Posts Tagged ‘unions’
Friday, May 17th, 2013
Last month a few hundred retail and fast-food workers, from places like Sears, Dunkin’ Donuts, and McDonald’s, walked off their jobs for a rally in downtown Chicago. Carrying signs saying “Fight for 15” (or “Lucha Por 15”) and “We Are Worth More,” these workers make $9 or $10 an hour, at best, and they figure they’re worth at least $15.
A one-shift walk-out and protest by a few hundred out of the thousands of such workers in the Chicago Loop and along Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile cannot have the economic impact of a traditional strike – one that shuts down an entire workplace or industry for an extended period of time and, therefore, can bend an employer’s will. And these workers’ chances of getting $15 an hour any time soon are worse than slim. This “job action,” bolstered by community supporters organized by Action Now and with help from Service Employees International Union organizers, is more in the nature of a public protest than a “real strike.” You could even call it “a public relations stunt,” but you’d be wrong to dismiss it as inconsequential.
“Public relations,” ironically, has a bad image. But think of it as workers witnessing their own plight, calling for others in similar situations to join them and appealing to those of us with decent incomes to support them. Witnessing, with its religious overtones, is not intended as an immediately practical action. It’s first about individuals summoning the courage to put themselves forward to make a public claim that they are one of thousands (millions nationally) who are being treated unjustly. In this case, it means taking the risk that they may be fired or otherwise disciplined for leaving work and going into the streets to proclaim “We are worth more.”
Witnessing is meant to make us think about justice as the witnesses simultaneously inspire and shame us with the courage of their individual actions. I was at one of the first draft-card burnings that protested the Vietnam War in 1965, and I remember saying something like, “I’d do that if I thought it would do any good,” while knowing in my heart of hearts that I didn’t have the guts to take that kind of risk then. But it inspired and shamed me – and thousands and then hundreds of thousands of others — to do many other things to fight against that war as we inspired and bolstered (and exerted peer pressure on) each other.
For the broader public, these initial job actions – in New York and Chicago among retail and fast-food workers; in California and Illinois among workers at Walmart warehouses; and all over the place amongWalmart retail workers – are “public relations” that raise awareness and pluck consciences. But for workers who watched workmates walk off the job to witness for them, there may be some of that inspiration and/or shame that is a particularly powerful call to action. That’s what organizers are counting on, in the hope that the numbers of such workers will grow helter-skelter across the retail industry, eventually initiating a contagion of worker direct action that can put these workers in a position to negotiate for “labor peace,” with or without the blessing of the National Labor Relations Board.
There’s another determined witness who couldn’t be more unlike these striking workers. He’s a retired law professor from the University of Texas, Charles Morris, who is a leading expert on the legislative and early administrative history of the National Labor Relations Act and the Board that enforces it. In a 2005 book,The Blue Eagle at Work, Morris makes the legal case that the Act defined a labor union as any group of two or more workers who act together (“in concert”) to seek redress of grievances from their employer. According to Morris, the “concerted activity protection” articulated in the Act means that employers cannot legally fire workers for forming a non-majority or “members-only” union (as few as two workers acting together), and what’s more, an employer is legally bound to “bargain in good faith” with that union.
Through meticulous legal research, Morris has shown that these worker rights were in the Act from the beginning but have been forgotten by the subsequent customary practice of defining a union as only that group of workers who have formally voted to be represented by a petitioning union. What’s more, other legal scholars have now signed on to Morris’s legal interpretation and are ready to bolster it before an NLRB that is willing to hear their case. There would be such an NLRB, what Morris calls “a friendly Board,”if Republican Senators would allow a vote on President Obama’s nominees for the Board.
A favorable NLRB ruling would be important for a variety of legally technical reasons that workers and organizers could use to their tactical and strategic advantage – none of which includes the expectation that employers will voluntarily obey the law just because it is the law. But equally important is that Morris’s reading of the Act’s history restores the original meaning of a labor union that is based on workers’ decisions to act together “in concert” with one another. That is, a labor union is not just an institution with a bureaucracy and a marble palace in Washington, D.C., though it may be that as well. It is any group of workers in any workplace, no matter how big or small, who decide to and then do act in concert to advance their own interests in their workplace.
