Posts Tagged ‘unions’
Monday, August 15th, 2016
The start to this weekend’s Fight for $15 convention didn’t go as planned.
As roughly 10,000 conference goers gathered in Richmond, Va., to talk about unions and low-wage work, organizers behind the nationwide campaign demanded a union of their own.
On Friday, Jodi Lynn Fennell, a child care worker organizer from Las Vegas, attempted to deliver a letter from a Fight for $15 organizers asking the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to acknowledge it was their employer and to give them the right to organize.
A small group of supporters accompanied Fennell as she approached the stage where SEIU President Mary Kay Henry was scheduled to deliver the keynote address. But security guards stopped them from delivering the letter and escorted them away from the stage. Later, according to the Union of Union Representatives (UUR), a supervisor told Fennell and four other organizers they had to fly back to Las Vegas early Saturday morning, at their own expense.
Roughly 75 SEIU organizers and other field staff outside of the union’s national headquarters belong to the UUR. But Fennell and UUR Vice President Nicholas Calderon say that SEIU has told the roughly 100 other Fight for $15 field organizers who might be eligible to join the staff union that it doesn’t employ them.
At first, Calderon says, SEIU maintained their employer was the payroll processing firm that handles their paychecks. Now, he says, the international insists they’re employed by the individual organizing committees that direct each city’s Fight for $15 campaign.
According to Calderon, nearly 99 percent of funding for Fight for $15 organizers, as well as vehicles and supplies, comes from SEIU.
SEIU did not respond by deadline to In These Times’ request for comment.
“As we have said from the beginning, we are strong believers in the Fight for $15 campaign organizers and workers planned yesterday’s action to try to minimize disruption while still having visibility,” Conor Hanlon, UUR president, wrote in a statement to In These Times on Saturday. “We have no interest in stopping the crucial work going on there but do think it important that workers and community allies are aware of how SEIU is treating the Fight for $15.”
“We are disappointed that SEIU chose to escalate and create divisions between workers and organizers rather than act on our shared principles and beliefs about the fair treatment workers deserve,” he continued. “Nonetheless, the Fight for $15 workers will not be silenced and UUR will continue to fight with them until they are recognized as SEIU employees and getting the treatment they deserve.”
Fight for $15 organizers have a long list of grievances against SEIU. They are worried about the instability of their jobs and a tendency of the union to ramp up staff for one campaign, then shift only some of the staff to the next project. Others argue that because of the long hours, their relatively modest salaries do not amount to $15 an hour by the time their pay is divided by work hours, often much more than 40 hours a week.
But the biggest grievance organizers express is that SEIU pays them to advocate for the right of every worker to join a union but denies that same right to its own organizers. Ultimately, some workers say, SEIU’s position may undermine public support and open up lines for employer attacks.
Hypocrisy scars an organization, says Fennell, and could weaken the union in its important fight.
“We don’t have the right to join a union that we’re fighting for other workers to have,” she told In These Times. “When we’re fighting for everyone to have $15 an hour, we should have it ourselves.”
The initial organizing of Fight for $15 focused on fast-food workers in New York but quickly spread to other occupations and across the country. It includes workers in child care and elder care, early childhood education, university research and teaching, manufacturing, fashion and other building services, many of whom may move frequently from low-wage job to low-wage job over their lives.
The campaign, almost entirely funded by SEIU, can claim credit for raising pay for about 17 million of the roughly 64 million workers less than $15 an hour, with 10 million on the path to $15.
Its progress has come mainly from winning stronger state and local laws—not from any dramatic uptick in low-wage workers forming unions. That is true even in the low-wage industries that, unlike fast food, were already often organized to varying degrees by SEIU and others.
Although the strategy for establishing unions is unclear, Fight for $15 appears committed to expanding the range of workers that SEIU is able to mobilize for direct action. Tactics include strikes at fast food outlets and legislative campaigns for higher minimum wages, whether across the board or piecemeal.
For the past couple of years, the campaign’s emphasis on politics has increased, as illustrated by the choice of Richmond, Virginia, for this weekend’s meeting—billed as the organization’s first convention.
The decision to meet in the capital of the Confederacy also reflected an intensification of efforts to link the problems of America’s low-wage economy to continued structural racism with its roots in slavery. Fight for $15 must fight for both racial and economic injustice, SEIU president Mary Kay Henry told the opening session of the meeting.
“You can’t have one without the other,” she said.
Likewise, you can’t advocate effectively for unions, some Fight for 15 organizers say, without having the right to join one yourself.
It is true that over the labor movement’s long history, many unions have fought with their staff over whether staff could or should organize.
But a movement like the Fight for $15, which is founded on the right of every worker to join a union, is more likely to win broad support if it follows the old adage: Practice what you preach.
At a time when the labor movement is especially vulnerable, unions need to avoid any grounds that could cost them public support—especially in a campaign as promising and crucial as the Fight for $15.
Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016
I recently attended a memorial service for James Haughton, an alumnus of the City University of New York (CUNY). As founder of a group called Harlem Fight Back, Haughton was a central figure in the fight against racist hiring in the construction industry. One of the eulogists spoke about the first time he joined a Harlem Fight Back “shaping” crew, walking onto a job site to demand work for people of color from the community. The contractor claimed not to be hiring and quickly offered the delegation a payoff of $35,000, in cash, to go away. Shaken, crew members went asking for guidance from Haughton, who said simply, “Don’t. Take. The Money.”
