“I was fortunate enough to have the support of a union, and I was a member of a union. And I think in this situation, I’m convinced more than ever how important the unions are. And I just wanted to mention that I know here in New York there are so many students from private universities who have been trying to and fighting to get their right to have a union, and the administration of the universities are denying them this right.” – Saira Rafiee
Faculty, staff and students studying and teaching in the United States have been scrambling since Donald Trump barred entry into the country for foreign nationals from seven majority-Muslim countries. Although the executive order has been temporarily blocked by court order, the matter remains a moving target as the White House challenges the rulings — and the legitimacy — of the courts.
The AFT has many members who have been and could be shut out of the country or prevented from traveling under the Jan. 27 executive order. For example, Saira Rafiee (pictured), a doctoral student of political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and member of the Professional Staff Congress/AFT Local 2334, was among those who were blocked from entry during the chaotic initial week of implementation. While attempting to return from vacation in Iran to visit her family during winter break, she was detained for 18 hours in Abu Dhabi before being sent back to Tehran.
Despite the uncertainty about her own future, Rafiee conveyed on Facebook that her main concern was for others, including a student in the United States who had to cancel a last visit with a sister who has cancer in Iran. Her sister has since died. There also are students doing fieldwork for dissertations that have taken years to research; whether they will be able to return to their work is undetermined. “These stories are not even close in painfulness and horror of those who are fleeing war and disastrous situations in their home countries,” wrote Rafiee, whose CUNY colleagues rallied to #GetSairaHome at the Brooklyn courthouse Jan. 30.
Read Rafiee’s Jan. 29 Facebook post:
Rafiee returned to the United States Feb. 4 to a rousing welcome from CUNY student activists, lawyers from CUNY’s Citizenship Now program, family members and others who had worked to make her return possible. “Union support matters,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen. “Hundreds of PSC members responded to the union’s call for messages urging action on Saira’s case, helping to focus public attention on her case. Collective action worked.”
If reinstated, the executive order would temporarily ban entry to the United States for all citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somali, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The ban is widely seen as an attempt to ban Muslims from the U.S., a religious ban that would be constitutionally prohibited. Acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates was fired for refusing to enforce the ban, which she determined was illegal. Courts have challenged the new policy, but border agents reportedly ignored court orders. Details of enforcement have been confusing at best.
In addition to the turmoil academics and other travelers have experienced, another aspect of the order would suspend all refugee admittance for 120 days and turn away desperate families seeking safe haven from war and violence. These refugees already have gone through extensive, often years-long approval processes, yet these families risk being sent back to refugee camps.
The AFT is distributing information and resources on these executive orders and offering some legal advice for foreign nationals from the affected nations.
The first quote above from Saira Rafiee was provided via an interview with Democracy Now.
This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
Virginia Myers is a writer/editor for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
Missouri’s House of Representatives passed a so-called “right-to-work” law this month, marking the end of a decades-long campaign for the adoption of the anti-union legislation in the state.
The measure had already been passed in Missouri’s Senate and newly-installed Gov. Eric Greitens has pledged to sign the law soon. Once he does, Missouri will become the 28th state to have such a law on the books.
The likelihood the law would be passed after years of lobbying by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry became clear on Election Day, when Greitens defeated a union-friendly Democratic Party candidate for governor. Greitens and his opponent had been vying to replace retiring Gov. Jay Nixon, an eight-year incumbent who had staunchly resisted the advance of right-to-work legislation during his two terms in the state capital.
The Kansas City Starreported a lopsided House vote on Thursday of 100-59 in favor of the legislation. The Senate had passed the same measure 21-12.
The new law follows the pattern of similar legislation passed recently in Kentucky and West Virginia. (A nationwide right-to-work law was also introduced in Congress last week.) It prohibits any requirement that a worker be a union member as a condition of employment, and prevents unions from collecting membership dues from the workers it represents unless the worker specifically authorizes the payment. The effect is to impair the ability of unions to maintain effective recruiting operations and financial management, labor advocates say.
Efforts by the Missouri AFL-CIO to prevent passage of the right-to-work law were a long shot ever since the results of 2016 election became known, says the labor federation’s president, Mike Louis.
“This has been a long fight. We lost the Senate in 2002 and then we lost the House in 2006. But Gov. Nixon always supported us,” he tells In These Times.
Louis adds that that the efforts of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce were given a major boost by wealthy Joplin, Missouri, businessman David Humphreys, who donated generously to promote right-to-work.
“These big corporate types like David Humphreys pay millions to buy these seats,” in the legislature, Louis says.
But Missouri unions are not accepting defeat, and have already developed a counter-campaign to neutralize the law, Louis continues. The AFL-CIO will lead an effort to collect enough signatures to place an initiative on the 2018 state ballot to reverse the right-to-work law, he says.
“Missouri law says we need 250,000 signatures to get our initiative on the ballot. We will absolutely be able to get this number, and I’m convinced we can win an election when the people of Missouri are presented with a plain choice,” Louis says.