In March Chicago Working-Class Studies helped organize a public forum that brought Charles Morris together with workers and organizers from Fight for 15, the Walmart retail and warehouse strikers, and two other groups who are already acting as unions under this definition. Though there were some disagreements between the elderly legal scholar and the mostly young workers and organizers — one emphasizing the importance of politics and administrative case law in the long run, the others focused on the potential of direct action in the here and now – they agreed that if and when the two come together, the possibilities for a worker-led upsurge of union organizing are great.
Nonetheless, through their actions these workers have already changed what a labor union is and is thought to be. It is now, and really always has been — even a century before the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, even when it was an illegal “conspiracy” — simply a group of two or more workers acting in concert with one another. To be really effective there will need, of course, to be many, many more than the hundreds and thousands who have begun this process. But it starts with a few brave witnesses who take a risk and ask others to join them. The peer pressure is now on the rest of us.
This article was originally printed on Working-Class Perspectives on May 6, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Jack Metzgar is a retired Professor of Humanities from Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he is a core member of the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies. His research interests include labor politics, working-class voting patterns, working-class culture, and popular and political discourse about class.
Thursday, May 16th, 2013
With a death toll of 1,127, the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh has earned the shameful distinction of being the sixth-worst worst industrial disaster in history.
There’s plenty of shame to go around—and not just for the building owner and factory operators who ignored clear warnings of danger. High on the dishonor roll are the multinational apparel companies who subcontract work to thousands of local Bangladeshi factories crammed into similar deathtraps. The government of Bangladesh, dominated by representatives of the nation’s largest industry, textiles, shares blame for its fecklessness and corruption.
U.S. government officials and members of Congress are also at fault. They have failed to insist on safe standards for production of goods in Bangladesh (four-fifths of whose garment output goes to the U.S. and the European Union) and continued to grant it trade preferences.
But in a glimmer of hope, the outcry over the scale of the carnage in Rana Plaza has begun to spur some long-overdue reforms.
After relentless international media coverage and protests and strikes in and around Dhaka, the Bangladeshi government announced yesterday that it was convening a panel to raise the minimum wage in the garment industry, currently the lowest in the world (around $38 a month).
And today, the government said it would make unionization less difficult in the garment sector. Currently, for a union to be certified, it must win support from 30 percent of workers, and the government gives the list of workers who sign up to the employer for verification. At that point, employers often intimidate or fire supporters to reduce union support. Bangladesh’s minister of textiles says that in the future, bosses will not see the list of signatories.
But the truth is that even government action and unionization are likely to be inadequate on their own. Pressure for cheaper production from the multinational corporations can overwhelm or corrupt governments and unions. That’s why another development spurred by the factory collapse is perhaps the most promising. Seven companies have acceded to calls by Bangladeshi garment-worker associations for a binding and enforceable fire and safety agreement.
Two initial signatories to the safety plan, PVH—parent of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands—and the German clothing company Tchibo, were joined today by five more big-brand companies: H&M, the Swedish firm that is the largest buyer of Bangladesh apparel; Inditex, parent of the Spain-based international retailer Zara; Primark, a UK firm that sourced products from one of the five Rana Plaza factories; the big British super-store chain Tesco; and the Dutch clothing company C&A. Now that it has passed the required four-signature threshold, the plan will likely go into effect.
The global union federations UNI and IndustriALL played a major role in bringing the primarily European companies on board. Workers at most of these companies in their home countries are unionized, and by taking advantage of relationships with such employees’ unions, the global federations have more clout than they do with typically non-union U.S. companies. GAP, Wal-Mart, Sears and JC Penney, for instance, have resisted signing the fire safety agreement, claiming it would be too expensive and would expose them to lawsuits.
This means that pressure on U.S. corporations from both citizens and consumers remains critical.
And for those who doubt that such pressure can be effective, a recent victory in Indonesia shows that U.S. crusades for worker justice in poor countries do work.