The 27,000 members of CUNY’s faculty and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), should consider Haughton’s advice before voting to ratify our first contract in years. (Voting opened last month and is set to end Wednesday.)
We have been working under an expired contract, even as management hiked tuition in five of the last six years. Between 2009—2014, the cost of living in New York City rose 23 percent. As part of this year’s contract campaign, the PSC lobbied and organized protests and civil disobedience, coordinating with students and community groups. An escalation of public actions culminated in a strike authorization vote in May.
Weeks later, the PSC bargaining team accepted a contract offer from management, with retroactive raises adding up to a little more than 10 percent and a tray of one-time “signing bonuses.”
When the agents of the ruling class smile and offer you “X” amount of cash and promises, it’s easy to believe that this is a sign that you’ve won. It’s not. I’ll tell you what it is a sign of though. It’s a sign of how much they want you to go away. It’s a sign of how much they stand to rake in, monetarily, from their ability to make you go away. I guarantee they want nothing more than for us to take the money.
The union bargaining team says they fought hard, and that this contract is the best they could do. Like many of my brothers and sisters, I take their word at face value, without second-guessing. But do you want to know what else I take at face value? The “yes” vote to authorize a strike.
The vote happened despite the Taylor Law, which covers municipal workers and would criminalize us the moment an actual strike began. Every union member would be docked two days of pay for every day or part thereof that he or she takes part in a collective job action, with union leaders imprisoned and the union itself losing its right to collect “fair share” fees. In the face of this law, 92 percent of voting PSC members still opted to authorize a strike.
Given that law, not to mention the two-tiered system of our full-time and adjunct members, the vote was a remarkable statement of courage and unity. It was also a measure of the immense anger at management, some of which could redirect to the union if we are perceived as too eager to settle.
Am I saying I want to go on strike? Not exactly. But the other side wants that to happen less than we do. Much less.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo cashed a campaign donation from libertarians Charles and David Koch. Given the Kochs’ neoliberal, technocratic, pro-privatization agenda, CUNY workers must not ignore the implications of the state’s attack on public higher education. But neither should we underestimate the power we have built to fight back.
It’s the right time for the national labor movement to try a new thing (or ten!) and a strike by us would inspire others. Think of the Chicago Teachers Union, which went on a one-day strike on April 1; the Verizon workers, who faced down a telecommunications giant; the Transport Workers Union, which a decade after taking on the Taylor Law, stood up and endorsed Bernie Sanders on the eve of the big New York primary. For that matter, think of the PSC who pulled off a 92 percent “yes” vote on strike authorization.
We’ve had other victories too. In the last two years of our contract campaign, the state and the university administration have threatened to cut $485 million from our budget, merge us with the State University of New York, raise tuition again and limit peaceful protests by students and staff alike. At the LaGuardia campus where I work, the administration even tried to intimidate students for uniting with faculty. Every single one of these threats was withdrawn in the face of our organizing.
At a meeting with PSC delegates, our president Barbara Bowen assured us that although she recommended passage, if members voted the contract down, she was ready to work on an alternative. I have no doubt that Bowen and the leadership would answer such a call. Despite our flaws and contradictions, there is no other municipal union in NYC I trust more to be able to mount a serious challenge to the Taylor Law by organizing an effective strike.
Do Cuomo and CUNY Chancellor James Milliken really care if we strike? Of course they do! Can we really get more? Of course we can, people!
The trouble is that time is not on our side. Every moment that our 92 percent vote is not being turned into actual strike preparation, the power and solidarity we have built fades. Like bright Arctic ice melting to dark water that absorbs more sunlight instead of reflecting it, when power and solidarity melt away, cynicism floods in.
After seven years without contractual raises, many hope to ratify this contract and resume the larger struggle another day in another way. Others point out that the settlement’s uniform, across-the-board raises would widen the pay gap between full-time and adjunct faculty, enabling the administration to further expand the pool of vulnerable cheap labor on which the exploitation of all workers and the erosion of academic freedom depend. A settlement would also cut short one of the most militant contract campaign our union has ever waged, leaving students isolated and more vulnerable to another tuition hike.
On March 24, I joined a group of CUNY students and staff at the governor’s office. Demanding a fair contract for the PSC, we lay down on the sidewalk and were promptly arrested. Sitting in jail, I was haunted by the story of CUNY student Kalief Browder, who waited on Rikers Island for three years with no trial and later took his own life. Like he was, my students are being charged some five times the tuition I paid at Queens College in 1989. Like he did, they sit in overcrowded classrooms, with overworked faculty and staff. If we vote this contract down, and prepare to strike in the fall, CUNY will think twice before trying to raise tuition again. So, why take the money and run now?
Let’s keep standing by our students and keep fighting for a contract that, like this university itself, is a product of a historic and unfinished struggle. By voting no on this contract ratification, let’s begin to honor our 92 percent vote of “yes.”
This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on August 2, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Sigmund Shen is an alumnus of Queens College, associate professor of English at LaGuardia Community College and current chair of the LaGuardia chapter of the Professional Staff Congress.
