Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘unions’

Amazon Worker: Why We’re Bringing the Climate Strike to Jeff Bezos

Friday, September 13th, 2019

Two months after Amazon warehouse workers across the globe staged a one-day strike, the great “disruptor” is facing another workplace disruption—this time by tech workers at its Seattle headquarters.

The group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice announced this week that it would join the September 20 Global Climate Strike led by 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg. The employees are calling on Amazon to commit to zero emissions by 2030, cancel the company’s custom contracts that accelerate gas and oil extraction, and cease funding climate denying lobbyists and politicians.

The last year has seen rank-and-file tech workers walk out over sexual harassment at Google and sales to migrant detention centers by the online retailer Wayfair. Tech workers have also organized a wider movement called #TechWontBuildIt to oppose contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.

But according to Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, next week’s walkout will be the first one by workers at the company’s corporate offices, as well as the first walkout in the tech industry over the climate crisis. More than 1,000 employees have currently pledged to participate via an online form.

The action grew out of a push by Amazon employees earlier this year to pass a shareholder resolution asking Jeff Bezos to create a comprehensive climate change plan. After a group of workers announced their intention to introduce this resolution, Amazon responded by announcing a “Shipment Zero” program to make 50% of its shipments carbon-neutral by 2030. More than 8,000 Amazon employees signed an open letter in April deriding this plan as inadequate and calling on the company to do more.

In May, shareholders voted down the climate resolution, but the group continued organizing as Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ).

In These Times spoke to Catherine Han, a software developer at Amazon, about the historic walkout and what it’s like to organize tech workers.

Have you been a part of workplace organizing or actions before?

No, this is the first time I’ve been involved in something like this.

How did you get involved in Amazon Employees for Climate Justice?

Environmental stewardship has always been something I was really passionate about. But my involvement had mostly been volunteer work—with different conservancy groups, trail work, things like that. Nothing super formal.

At work, a lot of my coworkers are very environmentally conscious. We would have a lot of conversations about climate change and what we could do, but it was always from a personal standpoint. Joining a group at work hadn’t really occurred to me.

I heard about this group after the shareholders letter announcement last year, and getting involved has been a really eye-opening experience for me. We are bringing a voice to this huge problem that had previously felt like a lot of individual concerns.

Why did the group decide to go on strike?

The call to action for the climate strike really came from the youth who were organizing it. They put out a call to action for a global movement, and we wanted to show solidarity and respond to that call, and also to push Amazon to show climate leadership.

Has it been difficult to get co-workers on board?

There have been a lot of very positive responses and a lot of easy conversations.

I think some of the more negative or hesitant reactions are often from people who are inexperienced with organized action. So it’s just discomfort with the unknown.

I think there’s broad agreement that being a tech worker at one of the most powerful tech companies in the world is an opportunity to raise the visibility of the climate crisis and show what we expect from our leadership.

If we can come together and have a company-wide commitment to get to zero emissions by 2030, that will empower workers to actually come up with the specifics we need to meet that.

What do you think of Amazon’s response to the climate crisis so far? Your group has pointed out some of the problems with the “Shipment Zero” plan Amazon announced earlier this year. While the company has pledged to make half of its shipments carbon-neutral by 2030, for example, this could still mean a net increase in emissions if shipments continue to grow.

For us, just given the science and the time we have left to make a substantial impact on the trajectory of the climate crisis, Shipment Zero isn’t anywhere near aggressive enough.

The important thing was that this came as a response to the shareholder letter. So one of the biggest takeaways for me was that organized action does work. As the result of the shareholder letter, we saw a positive response from Amazon. For me, that was really empowering to see, and it makes me optimistic about the walkout and the power of that.

Was that the first time you’ve seen the success of collective action?

I really saw the power of organized action a few years ago during the women’s march. I went to the Seattle march and it was one of the first organized actions that I had participated in. Seeing power in numbers was really eye-opening for me.

My experience with the climate change movement within Amazon has been similar. For a lot of people, this is their first time being involved in an organization like this. I think that finding a voice together has been a very transformational experience for a lot of people who have been involved.

Earlier this year, workers across Europe, as well as Minnesota and Chicago, staged coordinated walkouts and other actions on Prime Day. Working conditions in Amazon warehouses are often very bad, and there are a lot of environmental justice issues associated with them—warehouses are more likely to be located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, and cause air pollution, noise, traffic safety and other issues in the surrounding area.

Do you see the climate organizing you’re doing as related to organizing by warehouse workers?

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice was definitely in support of the strikes. We’re focused on climate justice, and part of the climate crisis is that there is a disproportionate impact on impoverished communities.

We released a solidarity statement that articulates this:

Lending our support to our coworkers in Minnesota is a natural part of our climate justice priorities. We cannot create a sustainable, long-term approach to addressing the climate crisis without addressing structural racial and economic inequities that are part of our system of extraction — of energy, material, and human labor — that have caused the crisis.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

The Next Wave of Labor Unrest Could Be in Grocery Stores

Tuesday, September 10th, 2019

On August 24, members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555 overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike for 20,000 grocery employees at Safeway, Albertsons, QFC and Fred Meyer locations in the Pacific Northwest. That move came roughly two months after members of the union voted to authorize a strike for about 46,000 grocery employees in southern and central California, and four months after the union declared victory in New England following a successful 11-day strike by Stop & Shop workers.

The workers in California have reportedly reached a tentative deal that could avert a strike, but whether or not union members vote to ratify the agreement won’t be known until later this week.

