Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘unionize’

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren blast Delta’s union-busting in letter to CEO

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

A shot across the nose cone from nine progressive senators could be just the beginning of Delta’s troubles.

Delta Airlines should immediately stop sabotaging efforts to unionize the ground crews that make their operations possible, a group of nine senators told Delta CEO Ed Bastian in a letter Wednesday.

The sharply worded note contrasts Bastian’s personal wealth to the “paycheck to paycheck” vulnerability his frontline workers experience. But beyond the surface text, the willingness of the senators to escalate critique of Delta hints at a wider political philosophy that could pose a far larger threat to major corporate profiteers across several industries.

“It has become clear that Delta’s management has a highly coordinated and strategic plan to suppress the efforts of over 40,000 workers,” the letter from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and other progressive stalwarts said. “Mr. Bastian, you earned almost $40 million in the last two years while paying workers who make Delta Air Lines arguably the most financially successful airline on the planet as little as $9 per hour.”

Delta’s rank-and-file workforce have been building support for a staff union for almost six years now. Some workers have been fired or faced other retaliation for working on the union drive, according to multiple reports, and almost all of them have been subjected to an unusually brazen anti-union campaign from their bosses. Delta has long defended its union-busting efforts by pointing to the company’s profit-sharing policy that generated $1.3 billion in worker bonuses last year.

But the airline’s campaign has hit the rocks this spring because a picture of one of the anti-union posters in a worker break room went viral. The sign mused that workers might prefer to spend the money that goes to union dues on video games instead — omitting the compensation hikes that a union would be able to extract in exchange.

Sanders — whose office said he’d led the letter-writing effort — and Warren are prominent candidates for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination for the White House. The men and women who joined them in writing to Bastian are heavyweights in their own right: Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (D-PA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) also signed onto the letter.

“Your attempts to deny the right of Delta workers to form a union is corporate greed, plain and simple,” the nine senators wrote. “If Delta workers gain union representation they will finally have the right to collectively bargain with Delta for a living wage, decent benefits and safe working conditions.”

The missive adds to the backlash Delta has reaped since the video games poster hit the web a week ago and drew national attention to the firm’s “full-court anti-union press” of constant at-work messaging against unionization in concert with a D.C.-based consulting firm, as HuffPost documented. One major union — the National Education Association — has hinted at potential direct pressure tactics from outside by removing Delta from the list of airlines it recommends to members and uses to book its own travel. Many of the tens of thousands of tweets about the poster over the past week have included the hashtag #boycottdelta.

Though Delta earned this fire for trafficking in the type of flagrant hostility and deceitful internal lobbying against unionization that employers typically try to keep out of the papers, the spotlight that’s come for them could yet expand. The higher pay unionization extracts for members could prove to be a fairly small hit compared to what Delta and other airlines could face in the coming years.

Progressive economists and policymakers have coalesced in recent months around a particular suite of ideas that should worry not just Bastian and Delta, but everyone making millions from the current state of play in the airline business. This new line of thinking, dubbed “public-tizing” by some, is rooted in a longstanding critique of U.S. capitalism but calls for a much more aggressive response from government.

Like banking, telecommunications service, and many other consumer-facing industries, the airline business has become dangerously concentrated. A tiny list of firms control all or nearly all business done in these sectors — many of which are all but mandatory for U.S. workers and citizens to participate in as customers. Delta’s ability to squeeze those big executive pay packages and lavish shareholder payouts from its business relies, in turn, on squeezing both workers and customers. Delta and other airlines have been free to gouge passengers — in both the wallet and the knees, as anyone who’s ridden coach in a plane reconfigured to fit as many people as possible without regard to comfort can attest — because there isn’t a robust enough level of competition to curb such schemes organically.

That’s part of why the public-tizer crowd wants to see these consumer-harming cartels broken up. If government could actually use its long-rusted anti-trust powers — born from the country’s first Gilded Age, when intense and undemocratic disparities in wealth and economic power created a society that looked a lot like today’s only with worse technology — the Deltas of the world might not get away with this kind of stuff so readily.

The public-tizers note, though, that it will likely take some legislative action as well as a willing executive in the White House in order for antitrust law to retake its rightful place in American civics. The trust-buster toolkit has been weakened for decades in the courts courtesy of a willful and diligent campaign by conservative ideologues — or “Supreme Court decisions influenced by conservative economic theories,” as Marshall Steinbaum more gently summed the matter in a recent and detailed rundown of how the modern airline industry is able to thrive at your expense. It will take thoughtful and specific political labor to revive the laws thus gutted.