Monday, August 1st, 2016
The Department of Labor [last] week confirmed persistent charges of labor abuses at the U.S. Senate dining room on Capitol Hill, ruling that workers there are owed more than a $1 million in back wages.
An investigation found that 674 workers are owed back wages of $1,008,302, and that the employers—food service contractor Restaurant Associates and labor subcontractor Personnel Plus—violated the Service Contract Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
“Workers in the restaurant industry are among the lowest paid workers in our economy. Most struggle to afford life’s basic expenses and pay their bills: they shouldn’t have to deal with paychecks that don’t accurately reflect the hard work and the wages to which they are legally entitled,” says David Weil, administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division.
The ruling is a victory for a union organizing campaign taking place among the cooks, waiters and other food service workers. They are seeking a minimum wage of $15 an hour and representation by the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ.
In the campaign assisted by union advocacy group Good Jobs Nation, the workers have been charging Restaurant Associates with an array of labor abuses, including job misclassification, failure to pay legally required overtime rates and unfair efforts to block union organizing.
Labor law violations “are happening all the time right under the noses of the lawmakers,” says Good Jobs Nation spokesman Paco Fabian. “If it’s happening here, it’s likely happening at other sites,” where the federal government employs non-union contractors to do food service work and other essential tasks, Fabian says.
Restaurant Associates Senior Vice President Sam Souccar provided the following statement regarding the Labor Department decision:
“Restaurant Associates understands that our Associates are the heart of our business and we value and respect them. We conduct business in a professional, safe, ethical and responsible manner. Since January we have worked diligently with the Department of Labor in regard to our contract … We discovered as a result of the DOL’s review that some of our Associates were not properly classified in appropriate job categories under the Service Contract Act (SCA). The misclassifications were largely attributable to administrative technicalities related to our Associates’ evolving day-to-day work responsibilities, which in some cases crossed multiple job categories. Restaurant Associates has corrected the classifications and is working closely with the DOL to ensure payments are made as soon as possible to all impacted Associates. We are 100 percent committed to ensuring classifications are accurate going forward, and have implemented enhanced monitoring and training at the US Senate and in all accounts where the SCA applies.”
Dione Tellez, 57, a food service worker and cook at Senate dining facilities, tells In These Times that she has been classified as a food service worker even though she often labors as a grill cook, which is a better-paid position. A nine-year veteran on the job, she is earning $14.21 an hour, she says, and lives with her adult son because she cannot afford to rent an apartment in the pricey Washington, D.C., area.
Speaking in Spanish (translated by Fabian), Tellez says, “I want to be paid for the job that I do. It’s about respect. I am entitled to get what I have earned … I am sick and tired of being treated unfairly.”
Restaurant Associates is a subsidiary of U.K.-based multinational Compass Group, which claims to have about 500,000 employees in 50 separate countries. In Washington D.C., the company also has a contract to operate cafeterias and dining facilities at the Smithsonian Institutions, where workers are represented by the UNITE HERE Local 23.
This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on July 28, 2016. 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.
Monday, July 4th, 2016
Union Summer, the cadre of young activists that is training to be the future leaders and union organizers of the labor movement, are hitting the doors hard. After a couple of weeks on the ground, Summeristas have spoken with 300 people one-on-one and engaged 100 of them to commit to forming a union.
Forty students from 25 different colleges and universities are organizing across five major cities in the South, including Atlanta; Anniston, Ala.; Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Jackson, Miss.; and Houston. They are working with AFSCME, IUE-CWA, MASE-CWA, RWDSU, Texas AFT, and UAW.
During their orientation in Jackson, Miss., Summeristas learned how to engage working people on what matters most to them, as well as encourage them to come together to collectively make changes in the workplace.
Michael Gordon says the field training with local working people in hospitality was his favorite part, “I got my first card signed and what really connected me to the worker was when we switched gears from talking about the job to talking about his family.”
This year Union Summer is taking over the South.
As corporations keep coming to the South to exploit cheap labor, Union Summer takes on the South to help build solidarity!
AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, who has been one of the biggest advocates of organizing the South, shared with the interns, “Activism is when we take action of any kind to change a situation that is unjust or unfair… and solidarity is when a whole lot of us take action together. Nothing is more powerful.”
That’s why the Union Summer program is building capacity and leadership by directly recruiting and training young activists from the region, as well as placing them on important strategic campaigns.
While Summeristas learned about how to help build unions of working people and solidarity in the workplace, they also grappled with tragedy and committed to solidarity across borders and across movements.
Union Summer in Solidarity with Orlando
In the first week of Union Summer, 50 lives were tragically cut short in a shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando. Jeremy Wells from Pride at Work took the time to help interns process their emotions.
Wells also noted how three of the most stigmatized groups were intermingled in this terrible tragedy. LGBTQ lives lost during Pride. Latino lives lost amidst racist rhetoric on immigration. Muslim people living in fear of violence as millions fasted around the world for Ramadan.
Annette Hall says she found herself right at home in this diverse cohort of young people with different backgrounds yet with the same passion for activism and championing causes of marginalized groups. “The Orlando nightclub shooting on Latin night struck a chord with all the interns on some level. However, I have never been prouder as a queer woman of color as I stood in solidarity with my fellow interns behind the banner we made for Orlando.”