Grocery workers in the Pacific Northwest are demanding higher wages and an end to the gender pay gap that permeates their stores. They have established proof for the latter, commissioning a third-party group to produce a report on the issue. The research group Olympic Analyticslooked at the data on hourly wage, gender, age, years of Fred Meyer experience, and job title for 1,919 Fred Meyer workers employed in the area. It found that women are almost twice as likely to be given lead positions, but make about an average of $1.68 less than their male counterparts at those positions. In 2018, nearly 80% of the store’s bakery employees were women, while the higher-paying produce department was male-dominated. The gap between these two departments has barely shifted over the last 81 years: The pay gap between the two departments was 27.3% in 1937 and had only dropped to 21.5% by 2018.

Jane Thompson has been working at a Fred Meyer store in Bend, Oregon for 18 years, and has been in the Seafood Department for 12 of them. She hopes the strike authorization vote will lead to better pay for her and her co-workers. “The company keeps taking more and more away from us,” she told In These Times. According to the U.S. Census, the population of Bend increased by almost 30% between 2010 and 2018. While the boom has meant more customers, Thompson said it hasn’t meant additional hires or higher pay. “I’m doing the job of two people now,” said Thompson.

Ann Poff is a member of the union’s bargaining committee and has worked as a deli clerk at Safeway for nearly 22 years. She currently makes $1.85 above minimum wage, but the minimum wage is set to increase in Oregon over the next few years. This means that she’ll make just $1.45 above minimum wage for two years, before making just 75 cents above it in the year after that. “The minimum wage is going up, but our wages are going down,” she reasoned. According to Poff, when she once asked to be transferred to a different position, her request was denied despite having spent over 20 years on the job. A male co-worker with less than a year of experience was allowed to switch to the position instead, she said.

At the last bargaining meeting, the employers actually offered a proposal that inexplicably paid many departments less than minimum wage by the year 2022. When confronted about this fact, management offered a mere dime over the state’s minimum wage. “Fred Meyer/Kroger seem to be oddly comfortable being known as the grocer who profits off the devaluation of their workers…specifically women,” said the union in a statement.

Local 555’s president has indicated that there is a “high likelihood that we will see an economic action taken against stores in the near future” and has promised to release details before September 10. Meanwhile, California grocery workers at Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions stores have been working without a contract since March and have already voted to authorize a strike. On September 8, it was announced that the union and the employers had reached a tentative deal, but members have yet to vote on it and no details have been released.

This isn’t the first labor fight that has gripped the grocery industry this year. In April, roughly 31,000 employees at the New England grocery chain Stop & Shop went on strike at over 240 stores. The workers, who were also represented by the UFCW, were fighting against attacks on their pensions, rising healthcare costs, and the potential elimination of certain overtime pay. After striking for 11 days, the union agreed to a new contract and announced that the company had met their major demands. Ahold Delhaize, Stop & Shop’s parent company, says that the strike cost them $345 million.

That number might be frightening for the grocery employers currently facing potential strikes, but it’s also caught the eye of right-wing, anti-labor forces. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation aims to damage organized labor by fighting compulsory union membership in courts. Most notably, it was one of the groups that represented child support specialist Mark Janus, who ultimately achieved a massive victory for the political right at the Supreme Court. The group has filed two unfair labor practice charges against Stop & Shop for an employee named Matthew Coffey who opposed the strike.

Sam Hughes is a social media coordinator at UFCW and a former deli worker at Fred Meyer. Hughes, who prefers “they” pronouns, told In These Times that they had to work additional jobs because they often couldn’t get enough hours from the store. “I found myself being paid low wages on food stamps, cutting deals with my landlord just to afford below-market rent,” said Hughes. Hughes also said the strike authorization vote was a way to fight against the “dehumanization of workers,” and that related labor victories throughout the country underscored an important point: “There’s a lot more of us than there are of them.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 09, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements.

The Future of U.S. Jobs Looks Bleak. Unions Are the Answer.

Friday, September 6th, 2019

Image result for heidi shierholzWe were just handed a wake-up call. Newly released numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics project that six of the ten occupations expected to have the most total job growth over the next decade pay less than $27,000 a year. Three of those six are low-paying jobs in the restaurant industry. Even more striking is the concentration of low-paid healthcare jobs at the top of the list, with personal care aides at number one and home health aides at number four. These jobs are disproportionately held by women and by people of color.

The low earnings in these fast-growing jobs provide a grim glimpse into what the future of work in the United States will look like if nothing changes. But this future is not ordained. These jobs pay poorly  because we allow it. Weak labor standards (such as a low federal minimum wage and weak overtime protections), weak enforcement of these standards, and labor law that does a poor job of protecting workers’ right to unionize, all mean employers have the power to suppress workers’ wages. This will continue to be the case unless we, as a society, make different choices—choices that empower workers and give them more power in their workplaces.

For those who might respond that these low-paid workers should just go to college to get a decent-paying job, the new BLS data has an answer for you. In 2028, only 27.2 percent of jobs will be in occupations where a college degree (or more) is typically required. In other words, even in nine years, a college degree won’t actually be required for a huge share of the jobs employers will need workers to do. If everyone gets a college degree, those non-college jobs will simply be filled by college grads. Put yet another way, college cannot solve this. Unless you’re willing to write off almost three-quarters of the labor market as undeserving of a decent job, we need another approach. We need to make sure even those 72.8 percent of jobs that don’t require a college degree are good jobs.

The good news is that we know how to do that. We must implement strong labor standards, strong enforcement of those standards, and reform labor law so that workers who want to join a union are able to do so. As we think about these different choices for our future, it’s worth noting that manufacturing jobs weren’t always good jobs—in fact, they were often terrible, and dangerous. Unionization changed that. Unionization could do that for the fast-growing jobs of the future, too.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 5, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Heidi Shierholz is Senior Economist and Director of Policy at the Economic Policy Institute. From 2014 to 2017, she served the Obama administration as chief economist at the Department of Labor.

