Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘unions’

This week in the war on workers: Pennsylvania state college and university faculty strike

Monday, October 24th, 2016

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.

Inequality Is Still the Defining Issue of Our Time

Monday, October 17th, 2016
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).

Chicago Teachers Are on the Verge of Striking—This Is Why

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

Chicago teachers will likely take to the streets early Tuesday in an escalation of their campaign to defend their jobs and improve the education of the students and the communities they serve. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has said it will strike if no deal is reached by midnight.

Four years ago, the CTU won a new contract with a dramatic 7-day strike that captured national attention. Although the CTU was unable in the following years to stop Mayor Rahm Emanuel from closing more than 50 schools, last April the union continued its contract fight with a mayoral-appointed Board of Education by calling for a 1-day strike over the failure of talks to renew their contract.

With the CTU and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) still at loggerheads over a new agreement, the teachers are preparing to establish picket lines once again at schools throughout the nation’s third-largest school system, taking on the Board of Education, Emanuel, the obsessively anti-union Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, and the local business class.

The fight is, in various ways, about money. The Board of Education, under Emanuel’s control, says it must cut costs since it is running a deficit. One of its proposed solutions would eliminate a longstanding agreement to pay for part of the cost of teachers’ pensions, effectively cutting teachers’ pay.

Rauner advocates a harsh and ideological strategy designed to humiliate the teachers and break their union. He has said bankruptcy might be the best option for CPS—a move that would allow a court to void union contracts.

But the strike is about more than money, too. The CTU sees negotiations as a chance to focus on the quality of education for Chicago students. The union wants to reduce class sizes, guarantee that all schools have libraries and librarians, give teachers professional support and training to teach more creatively, and provide social services and counselors who can help students resolve problems that may be interfering with their learning or leading them to drop out.

“In my 13 years of teaching, schools and students have never faced this type of assault,” said Lillian Kass, a special education teacher in CPS and a CTU delegate.

“We are going on strike to protect our students from further cuts. We need enforceable class sizes and adequate services so all students can succeed. Teachers and students have already suffered too many cuts. More cuts are not acceptable and not sustainable,” she said.

Historical backdrop

The contract dispute is linked to profound and pernicious questions regarding class and racial divisions in the city and state. The backdrop to the current conflict is the decades-long failure of the state government to follow the state’s constitutional mandate to carry the primary responsibility for financing public education.

As a result, schools are very unevenly and inequitably funded by local property taxes. The tax burden is greatest on working-class households, while businesses successfully resist paying their fair share. Chicago taxpayers suffer an additional burden: While state taxes—including taxes paid by Chicago residents—help fund teacher pensions for the rest of the state, Chicago residents alone pay for all pension-related costs for their schools.

Low-income communities, especially those that are predominately black, have suffered most from shortcomings in funding, school closings and many other CPS policies. Reinforcing the results of other investigations, a recent report by WBEZ, the Chicago public radio station, revealed that new school construction in areas of the city where the population is growing is carefully planned to maintain high levels of racial segregation, even though it would be easy to use the construction to create a more integrated school enrollment.

Community allies

Union leaders see community groups as crucial allies in the fight now unfolding. Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign (CTSC), with a dozen or more members, played an important role in the 2012 strike, says Steven Ashby, a labor educator at the University of Illinois. Ashby, who is the leader of a renewed CTSC, says the new coalition already includes more than 50 groups.

The CTU, CTSC and many other progressive groups are pushing for the city to redirect to the schools as much as possible from Tax Increment Financing (TIF), a funding tool. The money is largely a “slush fund” spent at the mayor’s discretion for business-related projects, and reformers argue that it could provide significant funding for schools.

The issues posed by the teachers’ strike involve a tangle of inherited pathologies of racism, business dominance, and corrupt local politics—together forming a Gordian knot that blocks progressive reform. The strike may not cut the knot, but it could help direct the next blows for reformers tackling the many challenges beyond the current, critically important task of educating the city’s children.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on October 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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

AFL-CIO Backs Dakota Access Pipeline and the “Family Supporting Jobs” It Provides

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

o3ytsjwl_400x400The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) came out this week in support of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the construction of which was delayed last week by an order from the Obama administration—a decision that itself stemmed from months of protests led by the Standing Rock Sioux.

In a statement, Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, said, “We believe that community involvement in decisions about constructing and locating pipelines is important and necessary, particularly in sensitive situations like those involving places of significance to Native Americas.”