Just a day before the Rana Plaza collapse, United Students Against Sweatshops announced victory in a two-year campaign to force sportswear giant Adidas to pay legally mandated severance compensation to 2,700 Indonesian workers. The workers lost their jobs in 2010 when the Korean owner of PT Kizone, a contractor in Indonesia manufacturing shoes for Adidas, fled the country and abandoned his employees.
Labeling the brand “Badidas” for its refusal to pay the severance owed, USAS built the largest collegiate boycott of a major sportswear company in the organization’s 15-year history. By the time negotiators reached a settlement of the dispute that satisfied the workers, 17 colleges and universities had ended their contracts for producing college logo products with Adidas, and the University of Wisconsin was pursuing legal action against Adidas for allegedly breaking its anti-sweatshop contract with the university.
The victory was not only important as one of the largest global “wage theft” restorations, presumably—since the exact terms remain secret—providing close to the $3.4 million owed to 2,700 workers from all the major contracting firms (Adidas, Nike and the Dallas Cowboys).
More important, this campaign took a giant step towards establishing that multinationals must pay the price when their contractors evade legal obligations.
That precedent was first set in 2010, when USAS pressured Nike to assume responsibility for severance pay owed to 1,400 Honduran workers at a contractor that closed shop and abandoned them. Nike eventually paid a share of the severance obligations to the Indonesian workers, even as the number two company in sportswear, Adidas, fought on against USAS.
Now that Adidas, too, has taken responsibility, “we see this victory as building on the Nike precedent in the industry and setting a new norm in student apparel,” says Garrett Strain, USAS campaign coordinator.
If that norm—of deep-pocketed major corporations accepting responsibility for the rights and well-being of workers at their overseas contractors—wins out, the anti-sweatshop campaign will have established a moral principle internationally that is rarely followed or enforced in the United States.
There are sound reasons why companies like Adidas and Nike should pay up in a case like this. Although no one knows for sure why the Korean owner fled, he may have been pressured by the big brands to produce at such a low price that he would lose money, so he decided to take what he could and get out, according to Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. WRC is an independent investigative operation set up by universities who signed on to the USAS-backed code against sweatshop production of collegiate gear.
The big brands “are directly responsible,” Nova said. “A responsible company would set aside a fund for severance pay, but not doing so takes something out of labor costs. The brands and retailers know the cost of making a garment, but they’re happy to accept the lowest price. They know what they’re paying.”
Nova sees the big Indonesian victory as part of a “strategic moment that creates openings for much broader change, but at the same time we know this is an enormously powerful and ruthless industry. No one should have any illusions that the work is getting easier.”
Thousands of Bangladeshi workers—the injured, families of the dead, workers in their own dangerous sweatshops—have no such illusions. While it will not console them in their grief, the victory wrought by U.S. students in pinning responsibility on America’s big-brand companies could help pave the way to better protections for them as well.
This article was originally posted on Working in These Times on May 13, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times and 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.
Monday, May 13th, 2013
Fast food workers at more than 60 restaurants in Detroit walked off the job Friday. This may be the largest fast food strike in American history, involving more than 400 workers from McDonald’s, Long John Silver’s, Burger King, Popeyes and KFC. Some locations were forced to shut down. At issue is workers’ right to form a union and an increase in base pay to a minimum of $15 per hour.
Pastor W.J. Rideout III, a leader in Detroit’s Good Jobs Now coalition, said the organic action was a result of a long history of mistreatment of fast food workers:
“They’ve been wronged in so many ways, it really doesn’t take much coaching to say, hey, we’re going to organize together, we’re going to stand up together,” he said.
“There are 50,000-plus fast food employees in the Detroit metro area…and they’re not even giving them the proper amount of hours,” Rideout said. “At 40 hours a week, they’re making about $15,000 a year, and they’re not even getting 40 hours a week.” Instead, managers hire many employees on an exclusively part-time basis. “Some of them are getting between 15 and 20 hours a week, and that’s barely enough to pay a cellphone bill.”
Reports are coming in that one McDonald’s called in replacement workers, some of whom then joined the strike.
The strike in Detroit follows on the heels of similar actions in New York, Pennsylvania, Chicago and St. Louis.
This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on May 10, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.