Don’t Subsidize Companies That Silence Workers

Wednesday, September 4th, 2019

tom-lewandoskiWill America finally grant its workers First Amendment rights?

The Constitution guarantees “freedom of speech,” the right to “peaceably assemble,” and the right to petition for “a redress of grievances.” Yet these civil rights are commonly denied to workers.

Sure, we can say what we want, but we pay a high price to speak — often losing our jobs, health care, and benefits for our families. But we pay an even higher price for not speaking.

In 2016, Kyaw Kyaw, 50, died on the job at Nishikawa Cooper, a manufacturer of auto parts in Fort Wayne, Indiana, leaving a grieving wife and family.

More than 100 of his coworkers — refugees and freedom fighters who fled Myanmar’s oppression — subsequently petitioned corporate headquarters over issues of discrimination, health, and safety.

Saw Eh Dah circulated the petition — and was then fired.

In 2018, Shacarra Hogue, a 23 year-old college student, was gruesomely crushed to death in a massive press on her fourth day on the job at Fort Wayne Plastics. Equipment manufacture safety restraints had been purposely removed.

Shacarra’s co-workers knew the job was dangerous but felt coerced to say nothing for fear of losing their jobs. Now many of her traumatized former coworkers commonly think, “If only I had said something.”

Deaths like these often go ignored unless family members and fellow workers fight back. Still, the best they often receive is a modest legal settlement — and a demand to sign a non-disclosure agreement to silence them.

This leaves other workers — and all of us — vulnerable.

Boeing workers in Renton, Washington were silenced when they tried to sound the alarm about the 737Max’s deadly safety problems. It took two crashes and 346 deaths before government and the media took an interest in the complaints of muzzled workers.

Now, according to Morningstar, the Boeing effect is “rippling through the U.S. economy, hurting the nation’s trade balance, and clouding the outlook for airlines, suppliers and their tens of thousands of workers.”

Back in Indiana, BAE, a link in the Boeing supply chain employing over 800 workers in Fort Wayne, is reducing overtime hours. The shop floor buzzes with talk of an impending lay-offs.

Boeing, its manufacturing supply chain, and the broader airline industry are subsidized by tax dollars. BAE, as well as Nishikawa and Fort Wayne Plastics, have been sometimes lavished with federal, state, or local government aid, too.

Incentives, abatements, loans, facilities, services, and training dollars are often granted to employers in the name of economic development by our elected officials. Multiple governmental entities essentially serve as covert co-employers, complicit in the silencing of workers.

Maybe holding governments liable as co-employers — or assigning elected officials a measure of fiduciary responsibility — might incentivize the government to honor workers’ First Amendment protections.

For instance, elected officials could mandate that their contracted employers no longer compel employees to sign nondisclosure agreements. Officials could also do a better job at vetting aid recipients, denying subsidies to employers with histories of sexual harassment or safety violations.

More substantively, governments could require employers receiving public largesse to recognize workers’ National Labor Relations Act protections, so employees could freely testify about safety issues or workplace abuse.

Firing or punishing workers for responsibly speaking, petitioning, and assembling would be illegal, punishable, and subject to remediation. Workers, as material witnesses and taxpayers, could petition the government to “redress grievances” and inform public policy.

And of course, they would be free to start a union without retribution.

First Amendment rights for workers are not an entitlement but a responsibility. And all of our well-being depends on their being honored.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on September 4, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Lewandowski is co-founder and director of the Workers’ Project in Fort Wayne, Ind.

In Praise Of Scabby The Rat

Wednesday, September 4th, 2019

Giant balloons apparently terrify Peter Robb, who is Donald Trump’s hand-picked general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Big balloons shaped like rats, cats, pigs and cockroaches so frighten Robb that he has used his office to take extraordinary steps to outlaw them.

He won’t criminalize the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. The massive SpongeBob SquarePants, Mickey Mouse and Angry Bird inflatables will survive his extermination. Only the somewhat smaller balloons floated by labor unions offend Robb. He wants the NLRB to trample labor unions’ First Amendment right to buoyant protests.

This petty attempt to deflate labor power symbolizes just how far the Trump administration will go to crush the very workers that Trump constantly pledged to protect during his campaign. In 2.5 years, his administration has refused to raise the 10-year-old minimum wage, significantly diminished the number of workers who will be eligible for overtime pay under new regulations, petitioned to decertify the immigration judges’ union, issued executive orders making it easier to fire federal workers and weakening their unions, and failed to secure for workers that $4,000 raise that Trump pledged his tax cuts for the rich would provide – to name a few betrayals.

But nowhere is the campaign to trample workers worse than it is at Trump’s rigged NLRB.

Just to be clear, the point of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, was to encourage unionization. This was during turbulent times. From 1933 through 1935, more than a million workers a year launched thousands of walkouts, sit-down strikes and picket lines. These actions significantly disrupted a depressed economy.

The law formalized a process under which workers could form unions and bargain for better pay and benefits. As a result, it virtually eliminated the need for one type of strike – those to demand that corporations recognize labor unions.

The NLRB, created by the National Labor Relations Act, is supposed to safeguard workers’ rights to organize.

In an 80th NLRB anniversary commemoration document, former board chairman Mark Gaston Pearce wrote:  “Enacted during the Great Depression, the Act was designed to restore prosperity – to put more money in the pockets of working Americans, by making it possible for them to organize labor unions and to engage in collective bargaining with their employers.