This week has shown a stark divide between parts of American labor and today’s social movements. Progressive unions face an uphill battle on many issues, within and outside of organized labor. (Peg Hunter/ Flickr)

This week has shown a stark divide between parts of American labor and today’s social movements. Progressive unions face an uphill battle on many issues, within and outside of organized labor. (Peg Hunter/ Flickr)

But it “is fundamentally unfair,” he added, “to hold union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay. The Dakota Access Pipeline is providing over 4,500 high-quality, family supporting jobs.

“(Trying) to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved. The AFL-CIO calls on the Obama Administration to allow construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue.”

It’s an open secret in labor that North America’s Building Trades Unions—including many that represent pipeline workers—have an at-times dominating presence within the federation’s 56-union membership. Pipeline jobs are well-paying union construction gigs, and workers on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) can make some $37 an hour plus benefits. As one DAPL worker and Laborers International Union member told The Des Moines Register, “You’ve got to make that money when you can make it.”

But an old blue-green mantra says, “there are no jobs on a dead planet.” The parts of organized labor that have taken that phrase to heart are far from unified around Trumka’s DAPL backing—even within the AFL-CIO. National Nurses United (NNU) has had members on the ground at Standing Rock protests and others around the country have participated in a national day of action.

“Nurses understand the need for quality jobs while also taking strong action to address the climate crisis and respecting the sovereign rights of First Nation people,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, NNU’s executive director and a national vice president of the AFL-CIO.

In response to the federation’s endorsement, DeMoro cited the work of economist Robert Pollin, who found that spending on renewable energy creates approximately three times as many jobs as the same spending on maintaining the fossil fuel sector.

NNU isn’t alone. As protests swelled this month, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) released a statement in support of the Standing Rock Sioux, stating that “CWA stands with all working people as they struggle for dignity, respect and justice in the workplace and in their communities.”

Unions like the Amalgamated Transit Union and the United Electrical Workers have each issued similar statements supporting protests against the pipeline, and calling on the Obama administration to step in and block the project permanently.

For those who follow labor and the environment, however, the above unions might be familiar names. Many were vocal advocates for a stronger climate deal in Paris, and sent members to COP21 at the end of last year. They were also those most vehemently opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline, and all supported Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. While friendly to progressives, these unions have tended to have a relatively limited impact on bigger unions, like the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

According to Sean Sweeney, though, this small group of unions might now be gaining strength. “Progressive unions are becoming a more coherent force,” he told In These Times.

Sweeney helped found a project called Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, which works with unions around the world on climate change and the transition away from fossil fuels, including the National Education Association and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ in the United States. He also runs the International Program for Labor, Climate and the Environment at City University of New York’s Murphy Institute.

“It could be said that it’s just the same old gang making the same old noise, but for health unions and transport unions to go up against the building trades and their powerful message and equally powerful determination to win … that was a bit of a cultural shift in the labor movement,” he said, referencing the fights against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. “That suggests that it’s going to continue.”

Sweeney mentioned, too, that it wasn’t until much later in the fight around Keystone XL that even progressive unions came out against it. “A lot of these unions,” he added, “know a lot more about energy and pollution and climate change than they did before.”

Between Trumka’s DAPL endorsement and the Fraternal Order of Police’s endorsement of Donald Trump for president, this week has shown a stark divide between parts of American labor and today’s social movements. Progressive unions face an uphill battle on many issues, within and outside of organized labor. The question now—on the Dakota Access Pipeline—is whether today’s “Keystone moment” can break new ground in the jobs versus environment debate.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on September, 13, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times covering the 2016 election and the politics of climate change. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff

New Rules Needed to Solve Steel Crisis

Friday, September 9th, 2016

China is gorging itself on steelmaking. It is forging so much steel that the entire world doesn’t need that much steel.

Companies in the United States and Europe, and unions like mine, the United Steelworkers, have spent untold millions of dollars to secure tariffs on imports of this improperly government-subsidized steel. Still China won’t stop. Diplomats have elicited promises from Chinese officials that no new mills will be constructed. Still they are. Chinese federal officials have written repeated five-year plans in which new mills are banned. Yet they are built.

All of the dog-eared methods for dealing with this global crisis in steel have failed. So American steel executives and steelworkers and hundreds of thousands of other workers whose jobs depend on steel must hope that President Barack Obama used his private meeting with China’s President XI Jinping Saturday to press for a novel solution. Because on this Labor Day, 14,500 American steelworkers and approximately 91,000 workers whose jobs depend on steel are out of work because China won’t stop making too much steel.