Eryn Scott had concerns about traveling to a not-so-LGBTQ-friendly Mississippi. “As a queer woman of color who often experiences intersectional oppression, I cannot begin to express how important this safe space is to me. I am grateful to work with so many fiery young minds who truly want to contribute to the movement.”
Megan Jordan was also moved. “I lost a friend [who worked on a military base] to gun violence at the hands of someone found to be mentally ill. It’s important that at Union Summer we are talking about real topics that matter right now. I was also really impacted by Harvest of an Empire on Latin America and how the U.S. government affected labor and deaths, the racism, and the terrible working conditions.”
Gordon agrees, “Now I understand what the phrase means ‘We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.’ It opens your eyes on why unions are important around the world.”
Learn more about Union Summer or like us on Facebook!
This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on June 30, 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.
Monday, June 20th, 2016
A federal appeals court has upheld a National Labor Relations Board move modernizing and streamlining union representation elections. The rule, which business lobby groups like the American Builders and Contractors and the National Federation of Independent Business have tried to brand as “ambush elections,” cuts down the time employers have to fire and intimidate union supporters, and reduces the endless litigation employers would use to prevent workers’ voices from being heard. The case went before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative in the country, but the bosses still didn’t win:
In delivering the opinion of the court, Judge Edith Brown Clement said the “board acted rationally and in furtherance of its congressional mandate in adopting the rule.”
“Here, the board identified evidence that elections were being unnecessarily delayed by litigation and that certain rules had become outdated as a result of changes in technology,” she wrote.
“It conducted an exhaustive and lengthy review of the issues, evidence and testimony, responded to contrary arguments, and offered factual and legal support for its final conclusions.”
A previous lawsuit by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some of its allies had been dismissed. Congressional Republicans also tried to block the rule from going into effect, but President Obama vetoed that attempt.
This blog originally appeared at DailyKos.com on June13, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.
Wednesday, May 18th, 2016
The Verizon strike is still going on, and has passed the one-month mark. This is about working people versus giant corporations that have vast power. The 40,000 striking workers want a few things, but the immensely profitable corporation and its wealthy executives want to crush the union and have been refusing to even negotiate. The workers have been without a contract since August.
This weekend the Secretary of Labor Verizon Thomas Perez met with Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam, Chris Shelton, Communications Workers of America (CWA) president and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Washington. The company agreed to return to the bargaining table but good luck with that. (Verizon just warned Wall Street shareholders that the strike is delaying “cost-cutting efforts.”)
One of the things the workers are asking for is for the company to stop sending workers to jobs sites that are hundreds of miles away from home for months at a time, and just hire a few more people in different locations instead. The company — with billions and billions and billions and billions in profits — and the executives — with millions and millions and millions in compensation — want to save on “costs” (regular working people are “costs”) and insists the employees be disposable cogs that can be maneuvered around the country (bye-bye families) to fit the profit needs of the corporation. They are trying to make workers pay even more for health insurance and accept lower retirement benefits.
Another thing the unions are asking for is for the company to cool off on the outsourcing of thousands and thousands and thousands of call-center jobs to low-wage countries like the Philippines and Mexico.
Meanwhile Verizon’s customers aren’t getting the promised service. But the company doesn’t care. They can just run more ads.
More Than Just Verizon’s Workers
If this sounds like it’s about more than just these workers and this company and its customers, you are starting to get the picture. Nationally the giant corporations have purchased enough of the Congress to block anything that diminishes their power and helps working people or consumers. Nationally the giant corporations have been able to weaken the unions which keeps wages down and working conditions miserable. So without strong government and strong unions regular people have nowhere to turn. THAT is why the Verizon strike is important.
National Day Of Action Thursday
CWA is holding a Verizon “Day of Action” march & rally set Thursday in Washington. They will picket from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the 13 & F street Verizon Wireless store. Then strikers and their supporters will march to Lafayette Park for a rally beginning at 6 p.m.
You can donate to the solidarity fund here. “Donations to the Verizon Striking Families Solidarity Fund will be used exclusively to assist striking families with special needs who are facing very difficult financial circumstances.”
Visit the Stand Up To Verizon website to find local Day of Action events near you.
This blog originally appeared at Ourfuture.org on May 17, 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.
Tuesday, May 17th, 2016
The cafeteria workers at “The Most Magical Place on Earth” are trying to organize a union. About three-quarters of the cafeteria workers at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, have signed cards indicating that they want the union UNITE HERE to represent them.
Disney World, the largest single-site employer in the United States, has over 74,000 workers, the majority of them unionized. This makes Disney one of the biggest unionized labor presences in the entire state of Florida. UNITE HERE already represents 23,000 of the park’s employees, but Disney outsources its cafeteria work to the French company Sodexo, which means that the 350 people who make up the cafeteria staff lack the same union representation as the other park workers.
Sodexo is no stranger to labor disputes. They have been the target of at least nine university boycotts in recent years, with students protesting their low-pay and substandard working conditions. In 2009, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began a nationwide campaign against Sodexo to improve its employees’ wages and working conditions. Sodexo sued the SEIU in 2011, claiming that the union used illegal tactics in their effort. The SEIU ended their campaign and the charges were dropped, but concerns about Sodexo’s labor practices continue to follow the company. At Disney, the questionable conditions are highlighted by the fact that most of the surrounding park employees are unionized.