When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the law in 1935, he said that its goal was to achieve ‘an act of both common justice and economic advance.’ Since then, millions of American workers have freely chosen to join unions, and collective bargaining has helped Americans to build and keep a middle-class society, through good economic times and bad.”

Under the Trump administration, however, the NLRB is systematically thwarting workers’ attempts to organize. Trump appointed the three Republicans on the board, who dominate the four-member panel.

Trump’s appointees spent careers representing corporations against unions or serving the GOP. Robb falls into the same category. Also, he was instrumental in helping former President Ronald Reagan destroy the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, fire the 11,000 workers and replace them. Many labor historians believe this permanently changed U.S. labor relations, encouraging corporations to permanently replace strikers and break unions.

The anti-union labor board is defying a pro-union environment in this country. A 2018 survey found 62% of Americans approve of unions, a 15-year high. Another 2018 survey found that 48 percent of nonunion workers would join if given the opportunity. That is a sharp rise over the percent in two earlier surveys and suggests that 58 million American workers would sign up given the opportunity. That would quadruple the current number of union members.

Workers who want a union and those already in one had reason to believe Trump would support them.  Repeatedly on the campaign trail, Trump said, “The jobs, incomes, and security of the American worker will always be first priority.” Workers represented by labor unions earn more money, receive better benefits and labor in safer conditions than those who are not organized. If a president’s first priority is workers’ jobs, incomes and security, then his labor board would protect union rights, not upend them.

Trump’s NLRB, however, is reversing gains workers received under the Obama NLRB. In addition, the Trump NLRB is going the extra mile to undercut workers’ rights – including contending that protest balloons, such as the rat nicknamed Scabby, must be deemed illegal because the inflatable animals “coerce” employers to do unions’ bidding.

A good example is the Trump NLRB’s divergent positions on the speed of elections.

The NLRB believes delaying elections sought by unions is fine but those sought by employers must be sped up. This is significant because when workers want the NLRB to conduct an election to determine if more than half of employees want union representation, corporations often hire union-busting law firms to arm-twist workers to vote no. Corporations want extra time before a union election so they can pinpoint and fire union organizers and conduct forced-attendance meetings with workers during which they threaten to close or move the factory if workers vote for the union.

Labor organizers want the election held as soon as possible after they determine they have sufficient support. The Obama NLRB issued rules providing for quicker elections, but the Trump board has made it clear it intends to kill them.

When workers want more time before an election, however, the Trump NLRB plans to deny that. The board in August issued proposed regulations to make it easier for corporations to destroy unions, including refusing to delay a union decertification voteafter a labor organization files unfair labor practice charges. That way, union leaders will have less time to persuade wavering members that they should vote to retain representation, even when employers have violated labor law by threatening and haranguing workers.

In July, the NLRB decided that a corporation may withdraw its recognition of a union – even when the union is able to present evidence that a majority of workers, in fact, support the union. This new rule, created out of whole cloth, forces the union to seek an NLRB election to reinstate it as the bargaining representative and gives the company time to bully or bribe workers into voting no. In the specific case the NLRB reviewed, the company went with a bribe. It announced wage and benefit hikes immediately after it withdrew recognition of the union, in effect telling workers they didn’t need representation because the benevolent corporation would take care of them.

This is the kind of situation that union workers might protest with a Scabby the Rat balloon, or giant inflatable “pluto-cat” dressed as a CEO and clutching a worker by the neck. Or a floating cockroach or flying pig.

The NLRB and courts, most recently on June 19, have repeatedly upheld the legality of such protests. But Robb doesn’t care. He says they’re all wrong. Robb has instructed a regional office to file a complaint against a union for protesting with a “pluto-cat,” and to use the case to overturn three previous decisions allowing balloons. So Scabby’s days may be numbered.

That is, until a union appeals the NLRB decision to a court. There’s no doubt a judge will once again rule that unions have the right to fly protest balloons. It may take until Labor Day 2020 for that decision to arrive, though.

This blog was originally published by the Our Future on September 4, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).

Unions work for building power—for all workers

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

There’s a lot to talk about on Labor Day, but we should take at least a moment to really acknowledge the difference unions make in the lives of working people in this country. Even after decades under assault from the bosses and the Republicans, even representing too few workers, unions boost their members—and not only their members, but more about that in a minute—to a living wage or into the middle class, they get people health coverage, and they reduce racial and gender inequality. Let’s take a look at some of the numbers, courtesy of the AFL-CIO:

  • People with a union have median weekly earnings of $1,051 as opposed to $860 for people without a union.
  • The median for black workers with a union vs. not is $826 vs. $673. For Latino workers, it’s $912 vs. $657. For Asian American workers, it’s $1,119 vs. $1,092.
  • Unions make a difference on benefits, too: 75% of people in a union have job-provided health insurance. For people not in a union, the rate is 49%.
  • In unions, 72% of people have guaranteed pensions, while just 14% of people not in unions have guaranteed pensions.
  • And 90% of people in a union have paid sick leave compared with 71% of people not in a union.

These days, unions represent less than 11% of workers—but that doesn’t mean they’re only making life better for 11% of workers. Take the strikes by teachers fighting not just for their own wages and benefits but for school funding and better staffing levels to give students what they need.Take the state and local minimum wage laws that unions have fought for across the country, which have boosted wages for millions of workers. Take the multiple studies that have found that unions reduce income inequality.