In the meantime, individual unions will struggle to convince union members to maintain their membership. Philip Dine, a journalist and author who spent more than two decades as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, says the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters are the two unions that are likely to feel the most immediate impact of the new law.
“UFCW and Teamsters are pretty strong in the St. Louis area. But the grocery store workers in the UFCW are going to come under a lot of pressure. A lot of those jobs don’t pay all that well to start with, so it’s not going to be easy to convince workers that union dues are worth the money,” says Dine, author of the widely-acclaimed State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve our Economy, and Regain Political Influence. Also coming under pressure to quit their unions will be aircraft production workers represented by the International Association of Machinists and assembly line workers represented by the United Auto Workers, Dine says.
“Sure, there will be a touch—absolutely. But I think it is going to be de minimis,” says David Cook, president of 10,000-member UFCW Local 655 in St. Louis. About 85 percent of the local membership is in the retail grocery sector, he says, so “we are going to have to do a better job of communicating union value to our members. This is something we have been doing already, but we’ll need to do more.”
UFCW will throw its full weight behind the AFL-CIO effort to amend the state constitution to protect workers’ union rights, Cook says.
“We’ve been fighting the right-to-work fight here [in Missouri] on an almost daily basis for the last five years. We are already geared up and I think Missouri is ahead of a lot of other states that have thought about an electoral initiative over right-to-work,” he says. “We’ve communicated with voters. We have a head start.”
“Mega-donors like David Humphries have figured out how to buy politicians. But when the issue of better wages and better worker safety are put directly to the voters, we’ll do well,” Cook predicts.
This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on February 6, 2017. 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.
In 2016, the share of workers who were members of a union decreased 0.4 percentage point to 10.7 percent, continuing a downward trend that has occurred since at least the early 1980s, when directly comparable data became available[.]
It’s not just the union membership rate, it’s also the raw numbers:
In addition to a 0.4 percentage-point drop in membership rate, there were also 240,000 less union workers in 2016 than in 2015[.]
And that’s before Donald Trump gets his hands on things. Although plenty of other Republicans and their corporate bosses have been at work on this for years.
This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on January 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.
As we examine the new Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Annual Union Membership Report, it is striking that corporations and their hired politicians have been at the throats of working people for years, attacking our rights to negotiate on the job. And that has left us weaker.
There are millions of working people who want and need a union but who are being prevented from forming one by their employer. And instead of penalizing bad actors, our outdated labor laws have made union avoidance nothing more than the cost of doing business. This must change.
“The truth is, collective action in America is stronger than ever,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “We’ve seen the source of our power in defeating the TPP, even when most people told us we couldn’t. We’ve seen it in successfully raising wages at the state and local levels against great political odds.”
We see this desire for collective action every day from coast to coast, in industries far and wide. Below, we have detailed just a sampling of amazing organizing wins and what happens when people come together to make changes on the job:
In August, members of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA at United Airlines voted to ratify a new contract, which provides immediate economic gains, sets a new industry standard and ensures flight attendants can achieve the benefits of a fully integrated airline. The five-year agreement includes double-digit pay increases, enhances job security provisions, maintains and improves health care, protects retirement and increases flexibility.
Also in Las Vegas, working people at the Boulder Station Hotel & Casino voted “union yes!” “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 who are members of AFSCME saw a net gain of 12,000 new members added to their ranks. AFSCME President Lee Saunders said in a statement:
“AFSCME has made a commitment to getting back to organizing basics, building power at the grassroots level and hearing the unique concerns of every public service worker in one-on-one conversations…. So even in the face of an anti-labor onslaught, despite efforts to manipulate laws against working people, it’s clear that organizing works.”
By a nearly 3-to-1 margin, Columbia graduate student employees voted yes for their union—the UAW—in an NLRB election. Many of the 3,500 student workers who will be represented say they chose the union to bargain on their behalf for better health care, benefits for dependents, payment procedures, housing opportunities and grievance procedures. Students who work as teaching and research assistants won the right to join a union after an August ruling by the National Labor Relations Board. Columbia University is challenging the election results, and critics have called the appeal baseless.
And in the growing digital media field, more than 90% of 70 digital journalists at Fusion Media Group voted to join the Writers Guild of America, East. WGAE also represents several hundred digital journalists at Salon Media, The Huffington Post and ThinkProgress.
“Even though collective action remains strong, we recognize that the labor movement has challenges. The biggest challenges have been put in place by corporations and their hired politicians who have been at the throats of workers for years. The ugly truth is, because of these attacks, we live in a country where working people are constantly denied our right – our constitutional right – to join a union in the first place. With the way the deck is currently stacked, it’s a miracle that brave workers continue to find new ways to organize and that today’s numbers aren’t even worse. But we also recognize our own challenges. We must be a better movement for a changing workforce. We must adapt our structures to fit the needs of today’s workers. We must not be afraid to challenge ourselves to better serve working families. And we know we will succeed because we are committed to doing just that, inspired by the spirit we see in working people every day from coast to coast, in industries far and wide.”