“Most workers at the park are unionized and they’re being served [food] by an outsourced company that isn’t,” Eric Clinton, president of Unite Here Local 362 and a former park employee, tells In These Times. “We don’t think it’s fair for an entire group of people to be without a voice at work.”
The Sodexo workers’ lack of representation regularly allows them to be taken advantage of, as workers point to erratic scheduling, short-notice relocation, and retaliatory action if they complain about their situation.
Sodexo could recognize the union through a “card check” process, which unions claim is a fairer method for workers than a traditional National Labor Relations Board election because of the opportunity for employer interference, but has yet to do so. Clinton made it clear to In These Times that the union wasn’t thinking about an NLRB election at the moment. Card check is regularly criticized by pro-business groups for depriving workers of their right to a secret ballot. Some believe that such a process allows the union to pressure employees into backing unionization against its own will. But UNITE HERE believes that an election would expose workers to pressure from Sodexo.
“I talk to people who deal with last-minute schedule changes, switched shifts. I know workers who are living in their cars,” Sammy Torres, a chef at Sodexo, tells In These Times. “We’re trying to get better benefits and show we’re not paid enough. “I’m 46. There’s no retirement plans. I’ve been fighting this for a while now. We’re going to keep fighting.”
Torres says the Sodexo staff has the support of Disney cast members, but believes the holdup actually stems from the park, not Sodexo.
“I think Disney doesn’t want it,” says Torres.
UNITE HERE has had success winning unions for other Sodexo workers throughout the country. Sodexo claims hundreds of collective bargaining agreements, but Disney insists they can’t force an outside company to change its policies.
William Lawson, a field representative at the Central Florida AFL-CIO, isn’t buying that. In a blog post titled “Of Mice and Management” Lawson writes:
Disney is already a hotbed for organized labor but you can’t get your one gold star and then stop there. There is absolutely no earthly reason why the largest employer in Central Florida, one of the most profitable entities on the face of this planet, and a household name in supposed moral virtuousness should have workers living in cars or on the street. It’s unconscionable and ”We can’t tell another company what to do” is not a valid excuse.
This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on May 16, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Michael Arria is a journalist living in NYC. He is the author of Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria.
Wednesday, May 11th, 2016
Long before the birth of Teamsters for a Democratic Union in the mid-1970s, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) was hostile terrain for creating model local unions. In the 1930s, warehouse workers and drivers in Minneapolis revitalized Teamsters Local 574, under the leadership of Farrell Dobbs and other labor radicals. They organized widespread community support for a citywide general strike—now much celebrated by labor historians. After its success, Dobbs and other Teamster militants helped organize over-the-road trucking throughout the mid-west.
What was Local 574’s reward from the IBT? It wasn’t a lot of favorable publicity in the Teamster magazine. Instead, General President Dan Tobin expelled the Minneapolis strikers from the union in 1935. A year later, the membership of 574 was readmitted but under a new local charter. When the politics of Local 544 (its successor) continued to offend Teamster headquarters, the local was put under trusteeship and its elected officers ousted in 1941. Among the Teamster goon squad members dispatched to Minneapolis for that dirty work was Jimmy Hoffa, father of the current IBT president and an admirer of Dobbs’ organizing methods (if not his Trotskyist views).
Labor educator Bob Bussel’s new book, Fighting For Total Person Unionism: Harold Gibbons, Ernest Calloway, and Working Class Citizenship (University of Illinois Press, 2016) describes a lesser-known effort to remake another Midwestern IBT local–without drawing the same kind of fire from Tobin’s successors, including Hoffa himself.
The positive, but less threatening, changes made in St. Louis Local 688 occurred under the leadership of Harold Gibbons. Gibbons developed a long and mutually beneficial relationship with Hoffa, during the latter’s rise to power in the 1950s and ‘60s. His closest local collaborator was Ernest Calloway, a leading African-American trade unionist, labor editor, and civil rights activist, who met Gibbons when they were both Depression-era organizers in Chicago.
Like Harvard-educated Powers Hapgood, the industrial union activist profiled in Bussel’s previous biography, Gibbons and Calloway were sympathetic to democratic socialism. (For more on Bussel’s earlier book, see my review for The Nation.) Neither had positive experiences with the Communist Party or the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) affiliates most influenced by CP members. They came from coal mining families in Pennsylvania and Kentucky respectively; Calloway actually worked in the mines and once described himself as a “black hillbilly.”
Their shared union vision was shaped, in part, by youthful “exposure to the UMWA, which had an admirable if imperfect record of attempting to organize across racial and ethnic lines.” Their personal development as working class leaders owed much to labor education—in Gibbons’ case, a summer school stint at the University of Wisconsin’s School for Workers and in Calloway’s case, attending Brookwood Labor College and, later, Ruskin College in Oxford.