Workers shouldn’t have to rely on having a nice boss. They shouldn’t have to be grateful for a living wage. Worker power should be a real thing in this country, and unions are the best way we’ve found to get there. On Labor Day, let’s remember that.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on September 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

From Victories to Union Militancy, 5 Reasons for Workers to Celebrate This Labor Day

Friday, August 30th, 2019

Labor Day often gets short shrift as a worker’s holiday. Marked primarily by sales on patio furniture and mattresses, the day also has a more muddled history than May Day, which stands for internationalism and solidarity among the working class. Labor Day, by contrast, was declared a federal holiday in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland, fresh off his administration’s violent suppression of the Pullman railroad strike.

But Labor Day was first celebrated twelve years earlier, when a coalition of socialists and labor activists organized a mass march in New York City calling for shorter hours, safer working conditions, increased pay and a labor holiday. On September 5, 1882, 10,000 people took to the streets of New York instead.

That history, plus the simple fact that workers deserve more than one holiday, makes Labor Day worth celebrating. And this year, there are more reasons than usual for working people to rejoice.

The teacher strike wave rolls on

The wave of teacher strikes that began in red states last year has continued apace in some of the biggest U.S. cities. Earlier this year, Los Angeles teachers wrung a hard-won deal from their school district through a week-long strike.

A first-ever charter strike in Chicago last year kicked off a domino effect—more than 700 Chicago charter teachers at 22 different campuses have walked off the job in the past year, and they’re winning things previously unthinkable in the traditionally union-free charter industry.

An impending teacher strike in Las Vegas is drawing some creative solidarity from students, and the Chicago Teachers Union—whose 2012 walkout arguably laid the groundwork for renewed teacher militancy—could be on the verge of another massive strike.

Workers are winning strikes in the private sector, too

There’s an important caveat to statistics showing that the number of striking workers is at a two-decade high: Most of this strike activity is still limited to the public sector.

In the private sector, there is not yet an equivalent strike wave. There are, however, some encouraging signs. A rare, coordinated strike by workers at nearly 30 hotels in Chicago ended largely in victory (workers at one hotel are still holding out). This spring, locomotive plant workers in Erie, Pennsylvania staged a nine-day strike against the company that purchased their facility and attempted to impose significantly lower wages for new hires. Negotiations continued into the summer, and the deal the union eventually accepted included some concessions. But the strike against a two-tier wage system—long-ago conceded by most manufacturing unions—was an important sign of life in the once-militant sector.

Labor support for Green New Deal is on the rise

To hear the mainstream media tell it, blue-collar workers are united in their opposition to climate action. In June, Politico published an article citing local labor leaders who leveled a dire warning at Democrats: the Green New Deal is pushing members into the Republican camp.

In fact, a survey released this year from the think tank Data for Progress found that 62 percent of current union members back the GND. That figure suggests that while climate activists certainly can’t take labor’s backing as a given, there’s substantial support from workers—and the biggest factor in growing this support is organizing with labor to ensure that the Green New Deal benefits workers, and that they’re at the core of the fight to pass it.

This year, the Green New Deal picked up major endorsements from the Service Employees International Union and the Association of Flight Attendants led by president Sara Nelson. In May, Nelson spoke to In These Times about how Green New Deal advocates can engage labor:

Make labor central to the discussion, including labor rights, labor protections and labor expertise. We must recognize that labor unions were among the first to fight for the environment because it was our workspaces that had pollutants, our communities that industry polluted. Let’s not dismiss the labor movement. Let’s recognize and engage the infrastructure and experience of the labor movement to make this work.

Rank-and-file reformers are gaining traction

Speaking of Sara Nelson, her star has been rising since she called for a general strike to end the government shutdown in January, and she could potentially end up succeeding Richard Trumka as the next president of the AFL-CIO.

While they’re still few in number, it’s a breath of fresh air to see national labor leaders who come out of the rank-and-file use their positions to encourage, rather than stifle, independent action by workers, happily break bread with socialists and readily draw connections between labor issues and those of climate change and immigration.

Labor could actually make gains through the 2020 elections

Let’s be honest: Presidential elections have long been a dead-end for unions. Awarding early endorsements without member input and spending millions of dollars on behalf of candidates who won’t even talk about workers’ rights is not a winning strategy.

This year could be different.

With Democratic candidates scrambling to tack to the left, the primaries are also putting important labor policy ideas back on the table. As Jeremy Gantz reported in July, 2020 candidates are rushing to embrace worker-friendly policies in order to win labor’s support.

Bernie Sanders’ Workplace Democracy Plan, in particular, includes ideas that should get a full hearing—ending “at-will” employment, expanding workers’ rights to strike and permitting collective bargaining at the sectoral level.

Sanders is also using his campaign infrastructure to turn supporters out for strikes and labor actions, another welcome development for labor when it comes to presidential campaign season.

The U.S. labor movement may still be under siege, thanks to powerful anti-union forces, including the Trump administration. But with approval of unions at a 15-year high, and a wave of labor militancy on the rise, working people have plenty to celebrate this Labor Day.

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

A Worker’s Place Is in the Museum

Thursday, August 29th, 2019

Not many museums have mounted a collection of photographs and ephemera that chronicle the history of worker organizing and the labor movement. That’s not surprising. Museums and their special exhibits are underwritten by foundations, corporations and the very rich—funders that, by and large, are not known for their concern for those who toil for a living and seek to better their lives through union representation.

The annual Met Gala, the high-society benefit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, has revolved around couturiers like Coco Chanel and Alexander McQueen or sartorial themes from camp to Catholicism. Television viewers have yet, however, to see celebrities like Lady Gaga done up in a McDonald’s uniform or other industrial-designed attire walk the red carpet across David H. Koch Plaza—the $65 million gift to the Met from David H. Koch.