Two of the senators who signed onto the bully-pulpit letter to Delta’s well-heeled chieftain on Thursday intend to take these reforms up from the White House, of course. Warren and Sanders are each longstanding advocates for increased use of public power, distinct though Warren’s self-stated mission to save capitalism from itself may be from Sanders’ maximalist socialism.

The Delta story also offers one potentially useful lens for watching the evolution of the political movement each of them hopes to lead over the course of the 2020 primary and general elections. Consider the other names on the letter to Bastian, and the political history they’ve lived. Those progressive joiners came of age in a Democratic Party where support for labor rights and open hostility to union-busting efforts were defining pillars; signing onto a sharp-tongued letter damning a flagrant demonization of worker solidarity is a relatively easy political lift.

But where Warren and Sanders and the public-tizers hope to go, the political and policy challenges are likely to grow. A lot of people have made a lot of money for a long time from the concentration and privatization schemes that must be undone in order for major American consumer industries to begin responding to healthier incentives.

Big-dollar donors understand how Democrats and unions are wedded. But the more aggressive Teddy Roosevelt-style trust-busting that public-tizers are bucking for might not go down so easy.

 

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

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

 

The Trump Labor Board Just Made It Harder for Fast-Food Workers to Hold Corporate Bosses Accountable

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017

On December 14, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) overturned a 2015 policy that had made it easier for workers—particularly fast-food workers—to unionize and challenge their employers over unfair labor practices.

The Obama-era standard sprung from a 2013 case involving workers attempting to unionize at a recycling plant in Milpitas, Calif. The recycling company, Browning-Ferris Industries, owned the building but used a small staffing agency called Leadpoint to provide and manage workers. The local Teamsters union was trying to organize the employees, but it didn’t want to merely negotiate with Leadpoint: It wanted Browning-Ferris to be considered a joint employer and party to any labor contract. A regional director determined that Leadpoint was the sole employer, but the Teamsters requested a review, and the NLRB’s general counsel sided with union in a 3-2 vote.

The vote was hailed by unions and labor advocates for making it more difficult for corporations to distance themselves from certain legal violations—and for strengthening the bargaining power of subcontracted gig-economy workers.

The Browning-Ferris decision was also good news for fast-food workers and organizations like Fight for $15. Most fast-food companies use a franchising model, and Browning-Ferris made it easier for workers to hold corporations responsible for wage theft and union busting at individual locations. In 2014, the NLRB’s general counsel had already ruled that the McDonald’s Corporation could be considered a joint employer in various labor cases brought against the company’s franchises. But Browning-Ferris provided an entirely new legal dimension to the proceedings.

The Browning-Ferris decision was predictably criticized by industry groups, which immediately launched an all-out assault on the new rule. International Franchise Association lobbyist Matt Haller declared that the decision was “a knife-to-the throat issue,” pro-business organizations pressured Congress to block its implementation in their subsequent spending bill, and Browning-Ferris Industries challenged the decision in a federal appeals court.

Industry nervousness ended up being alleviated by the surprising election of Donald Trump, who successfully tipped the NLRB back to a Republican majority in September—and has sought to overturn the labor victories which occurred under his predecessor. The Trump administration recently ended Obama’s extension of federal overtime pay, and it’s preparing to eradicate a 2011 rule which protects the tips of wait staff. All of Trump’s NLRB appointees were connected to anti-union policies at their previous positions, but the confirmation process was fast-tracked, and they easily made it through GOP-controlled Senate. In overturning the Browning-Ferris precedent, the board claimed that the 2015 decision was responsible for “upending decades of labor law precedent and probably centuries of precedent in corporate law.”

In a statement, National Employment Law Project executive director Christine Owens called the reversal “just one more example of the Trump Administration favoring corporations over working people.”

“In this economy, employers are increasingly subcontracting out vital parts of their business to other contractors and/or using temporary employment agencies to fill vital positions,” said Owens. “The Browning-Ferris decision recognized that in these arrangements, companies that contract out work may still retain control over the conditions and standards that govern the work and how the workers doing the jobs are treated … the Trump NLRB has decided to let them off the hook.”