From CIO to IBT
Gibbons aided organizing or strikes among adult educators employed by the Works Progress Administration, Chicago taxi drivers, and, later, textile workers throughout Illinois and Indiana. Calloway became a member of Gibbons’ AFT-affiliated teachers union and then plunged into CIO organizing of African-American “red caps” who assisted railway passengers with their baggage. In 1940, he bravely risked imprisonment as “one of the first African-Americans to seek conscientious objector status solely on the basis of racial discrimination”—a stance not popular with red cap union officials, particularly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
During the war, Gibbons moved to St. Louis. There, he took over a warehouse workers local affiliated with the CIO, engineered its rebranding as an independent union and, then in 1949, “stirred disbelief and anger in both local and national labor circles” by merging with the IBT. Calloway was among those he recruited to help implement “his vision of socially engaged unionism,” amid the larger “unabashed pragmatism” of the Teamsters.
In the heyday of Local 688 during the 1950s, “total person unionism” is not a term that either Gibbons or Calloway would have employed. But their conception of how a good local should function—with members strongly connected to the union and the union playing an influential role in the community—remains quite relevant today. One of organized labor’s under-utilized resources is rank-and-file connections to community institutions, whether churches, neighborhood associations, ethnic and fraternal organizations, political clubs, or other civic groups.
Gibbons and Calloway built their local into a social and political force in St. Louis by encouraging what Bussel calls “working class citizenship”–rank-and-file activism in the community and local politics, as well as on the job. Local 688 formalized this approach with an actual “community stewards” program, training hundreds of members and then deploying them in electoral campaigns and local political struggles for racial justice, better public services, and a healthy urban environment. Bussel lauds these efforts to turn an “occupationally and racially diverse union of 10,000 members” into “a model of labor progressivism that gained national and even international attention.”
In a 1946 speech—that could serve as a rebuke to certain “organizing unions” and workers centers today—Gibbons “articulated the profound psychological dimension that lay at the core of his philosophy of unionism.” In his view, union building was not the job of “college professors, smart lawyers, or high salaried executives.” But rather, it was a task for “the men and women of the shops,” where “far too many of us fail to realize our powers, our abilities, our potentialities.”
Left cover for Hoffa?
Local 688 was, in short, not the kind of mobbed-up, big city Teamster local more typical of Jimmy Hoffa’s emerging power base in the 1950s. But, as Bussel notes, “an ally of Gibbons’ caliber and reputation” was useful to Hoffa’s plan to succeed Dave Beck as Teamsters president during a period when Teamster racketeering and corruption tainted all of organized labor and led to the IBT’s 1957 expulsion from the AFL-CIO.
According to Bussel, Gibbons hitched his wagon to Hoffa in the hopes that the latter’s “mastery of power relations might be harnessed in the support of a more ambitious social agenda.” In the early 1960s, Gibbons even left St. Louis to serve as Hoffa’s executive assistant at Teamster headquarters. In that capacity, he persuaded his boss to make a $25,000 donation to Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But then “Hoffa rejected Gibbons’ suggestion that he speak at King’s 1963 March on Washington and also refused to seek strong anti-discrimination language in trucking contracts.”
Bussel reports that Gibbons “experienced continual frustration in his efforts to enlarge Hoffa’s perspective on racial justice” and “remained an isolated voice on the issue that he regarded as essential to restoring the trade union movement’s moral legitimacy.” Hoffa, for his part, kept his sidekick from St. Louis on “a short leash.” Hoff was “fiercely ascetic in his personal life” and, thus, disapproved of Gibbon’s “womanizing” and “hanging out in nightspots and hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities,” a bon vivant lifestyle supported by his IBT expense account. (As longtime Chicago labor activist Sid Lens once noted, Harold was “a man of many contradictions.”)
After Hoffa was jailed in 1967 for jury tampering, attempted bribery, and fraud, he left Frank Fitzsimmons in charge of the IBT. Gibbons did not fare well under Fitz, as he was known. To Gibbons’ credit, he was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and played a key role in Labor for Peace, hosting its founding conference in St. Louis. He even joined a trade union delegation to Hanoi during the war, met with top North Vietnamese officials, and conducted Washington briefings on his trip when he returned.
Enemy of Tricky Dick and Fitz
Such activities landed him on the famous “enemies list” maintained by Republican President Richard Nixon. Closer to home, Gibbons bucked Fitzsimmons by casting the only Teamster executive board vote against endorsing Nixon for re-election over Democrat George McGovern in 1972. Fitzsimmons remained Nixon’s leading labor ally until the latter’s forced resignation, in disgrace, during the Watergate scandal two years later.
In the meantime, Fitzsimmons retaliated against Gibbons by replacing him as Teamsters Central Conference chairman and warehouse division director. A few months afterwards, Gibbons was even forced to resign from his elected positions at Teamsters Joint Council 13 and Local 688. In Bussel’s description, that purge signaled the end of a “twenty year quest for total person unionism that Gibbons and Calloway had pursued in St. Louis.” Gibbons retreated to a life of retirement luxury in Palm Springs, CA. “closer to the celebrity culture that had long captivated him.” Shortly before he died in 1982, the one-time syndicalist firebrand was reduced to begging the Reagan Administration (unsuccessfully) for a job as director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
Unlike Gibbons, Calloway remained politically engaged at the grassroots level in St. Louis. When their joint vision of an activist, community-minded union was no longer achievable in Local 688, Calloway became a neighborhood organization leader. He was also a locally influential writer and teacher of urban studies, civil rights leader, and mentor to community activists. When he died in 1989, The St. Louis Post Dispatch hailed him as a man who “labored for the underdog,” declaring that “St. Louis is a better place for his efforts.” Calloway’s union career may have been overshadowed, in his lifetime, by that of his high-flying Teamster co-worker. But, now thanks to Bussel’s dual biography treatment, this “rugged fighter for social justice” will get the broader recognition he deserves.