This blog originally appeared at aflcio.org on January 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at AFL-CIO.
In 63 days, organized labor is going to find itself in a new political reality, which it seems totally unprepared for. Donald Trump will be president; the Republicans will control the House and Senate and one of Trump’s first tasks will be to nominate a new Supreme Court justice. Though Trump was tight-lipped about specific policy proposals, his campaign and the current constitution of the Republican party do not bode well for labor.
Trump’s actions will largely fall into one of four categories: judicial, legislative, executive and at the level of federal agencies. Each potential move will take various levels of cooperation from other branches of government and varying amounts of time to complete.
On Day 1 of his new administration, President Trump can simply rescind many of Barack Obama’s executive orders that benefited large groups of workers. Chief among these were EO 13673, which required prospective federal contractors to disclose violations of state and federal labor laws, and helped protect employees of contractors from wage theft and mandatory arbitration of a variety of employment claims. Similarly, EO 13494 made contractor expenses associated with union busting non-allowable, thereby helping to ensure that workers can exercise their labor rights.
At the agency level, Trump will have the opportunity to fill vacancies on the five-person National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), effectively turning what has been one of the most pro-worker boards in recent memory into one that is more concerned with employers’ interests. The NLRB is one of the more politicized federal agencies, and it is not uncommon for a new NLRB to overturn a previous board’s rulings. A conservative board would put into jeopardy recent gains, including the requirement of joint employers to bargain with workers, the rights of graduate students to form unions, the rights of adjuncts at religious colleges to form unions and the protections from class action waivers in employment arbitration agreements, which effectively block access to justice for too many.
Similarly, Trump can immediately dismiss the entire Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP) and appoint his own members. The FSIP is a little-known federal agency that functions like a mini-NLRB to resolve disputes between unionized federal employees and the government.
Donald Trump may be able to not only roll back many of Barack Obama’s accomplishments, but also change the face of labor law for decades to come. (AFL-CIO/ Facebook)
At the legislative level, various anti-worker bills sit ready for a GOP-led push. Perhaps chief among them is the National Right to Work Act, which would place every private sector employee (including airline and railway employees currently under the Railway Labor Act) under right-to-work. Right-to-work is the misleading law that prohibits unions from requiring that workers represented by the union pay their fair share. Such a bill was introduced last year by Sen. Rand Paul, and it had 29 co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump announced on the campaign trail that his “position on right-to-work is 100 percent,” so this will likely be an area where he has common cause with the GOP-controlled Congress.
At the judicial level, there is also a strong possibility that we will see a sequel to the Friedrichs case at the Supreme Court. Friedrichs was widely anticipated to bar fair share fees and place all public sector employees under right-to-work, but ended in a deadlock after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. It is likely that any Supreme Court justice that Trump chooses will be as critical of fair share fees as Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts, and would provide a critical fifth vote in changing long-standing precedent regarding the allowance of such fees. Groups like the National Right to Work Committee and Center for Individual Rights often have cases in the pipeline that could be pushed to the Supreme Court when the opportunity arises.
Similarly, at the judicial level, Trump will likely have his Department of Labor drop appeals to court decisions that enjoined or overturned pro-worker rules, such as the rule requiring union-busters to disclose when they are involved in an organizing campaign. Dropping the appeals would be an easy route to kill the rules, rather than going through a more time consuming rulemaking process to rescind them.
All indications are that labor has been caught unprepared for a President Trump and a GOP-controlled Congress and Supreme Court. With such broad control over every branch of government, Trump may be able to not only roll back many of Obama’s accomplishments, but also change the face of labor law for decades to come.
This post originally appeared on inthesetimes.com on November 17, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
In July 2015, the University of California’s student-workers union, United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865, passed a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to terminate the membership of the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA).
Now, after a series of meetings in Los Angeles throughout October, the same resolution is making its way through Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 721, a local representing public service and nonprofit employees in Southern California. Although SEIU is not part of the AFL-CIO, organizers for the resolution hope it will spark a wider discussion about the role police and their unions play.
The resolution was first approved by the African-American caucus of SEIU 721 on October 6, and later by the local’s Latino caucus on October 19. The endorsements came after collaboration and presentations by Olufemi Taiwo, a UAW 2865 member, and Julia Wallace, a member of SEIU 721.
“When I heard about the UAW’s resolution,” Wallace tells In These Times, “I thought this is great. This is a way for us, as union members to show our support for working-class people, but also to be clear that the police have played a role historically … not just [as] oppressors of Black people, Latino people, LGBT people, disabled people, but also against workers, against working-class people as strike-breakers.”
Wallace says her goal is to get the resolution approved by the executive board of SEIU 721.