Monday, May 6th, 2013
Bucking a trend that has seen private equity firms buy business to bleed then shut down, United Steelworkers (USW) members at three Wisconsin paper mills and KPS Capital Partners have reached a new four-year collective bargaining agreement that workers ratified today.
The agreement comes in anticipation of the private equity firm successfully creating the largest specialty paper company in North America with its pending purchase of Wausau Paper mills in Rhinelander and Mosinee and a Thilmany mill in Kaukauna. There are some 1,400 workers at those mills. Says USW President Leo W. Gerard:
We are proud of the leadership that our local unions have shown in bringing their respective memberships together to ratify this important deal in the specialty paper sector. This particular piece of the industry still has enormous growth potential and has long been in need of a new strategic vision to capitalize on that opportunity.
USW District 2 (Wisconsin and Michigan) Director Michael Bolton says, the approach KPS took in working through these negotiations to create a world-class paper company:
Should serve as a reminder to hostile short-sighted venture capitalists—and even our own state government—that a big part of value creation is people sitting down together to solve difficult problems.
This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on May 3, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.
Thursday, May 2nd, 2013
The new owners of Twinkies snack cakes announced last week they will re-open four shuttered production plants in the coming months, but have no intention of doing business with the labor unions that have represented the workers at those bakeries for generations.
When Hostess went bankrupt in November, prompting headlines like “Who Killed the Twinkie?”,management blamed labor for the snack cake’s demise, while unions predicted that the company would be chopped up and sold at a profit to speculators who would speedily put the lucrative Twinkie brand back on the shelves. That’s just what has happened.
An executive of the new ownership group—private equity firms Metropolous & Co. and Apollo Global Management—announced that production will resume at four, or possibly five, plants purchased from Hostess Brands as part of a $410 million bankruptcy sale earlier this year.
The new company intends to hire about 1,500 workers at sites in Indianapolis, Emporia, Kan., Schiller Park, Ill., and Columbus, Ga., and may reopen a fifth bakery in Los Angeles, according to executive C. Dean Metropolous. Former unionized workers at the bakeries may apply for their old jobs, but no union contracts are in place, nor are any expected to be signed in the foreseeable future, he indicated.
Michael Cramer, executive vice president of Hostess Brands LLC, was more blunt. ”We’re sure not going to invite the unions in. We don’t have to do it,” he told NBC News.
Some 18,000 employees at Hostess were thrown out of work in November 2012 when the former owners closed 33 bakeries and related facilities. Most workers were members of theTeamsters, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) union, or several other unions representing small, widely-dispersed bargaining units. At the time, Hostess managers blamed the closures on a strike by BCTGM members protesting cuts in pay and benefits being imposed by the company. BCTGM, in turn, blamed ”nearly a decade of financial and operational mismanagement.”
In response to the reopening announcement, BCTGM President David Durkee issued the following statement:
We are extremely disappointed to see negative statements from company executives about the union status of its future employees. Ideally, we would like to see as many of our members hired as possible. We believe their combination of experience, dedication and know-how will give the new owners the chance to get high quality snack cakes back in the marketplace.
The BCTGM remains focused on ensuring that the new Hostess Brands ownership understands that the snack cakes at the center of this new company are inextricably linked to the hands that make them—and have made them for generations. We know that our workers have a critical role to play in protecting and enhancing some of America’s most valuable consumer brands.
We all want the same outcome: that the brands should prosper and endure. This is what the next stage of this saga is all about—implementing a new ownership and manufacturing structure worthy of the brands themselves and America’s manufacturing prowess.
Durkee’s statement appears to reflect disappointment that the new owners of Twinkies, as well as the buyers of other Hostess properties such as Wonder Bread, have turned a deaf ear to hisrepeated public statements that BCTGM would work with new owners to reestablish the bakeries and re-employ thousands of BCTGM members.
The Metropolous/Apollo combination bought only that part of Hostess directly related to the production of Twinkies and sweet snacks such as Ding Dongs, Ho Hos, Donettes, Zingers and Hostess Cup Cakes. Other parts of the company were split off and sold to other bakery operators. Flowers Foods, for example, bought 20 Hostess bakeries configured for the production of breads and rolls, and Grupo Bimbo bought other plants similarly designed for bread production.