While there is no evidence that Trump was directly involved in the case, we do know that one his companies was impacted by the 2015 decision. In May 2016, catering workers at the Trump National Doral golf resort in Florida won a $125,000 settlement after suing for unpaid wages. As a result of the joint-employer liability, the workers were able to hold Trump Miami Resort Management responsible, even though an outside staffing agency had hired them.

It is likely that the Trump administration will soon work to overturn a number of additional Obama-era NLRB decisions. To the surprise of many, the board ended up adapting to the complexities of a changing economy under Obama and forcefully asserted the rights of workers in a number of important votes. Recent NLRB decisions have given graduate students the right to unionize at private universities, increased the bargaining power of workers at charter schools and made it easier for smaller groups of workers to unionize at companies. However, the term of the NLRB’s Republican chairman, Philip A. Miscimarra, ended just days after the board’s vote. Trump will at least have to wait until the Senate confirms his next nominee and reestablishes the Republican majority before he’s able to undo any of these changes.

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

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

Trump is about to make America much crueler to unionized workers

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

Since Election Day, unions have lived on borrowed time. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which has exclusive authority over many key questions of labor law, is still controlled by Democrats?—?thus shielding workers and their unions from attacks that became far likelier the moment Donald Trump was declared the winner of the 2016 election.

But this period of interregnum is about to end. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) began the process of confirming the first of Trump’s two nominees to the NLRB on Monday. When both nominees sit on the Board, a swift rollback of union rights is likely.

As soon as this week, the Senate is likely to vote on Marvin Kaplan, the first of these two nominees. A former GOP Hill staffer, Kaplan drafted legislation—strongly supported by business lobby groups—which would have made it easier for employers to fight unionization campaigns.

Trump’s other nominee, William Emanuel, is a veteran management-side lawyer who touts his “particular expertise with laws concerning union access to the private property of employers.” He’s also filed briefs in three cases claiming that employers can force workers to waive their right to bring class actions and similar lawsuits.

The NLRB is an unusual agency that functions very much like a judicial body. It is the only agency that can enforce certain portions of federal labor law, which protects the right to unionize, to engage in collective action within the workplace, and to have one’s employer actually bargain with a union in good faith.

While the NLRB employs lawyers who investigate and prosecute certain violations of labor law, the board members themselves function much like judges?—?sitting on individual cases and handing down precedential opinions interpreting the rights of workers, unions, and employers.

In recent years, however, the Board has grown increasingly partisan. By design, it has five board members, and three of those seats are typically controlled by the party that also controls the White House. For this reason, the Board’s understanding of labor law often lurches to the left and then to the right as control of the presidency changes hands.

During the second Bush administration, for example, the NLRB determined that workers with fairly minimal authority over their co-workers count as “supervisors” under federal labor law?—?and thus do not enjoy a legal right to unionize. The Board’s current Democratic majority, by contrast, appears much less eager to strip employees’ collective bargaining rights by declaring them “supervisors.”

Yet, while partisanship has shaped the NLRB’s decisions for quite a while, if Kaplan and Emanuel are confirmed, the Board will have a Republican majority for the first time in the post-Tea Party, take-no-prisoners era of GOP politics that began shortly after the Obamas moved into the White House.

The new majority on the board is likely to confront, and possibly reverse, a number of Obama-era decisions on important matters such as whether graduate students with significant work responsibilities should be allowed to unionize.

But the GOP’s recent approach to unions suggests that the party will not be satisfied with simply rolling back union rights to where they stood in the Bush era. Last year, the Supreme Court came within a hair of defunding many public sector unions based on an aggressive reading of the First Amendment?—?the suit failed only due to Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, and a similar suit is likely to prevail soon now that Neil Gorsuch occupies Scalia’s seat.

Republican governors like Scott Walker crusaded against unions in their states. Senate Republicans even attempted to shut down the NLRB entirely during the Obama presidency?—?an action that would have rendered much of federal labor law unenforceable?—?by refusing to fill vacancies on the Board.

It is likely, in other words, that the NLRB’s incoming majority will push much harder against the right to organize than even President Bush’s appointees to the Board. They are creatures of a very different era.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on August 2, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Ian Millhiser is Justice Editor for ThinkProgress and author of Injustices: SCOTUS’ History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted. 