A new report on the crisis, titled “Overcapacity in Steel, China’s Role in a Global Problem,” by the Duke University Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness flatly concludes that existing policies to stop China from building excessive steel capacity have failed.


Since 2007, China has added 552 million metric tons of steel capacity – an amount that is equivalent to seven times the total U.S. steel production in 2015. China did this while repeatedly promising to cut production. China did this while the United States actually did cut production, partly because China exported to the United States illegitimately subsidized, and therefore underpriced, steel.

That forced the closure or partial closure of U.S. mills, the layoffs of thousands of skilled American workers, the destruction of communities’ tax bases and the threat to national security as U.S. steelmaking capacity contracted.

Although China, the world’s largest net exporter of steel, knows it makes too much steel and has repeatedly pledged to cut back, it plans to add another 41 million metric tons of capacity by 2017, with mills that will provide 28 million metric tons already under construction.

None of this would make sense in a capitalist, market-driven system. But that’s not the system Chinese steel companies operate in. Chinese mills don’t have to make a profit. Many are small, inefficient and highly polluting. They receive massive subsidies from the federal and local governments in the form of low or no-interest loans, free land, cash grants, tax reductions and exemptions and preferential access to raw materials including below market prices.

That’s all fine if the steel is sold within China. But those subsidies violate international trade rules when the steel is exported.

These are the kinds of improper subsidies that enable American and European companies to get tariffs imposed. But securing those penalties requires companies and unions to pay millions to trade law experts and to provide proof that companies have lost profits and workers have lost jobs. So Americans must bleed both red and green before they might see limited relief.

The Duke report suggests that part of the problem is that market economies like those in the United States and Europe are dealing with a massive non-market economy like China and expecting the rules to be the same. They just aren’t.

Simply declaring that China is a market economy, which is what China wants, would weaken America’s and Europe’s ability to combat the problems of overcapacity. For example, the declaration would complicate securing tariffs, the tool American steel companies need to continue to compete when Chinese companies receive improper subsidies.

The Duke report authors recommend instead delaying action on China’s request for market economy status until China’s economic behavior is demonstrably consistent with market principles.

The authors of the Duke report also suggest international trade officials consider new tools for dealing with trade disputes because the old ones have proved futile in resolving the global conflict with China over its unrelenting overcapacity in steel, aluminum and other commodities.

For example, under the current regime, steel companies or unions must prove serious injury to receive relief. The report suggests: “changing the burden of proof upon a finding by the World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement panel of a prohibited trade-related practice, or non-compliance with previous rulings by the WTO.”

It also proposes multilateral environmental agreements with strict pollution limits. Under these deals, companies in places like the United States and Europe that must comply with strong pollution standards would not be placed at an international disadvantage as a result, and the environment would benefit as well.

In addition to the family-supporting steelworker jobs across this country that would be saved by innovative intervention to solve this crisis, at stake as well are many other jobs and the quality of jobs.

The Congressional Steel Caucus wrote President Obama before he left last week on his trip to Hangzhou for the G-20 Summit asking that he secure the cooperation of China and pointing out the large number of downstream jobs that are dependent on steel.

Also last week, the Economic Policy Institute issued a report titled “Union Decline Lowers Wages of Nonunion Workers.” It explained that the ability of union workers to boost nonunion workers’ pay weakened as the percentage of private-sector workers in unions fell from about 33 percent in the 1950s to about 5 percent today.steel-overcapacity-table-2

The EPI researchers found that nonunion private sector men with a high school diploma or less education would receive weekly wages approximately 9 percent higher if union density had remained at 1979 levels. That’s an extra $3,172 a year.

Many steelworkers are union workers. If those jobs disappear, that would mean fewer family-supporting private sector union jobs. And that would mean an even weaker lift to everyone else’s wages.

America has always been innovative. Now it must innovate on trade rules to save its steel industry, its steel jobs and all those jobs that are dependent on steel jobs.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on August 25, 2016. Reprinted with Permission.

Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

BREAKING—Fight for $15 Organizers Tell SEIU: We Need $15 and a Union

Monday, August 15th, 2016

David MobergThe 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.

A Message for CUNY Members: Don’t Take the Money

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

RobertSchwartzI 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.

Senate Dining Room Workers Win $1 Million in Back Wages

Monday, August 1st, 2016

Bruce VailThe 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.

Union Summer Hits the Doors After Learning Lessons in Solidarity and the Spirit of the South

Monday, July 4th, 2016

FullSizeRenderUnion 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.

Appeals court upholds workers' right to a union vote without delays and stalling tactics

Monday, June 20th, 2016

LauraClawsonA 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.

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