Both Flowers and Grupo Bimbo operate a mixed set of production facilities, some of which are unionized and some of which are non-union. BCTGM spokesperson Corrina Christensen said the union had no comment at this time on the prospects of reaching new union agreements with those other two companies.
This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on April 29, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: 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.
Sunday, April 28th, 2013
Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) issued a statement today, responding to the sale of the iconic Twinkies brand.
In response to Metropoulos & Co. CEO C. Dean Metropoulos’ statement to The Wall Street Journal that the company will not hire union workers when reopening four former Hostess Brands bakeries, BCTGM International President David B. Durkee issued the following statement on behalf of all BCTGM members:
The BCTGM is pleased to see that Hostess Brands LLC, the newly formed snack cake company created by Apollo Global Management and Metropoulos & Co, has announced that it will be reopening four Hostess bakeries to produce the iconic Hostess cake brands. Those four successful cake plants were represented by the BCTGM for many years under former Hostess ownership.
However, we are extremely disappointed to see negative statements from company executives about the union status of its future employees. Ideally, we would like to see as many of our members hired as possible. We believe their combination of experience, dedication and know-how will give the new owners the chance to get high quality snack cakes back in the marketplace.
Federal labor law governing the hiring process and the obligations for the employer and the rights of the future employees in this situation is quite definitive. We expect that the new owners will respect the statutory rights of all workers during the hiring, startup and future of this new company.
The BCTGM remains focused on ensuring that the new Hostess Brands ownership understands that the snack cakes at the center of this new company are inextricably linked to the hands that make them—and have made them for generations. We know that our workers have a critical role to play in protecting and enhancing some of America’s most valuable consumer brands. We all want the same outcome: that the brands should prosper and endure. This is what the next stage of this saga is all about—implementing a new ownership and manufacturing structure worthy of the brands themselves and America’s manufacturing prowess.
Our members provide immense value to the new ownership with decades of experience, expertise and training. Not only have our members produced these quality products for consumers for generations, they know these bakeries inside and out. Our members are eager and willing to return to these snack plants and help usher in a new period of prosperity for Hostess snack cakes.
It is our sincere hope that the new owners will fully recognize the tremendous value of hiring back our members. If, however, they do not want us as part of the future of this company, we will continue to fight for our membership through other avenues.
This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on April 26, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Jackie Tortora is an blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.
Friday, April 26th, 2013
Hundreds of Chicago fast food and retail workers walked out for a one-day strike Wednesday, following similar one-day strikes among New York City fast food workers earlier in April and inNovember. As in New York, the Chicago workers are calling for a wage of $15 an hour rather than the near-minimum wages most of them make, and the right to join together in unions. The Illinois minimum wage is $8.25, a dollar higher than the federal minimum wage that applies in New York, but the stories the workers tell are similar. At an organizing meeting, Micah Uetricht reports:
An African-American man approaching what’s typically thought of as retirement age told of decades working in fast food and hovering near minimum wage, while a young Urban Outfitters worker said a raise would “make the difference between living and surviving.”When explaining what a raise to $15 per hour would mean to her, Trish Kahle, a Whole Foods worker, stated simply, “I could have heat all winter.”
Dunkin Donuts worker Esly Hernandez, who is paid $8.25 an hour, told Ned Resnikoff that he’s striking for his four-year-old son, both to set an example for him and to be able to afford medically recommended nutrition for the anemic child.
Wednesday’s action in Chicago should be viewed not just in the context of the New York City fast food strikes, but of the wave of low-wage worker organizing over the past year more generally, as Josh Eidelson explains:
The strike wave’s spread to Chicago offers a hopeful sign for the New York City fast food campaign. While individual fast food stores are managed by franchisees, national CEOs are the real decision-makers in both fast food and retail. Given the financial cost and, more important, the risk of setting a precedent and emboldening a wider workforce, it’s hard to imagine executives for McDonald’s or Macy’s making any significant concessions to workers in any city unless faced with a bona fide national uprising. For that to happen, the strikes would have to go viral, big-time.The strikes aren’t spreading by accident. November New York fast food strikers told Salon that they drew inspiration from workers who walked out of Wal-Mart stores, who in turn cited the example of their Wal-Mart warehouse counterparts. Interviewed while on strike April 4, New York fast food workers said that November’s smaller walkout had made that day’s work stoppage possible. “I was waiting” during the first strike, said Brooklyn Burger King worker Christelle Lumen. “I wanted to know, would they be OK with it? Would they fire the people that went on strike?”