Fight for $15 workers file sexual harassment complaints against McDonald's

Thursday, October 6th, 2016

LauraClawson

Workers who are underpaid are all too often exploited and abused in other ways—after all, their employers know they’re vulnerable and need the paycheck. So we should be shocked, but not too surprised, by the contents of sexual harassment complaints against McDonald’s that the Fight for $15 has filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:


Cycei Monae, a McDonald’s worker in Flint, Michigan, said a manager showed her a picture of his genitals and said he wanted to “do things” to her, according to a complaint provided by Fight for $15. Corporate officials ignored her complaints, Monae said on a phone call with reporters on Wednesday.

In another complaint, a worker in Folsom, California, said a supervisor offered her $1,000 for oral sex.

Thirteen of the complaints were by women, and two were by men, said Fight for $15, which the Service Employees International Union formed in 2012.

gettyimages-496499558Expect McDonald’s to once again fall back on its excuse that it can’t possibly control anything about what franchisees do to their workers, even as it controls every other aspect of how franchise restaurants operate. That control is why the National Labor Relations Board has said McDonald’s should be treated as a joint employer of workers in franchise restaurants.

Issues like sexual harassment are why the Fight for $15 isn’t just about $15 an hour pay—workers say they’re fighting for “$15 and a union.” A union could represent workers facing harassment and give them power in numbers and tools to fight back. This is a fight more broadly for power and respect. Money is part of that, but it’s not the whole deal.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on October 5, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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

Uber And Lyft Drivers Organize To Fight Exploitation

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

“Gig economy” corporations depend on a low-wage economy in which lots of people are looking for ways to get by. Their business model requires disposable people willing to take low-wage jobs with long hours and no benefits so they can pay the rent, doing things for people who need to save as much as they can, so they can pay the rent.

For example, if you’re driving for “ride share” companies like Uber or Lyft, those companies are making serious money. Meanwhile you’re probably working a lot of hours just to make rent. You drive for them, you obviously are an employee, but they say are a “contractor.” Contractors are basically employees who don’t get benefits, have to pay much more into Social Security, have to withhold their own taxes and pay them quarterly, can’t claim unemployment, don’t get Workers Compensation if injured on the job and many other disadvantages. There isn’t even a limit on the hours they work and they can’t get overtime.

The drivers (and other “contractors” around the country) say they are employees and deserve the rights and benefits of employees. Uber and other big corporations that exploit their workers as a business model claim their employees are “contractors” with no rights. Various courts, agencies, departments, etc are working to determine if they will be classified as employees or contractors.

Uber and Lyft Drivers Fighting To Unionize

Uber and Lyft drivers are fighting to do something about this and the best way to do something when you are being exploited on the job is to join a union so you are not fighting alone. In New York, for example, 14,000 Uber and Lyft drivers have signed up to say they want to join the local Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) branch.

ATU’s website says,

“Founded in 1892, the ATU today is comprised of over 190,000 members, including: metropolitan, interstate, and school bus drivers; paratransit, light rail, subway, streetcar, and ferry boat operators; mechanics and other maintenance workers; clerks, baggage handlers, municipal employees, and others.”

Buzzfeed has the Uber/Lyft/ATU story, in Nearly 14,000 Uber And Lyft Drivers Sign Union Cards In New York

Nearly 14,000 Uber and Lyft drivers in New York have signed up to join the local branch of the Amalgamated Transit Union, according to a union spokesperson. The group plans to rally at the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) headquarters next week to demand a formal vote on unionizing.

The 14,000 sign-ups exceed the 30 percent threshold that federal regulators say must trigger an official vote, the union says. The cards signed by drivers indicate that they seek ATU membership and authorize the union to act as their collective bargaining agent.

The ATU’s Local 1181 is asking the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TCL) to force Uber and Lyft to allow a union vote. Crain’s New York Business explains why, in Union seeks to organize rideshare drivers in NYC,

In a letter to the commissioner that was delivered on Tuesday, Local 1181 President Michael Cordiello asked the TLC to “schedule and conduct a free and fair election for the drivers of these corporations to determine whether they choose to be represented” by the union.

“We make this demand in conformance with the stated mission of the TLC,” he wrote, citing its status as “the agency responsible for licensing and regulating” the city’s taxis and car services.

In an interview, Cordiello added that Tuesday’s rally was only the first step in the union’s strategy.

“There are a lot of other ways we can accomplish this, such as legislation,” he said in a reference to the ordinance passed in December in Seattle that entitled Uber and Lyft drivers to union representation. “We are unfolding what we believe will be a new direction for labor and for the technology work force.”