All of which makes City of Workers, City of Struggle: How Labor Movements Changed New York a rare and radical gem of a show.

One enters this special exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York through a montage of photographs of demonstrators holding placards that read: “Abolish Slavery,” “We Want Respect for Workers,” “Put Black Men to Work or Stop Construction,” “Mt. Sinai Workers Can’t Live on $32 a Week—On Strike” and “Carwasheros al Poder” (Power to the Carwashers).

The exhibit begins with the enslaved people of New York (40% of New York households owned one or more workers in colonial days) and continues through today’s movement of minimum-wage slaves and the Fight for $15.

If the overarching theme of City of Workersis collective action—how New Yorkers formed unions and gained better working conditions and better pay—the subtext is that cooperation among black, brown and white workers made those advances possible. In the age of Trump, that message bears repeating.

In the book that accompanies the exhibit, labor historian Joshua B. Freeman writes, “The city of New York would not exist in anything like its current form without the struggles of working people over the past three centuries.” Similar stories could be told of any number of cities across the country—cities where labor history exhibits could be mounted, if not for want of museum space, cities where the struggle of workers continues to this day.

City of Workers, sponsored by the union-friendly Puffin Foundation of Teaneck, N.J., is on exhibit through Jan. 5, 2020, at the Museum of the City of New York, just one mile north of the Met and across from Central Park. While you are there, check out Activist New York, a permanent exhibit on the city’s history of political agitation in the Puffin Foundation Gallery.

All images courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

 


(A few of the New York shirtwaist workers, most of whom were Jewish women, went on strike in 1909 for better pay, working conditions and shorter hours. The strike, known as the Uprising of the 20,000, targeted more than 600 garment shops and factories.)

 


(Frank J. Ferrell, a black delegate of the New York City chapter of the Knights of Labor addresses the group at their 1886 convention in Richmond, Va. When Ferrell was denied a room at a local hotel where he and his New York colleagues had a reservation, they decamped en masse for less racist accommodations.)

 


(This poster advertises a 1912 Milwaukee talk by Rose Schneidermann, a socialist feminist who had worked in the garment industry. Rose is best known for her speechthat same year to middle-class suffragettes in Cleveland: “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist … The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.”)

(In 1882, members of the Knights of Labor and the Central Labor Union gathered in New York’s Union Square for the first-ever Labor Day parade.)

 

(In 1965, in front of Macy’s, members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union picket Judy Bond, a “runaway plant” that had moved to the South. The union’s multi-year campaign included shopping bags that read, “Judy Bond Inc., On Strike, Don’t Buy Judy Bond Blouses.” According to the union, strikers handed out more than 3 million bags in 1963.)

 

(“Filthy Tenement House Cigar Factories” postcard, circa 1885.)

 

Amalgamated Dwellings is the oldest limited-equity housing cooperative in the U.S. Founded in 1927 in the Bronx by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the co-op was established to provide affordable housing for workers. Today, Amalgamated is home to more than 1,400 families.

 

(In 1936, in the Poconos, members of New York’s Communist-led Dressmakers’ Union (Local 22) relax at Unity House. Local 22 and Local 25 purchased the 750-acre retreat, which had formerly been a tony resort for German Jews, in 1919.)

This blog was originally published at In These Times on August 28, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.Bleifuss has worked at In These Times for 24 years, including as managing editor and senior editor. He tackles the state of national and international events with a blend of critical insight and humor, and over the years has developed a niche for investigative reporting.

His reporting on environmental health issues, national security scandals and the Iran Contra affair has landed in newspapers and magazines around the country, including the New York Times, the Utne Reader, the Capital Eye and many others.

He is the co-author of the book “Was The 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?,” with Steven F. Freeman.

Before joining In These Times, Bleifuss was director of the Peace Studies Program for the University of Missouri, a features writer for the Fulton Sun in Fulton, Missouri, and a freelance journalist in Spain.

Bleifuss currently serves on the advisory board of The Public Square, a program of the Illinois Humanities Council.

8 Unions Have a Plan for Climate Action—But It Doesn’t Mention Fighting the Fossil Fuel Industry

Tuesday, August 27th, 2019

On June 24, the BlueGreen Alliance—a national coalition which includes eight large labor unions and six influential environmental groups—released an eight-page document laying out its vision to curb climate change and reduce inequality. The report, dubbed Solidarity for Climate Action, marks a significant development in the world of environmental politics. It argues the needs of working people must be front-and-center as the U.S. responds to climate change, and rejects the “false choice” between economic security and a healthy planet.

While the report’s focus on public investment, good jobs and justice shares much in common with the federal Green New Deal resolution introduced in February, it also stands in tension with environmentalists who demand the U.S. work to transition more quickly away from oil, coal and natural gas. “We’d really like them to be stronger and more concise about what it means to move away from fossil fuels and transition to renewables,” said José Bravo, executive director of the Just Transition Alliance and speaking on behalf of the Climate Justice Alliance. Members of the BlueGreen Alliance say the ultimate goal should be to decarbonize the economy—to reduce CO2 emissions, but not necessarily end the fossil fuel industry itself, with its tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. Other climate groups say that won’t be enough, and humanity cannot afford to preserve industries that have caused so much environmental harm. This difference in vision will stand as one of the most fundamental political questions facing progressives in the next decade.

The report spells out a series of principles, including limiting warming to 1.5°C, expanding union jobs, modernizing infrastructure, bolstering environmental protections and rebuilding the nation’s manufacturing sector with green technologies. It also elevates the issue of equity, calling to “inject justice into our nation’s economy by ensuring that economic and environmental benefits of climate change solutions support the hardest hit workers and communities.” The BlueGreen Alliance emphasizes the disproportionate impact low-income workers and communities of color will face, and says those affected by the energy transition must receive “a just and viable transition” to new, high-quality union jobs.