Fighting for Total Person Unionism should not be relegated to the labor history bookshelf; too much of its content will seem eerily familiar to anyone active in U.S. unions over the last 35 years. The management resistance and labor movement dysfunction that Gibbons and Calloway struggled to overcome, while building worker organizations of a better sort, have definitely not disappeared. And within the union officialdom, there is still no shortage of the same personal and political contradictions that Harold Gibbons displayed, during his rise and fall as a singular Teamster.
This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on May 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Steve Early worked for 27 years as an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of America. He is the author of a new book from Monthly Review Press titled, Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress. He is working on a book about political change and public policy innovation in Richmond, California. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.
Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016
The General Brotherhood of American Apparel Workers (GBWAA), a union for garment workers at American Apparel’s southern California manufacturing facilities—one of which, its downtown Los Angeles location, is the largest garment-making factory in the country—has called for a boycott of the brand’s merchandise, pointing to mass layoffs and reduced compensation and benefits that have intensified since new management in January 2015 began a process of post-bankruptcy restructuring throughout the corporation.
GBWAA is currently awaiting a certification election date from the National Labor Relations Board, and workers with the union say they are calling for the boycott because American Apparel consumers must know corporation is not the high-wage, sweatshop-free company once marketed itself to be, especially since Paula Schneider replaced American Apparel founder Dov Charney as chief executive officer of the corporation.
Schneider’s appointment was approved by a corporate board that had been mostly hand picked by the hedge fund Standard General, who effectively had control of the company after a failed bid by Charney to regain control. Previously ousted as CEO amid reports of alleged sexual misconduct, Charney saw millions of his voting shares go to Standard General. When the company filed for bankruptcy in October 2015, claiming its debt was insurmountable, complete ownership went to the company’s principal debtholders: Goldman Sachs Asset Management, Monarch Alternative Capital, Coliseum Capital, Pentwater Capital Management and Standard General (famous for their previous alleged hostile takeover of Radioshack), who kept on Schneider as CEO—much to the dismay of Charney and workers at American Apparel production sites that had already began organizing.
Union president Stephanie Padilha dos Santos tells In These Times, “If you’re used to buying American Apparel and think that the company is great and that the whole concept of paying fair wages in [the garment] industry was what made the company a huge success, then we invite you now to boycott the brand because it is no longer sweatshop-free.”
Padilha alleges that the company has been outsourcing production to other “sweatshops” around Los Angeles, while reducing the once relatively high wages earned by production workers at the company, which were the highest in the world, according to the company.
American Apparel did not respond to requests for comment by In These Times.
Meanwhile, in another round of layoffs, over 500 workers are reported to have been laid off this April as part of what Schneider has called a “redesign of [their] production process.”
Victor Narro, Project Director at the UCLA Labor Center, says that American Apparel was famous for providing high-wage garment jobs that are seldom seen for the immigrant communities typically doing the work in Los Angeles. “These garment workers are not going to be able to find a similar type of workplace in the industry,” Narro says.
Padilha says that after being abruptly let go with little notice, “All the dignity that the company provided [the laid-off workers] will be gone and they’re going to have to go back to the poor reality of the garment industry.” In the past, GBWAA has led work stoppages over decreased conditions and has filed dozens of unfair labor practices against the company since Schneider took over. Padilha believes a union can put a check on further layoffs and stabilizes the free falling wages and hours for the garment workers. American Apparel did not respond to requests for comment by In These Times in regards to GBWAA claims.
The company, however, has stressed that “the GBWAA could not fairly represent the interests of its near 4,000 production workers, even if elected” because of Charney’s appearances at union functions throughout 2015 “Mr. Charney has used every tactic imaginable to claw his way back to the head of the company—including organizing workers to demand his return as CEO,” says a letter by American Apparel legal representatives, asking a U.S District Court to force Charney to appear at NLRB hearings to provide testimony as well as submit documents relating to GBWAA in its appeal of the union’s petition for election. The appeal centers on the claim that GBWAA is a Charney-created entity.
Nativo Lopez, an organizer in Los Angeles who has worked with American Apparel workers over issues of immigrant rightssince 2009, says that the company’s allegations are “absolutely false.” Lopez says that garment workers active in Lopez’s immigrant rights advocacy organization, Hermandad Mexicana, helped lead organizing, with Lopez serving in a voluntary advisory position. Thus, GBWAA is claiming it is an independent union—not a product of Charney.
Workers, he says, only focused on the return of Charney to company leadership initially because “working under him, in his administration, [they were] enjoying above-minimum wage and benefits that they had never previously experienced in any other apparel company where they had been employed.”
