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Dem campaigns bulk up with hiring spree

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

Daniel StraussSen. Elizabeth Warren has the largest staff in the 2020 Democratic presidential race. Sen. Bernie Sanders is close behind. And others trying to go big are weighing the dangers of the most expensive piece of the “invisible primary”: the people running the campaigns.

Warren had 303 people on her campaign payroll during the second quarter of the year, according to a POLITICO analysis of Federal Election Commission records. It’s a reflection of her campaign’s belief in the importance of early organizing, which is shared by Sanders’ campaign and its 282 people on salary and echoes the successful approach of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

The early size of the 2020 campaigns roughly illustrates the current tiers in the Democratic primary, with the top five candidates in polling and fundraising and several underdogs hoping to lay groundwork for a future leap among the leaders. No 2020 Democrat has yet matched the size of Obama’s early campaign operation, which employed a whopping 432 staffers at this point in 2007 as he and Hillary Clinton (339 staffers) prepared for their primary. A large team can create positive feedback loops for campaigns, Democratic operatives said — organizing and gathering more supporters, which leads to higher fundraising and momentum and can be reinvested in more staff to keep the cycle going.

But staff buildups are also fraught with danger, reliant on unpredictable future fundraising projections to sustain them and prevent financial ruin.

“Every staff decision in terms of scale is a calculated risk,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, the Democratic outside group focused on the 2020 presidential race. “Because you’re making some assumptions about whether or not you can sustain it over time.”

Warren and Sanders’ campaign staffs are well ahead of the next-biggest campaign — former Vice President Joe Biden’s — and the four others who have staffs numbering over 100: Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

And Warren won an early gamble on staff by turning in a massive second-quarter fundraising total, $19.1 million, after a much slower start to the year, meaning she can sustain the big campaign she’s building — which cost her nearly $4.2 million in salary, payroll taxes and insurance in the last three months. Warren has managed to fundraise competitively with her top 2020 rivals despite eschewing traditional campaign fundraisers and focusing on online contributions instead.

“Ultimately, the risk paid off,” Cecil said. “I think it’s especially important when you think about how quickly the primary calendar moves.”

Booker and O’Rourke don’t generally poll near the front of the pack, and both have struggled to fundraise at the same level as the top candidates in the primary. But the large number of staffers on their payrolls underscores that their respective campaigns are betting an early heavy investment in bodies will pay off later in the primary.

“A couple of these campaigns jumped out early and hired a bunch of staff and really put those folks off the table,” said Brandon Davis, a veteran Democratic strategist. “There was an opportunity, which I think was a strategic play for hiring this staff — and both having a good operation and taking some folks off the table [for other campaigns].”

But some campaigns still have to prove they can survive the costs imposed by their size. Past presidential elections are littered with examples of large campaigns flaming out, like Scott Walker’s short-lived White House bid in 2015, or massively downsizing to try to survive until the voting starts, like John McCain’s in 2007.

There are already signs of the financial stress imposed by hiring a big staff in 2019.

Just over half of Booker’s $5.3 million in total second-quarter expenses were on personnel (including salary, payroll taxes and insurance), and Booker spent $740,000 more than he raised from April through June. Personnel accounted for nearly one-fifth of O’Rourke’s outlays in the second quarter, when he raised $3.6 million but spent a whopping $5.3 million.

Even on the smaller end, staff can still squeeze an upstart presidential campaign budget. Staff costs helped put Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (66 people on salary) and Amy Klobuchar (79) in the red for the second quarter, though both, like Booker, have some cash leftover from their Senate campaign accounts to help handle the expense.

It’s clear why the campaigns want to build up in size, though, and spending breakdowns show how much campaigns value their manpower. Booker is the only candidate whose personnel spending accounted for the majority of overall spending in the second quarter, but Warren’s salaries, payroll taxes and insurance accounted for 39 percent of total expenses, while Sanders and Harris came in at 32 percent.

Steve Elmendorf, a deputy campaign manager on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, said that a large staff can be part of a feedback loop generating attention, fundraising and more staff hiring in a virtuous circle.