According to the Fight for 15 campaign, a Subway, a Sally’s Beauty Supply, and a Land’s End were shut down by the strike and a march of and in support of the strikers stretched for two city blocks.
This article was originally posted on the Daily Kos on April 24, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is an editor at the Daily Kos.
Thursday, April 25th, 2013
“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that in 1965, and African Americans still hear his quote ring.
A new report, Blacks in Unions: 2012, by the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education, finds that black workers are 19% more likely to be in unions than non-black workers. In the nation’s 10 largest metropolitan areas, African Americans are 42% more likely than non-blacks to be in unions.
There’s a pretty good reason for this. Unions make a difference in the lives of black workers—in cold, hard cash terms, it amounts to $185 a week in median weekly earnings, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall, union members also are more likely than nonunion workers to have health care coverage from their employers and good pensions.
But I believe Dr. King spoke of more than dollars and cents. I think that as he said those words to the Illinois AFL-CIO 48 years ago, he referred to the doors unions opened to the middle class for generations of African Americans and other workers otherwise shut out. I think he had in mind the dignity that comes with having a voice on the job—a say in how to make a job and a life better. And he also honored the union movement’s long advocacy for civil and human rights and economic and social justice.
Davon Lomax, 25, a member of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) District Council 9 in Queens, N.Y., tells it this way:
Everyone knows the benefits of being in a union, no matter which one it is. I think blacks are more likely to join a union because they see the direct correlation with a decent living and a path where their kids can do better than them. Given the fact that blacks historically have had hard times locking down decent and fair paying jobs, joining a union is putting yourself in a fair playing field. A place where you won’t have to worry if someone is getting paid more, or getting better benefits, everyone is one and everyone is family.
There is no discrimination, and it is also a place where if you work hard, you can look yourself in the mirror and be proud of yourself and your union.
Dr. Steven Pitts, researcher and writer of the report and labor policy specialist at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, says the unemployment crisis facing the black community is regularly discussed; however, less talked about is the crisis of low-wage work, and the center wanted to use this research to highlight a solution to this issue: unions.
“[The black jobs crisis] is not just an individual problem, it’s a structural problem that can be solved by organizing,” says Pitts. “Unionization is a strategy to address the jobs crisis.”
As the AFL-CIO looks for new ways to tackle the future of the labor movement, Pitts says black unionists are an underutilized resource given the high rates of union density for African Americans. Pitts points to the lessons from the Chicago Teachers Union strike. Because the teachers had good relationships with the black community and parents, they “staved off divisions between unions and members of the community to improve the quality of life.”
“If we’re trying to look for new pathways forward, black unionists are key.”
This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on April 24, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Arlene Holt Baker has experience as a union and grassroots organizer that spans more than 30 years. On Sept. 21, 2007, she was approved unanimously as executive vice president by the AFL-CIO Executive Council, becoming the first African American to be elected to one of the federation’s three highest offices and the highest-ranking African American woman in the union movement. In this position, Holt Baker builds on her legacy of inspiring activism and reaching out to diverse communities to support the needs and aspirations of working people.
Monday, April 22nd, 2013
On February 19, 2006, an explosion in a coal mine in northern Mexico known as Pasta de Conchos trapped 65 miners. The accident became a milestone in the career of Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, general secretary of the National Mining and Metal Workers Union (known as Los Mineros), who accused Grupo México—the mine’s owner—and the government of having ignored complaints about safety conditions at the mine, and of trying to cover up the tragedy. Two weeks after the explosion, Gómez fled Mexico amidst death threats and criminal charges leveled against him by the government, which labor leaders described as trumped-up. Working from Canada, he has become an increasingly prominent leader in the international solidarity and global unionism movement. He serves on the executive committee of Industri-ALL, a global union coalition representing 50 million workers.