“The ‘Save American Apparel’ slogan has been changed to ‘Boycott American Apparel,” Lopez says, predicting an entire offshoring of American Apparel’s domestic manufacturing to low-wage countries, joining the approximately 97 percent of apparel brands in this country who do not produce their clothing in the United States. Onlookers from the finance world havesaid the same elsewhere. “It’s no longer the same American Apparel,” Lopez tells In These Times.
The last public union campaign at American Apparel garment factories occurred in 2003, when UNITE (the garment workers union that soon after merged with HERE to form UNITE HERE) tried to organize workers in the downtown manufacturing hub. Charney was not supportive, according to Stephen Wishart, a senior research analyst with UNITE HERE at the time, whosaid of the campaign:
The company’s activities included holding captive meetings with employees, interrogating employees about their union activities and sympathies, soliciting employees to ask the union to return their union authorization cards, distributing anti-union armbands and T-shirts, and requiring all employees to attend an anti-union rally. The company’s most devastating tactic, though, was threatening to shut down the plant if the workers organized.
Charney, speaking to the Los Angeles Business Review in 2004 about the unsuccessful union organizing campaign, called unions an “obstacle”:
The concept of a union is a check against greed on the part of the employer. If I really wanted to be motivated by greed alone and pay the lowest possible wage, I wouldn’t be working in this factory. To say, “Let’s appoint a union to represent the workers even further” may put into disequilibrium the delicate balance that I’ve created between all the parties.
Narro says that although wages were high at American Apparel, the benefits of union collective bargaining agreements have always been sorely lacking and it remains evident in its current restructuring process. “If he had worked something out with UNITE back in 2002, and they agreed to a union contract, [then] these workers would have had a lot of protection right now. Nothing is guaranteed, but they would not have been as vulnerable to the bankruptcy and the downsizing and the management decisions.”
“Union contracts would create mechanisms to protect workers as much as possible,” says Narro. Organizing amid the corporation’s restructuring is “harder to do now because there’s nothing to enforce,” he adds.
For now, GBWAA hopes the boycott will bring to the light the urgency they feel is required in its certification efforts, especially as predicted further layoffs loom. Padilha says the NLRB needs to act now, telling me, “As soon as a hedge fund takes over, the company goes into bankruptcy. Workers getting laid off, having their rights ripped apart, and they make no money. Everything is changing; outsourcing production. There [are] enough reasons why this election is what workers need right now.”
This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on May 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.
Wednesday, April 27th, 2016
The world lost a musical icon [on April 21]. You’ll read about his impact as a musician and an entertainer elsewhere, but let’s take a second to look at Prince’s career-spanning fights on behalf of working people.
For more than 40 years, Prince was a union member, a long-standing member of both the Twin Cities Musicians Local 30-73 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and SAG-AFTRA. Beginning with “Ronnie Talk to Russia” in 1981 on through hits like “Sign o’ the Times” and later works like “We March” and “Baltimore,” Prince’s music often reflected the dreams, struggles, fears and hopes of working people. (And he wasn’t limited to words, his Baltimore concert in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death raised funds to help the city recover. I got to sit on the right side of the stage, high in the rafters, to watch joyously.) Few of America’s artists have so well captured the plight of working Americans as Prince, putting him in the line of artists like Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen as working-class heroes.
Ray Hair, president of AFM, spoke of Prince’s importance: “We are devastated about the loss of Prince, a member of our union for over 40 years. Prince was not only a talented and innovative musician, but also a true champion of musicians’ rights. Musicians—and fans throughout the world—will miss him. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and fans grieving right now.
And this is a key part of his legacy. Prince was deeply talented and could have easily made his success without much help from others. And yet he was a massive supporter of other artists, from writing and producing songs for artists as diverse as Chaka Khan, the Bangles, Sinéad O’Connor, Vanity, Morris Day and the Time and Tevin Campbell (among many others) to his mentoring and elevating of women in music, to the time where he put his own career on the line in defense of the rights of artists. And every musician that came after owes him a debt of gratitude.
The music industry has a deeply troubled past, with stories of corporations exploiting musicians, especially African American musicians, being plentiful enough to fill libraries. At the height of his popularity, Prince decided that he would fight back. He was set, financially and career-wise, and had nothing to gain from taking on the onerous contracts that artists were saddled with when they were young, inexperienced and hungry. If he lost everything by taking on the industry, he still had money and fame to rely on. But he knew this wasn’t true for many other musicians, and Prince was always a fan of music, and he knew that taking on this battle would help others. So he took on the recording industry on behalf of music. On behalf of the industry’s working people—the musicians themselves.
And it cost him his name and his fame.
In the ensuing battle, Prince famously renounced his birth name and began performing under an unpronouncable symbol instead of a name. He fought the company at every turn, even writing the word “slave” on his face in protest of the conditions he worked under. He said: “People think I’m a crazy fool for writing ‘slave’ on my face. But if I can’t do what I want to do, what am I?” For the rest of his career, which never recovered to his early heights, he continually fought to change the way that record companies treated artists, explored new ways to distribute music to fans and battled to give artists more control and more revenue for the art they create. In a still-changing musical landscape, Prince was one of a handful of artists who helped shape a future where musicians, working people, get the fruits of their labor.
In honor of Prince’s passing, check out his performance, an all-time great, at the country’s largest annual event brought to you by union workers, the Super Bowl.
This blog originally appeared at aflcio.org on April 22, 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.