Drivers and the ATU Local held a rally Tuesday at the TLC office in Long Island City. Vice News covered that, in NYC Uber and Lyft drivers are protesting for union rights,

Drivers for the ride-hailing service Uber turned out in the streets of Queens on Tuesday morning, demanding their right to unionize outside the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission in Long Island City.

“We demand living wage fares, no pool fares, protection from exploitation, union representation,” read one big green sign held up by one Uber driver, a middle-aged black man with a tan jacket and blue pork pie hat.

The ride-share workers — categorized as “independent contractors” rather than employees by tech companies like Uber and Lyft — had joined up with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, which represents city bus drivers. Copies of over 14,000 signed union cards sat in a fat bundle on the table in the center of the demonstration, 10,000 cards thicker since May.

The rally had the flavor of a protest,

It was an old-fashioned rally. The ride-share workers, joined by bus drivers, marched in front of the Taxi Commission barking out chants from a bullhorn. Cop cars flanked either side of the street as people who worked inside the Commission building slowed down to check out the protest.

A few passing Uber and Lyft drivers liked what they heard and waded into the demonstration to sign union cards.

“I support this,” said Jaydip Ray, 36, a skinny guy with a blue hoodie, moments after walking away from joining up, as another young man took his place. “We need benefits. Without benefits, we don’t have any future.”

The “gig economy” means that big corporations make billionaires, while their workers are called “contractors” who have no rights and don’t make squat. It’s one more way the system has been rigged.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on September 30, 2016. Reprinted with Permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

Working People Give a Bold Union Yes in Las Vegas

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

fullsizerender-385x1024If you were lamenting that Labor Day’s current day association with leisure has obfuscated the true meaning of the holiday—don’t despair because the working people of Boulder Station Hotel & Casino got together over the Labor Day weekend and after a long battle said, “Union Yes!”

More than 570 Boulder Station workers will now enjoy and exercise their right to come together and make things better at their workplace with the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 and the Bartenders Union Local 165. Boulder Station is the first of Station Casinos’ properties in Nevada to vote yes for unionization.

“It is very simple: We voted for the union because we want to have a union at Boulder Station,” said Rodrigo Solano, a cook at the casino, which opened in 1994. “After all these years of fighting to make our jobs better, it is time for management to listen to us: We want to have fair wages and good health benefits like tens of thousands of other casino workers in Las Vegas.”

working-people-give-a-bold-union-yes-in-las-vegas_blog_post_fullwidth

 At the large casino-hotels owned and operated by Station Casinos in Las Vegas, including the soon-to-be-acquired Palms Casino Resort, workers have been publicly demanding a fair process to exercise their right to choose whether to form a union. Station Casinos responded with a vicious anti-union campaign.Despite the attacks, the working people of Boulder Station came together.

“Our company has enjoyed great success because of the hard work we put in every day to provide great service and hospitality,” said Maria Portillo, a food runner at Boulder Station. “We deserve to have a union contract that gives us job security, fair wages, good health care and a pension so that we can have the opportunity to provide for our families through our hard work.”

In the recent environment of heightened anti-immigrant sentiment spewing from those vying for the highest offices, while also embroiled in concurrent battles with unions of working people, it’s great to see workers stand up and join forces with the Culinary Workers Union. The Culinary Workers Union is Nevada’s largest immigrant organization with more than 57,000 members—a diverse membership that represents just over 50% Latino workers, as well as a membership of about 50% women. Members—who work as guest room attendants, bartenders, cocktail and food servers, porters, bellmen, cooks and kitchen workers—come from 167 countries and speak more than 40 different languages.

“We know about the Culinary Workers Union and Bartenders Union, and the union standard that workers have fought to have for more than 80 years, and we made our decision based on those facts,” said Jeri Allert, a cocktail server at Boulder Station. “I look forward to negotiating a good union contract that protects my co-workers and our families.”

The hardest fought battles can yield the sweetest victories—a bolder #UnionYes and the power of a union to keep fighting for what you deserve.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on September 16, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Sonia Huq is the Organizing Field Communications Assistant at the AFL-CIO.  She grew up in a Bangladeshi-American family in Boca Raton, Florida where she first learned a model of service based on serving a connected immigrant cultural community. After graduating from the University of Florida, Sonia served in the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps and later worked for Manavi, the first South Asian women’s rights organization in the United States. She then earned her Master’s in Public Policy from the George Washington University and was awarded a Women’s Policy Inc. fellowship for women in public policy to work as a legislative fellow in the office of Representative Debbie Wasserman (FL-23). Sonia is passionate about working towards a more just society and hopes to highlight social justice issues and movements through her writing.