“I think the best thing is a politicized, organized and educated workforce,” says Wallace. “That’s the best thing that we could have, because even if it doesn’t get passed through the executive board, then there’s a discussion within our union meetings. ‘Okay, so, what is the role of the police? What are we going to do to organize against them? How are we going to protest?’”
The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray at the hands of police, and the subsequent rise of the movement for Black lives, helped push the Black Interests Coordinating Committee (BICC), a UAW 2865 caucus, to write the original resolution.
The AFL-CIO did not officially comment on the resolution, but Carmen Berkley, the federation’s director of civil, human and women’s rights, told Buzzfeed’s Cora Lewis in January:
“We are not in the business of kicking people out of unions … What we are in the business of is having conversations with our law enforcement brothers and sisters about how they can have different practices … I do think there’s a lot of reconciliation that needs to happen between communities of color and law enforcement, and we want to be the bridge that helps them get there.”
When asked about Berkley’s remarks, Taiwo tells In These Times, “She’s posing the issue as if what it is—is there’s individual victims of police violence and individual perpetrators of police that need to sit down and have a mediation.”
“If what they’re for is protecting the ruling class, then it’s not an issue of mediation. It’s not an issue of reconciling individual differences or healing individual acts of violence,” Taiwo says. “It’s an issue of reconciling our union structures with what we’re trying to fight for as unions.”
Wallace says that as long as police side with “bosses” on the picket line and police unions “unequivocally [defend] the police murdering people” then they should not be members of labor organizations.
“They can defend themselves just fine. Their pensions aren’t challenged, their healthcare benefits aren’t cut, their raises continue to happen and ours are always on the chopping block,” Wallace says. “Ours are always in question and there’s a reason for that. It’s because they defend the wealthy.”
The IUPA responded to UAW 2865 shortly after the resolution passed, with IUPA legislative director Dennis Slocumb telling Workers Independent News: “It’s impossible to stand for the rights of working-class people while opposing the people in law enforcement. We are working class. And we think this is nothing but a publicity stunt for a group that’s struggling for some sort of attention.”
Slocumb noted that the resolution did not explicitly call out any other labor groups that represent and bargain for police.
“They don’t call on their own union to disgorge police officers. They haven’t called on AFSCME, or CWA or any of the other organizations that represent police officers within the AFL-CIO. The Teamsters and SEIU, who are outside of the AFL-CIO but certainly labor organizations, also represent police officers,” he said.
Moving forward, Wallace says she hopes to get other unions to endorse the resolution, while also organizing a project to build a general strike against police violence.
“People are talking about this and it’s just the beginning,” she says.
This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on November 3, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Mario Vasquez is a writer from southern California. He is a regular contributor to Working In These Times. Follow him on Twitter @mario_vsqz or email him email@example.com.
On Monday, transit workers in TWU Local 234 reached a tentative agreement with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and ended a weeklong transit strike in Philadelphia. Nearly 5,000 employees are returning to work, and the deal now goes to the local’s membership for a vote, which is set for Nov. 18.
Willie Brown, president of Transport Workers (TWU) Local 234, lauded the agreement:
“This is a contract with many important gains, especially on pension benefits and a host of non-economic issues effecting the working conditions and job security of our members. As everyone with experience in collective bargaining knows, we didn’t get everything we wanted—but we came a long way from where we were prior to the strike. We made gains in pensions and wages and minimized out-of-pocket health care expenses at a time when health care costs are soaring, while maintaining excellent medical coverage for our members and their families.
“We worked day and night at the bargaining table in an attempt to finalize a new contract over the past week. We settled just hours before facing the possibility of a back-to-work court-ordered injunction. We ultimately prevailed because our members were determined and united from beginning to end. We also benefited from the assistance of city leaders such as Congressman Bob Brady and Democratic congressional candidate Dwight Evans, who worked to help us settle this dispute with a SEPTA Board controlled by Republicans.
“Our members will keep Philadelphia moving, and we will continue to fight for our members’ economic well-being and their rights on the job.”
Said TWU President Harry Lombardo:
“TWU’s members in Philadelphia are some of the hardest working people on the job. We’re pleased they’ll have a contract that recognizes that.”
Details of the agreement will be made public after the vote.
This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on November 7, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Kenneth Quinnell: I am a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, I 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. My writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere. I am the proud father of three future progressive activists, an accomplished rapper and karaoke enthusiast.
Last year, at age 17, Eli Fishel moved out of her parents’ house in Vancouver, Washington, squeezing into a three-bedroom apartment with five other roommates. To pay her bills as she finished high school, Fishel landed a job at Burgerville, a fast-food chain with 42 outlets and more than 1,500 employees in the Pacific Northwest.
Founded in 1961, Burgerville has cultivated a loyal following by emphasizing fresh, local food, combined with sustainable business practices like renewable energy and recycling. But Fishel quickly realized she wasn’t part of Burgerville’s commitment to “regional vitality” and “future generations.”