“It’s all self-reinforcing,” Elmendorf said. “They’re increasing their seriousness and get you paying more attention to them therefore they raise more money therefore they’re on the debate stage.”

That means a set of steps for the rest of the field, especially candidates who have been lagging in fundraising and polling.

“Everybody else has to figure out how they get in the game financially and get in the game in terms of the narrative out there,” Elmendorf said of the rest of the field. “I assume it’s go to the next debate and do what Kamala did which is try and create some conflict. Then they get noted then they can raise more money then they can hire more people.”

This article was originally published at Politico on July 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author:Daniel Strauss is a politics reporter. He previously covered campaigns and elections for Talking Points Memo and before that was a breaking news reporter for The Hill newspaper. Daniel grew up in Chicago and graduated from the University of Michigan where he majored in history.

Bernie’s Ideas And Biden’s Burden

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019

Anyway, my time is up. I’m sorry.” Joe Biden may have been talking about the timer, but his hapless performance in his first Democratic debate imparted an ironic twist to the words. This first debate of the season is but one of many, but it may well mark a turn in Biden’s prospects.

Slow, old, he seemed to have lost his fastball, and surely sowed doubts about the sole rationale of his candidacy: that he is the one who can take on Donald Trump.

Kamala Harris silenced the stage early in the second night’s debate, saying: “America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we are going to put food on their table.”

That pre-packaged line is, of course, wrong. Debate audiences tend to be more engaged voters. Most watch the debates like NASCAR fans watch the speedway: They may enjoy the jockeying of the cars, but they are waiting for the collision. What’s actually said in a debate—particularly about policy—has less import than the legend that gets formed about it in the days following in social and mass media. The put-downs and bust-ups are more memorable than the policy positions. Here are five takeaways from the first round of debate.

Bernie’s World

“First of all, I agree completely with Bernie about what the fundamental challenge we’re facing as a country is, 40 years of no economic growth for 90 percent of the American people…and the worst income inequality that we’ve had in 100 years.” Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, who has framed his campaign in opposition to Sanders’s reform proposals that he scorns as “candy,” acknowledged the force of the Sanders critique. Sanders, like Elizabeth Warren on the first night, was not particularly assertive in the debate. He didn’t interrupt or elbow his way into conversations, and didn’t unleash a memorable one-liner. As always, he stayed relentlessly on message.

Yet Sanders’s ideas now frame the debate in the Democratic Party—an extraordinary victory for progressives. Even Joe Biden now endorses a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free college, a Green New Deal, and—in reaction to Sanders’s call for Medicare for All—a public option in Obamacare. With Sanders and Warren leading the way, the Democratic candidates are forced to address the glaring, structural inequities and failures of our current system.

Biden would prefer a campaign focused on a restoration to normalcy after Trump. But even the moderate Democrats agree there is no going back. Trump is a symptom, not a cause; beating him is necessary but not sufficient. As Warren put it, “When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple. We need to call it out. We need to attack it head on. And we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy, and in our country.” Conservative pundits like David Brooks fret that Democratic populism will leave “moderates homeless.” In fact, the populist energy driving the debate gives whomever emerges with the nomination a far greater chance against Trump.

Biden’s Burden

Biden is particularly ill-equipped to deal with the progressive ideas and movements that are driving the debate. The new populist surge—on right and left—arises because of the catastrophic failures of the center that Biden personifies. Biden, a Democratic stalwart in the Senate and the Obama White House, is burdened with a record now exposed as continually getting it wrong. Harris defenestrated him on busing and on the harsh reality of the Obama deportation policy. Sanders took him on for supporting the war in Iraq, surely the greatest foreign policy debacle since Vietnam. Bennet challenged his boast about the Obama budget deal that kept most of the Bush tax cuts in place and put harsh lids on domestic spending. No one pressed him on his support for NAFTA, China in the WTO and the TPP, or his contribution to mass incarceration, but they will in the future. The list goes on. Experience is a wonderful asset, except when the record consists of one of one bad call after another. Biden had a bad night last night, but it could easily get worse.