It’s Game On for Grad Students After NLRB Rules They Can Unionize

Monday, September 12th, 2016

rebeccanathanson

December 5 fell on a Friday in 2014; in New York City, the air was crisp. At Columbia University, about 200 graduate student-workers pulled on hats and scarves to gather on the imposing steps of Low Library, which houses the university president’s office. While most stood in a block formation, holding signs declaring their department names, a small delegation went inside to deliver a letter to the president. It asked that he voluntarily recognize their union, the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW Local 2110), which a majority of graduate employees supported.

When the administration declined to reply, GWC and the United Auto Workers (UAW), with which it is affiliated, petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to certify their union. A complicated legal process ensued.

For more than a decade, the NLRB considered graduate employees to be students, not workers. As such, they did not have the same legal rights of most employees, including the right to organize. All that changed two weeks ago when the NLRB decision on the Columbia case finally came back, siding with the student-workers and their right to collective bargaining.

“Obviously, it’s a huge push for us and it’s caused a lot of excitement and enthusiasm,” says Ian Bradley-Perrin, a PhD student in sociomedical sciences and history, who has worked as both a teaching and research assistant.

After months of approaching people with hypotheticals, he says that he and his fellow organizers can now speak in concrete terms: “We’re going to have an election. We are now recognized as workers. So it’s just been talking to people about what a union actually means, how the union is organized democratically, how people’s interests will be represented in the union.”

Graduate teaching and research assistants at a handful of private universities have been working towards unionization for years. Their administrations have largely been able to ignore their actions, citing the NLRB’s designation of them as students. Now, however, their efforts can finally move forward. They have the legal right to hold union elections and then negotiate contracts, providing them a collective voice in the terms of their employment. Already, the NLRB’s ruling is invigorating existing campaigns and inspiring new ones.

Graduate employees at many public universities have long enjoyed the right to unionize, but their peers at private universities have faced a long, serpentine route to achieve that same right. (Rebecca Nathanson)

Graduate employees at many public universities have long enjoyed the right to unionize, but their peers at private universities have faced a long, serpentine route to achieve that same right. (Rebecca Nathanson)

Path to recognition

Graduate employees at many public universities have long enjoyed the right to unionize, but their peers at private universities have faced a long, serpentine route to achieve that same right. In 2001, graduate employees at New York University (NYU) became the country’s first to form a union and negotiate a contract at a private university, providing teaching assistants with wage increases and improved working conditions.

Three years later, graduate employees at Brown University attempted to do the same, but the NLRB, which had then shifted to a Republican majority, ruled that graduate employees were primarily students, not workers. In 2005, the NYU union’s contract expired and, using the 2004 Brown decision as precedent, the administration refused to negotiate a new one.

NYU’s administration kept firm to that stance until fall 2013, when it offered to voluntarily recognize the union. More than 98 percent of graduate employees voted in favor of the union, making it, once again, the only graduate employee union at a private university.

Organizers across the country were anxious to follow in their footsteps. Last month’s NLRB ruling gives them a shot in the arm.

At Harvard University, graduate student organizer Abigail Weil is particularly excited by the expansive way in which the NLRB defined a graduate employee in its ruling: “It’s broader and more inclusive than even we had hoped for. That’s just that many more people that we can talk to and fold into the bargaining unit as we create it.”

In its decision, the NLRB writes, “It is appropriate to extend statutory coverage to students working for universities covered by the (National Labor Relations) Act unless there are strong reasons not to do so.” It continues, “We will apply that standard to student assistants, including assistants engaged in research funded by external grants.” Not only does this include research assistants in addition to teaching assistants, but, Weil posits, it could also be interpreted as including working Masters students—and possibly even working undergraduates.

According to Weil, the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU-UAW) plans to file a petition for an election. She can already see a change in campus support.

“We’re thrilled at how many people were following the NLRB story,” she says. “Since that decision has come out, probably two-thirds of the people that we talk to now bring (it) up without us having to bring that up or explain it.”

Organizers at The New School, in New York City, are experiencing a similar phenomenon.

Like at Columbia, graduate employees at The New School asked their administration to voluntarily recognize their union. When that didn’t work, they too petitioned the NLRB for certification, only to hit the wall created a decade earlier by the Brown decision.