Gómez was born in Monterrey, Mexico, an industrial city not far from the U.S. border. His father was a miner who became general secretary of the Mineros union in 1960, and was one of the country’s best-known labor leaders as well as a congressman and senator. As a boy, Gómez often tagged along with his father and developed respect for the labor movement and the miners he represented. After studying economics at Mexico’s Autonomous National University andOxford University, Gómez served for 12 years as director of the Mexican Mint, responsible for fabricating money for more than 20 different countries. He also ran unsuccessfully for governor of the state of Nuevo Leon as a candidate for Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), despite lacking the support of the corrupt PRI President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
When Gómez’s 86-year-old father could no longer continue leading the union, Gómez took overin 2000 in what was meant to be a temporary position. But his dedication to the union—at a time when other Mineros leaders proved more loyal to the companies—won over the membership, and in 2002 he was elected general secretary. In 2008 he was re-elected in exile, and he nowleads the union from Canada.
Gómez spearheaded a groundbreaking partnership between the Mineros and the United Steelworkers, initially formalized in 2005 and then expanded in 2011 and titled the North American Solidarity Alliance. Since the unions represent workers employed by many of the same companies in Canada, Mexico and the United States, they collaborate closely in bargaining situations as well as in larger strategy.
Gómez is also the author of the new book Collapse of Dignity: The Story of a Mining Tragedy and the Fight Against Greed and Corruption in Mexico (BenBella Books), which includes a foreword by United Steelworkers International President Leo W. Gerard.
Gómez spoke recently with In These Times by phone from his home in Vancouver.
What are the main points that you want people to take away from the book?
This is a story of what we have lived in the seven years since the Pasta de Conchos explosion. Grupo México, in collusion with the government of then-president Vicente Fox, shut down the mine after only five days of trying to rescue workers. They abandoned 65 miners without knowing if they were dead or alive. So the families and the union accused the company ofindustrial homicide—what you in North America might call “corporate murder.” In response, the Mexican government launched a smear campaign against me and other leaders of Los Mineros.
Is the union still making demands regarding Pasta de Conchos?
Yes. First, to retrieve the bodies. Second, investigate what happened. Third, demand that Grupo México be sued for their criminal negligence. And fourth, that the widows and families must be compensated with dignity and justice.
During the Pasta de Conchos incident, Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) controlled the government. Have things changed at all now that PRI is back in power?
With PRI the relations are beginning to be better in terms of having at least some dialogue and communication with the government, which we lost with the right-wing governments of formerPAN Presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón. In October 2012, PAN made reforms in the labor laws that went against workers’ rights, against the collective bargaining agreements. These reforms give the Mexican government much more power to act against unions, particularly democratic and independent unions, so that is why we’re still not very clear what path this new PRI government is going to follow.
How is the drug war affecting workers and the union movement in Mexico?
The drug war has created insecurity in the country, and it’s affecting some mining regions. In some cases, the drug cartels control mines, like in the north of Mexico where the coal mines are. This problem has been officially recognized by the government. So we’re trying to do as much as we can to keep out the influence of these cartels in these regions. We have succeeded in most of the cases, but in some others, yes, the labor situation has been affected by this drug war.
How is the alliance with the Steelworkers going?
The partnership is very, very strong. The Steelworkers have been very committed to supporting our struggle from the beginning. We have a lot of coordination and frequent meetings. We share ideas and experiences. This is the best way to protect workers’ rights. Globalization tends to of course diminish the power of the unions. In 2005, Leo Gerard, the president of the Steelworkers, and I signed this strategic alliance in which we say, “If the world economy is globalizing, we should also globalize our efforts, our experiences and our negotiations.”
How did you feel about all the attention given the rescue in 2010 of the Chilean miners?
In Chile it was a moral victory for the mineworkers. In Mexico it was a shame, since in Chileworkers were rescued, while in Mexico they were abandoned. Grupo México has great influence. They spend a lot of money in controlling the media, and they never want to talk about Pasta de Conchos. February 19 was the seventh anniversary of the tragedy of Pasta de Conchos and we had rallies and demonstrations in Mexico City and in more than 30 countries during the international days of action in solidarity with Los Mineros. Grupo México tried not to have this news published openly in Mexico.