Harris Breakout

Without question, however, what will be remembered from the two nights of debate is Harris’s charged exchange with Biden over his opposition to busing. “I don’t believe you are a racist,” she began, “but…” She was personal, forceful and direct. Biden’s response was bumbling and inept. Harris looked, as they say, like someone that just might be able to take on Donald Trump straight up.

Harris, whose chief advisers—led by her sister—come out of the establishment Center for American Progress and the Hillary Clinton campaign, has refashioned herself to fit the populist temper of the time. She now champions Medicare for All, tuition-free college, a $15 minimum wage, and the Green New Deal. She’s a staunch liberal on social issues. In the face of progressive doubts about her less-than-sterling record as California attorney general, she’s forcefully moved to more progressive positions in this campaign.

One of her best moments in the debate came early when—in Warren-Sanders fashion—she turned on a question on how to pay for the reforms, asking, “Where was that question when the Republicans and Donald Trump passed a tax bill that benefits the top 1 percent and the biggest corporations in his country…. For too long the rules have been written in favor of the people who have the most and not in favor of the people who work the most.” Warren or Sanders she is not, but she’s also not part of the nay-sayers arguing for incrementalism or a restoration of the past.

Up And Down

One debate doesn’t a campaign make, but with 20 candidates on the stage, keeping score in the early innings is useful. Clearly, on the first night, Warren stood out, Booker and Castro did well. Tulsi Gabbard eviscerated Representative Tim Ryan on Afghanistan. O’Rourke was schooled by Castro on immigration and looked hopelessly out of his depth. Bill de Blasio was more forceful than expected. Governor Jay Inslee and John Delaney did nothing to help their case.

The Money Question

Corey Booker was asked why he criticized Warren for “running around pointing at companies” like Facebook, Amazon, and Google that should be broken up. Booker reversed himself, shifting the focus to drug companies and Big Ag. The unspoken reality, of course, was that Democrats raising money from Wall Street and high-tech deep pockets may take up populist postures, but don’t want to bite the hands that feeds them. Joe Biden’s bad night began with the first question posed to him, asking, “What did you mean…?” when he told a group of wealthy donors that Democrats should not “demonize the rich,” and that “Nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living would change. Nothing would fundamentally change.”

On the second night, in his remorseless fashion, Sanders used his closing to lay down the marker for every candidate: “Nothing will change unless we have the guts to take on Wall Street, the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the military-industrial complex and the fossil fuel industry. If we don’t have the guts to take them on, we’ll continue to have plans, we’ll continue to have talk and the rich will get richer and everybody else will be struggling.”

As voters try to sort through the Democratic contenders, that is a pretty good standard to measure them by.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on July 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

Robert Borosage is a board member of both the Blue Green Alliance and Working America.  He earned a BA in political science from Michigan State University in 1966, a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1968, and a JD from Yale Law School in 1971. Borosage then practiced law until 1974, at which time he founded the Center for National Security Studies.

Will 2020 Be the Year Presidential Candidates Actually Take Labor Issues Seriously?

Wednesday, March 6th, 2019

Call it a sin of omission, but the historic decline of labor union power was on full display during recent CNN town hall meetings with 2020 Democratic presidential aspirants Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar.

All three nationally televised forums featured questions on a range of issues from students, nonprofit directors, community leaders and other traditional Democratic constituencies (including undisclosed lobbying firms), but not a single question was asked about national labor law.

It’s not just CNN, either. By and large, the announced 2020 presidential candidates have not spoken at length on the stump about their agenda for labor, at least not yet, instead sticking to broader themes such as economic inequality and policies like raising the minimum wage, Medicare-for-All, free college tuition and universal child care.

“The candidates are making a distinction between labor policy and labor issues,” David Yepsen, the host of Iowa Press and a leading expert on presidential politics, told In These Times. “It’s politically safer to talk about health care, expanded Medicare, and a higher minimum wage than it is to talk about things like card check.”