“We had our first meeting of the year on Monday and we had probably three times as many people show up,” says Eli Nadeau, a Masters student in the politics department at The New School. “We’re planning for an election because Columbia’s ruling covers us.”

Graduate workers at Cornell University took a slightly different approach to winning collective bargaining rights. While biding their time until the NLRB ruled on the Columbia case, they negotiated and signed a code of conduct with their administration in May. The document outlines the mechanisms by which a union election would take place and the behavior expected of both sides.

“Our next steps are really just working on the union. We are building outreach and finding out what our members’ concerns are,” explains Ben Norton, a PhD student in the music department and the communications and outreach chair of Cornell Graduate Students United, the university’s graduate employee union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

“We wasted no time”

Campaigns on numerous campuses have been galvanized by the Columbia decision, but graduate employees at Yale University took perhaps the swiftest action in its wake. Less than a week after the ruling, they filed a petition to hold an election to certify their union with the NLRB.

“We wasted no time. It was really exciting for the path to victory to open up and for us to really take advantage of it,” says Aaron Greenberg, a PhD student in the political science department and chair of Local 33-UNITE HERE, which represents Yale’s graduate teaching and research assistants.

In filing their petition, UNITE HERE and organizers at Yale are creating yet another variation on a graduate employee union. Rather than file as an entire unit of employees across the university, they did so department-by-department, starting with 10 departments.

“We really want a process that reflects how our work is organized. How much you get paid, what kind of work you do, what kind of hours you do really depend on the department,” explains Greenberg. Plus, he adds, “We’re hoping that by filing each department separately and starting with departments where the desire to unionize is overwhelmingly clear, we can avoid wasteful legal gamesmanship, unnecessary delays, and that the university will respect the democratic will of the members of these departments, who have made clear, time and time again, that they want a union.”

One of the next steps for graduate employees at many of the private universities hoping to take advantage of the recent NLRB decision will be working out the exact parameters of the bargaining unit: who it covers and who it excludes is not yet completely clear. But in the meantime, they will, for the first time in more than a decade, be able to move closer towards unionization without legal barriers—barriers which, organizers believe, were knocked down by the force of the organizing that took place in those intervening years.

“Labor law follows organizing, not the other way around,” says Weil. “We have been organizing to the full extent of our abilities, not the full extent of our legal rights. We’re happy to have those rights restored.”

This article was originally posted at InTheseTimes.com on September 9, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Rebecca Nathanson is a freelance writer in New York City. She has written for Al Jazeera America, n+1, The Nation, NewYorker.com,The Progressive, RollingStone.com, and more.

Labor board says graduate students can unionize

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

LauraClawson

According to the George W. Bush-era National Labor Relations Board, graduate students at private universities didn’t count as employees of those universities, no matter how much employment-type work they did. That means those students couldn’t unionize. Now, the NLRB has reversed that, saying graduate students can unionize:

First, the board rejected argument that graduate students cannot be employees because their relationship to their employer remains “primarily educational.” This interpretation, the board wrote, cannot actually be found in the “statutory text” of federal labor law, and cannot be derived from its “fundamental policy.” Instead, the board asked whether colleges and students had a “common-law employment relationship,” with the school exerting control over its student employees and compensating them for their labor. Because such a relationship obviously exists, students may be considered “employees” of the universities for which they work.

 As for the earlier ruling’s other concerns, the NLRB noted that almost all of them are “purely theoretical.” There is no empirical evidence that collective bargaining would somehow destroy the relationship between working graduate students and their employers by disrupting “traditional goals of higher education.” There is no proof that collective bargaining might restrict freedom of expression in the university setting. Indeed, graduate students at public universities have been unionizing for years without imperiling their school’s academic mission. And recent research has found “no support” for the assertion that graduate student unionization “would harm the faculty-student relationship” or “would diminish academic freedom.”

Students are now free to organize to change situations like this:

In the most recent academic year, Laura Hung, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at American University, earned $19,200 as a teaching and research assistant. The money was barely enough to cover her $1,000 rent and certainly not enough to pay for the health insurance offered by the university, she said. Hung is on Medicaid and said she is just $200 a year shy of qualifying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a form of welfare.