To make its platform a reality, the BlueGreen Alliance endorses a host of specific policies and timetables, like reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, while being “solidly on a path” to that goal by 2030. Among other things, the report calls for measures like restoring forests and wildlands, cracking down on empl­oyee misclassification, making it easier to unionize one’s workplace, winning universal access to high-speed Internet, and “massive” economic investing in deindustrialized areas, “including remediating any immediate loss of tax base or public services for communities.”

Labor groups in the coalition include the United Steelworkers, the Utility Workers Union of America, the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, the Communications Workers of America, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, the Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers. The environmental organizations include the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Environmental Defense Action Fund, and the League of Conservation Voters.

Following the 2016 election, the coalition organized listening sessions with workers in communities that voted for Donald Trump, like in Macomb County, Michigan, and the Iron Range in Wisconsin. After those discussions, leaders started investing in broader polling, message-testing and focus groups. While opponents of regulating greenhouse gas emissions relish exploiting tensions between environmentalists and labor unions, Mike Williams, the deputy director of the BlueGreen Alliance, said it became clear from the research “that working people do quite care about climate change, but they also believe they should not be forced to make a choice between that and having a good job.”

“We went through a lot of iterations and a lot of conversations,” said Sara Chieffo, the vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. “There was real unanimity that we were solving the twin crises of inequality and climate change.”

Jeremy Brecher, the co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability, which supports organized labor in tackling climate change, tells In These Times that he sees the Solidarity for Climate Action report as “quite a significant stepping out” for the BlueGreen Alliance. “The BGA was basically [created in 2006] to advocate for the growth and quality of jobs in the clean economy,” he said. “It did not take positions on targets and timetables for carbon reduction, clean coal and the KXL pipeline. It was a green jobs organization, which is important in terms of understanding where the BGA was coming from.” Brecher says the BlueGreen Alliance’s new statement “about the pace of greenhouse gas emission reductions and the absolute centrality and necessity of it is an extremely positive development.”

Evan Weber, the political director and co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, agrees. “I think the platform represents a really historic step forward for a number of the nation’s largest and most influential labor unions,” he said. “It leaves some questions about what needs to be done, and we’d like to see more ambition, but it is really meaningful that these groups and unions have come to the table and shown that they’re willing to move forward and not stay in the ways of the past.”

The Green New Deal resolution was introduced in Congress as the BlueGreen Alliance hashed out its own proposal. The leaders of some labor unions in the BlueGreen Alliance that represent workers in the fossil fuel industry—including the Steelworkers and the Utility Workers—have publicly voiced criticism of the Green New Deal, blasting it for a lack of specifics. The federal resolution “certainly took over a big portion of the national climate conversation, and a few of our partners were supportive, but there is also skepticism from the labor side,” said Williams. “As we were working we said we need to focus on our own process to see where we can forge alignment.”

Some hope the BlueGreen platform can serve as a policy blueprint for moving forward on the Green New Deal. SEIU, which represents 2 million workers, is both a BlueGreen coalition member and the first international union to back the federal Green New Deal resolution. “SEIU members know that we must take bold, immediate action on climate change, including holding corporations accountable for rampant pollution and ensuring good union jobs as we transition to a clean energy economy,” president Mary Kay Henry told In These Times. “That’s why we are proud to support both the Green New Deal, our North Star for what needs to be accomplished on climate change, and the BlueGreen Alliance’s platform, a roadmap for how we can get there.”

The League of Conservation Voters also endorsed the Green New Deal resolution back in February, and Chieffo told In These Timesthat her group sees the Solidarity for Climate Action report as “a really essential addition” to the conversation. “We are proud to endorse the Green New Deal and I think it’s incredibly valuable to have these eight powerful unions at the table laying out a proactive vision for how we tackle climate change.”

In These Times reached out to the original co-sponsors of the Green New Deal, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey of (D-Mass.), for comment on the BlueGreen Alliance’s report.

Anika Legrand-Wittich, a spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez, said while she was unable to reach the Congresswoman for specific comment, she “confirmed with our staff that we have indeed worked with BlueGreen Alliance and share many of their goals.”

Giselle Barry, a spokesperson for Sen. Markey, pointed to a supportive tweet the senator posted following the report’s release. It signal boosted the BlueGreen Alliance platform, and reads, “Transforming our economy and combatting climate change will create millions of jobs, but it won’t be possible without our workers and their families. Great to see our allies in organized labor continuing to make climate action a top priority.”

New Consensus, a think tank working to develop policies for the Green New Deal, said in an email “We don’t have any comment on the BGA report at this time.”

Fossil fuels

Despite its generally positive reception, the Solidarity for Climate Action has not gone without critique — and some environmental groups and labor leaders have raised issues and questions about the platform.

“I don’t think it goes far enough in terms of moving us definitively off fossil fuels at the speed that is required,” said Weber of the Sunrise Movement.

Brecher, of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said while overall the report marks a “very big step forward” for unions, he thinks its language “can use a little tightening up” to prevent groups from having too much “wiggle room.” He specifically pointed to language that America should be “on a pathway” to reducing its emissions, and suggests that be more specific. “It is overall quite close to the Green New Deal resolution, which also has a little wiggle room,” he said. (For example, most action items in the Green New Deal come with the caveat of “as much as is technologically feasible.”)

Julian Brave NoiseCat, the director of Green New Deal strategy at Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, said his organization’s vision for climate action shares a lot of overlap with the BlueGreen Alliance platform. But he noted BlueGreen Alliance’s does not include a 100% clean energy commitment, nor explicit provisions to phase-out fossil fuels, and it does not include a 10-year mobilization, in line with the Green New Deal. He also said he wonders whether the BlueGreen Alliance would support a federal jobs guarantee, or some other federal work provision.

Erich Pica, the president of Friends of the Earth, a climate group, said while it’s significant to see the labor movement taking proactive steps on the environment, as well as seeing the report’s emphasis on justice and equity, he protested its lack of mention of fossil fuels, natural gas, oil or coal. “How do you have solidarity for climate action when you’re not proactively calling out the very fuel sources that we have to eliminate from the U.S. economy?” he asked. “It says a lot of great things about how we want the economy structured, but in many ways it papers over where some of the greatest disagreement is between parts of the labor movement and the environmental community.”

Pica also acknowledged that the Green New Deal resolution did not make any mention of fossil fuels. “We were critical of that, too,” he said.

Mike Williams, of the BlueGreen Alliance, said while he understands that critique, he also thinks “it’s a bit much” to expect this platform to call for banning fossil fuels. “Our goal is to get climate pollution out of our economy by a certain time to avoid as much warming as possible, so we established our platform with the methods we think will help get us to those goals,” he said. “The banning of fossil fuels — that’s pretty controversial to expect of the people who represent the human beings who work in that sector. This is tens of thousands of people who work in these industries, and for a union to step out and say we’re going to end your job and the promise of a new job is a wink and a nod and a handshake. Well America has never before followed through on any proper transition, save for maybe the New Deal for white dudes.”

From Williams’ perspective, demanding unions call for ending their own jobs, before any sort of real alternative agreement is in place, is simply unrealistic. “It’s so mind boggling to think that people who represent folks who work in those industries would jump so far out ahead of where their membership is, and without any real forthright and immediately implementable solution,” he said.

Pica, of Friends of the Earth, also critiqued the BlueGreen Alliance for making no gesture toward campaigns to keep fossil fuels in the ground. “It’s been the divestment fights, trying to get universities and cities to divest their money from fossil fuel companies, that has been the fuel of the climate movement over the last decade,” he said.

Williams said the absence of certain “buzzwords” doesn’t diminish from what the document accomplishes. “We’re on the same side, and I truly respect [the environmental critics] and I hear them, but this is about building a broader movement that can get bigger solutions across the line,” he said.

Carbon-capture technology

Perhaps the most polarizing policy endorsed by the Solidarity for Climate Action report is that of carbon-capture technology, a method backed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and supported by most of the labor movement. But among environmentalists it’s more divisive, as some argue it will prolong dependence on fossil fuels, be too costly, and make it harder to reduce emissions overall.

“The fact that it’s included in the BGA report I think is very unfortunate and something that realistically has no chance of making a significant contribution to climate protection,” Brecher said. “Some of the other environmental groups are more squishy.”

Pica called carbon-capture “an expensive detour to nowhere” that’s a “nonstarter and at worse feeds kind of feeds false hope.” In January more than 600 environmental groups sent a letter to Congress saying they will—among other things—“vigorously oppose” federal climate legislation that promotes “corporate schemes” like carbon-capture and storage. Brecher and Pica’s groups were among the signatories. While the Green New Deal resolution is ambiguous on carbon-capture, last week Sen. Bernie Sanders released his presidential climate plan, which includes opposition to the technology.

Phil Smith, a spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America, a labor union not represented in the BlueGreen Alliance, tells In These Times that there are aspects of the report his union agrees with, “especially with respect to carbon-capture technology.” But he critiqued it as not specific enough when it comes to defining what a “just transition” means. The platform calls for “guaranteed pensions and a bridge of wage support, healthcare and retirement security” until an impacted worker finds a new job or retires.

“Coal miners want to know what the hell you mean when you say you want a ‘just transition,’” Smith says. “Training to drive a truck is not a just transition. Training a miner to earn half of what they’re making now is not a just transition. … Our concern is once laws get passed to phase out carbon dioxide in 10 years, if we’re going to have a ‘just transition’ then we needed to be working on that 15 years ago. It’s just meaningless words on paper right now, and we keep seeing it over and over.”

Moving forward, members of the BlueGreen Alliance plan to promote the policies outlined in their new platform through legislative advocacy and local community organizing. In late July, the coalition sent a letter to the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), and its ranking member, John Shimkus (R-Ill.), encouraging them to consider the Solidarity for Climate Action platform as they proceed in Congress.

“I think the next phase of work is educating elected officials on what’s in the platform,” said Chieffo. “And then really rolling up our sleeves to craft the legislation and hopefully future executive branch options needed to deliver it.”

This article was originally published by In These Times on August 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington D.C. Follow her on Twitter @rmc031

Teachers union urges Senate to avert the next school shooting by passing gun laws now

Tuesday, August 27th, 2019

The American Federation of Teachers is calling on the Senate to pass gun legislation to help make schools and other public places safer. Randi Weingarten, the union’s president, addressed a letter to Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, urging them to hold a vote on an assault weapons ban, universal background checks, and red flag legislation.

”Tragically, too many of our nation’s schools and communities are being terrorized by the effects of gun violence,” Weingarten writes, according to a report in The Hill. “We must work to pursue and implement commonsense solutions to reduce these acts of violence.”

Weingarten describes the laws proposed as having “been informed by members’ firsthand experiences in schools and communities touched by gun massacres.”

It’s significant that the teachers union is focusing this message on the Senate, since it’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who is standing in the way of gun safety legislation—along with so much else.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on August 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.
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