Most voters don’t understand the latter, even though you’ve got to do things like the latter to get the former,” Yepsen added. “If you don’t find ways to strengthen the labor movement, there isn’t going to be the political support to do the things needed to rebuild the working class.”

The failure of the Obama administration and a filibuster-proof Democratic congress to pass the 2009 Employee Free Choice Act is a good example. The legislation would have made it easier for workers to form a union with a simple 50 percent majority. But there was little political will by the Democratic leadership at the time to get it done given other priorities such as an economic stimulus, Obamacare, reining in Wall Street and withdrawing troops from Iraq.

The issue agenda of the Obama White House was perhaps justifiable at the time, but it also came with a steep opportunity cost. The Democrats’ failure to strengthen union bargaining and consolidate a working-class base of political support when they had the chance helped lead to an eventual Republican takeover of government between 2010 and 2016, paving the way for future attacks on labor by right-wing governors and the Supreme Court.

Has the new crop of 2020 presidential candidates learned this lesson? All of the declared candidates who are considered front runners have strong ties to organized labor.

With the notable exception of Klobuchar, nearly all of the senators running for president— Gillibrand, Harris, Warren and Booker—co-sponsored Sanders’ 2018 Workplace Democracy Act, which would overhaul existing labor law and make it easier for workers to form and fund their own unions.

“The Workplace Democracy Act is Sen. Sanders’ key labor union legislation,” a spokesperson for Sanders told In These Times.

According to Sanders’ congressional office, the Workplace Democracy Act would enable unions to organize through a majority sign up process; enact ‘first contract’ provisions to ensure companies cannot prevent a union from forming by denying a first contract; eliminate “right to work” laws; end independent contractor and franchisee abuse; legalize secondary boycotts and picketing; and expand the ‘persuader rule’ to weaken union-busting efforts.

As Sanders explained when introducing the latest iteration of the bill last year, “Corporate America understands that when workers become organized, when workers are able to engage in collective bargaining, they end up with far better wages and benefits… and that is why, for decades now, there has been a concentrated well-organized attack on the ability of workers to organize.”

Sanders, Harris and Warren have all also taken symbolic actions since announcing their presidential runs in order to highlight their close relationship with unions and the working class.

Warren, for example, formally announced her candidacy for president in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the site of the 1912 strike by textile workers known as the “Bread and Roses Strike.”

“Supporting labor and making it easier for American workers to join a union is absolutely a priority for Sen. Warren,” Jason Noble, Warren’s communications director, told In These Times. “She is a co-sponsor of the 2018 Workplace Democracy Act, introduced a bill in 2017 to ban “right to work” laws, and has been very vocal about the need for stronger labor organization and wider access to unions.”

Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Actwould also allow workers at corporations with more than $1 billion in revenue to choose up to 40 percent of the company’s board of directors, shifting the balance of power toward the rank-and-file.

California is one of the last remaining union strongholds in the country, and Harris has hired the former president of the state’s largest and most diverse labor union, SEIU’s Laphonza Butler, to be her senior campaign advisor.

“Sen. Harris is a strong and passionate supporter of organized labor and workers’ rights,” the Harris campaign’s national press secretary, Ian Sams, told In These Times.

“She’s sponsored multiple bills in the Senate, including Workers’ Freedom to Negotiate Act, WAGE Act, Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, Workplace Democracy Act, and Protecting Workers and Improving Labor Standards Act.”

In February, Sanders publicly jumped in on the side of striking workers in Erie, Pennsylvania after announcing his own 2020 candidacy. Since 2016, he has also joined workers in fights against Amazonand McDonalds, helping them to win major wage increases.

“Many blue-collar workers supported Trump in the last election,” Yepsen, the Iowa-based national political analyst, said. “Both presidential candidates and labor leaders have to figure out ways and messages to move them back onto the progressive side if they hope to get 270 electoral votes for a presidential candidate. The phrases ‘labor policy,’ ‘labor movement’ and ‘organized labor’ aren’t well understood by voters. ‘Health care’ ‘minimum wage’ and ‘improved education’ are understood. So give the candidates some credit for talking about important issues in a way people can understand.”