“Being a teaching and research assistant is important; it’s given me valuable classroom experience. What we do has an educational benefit, but the fact of the matter is we’re not paid fair wages,” said Hung, 31, who is finishing up her dissertation. “We work well over the hours we’re supposed to and as a result wind up being paid minimum wage or less. That’s not enough to live in D.C. Trying to make ends meet every month is virtually impossible.”

Organizing is easier said than done, of course, with some universities having shown themselves as willing to fight unionization as any major corporation. But at least now the government won’t throw up an added barrier.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on August 23, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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

Adjuncts Win Union Contract at Maryland Institute College of Art

Friday, October 9th, 2015

Bruce VailThe national movement to unionize part-time faculty at U.S. colleges and universities has secured an initial beachhead in the Baltimore area with ratification of a first contract between Service Employees International Union Local 500 and the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Voting on the ratification concluded in mid-September and a formal signing ceremony for the pact is set for October 8, labor representatives report.

It’s the first union contract for any bargaining unit of part-time faculty, or adjuncts, in the city’s greater metropolitan area, where thousands of such workers are employed at about a dozen similar private and public educational institutions. The overwhelming ratification vote of 91-7 came following a protracted contract negotiation initiated when a union organizing drive won collective bargaining rights for about 300 MICA adjuncts in April of last year.

But the strong vote in favor of ratification probably came from union members “more excited about finally having a contract than the specific terms of the contract itself,” comments Joshua Smith, a MICA adjunct who served on the union negotiating committee. The three-year contract falls short of member expectations in several key areas, he concedes. Yet many members also recognize that settling on a first contract is a “vital step forward” to realizing the union’s long-term goals.

A desire for an across-the-board wage increase was frustrated, for example, by MICA administrators who would only agree to an indirect approach to a modest raise in pay, Smith says. The new contract adapts an existing pay scale—ranging from a low of $3,329 for a three-credit course to a high of $5,040—to allow adjuncts to more easily advance up the scale, while also providing an annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), Smith says.

“The pathway to advancement is easier, plus the COLA, so there is something for almost all the members. But the base is still too low and [the union has] to attack the pay inequity between veteran, part-time and full-time faculty” in the future, says Smith. (The full text of the agreement is available online at the SEIU Local 500 web site.)

A statement sent out under the name of MICA President Sammy Hoi glossed over the pay issue and stressed the non-economic features of the contract:

The agreement covers a wide range of subjects including changes to compensation, creating a professional development fund, establishing standards governing the appointment and re-appointment of part-time faculty, and creating an evaluation process that will foster continued excellence in teaching. …

As an important step in promoting sustainability in higher education, this contract reflects MICA’s commitment to leadership and to the part-time faculty in the MICA community. MICA and Local 500 look forward to continuing to work together in the implementation of this agreement and building a strong, professional relationship that will advance the interests of our students and the MICA community as a whole.

Debra Rubino, MICA’s Vice President of Startegic Communications adds: “President Hoi, along with all of the senior administration, are very satisfied with this agreement.”

Hoi’s emphasis on the inclusion of adjuncts in the broader academic community is a reflection of union demands that part-timers be treated as professionals, Smith adds, and has been a consistent theme of adjunct organizing throughout the country. Locally, the demand is a feature of an ongoing organizing campaign at nearby Goucher College, where part-time faculty are awaiting a National Labor Relations Board decision on the outcome of a closely contested union election there in late 2014.

Assumedly addressing the Goucher union fight, the MICA organizing committee said in a statement, “This MICA contract should cause other institutions of higher education in Baltimore to think twice about their opposition to collective bargaining process. The time for formal negotiations on the status of adjuncts at MICA was long overdue, and, now that they have taken place, the college is better for it. … A strong, active Part Time Faculty Union is a platform for involvement in the future of MICA and the education of its students. Any administration should welcome that.”

The statement can also be read as a message to other colleges and universities in the region. Stirrings of union support for an adjuncts union are evident at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland, and also at the University of Baltimore, Smith says. Furthermore, a coalition of unions including the Maryland State Education Association, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and SEIU Local 500 is agitating for legislation to ease unionization of the state’s community college system.

Finalizing a first contract at MICA is important to these efforts as well as to the MICA instructors themselves, Smith concludes, by demonstrating that adjuncts can establish new collective bargaining units despite official opposition. Baltimore’s culture of treating adjuncts as second-class academic citizens needs to come to an end, he says, and the MICA contract is a hopeful sign that the end is coming in to sight.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on October 5, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

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

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog