor movement has been too slow in responding to intensifying threats, and too quick to offer concessions: “My view is you’re feeding jelly beans to the bear, because at some point, you’re going to say no, I’m not going to feed the bear anymore—I ran out of jelly beans. And then you’re going to have a fight. So the question is when do you have the fight?” That said, notes Hanley, “sometimes you do make concessions, you have to.”

Hanley says conservatives have been successful at isolating public workers by “promoting jealousy over unity” and exploiting “racial messages…just like Ronald Reagan, ‘welfare queens.’” The subtext, says Hanley, is “those are benefits for other people, not for us.” But he draws hope from recent local referenda in which voters have chosen to raise their taxes in order to fund transit—including in Wisconsin.

Hanley contrasts the current atmosphere of resentment with the attitudes he saw on September 11, 2011: “It was like the first time in my whole career where I thought that average people really understood the value of government services, and the fact that when the bell rings, our guys are the ones that go in. And the idea that a few years later, there’s this sweeping attack, saying the people who did that aren’t entitled to pensions, aren’t entitled to healthcare, make too much money, it’s just amazing to me. It’s [an] amazing turnaround in the public framing of how our society works.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on July 9, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet. After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years. His website is http://www.josheidelson.com.

Real 'Norma Rae' Dies of Cancer After Insurer Delayed Treatment

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

The North Carolina union organizer who was the inspiration for the movie “Norma Rae” died on Friday of brain cancer after a battle with her insurance company, which delayed her treatment. She was 68.

Crystal Lee Sutton, formerly Crystal Lee Jordan, was fired from her job folding towels at the J.P. Stevens textile plant in her hometown of Roanoke Rapids, N.C. for trying to organize a union in the early 1970s. Her last action at the plant — writing the word “UNION” on a piece of cardboard and standing on her work table, leading her co-workers to turn off their machines in solidarity — was memorialized in the 1979 film by actress Sally Field. The police physically removed Sutton from the plant for her action.

But her efforts ultimately succeeded, as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers won the right to represent the plant’s employees on Aug. 28, 1974. Sutton later became a paid organizer for the union, which through a series of mergers became part of UNITE HERE before splitting off this year to form Workers United, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.

Several years ago, Sutton was diagnosed with meningioma, a type of cancer of the nervous system. While such cancers are typically slow-growing, Sutton’s was not — and she went two months without potentially life-saving medication because her insurance wouldn’t cover it initially. Sutton told the Burlington (N.C.) Times-News last year that the insurer’s behavior was an example of abuse of the working poor:

“How in the world can it take so long to find out [whether they would cover the medicine or not] when it could be a matter of life or death,” she said. “It is almost like, in a way, committing murder.” 

Though Sutton eventually received the medication, the cancer had already taken hold. She passed away on Friday, Sept. 11 in a Burlington, N.C. hospice.

“Crystal Lee Sutton was a remarkable woman whose brave struggles have left a lasting impact on this country and without doubt, on me personally,” Field said in a statement released Friday. “Portraying Crystal Lee in ‘Norma Rae,’ however loosely based, not only elevated me as an actress, but as a human being.”

Field won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of the character based on Sutton. The film in turn was based on the 1975 book “Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance” by New York Times reporter Henry P. “Hank” Leiferman.

Sutton was only 17 when she began working at the J.P. Stevens plant in northeastern North Carolina, where conditions were poor and the pay was low. A Massachusetts-based company that for many years was listed on the Fortune 500, J.P. Stevens is now part of the WestPoint Home conglomerate.

In 1973, Sutton, by then a mother of three, was earning only $2.65 an hour. That same year, Eli Zivkovich, a former coal miner from West Virginia, came to Roanoke Rapids to organize the plant and began working with Sutton, who was fired after she copied a flyer posted by management warning that blacks would run the union. It was that incident which led Sutton to stand up with her “UNION” sign.

“It is not necessary I be remembered as anything, but I would like to be remembered as a woman who deeply cared for the working poor and the poor people of the U.S. and the world,” she said in a newspaper interview last year. “That my family and children and children like mine will have a fair share and equality.”

For more on Sutton’s life and work, visit the website of the Alamance Community College’s Crystal Sutton Collection.

(Photo of Sutton speaking in Minnesota in 1988 from the Crystal Sutton Collection.)

About the Author: Sue Sturgis is Editorial Director and Co-Editor, Facing South. She joined the Institute in November 2005. A former staff writer for the Raleigh News & Observer and Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.), she is co-author of the Institute reports “One Year after Katrina” (August 2006) and “The Mardi Gras Index” (February/March 2006). Sue holds a Masters in Journalism from New York University.

This article originally appeared in Facing South on September 14, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

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