After 16 months on the job, she earns just $9.85 an hour, barely above the Washington State minimum wage. Her hours and shifts fluctuate weekly, with only a few days’ notice, and every month she goes hungry because she runs out of money to buy food.
Speaking of the privately-owned Burgerville, Fishel says, “We’re poor because they’re rich, and they’re rich because we’re poor.”
Disgruntled Burgerville workers began covertly organizing in 2015. The Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU) went public on April 26 with a march of more than 100 people through Portland, Oregon, and the delivery of a letter to the corporate headquarters in Vancouver. BVWU demands include a $5-an-hour raise for all hourly workers, recognition of a workers organization, affordable, quality healthcare, a safe and healthy workplace, and fair and consistent scheduling with ample notice.
Some BVWU members call their effort “Fight for $15, 2.0,” playing off the name of the fast-food worker campaign launched in 2011 by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
SEIU has won plaudits for making the plight of low-wage workers a national issue and igniting the movement for new laws boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour. But the campaign has not, thus far, included efforts to unionize individual workplaces.
Unlike Fight for $15, which Middlebury College sociology professor and labor expert Jamie McCallum describes as “a fairly top-down campaign,” BVWU is a worker-initiated and -led project backed by numerous labor organizations. The group of Burgerville workers who came up with the idea includes members of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a militant union with West Coast roots that date back to the early 1900s. The campaign has the backing of the Portland chapter of IWW and the support SEIU Local 49, the Portland Association of Teachers, and Jobs with Justice.
This scrappy approach enabled BVWU to leapfrog Fight for $15 by declaring a union from the start. While BVWU has not yet formally petitioned for recognition and Burgerville has not chosen to voluntarily negotiate with it, the union has established worker committees in five stores, is developing units in a similar number of shops and counts scores of workers as members.
BVWU is full of lessons in how organizing works. One member likens the campaign to “low-level guerrilla warfare” with workers maneuvering to increase their ranks, build power on the shop floor, expand the terrain from shop to shop, while skirmishing with managers over the work process, and suffering casualties as some members have quit or say they were pushed out of their jobs at Burgerville. In the workplace, the strategy is to develop leaders, form committees for each store, and nurture trust and respect between workers. Outside, BVWU uses direct action to empower workers and bring suppliers into the conversation. The union also works to build community support by mobilizing social-justice groups, clergy, and organized labor to win over the public and pressure the company.
McCallum says that BVWU an example of social movement unionism. “It’s about organizing as a class against another class,” he says. “It’s to win demands not just against a single boss or to change a law, but to engage in class struggle.”
Burgerville Workers Union members and supporters rally in Portland, Ore. Photo courtesy of the BVWU
Beyond the Fight for $15
McCallum also sees the campaign as an attempt to build on Fight for $15. “For the first time since the Justice for Janitors campaign began 30 years ago, we have low-wage workers who are people of color working with traditional unions to change politics,” he says. “If the IWW is interested in pushing that agenda forward to make it more democratic and radical, that’s awesome.”
Fight for $15 is “one of the most successful and inspiring labor victories in the last 20 years,” says McCallum. “They’ve accomplished things, like doubling the minimum wage, thought impossible three years ago. They managed to raise the profile of low-wage workers in a failing economy.” He acknowledges, however, that Fight for $15 is “largely political organizing.”
“It doesn’t require a mass base. It requires mobilized workers with incredibly talented organizers to move sympathetic politicians in a defined geographic area,” McCallum says.
To that end, Fight for $15 devotes considerable money and effort to media. A Fight for $15 strategy document called “Strike in a Box” lists these criteria for a “good [organizing] site to focus on”: “Is it an iconic brand? Does the brand help tell a story, locally and/or nationally? Do we have spokespeople? Trained? Reliable? Experienced? Do we have stories? Compelling worker stories, Horror stories about site practices (wage theft, sexual harassment, etc).”
By contrast, Burgerville worker Flanagan says BVWU uses media primarily as a tool to foster the growth of the union along with worker solidarity and consciousness. She says media helps “connect the dots between our personal struggles and collective struggle.” She adds that explaining what unions do and how they organize helps to educate “my generation, which has very little understanding of unions.”
Indeed, although the Fight for $15 demands “$15 and a union,” SEIU has made a strategic decision not to attempt to organize the nation’s tens of thousands of fast-food restaurants shop by shop. “The NLRB has old rules for small shops,” Kendall Fells, Fight for $15’s organizing director, told Working in These Times in May. “This movement is too large to be put in that process.”
Adriana Alvarez, a Chicago McDonald’s worker, says that while Fight for $15 may not be a formal union, “We’re acting like a union, not waiting for anyone to tell us we can have one.”
“To me a union is workers joining together to accomplish things we wouldn’t be able to achieve on our own,” Alvarez says. “And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing—coming together and winning life-changing raises for 20 million Americans, including more than 10 million who are on the way to $15. By standing together, we’ve gone from powerless to having powerful voices in our stores.”