How can we demand accountability from the mining industry?
Since this conflict began, I’ve been addressing members of [Mexico’s] Congress, saying that we need to pass a law that penalizes mining corporations for criminal negligence. We have got some improvements, but we still don’t have the final law that we would like to be adopted or implemented. A special commission in Congress is trying to make some reforms and introduce a bill.
Is there a role for international law?
We submitted a complaint to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., and we submitted another complaint to the International Labor Organization (ILO). The ILO condemned the company, but we’re still waiting for the response from the Mexican government.
If Congress does pass immigration reform in the United States, how would that affect both workers and unions in Mexico?
First, it will give a measure of certainty to the migrants in the United States. But the Mexican government must also create an opportunity for Mexicans to stay in their country and work and have well-paid, permanent jobs.
How does the labor movement in Canada compare to that in the United States and Mexico?
We have studied the systems they have in organizing, in collective bargaining agreements. The labor movement in Canada is well organized and very strong, but they are not as passionate as we are. North American union leaders have learned from us that in Mexico we need stronger and better jobs at higher wages so that people stay in our country, and we can have a mutually respectful relationship with the Canadian and the American unions.
This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on April 12, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work.
Friday, April 12th, 2013
Last June, Cablevision workers in the Bronx voted against joining the Communications Workers of America by a landslide, with 43 workers voting in favor of unionization and 121 workers voting against it. Now, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) says that it plans to file a complaint against Cablevision, accusing the company of engaging in illegal conduct in the lead-up to the election.
On Monday, the NLRB said that it had authorized the issuance of a complaint against Cablevision, having found that two days before the Bronx election, in a speech to workers, Cablevision CEO James Dolan personally threatened to deny job and training opportunities to workers who voted for the union. The NLRB also accuses Cablevision of attempting to deter workers from joining unions by excluding Brooklyn Cablevision workers —who voted to unionize in early 2012—from the raises the company gave to thousands of non-unionized Cablevision workers.
CWA said the NLRB complaint vindicated its belief that Cablevision has acted illegally in order to prevent workers from joining the union.
“Whether it’s interfering with a fair election in the Bronx, or refusing to sign a fair contract in Brooklyn, Cablevision’s behavior is despicable and shameful,” said Chris Calabrese, executive vice president of CWA Local 1109 and the lead organizer in CWA’s contract campaign for Cablevision workers in Brooklyn. “There’s no excuse for any business to intimidate its workers in an effort to prevent them from exercising their right to organize and join a union.”
Cablevision has denied the charges.
“The CWA’s allegations are not accurate and are part of the CWA’s ongoing campaign to damage Cablevision’s reputation,” Cablevision spokesperson Whit Clay said in an email to Working In These Times. “This complaint is not a finding of any wrongdoing and now the matter will proceed to an administrative law judge and we look forward to an impartial hearing so that the facts can be fully understood.”
NLRB Region 2 Director Karen Fernbach told the New York Times that “the NLRB would ask a judge to order Cablevision to desist from engaging in any future illegal activities should the communications workers seek another unionization vote in the Bronx.” However, before the case goes before a judge, the NLRB is offering Cablevision a chance to reach a settlement.
CWA did not seem optimistic that Cablevision would allow the case to go to trial.
“We predict that James Dolan will try to sweep these charges under the rug by seeking a settlement of the complaint with the NLRB,” Calabrese said. “He knows his actions were so egregious that no judge will find him innocent. If there was no guilt on his part, surely an individual of his reputation would have the courage of his convictions to stand trial and prove his innocence.”
Cablevision did not respond to a request for comment on Calabrese’s prediction that the company would seek a settlement.
This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on April 9, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Mike Elk is a Pittsburgh native and labor journalist for In These Times. His investigative work has been cited on the front page of the New York Times and debated by Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Walters on ABC’s The View. Elk won a Sidney Award for his coverage of how corporations crafted legislation to exempt prison labor from U.S. minimum wage laws.