If SEIU can prove that McDonald’s calls the shots in its franchises, it could also push open the door to unionizing the whole company at once instead of the Sisyphean task of one franchise at a time. Deploying organizers, researchers and lawyers, SEIU has gathered evidence for 181 cases alleging that McDonald’s controls its franchisees’ employment practices and therefore should be held accountable for unfair labor practices in franchisees, including retaliation against workers who supported unionization. In 2014, the NLRB issued a preliminary finding in favor of SEIU’s case and, then the next year in a separate case involving Browning Ferris Industries of California the labor board revised the definition of joint employer to “consider whether an employer has exercised control over terms and conditions of employment through an intermediary.” Years later, the McDonald’s case is still grinding its way through a judicial process, with a multi-city case being argued before an administrative law judge that was kicked back to the NLRB on October 12. If the board finds or any of the court cases, which includes multiple class-action suits SEIU has backed against McDonald’s for wage theft, determine that McDonald’s is a joint employer with its franchisees, that may finally open the door to a company-wide union drive.
“It’s a huge amount of work”
The Burgerville campaign’s strategy of painstakingly organizing shop by shop emphasizes “building worker power,” which is both “a means and a goal,” says Flanagan.
For BVWU, the initial organizing drive was relatively easy, with workers chafing at difficult working conditions and poverty-level wages.
Debby Olson, 49, a military veteran, has worked at Burgerville since her home-cleaning business tanked during the Great Recession. She says the “people are nice, but the pay is horrible.” After six years, she makes $10.75 an hour.
Olson, says the job is “harder than my house-cleaning business. You are literally moving all day. For hours you don’t get to breathe. When I get home, I’m mentally and physically exhausted.”
Five other Burgerville workers also described the pace as non-stop. Olson reduced her full-time schedule to three days a week because, as she says, “I could barely walk when I got off work and my quality of life was really poor. It’s scary that my feet were getting so damaged that it could affect my ability to get another job or enjoy my later years.”
Burgerville’s lure is gourmet-style food, sourced locally from “988 farms, ranches, and artisans,” which requires labor-intensive preparation. Luis Brennan, 27, a two-year Burgerville employee, says, “The job is really hard. We actually cook the food. We core strawberries, we hand-blend milkshakes. We cook the meat and eggs fresh, we cut the onion rings and batter them twice. It’s a huge amount of work.”
The Burgerville campaign builds on the IWW’s experience over the last decade in fast-food organizing at Jimmy John’s and Starbucks. Picking a regional chain works to the benefit of the union as it can exert more pressure because Burgerville doesn’t have the might of a global food giant and its carefully crafted image is ripe for attack.
The public may eat up buzzwords like local, fresh and sustainable, but Burgerville’s rhetoric sticks in workers’ throats. Fishel says that despite a 70 percent discount for food on shift, she still sometimes can’t afford it.
“If your workers are going without food, how can you say you are a better, more sustainable option for your community?” she asks.
“This is my community”
Building a workplace organization has been a transformative experience for workers. Fishel says, “Being in the union has been very uplifting, inspiring, and super-positive to come together with so many people. We deserve a living wage, to be treated with respect and to have more than what we have right now.”
Claire Flanagan, 26, who’s worked at the chain since June 2015, says, “The union has changed people’s relationship with the job and work. It’s gone from being a place I go to work to pay my bills to feeling invested in our coworkers and the job in a much deeper way. This is my community.”
Burgerville is hardly rolling over, however. Flanagan says, “The company has dug in their heels and refuses whatever we ask for.” She alleges in her store, “Managers spread anti-union rumors and encourage workers to talk shit about the union as a way to gain favoritism. The company is engaged in a misinformation campaign and spreading fear.”
But BVWU members keep the heat on whether by wearing a union button on the job or tussling over floor mats. Members are demanding mats to ease the stress of standing for hours. Management relented in a few stores, but the mats have emerged as a proxy war. Flanagan says despite having mats, managers will put them away and she will bring them back out.
Jordan Vaandering, 26, says of workers at his outlet, where he’s been for a year, “We own the culture whereas before it was management pushing people to meet speed of service times, meet sales goals.”
Building worker power
BVWU’s strategy is known as “minority unionism” because BVWU may not have a majority in each shop willing to declare support for a union. This sort of organizing circumvents a federal labor-law process that makes union elections difficult, time-consuming and expensive. But BVWU utilizes the NLRB process when it is to its advantage, such as by filing unfair labor practice charges that allege Burgerville is illegally retaliating against the union and workers.
Burgerville worker Brennan says BVWU relies on the IWW model: “It teaches, ‘You’re a worker who hates your job, here’s how to build a committee.’ ” Each organized store began with a committee and grew from there.
One useful question, says Brennan, is asking workers, “What could you do with $5 an hour more?” He says talking to coworkers about “what they need changed and why they need it changed helps to break down the walls of silence around hard stuff in our lives.”
Brennan explains, “Building relationships in the workplace is not natural, but it’s deeply human. The workplace is full of power relationships and incredibly constrained by the boss, by pay, by gender, by race, by language. You need to get to know someone to know whether or not they will fight and why they’ll fight.”
These relationships come into play when management goes after workers. One notable case involves Ivy Fleak, a member whom BVWU claims was targeted by management “for standing up on the job and standing up against sexual harassment.” Flanagan says, “They took Ivy off the schedule for two weeks. We organized actions and a vigil. She spoke out publicly and won, receiving back pay for when she was off-schedule.”
Flanagan says, “People related to Ivy’s story,” which boosted support for the union. “At another job they saw someone being targeted or fired for standing up, or that happened to them. Being part of the union means when I’m at work, I know people have my back.”
BVWU claims Fleak was later forced to quit under pressure after the company allegedly threatened to file spurious criminal charges against her for gift-card theft. Burgerville declined to comment on her case, saying,“Burgerville is dedicated to continuously enhancing our relationship with our employees. We do not comment on individual employee matters or internal communications.” The company also opted not to comment on the BVWU campaign or on complaints about wages and working conditions.
In the case of another BVWU supporter fired over a workplace accident, the union organized a delegation of 50 people to the corporate headquarters asking for the worker’s job back and conducted a food drive for the worker. It publicized the firing to make the case that Burgerville pushes workers“past their limits” and demanded a transparent disciplinary process. More than half the workers in that outlet also signed a petition asking for the worker to be rehired. The worker remains fired.
BVWU members view the firings as part of a wider anti-union campaign. The company has set up a website to “inform” workers of their rights, but which discourages them from unionizing. Store managers have also been holding anti-union sessions with workers, where they play a video featuring Burgerville CEO Jeff Harvey. In the video, Harvey states, “I don’t think a union is in the best interest of the company, our employees, our suppliers, or our guests.” He admits, “Burgerville understands employees face certain challenges like transportation, food, and housing to name just a few.” Harvey then claims, “We have spent well over a year looking into the pressing issues that concern you [but] can’t act” as “under current labor laws, we are obligated to maintain the status quo.”
Flanagan claims when Burgerville says it has to “maintain the status quo,” what it’s really saying to workers is, “If you didn’t get a raise, blame the union.” On August 15, Burgerville Workers Union filed four charges of unfair labor practices with the NLRB, including one concerning the anti-union video. Labor law is fuzzy on the issue. Companies are prohibited from increasing benefits during a traditional union election campaign, but as a minority union, BVWU is acting outside of this framework as a minority union.
BVWU has also taken the offensive by hitting at the company’s public image. The worker-organizers have kept up a brisk pace for five months, averaging an action a week such as vigils, marches, pickets and a bicycle ride. When BVWU members visited Liepold Farms near Portland, which supplies Burgerville with berries for its signature shakes, to ask for support, the farm owner was taken aback but accepted their letter. Shortly after BVWU was unveiled, dozens of workers, local labor leaders, activists, and clergy packed the corporate headquarters in support.
Knowing they have the backing of the community bolsters the confidence of workers on the shop floor. Flanagan says the current plan is to “build organizational capacity and infrastructure to pull off larger actions.”
Time may be on the side of BVWU. The more shops the union can organize, the more workers who join, and the more community support it builds, the likelier it is BVWU will force Burgerville to the bargaining table, with or without a majority union. Then the Burgerville Workers Union may be the one opening new outlets.
To find out more about the Burgerville Workers Union, go to burgervilleworkersunion.org.
This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on October 25, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Arun Gupta is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York and has written for dozens of publications including the Washington Post, the Nation, The Progressive, Telesur English, and the Guardian. He is the author of the upcoming Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste (The New Press).
After going without a contract for more than a year, and with their administration withdrawing from negotiation, faculty at Pennsylvania state colleges and universities (but not including Pennsylvania State University, confusingly enough) went on strike Wednesday. The administration is running the usual “oh, those greedy workers” playbook because the faculty don’t want to make concessions on healthcare expenses that other workers have been pressured into.
Union President Ken Mash stood outside the chancellor’s office building Thursday afternoon in Harrisburg to push for a resumption of contract talks.
“If they want to come out and right now and negotiate, we’re willing to go ahead and do that,” Mash said. “But, I don’t want to be totally unfair either, because they do have my cellphone number, so if they want to call later on and say that they’re ready to negotiate, we’re ready to do that too.”
This might have a little something to do with the faculty’s grievances:
State funding for the system, at $444 million this year, is about the same as it was 17 years ago, even as full-time enrollment has risen more than 10 percent.
The union also balks at having to take on other duties without compensation, including a 67 percent increase in the supervision of interns who go into the business world. The increase would raise the annual allotment of interns to 120. The union also balks at cuts to competitive grants for research and professional development. Another issue is the state system’s plan to put part-time adjunct professors on a lower pay scale for the first time. And it objects to changes in the promotion, tenure and grievance rules.
This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on October 22, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.
In 2011, President Obama, speaking in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, called inequality the “defining issue of our time.” Now Jason Furman, chair of the Council on Economic Advisors, argues that Obama “narrowed the inequality gap” more than any president in 50 years. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office echoes the observation that income inequality after taxes is no higher than it was in 2000, and that Obama’s policies have done more to reduce inequality than any other policies on record.
Don’t take down the barricades. Inequality remains extreme and continues to widen. And the populist uprisings that have roiled American politics have clear opportunities to tackle the core problem after the election.
As James Kwak at Baseline Scenario notes, the council’s report measures Obama’s reductions against what inequality would have been if George Bush’s policies had been sustained through the Great Recession. The progress comes largely from progressive tax changes. Obama raised taxes marginally on the very wealthy (allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for very rich, particularly the 15 percent tax on capital gains, and taxing investment income under Medicare to help pay for health care reform) and increased tax subsidies to low-wage workers (expanded child tax and expanded earned-income tax credits.) These advances, while praiseworthy, don’t come close to reversing the regressive tax polices of the past decades.
As Emmanuel Saez has shown, the richest 1 percent continue to pocket the bulk of the rewards of growth. The income share of the top 1 percent before taxes fluctuates with the business cycle, but it has been rising over time. Despite recent increases, household income for the vast majority of the population has still not recovered from the Great Recession. These rewards largely reflect the underlying economic structures that determine what Jacob Hacker has dubbed predistribution (the pretax distribution of income): globalization, bargaining power of labor, executive pay structures, demand for skills, etc. As Kwak concludes, “It’s hard to point to anything [Obama] did that affected the underlying economic factors producing the increase in inequality.”
This elevates the importance of fierce political battles that will occur after the November elections. First, President Obama plans to join with the business lobby to push the Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty through the lame-duck session of Congress. The TPP is another in the corporate trade and investment deals that have proved so devastating to American workers. Even trade-accord advocates now admit that our globalization strategy has contributed directly to growing inequality, putting American workers in competition with low-wage and repressed labor abroad, with no sensible industrial or comprehensive strategy for impacted communities and workers.
The mobilization against the TPP will engage the populist energies in both parties. Sanders’s new organization Our Revolution will join with labor and the bulk of the activist Democratic base to drive an intense opposition that will make the Tea Party look like, well, a tea party. If the TPP is defeated, the next administration will be forced to rethink America’s globalization strategies, moving toward more balanced trade, ending the special privatized investor arbitration system, and focusing attention on the tax traps and dodges that allow global corporations to evade hundreds of billions in taxes. Even if the TPP passes, the fury of the opposition could force an understanding that the old game is over.
Similarly, efforts to lift the floor under workers already in motion should gain new energy. The Republican House leadership won’t even allow a vote on hiking the minimum wage, but Fight for $15 and other movements are winning wage hikes in cities and states across the country. Measures to guarantee paid sick and vacation days and to crack down on wage theft and demand equal pay for women are beginning to move. These efforts—particularly at a time of relatively low unemployment—can help workers gain a greater share of the profits they help to produce.
Obama recently admitted that stronger unions are vital to redressing inequality. Yet he abandoned campaign promises to make labor-law reform a priority early in his administration and has refused to issue an executive order giving union employers priority in government contracting. Union support was central to Clinton’s victory in the primaries. When she takes office in January, activists should join with federal contract employees to demand issuance of a Good Jobs executive order that would encourage firms with federal contracts to respect labor rights. And Democrats at every level of executive office should be pushed to put government on the side of workers.
Finally, populist energy should be directed at curbing obscene CEO pay packages. Academics have exposed the fraudulence of “performance pay” bonuses. Investors bemoan the perverse corporate policies generated by executive efforts to drive up the value of their bonuses. Yet boardrooms haven’t got the message. It is time to turn up the heat. For example, executive compensation rules to discourage Wall Street risk-taking were supposed to have been written nearly five years ago. They haven’t been, and progressives in Congress led by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders should expose this outrage. Unions, public pension funds, and university endowments should use their votes to challenge excessive CEO compensation packages. Sanders’s Our Revolution might join with other progressive groups in challenging the worst abusers at their annual shareholders meetings.
Inequality remains a defining issue of our time. The advances made under Obama deserve applause, but the real work remains to be done. This presidential season has exposed the growing revolt against business as usual. Now activists must seize the opportunity to build on the energy after November.
This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on October 13, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Robert L. Borosage is the founder and president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America’s Future. The organizations were launched by 100 prominent Americans to develop the policies, message and issue campaigns to help forge an enduring majority for progressive change in America. Mr. Borosage writes widely on political, economic and national security issues. He is a Contributing Editor at The Nation magazine, and a regular blogger at The Huffington Post. His articles have appeared in The American Prospect, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He edits the Campaign’s Making Sense issues guides, and is co-editor of Taking Back America (with Katrina Vanden Heuvel) and The Next Agenda (with Roger Hickey).