As Yepsen previously noted, however, this kind of thinking may help win elections, but it can also lead to a paradox. Focusing on easily-understood, ‘bread and butter’ issues—talking about working families but not union power—and relying on congressional voting records and scorecards instead of stump speeches and bold new proclamations won’t build a popular mandate for labor law reform, or the long term working-class political power that comes with it.

“Most Americans take for granted the things the labor movement has done for them over the decades—child labor, minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, health care,” Yepsen said. “A lot of workers have forgotten that too. The good news for labor is that people seem to be waking up. The polls show support for unions increasing and look at the success teachers have been having.”

On another measure, worker militancy has been on the rise—a record number of workers engaged in strikes or work stoppages in 2018. This increased labor action will have to be harnessed by voters in order to push even the strongest candidates into elevating union rights as a priority issue on the campaign trail.

Workers in early voting states can help do so by attending campaign events and asking the candidates to publicly explain their support for the Workplace Democracy Act—or whether or not they back a national “right to strike” law for public sector unions.

The more explicit presidential politicians are about labor rights on the stump, the more likely union power will become a “day one” issue if a Democratic president takes power in 2020. In the long run, this may be one of the only effective ways to both win progressive social change and defend workers’ gains from the inevitable right-wing counterattack.

About the Author: David Goodner is a writer, organizer and Catholic Worker from Iowa City.
This blog was originally published at In These Times on March 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

Forget Elections—Labor Needs To Get Back to Its Roots

Friday, November 16th, 2018

With the midterms behind us, we have Nov. 4, 2020, to look forward to—labor’s next morning after. On Nov. 5, 2008, we were euphoric and full of delusional hope over the imminent passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and the restoration of labor. On Nov. 9, 2016, we were paralyzed by despair and denial.

At this point, betting our future on the next brutal mating ritual of Republicans and Democrats is not a bet most workers are willing to take. Since the 1950s, union membership decline has been a straight line downward, regardless of which political party is in power. Only 10.7 percent of workers are unionized; an enormous 89.3 percent are not. That’s too low to make much difference for most people in most places—more molecular level Brownian motion than labor movement. No threat to wealth, the wealthy, or powerful. Much worse, no voice or power of, by, or, for workers. Instead, organized labor has become so marginal Donald Trump has been able to usurp its role as the emotional voice for workers.

The economy is doing great—apart from workers. Wages remain stagnant. Forty percent of adults don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense such as a car repair or medical crisis. Forty-three percent of families aren’t making enough to cover monthly living expenses. Uncertain work, unpredictable work hours, mandatory overtime, dictatorial bosses, miserable job standards, create day-to-day desperation with psychological and social tolls. The labor market is ripe for an organizing explosion, but it isn’t happening.

Blaming the rich and the Republicans is great sport. The income inequality research industry is booming and there is no need to catalog Republican offenses—they campaign on them. Long ago, labor outsourced its representation in the public sphere to the Democratic Party, and in the process become a dependent franchise and an easy target. But the truth is that the Democrats patronize labor on a good day, sell us out on a bad day, and ignore us on most days. (I speak as a recovering politician, a Democrat who ran and was elected four times to city council in my heavily Republican small town.)

Partisan and competitive thinking insidiously affects behavior. Fifty percent plus one passes for solidarity. Unionists succumb to political speak, sounding like Washington rather than “folks ‘round here.” We blame workers for voting for Republicans. If they’d only voted how we told them, then we could get things done. We estrange ourselves from large chunks of workers while giving ourselves an excuse for failure. We don’t have to do the hard work of building a movement, we only need to win an election.

Maybe we should rethink that.

Instead, start today from where we are and who we are. Simple collective self-representation without institutional, ideological, partisan or monetary artifice. Understanding who and where we are by our own compass; by our own position, not opposition. This requires radical respect for our fellow workers. For lack of a better term, this unadorned organizing is social organizing.

Abundant example are scattered across the globe and buried in history. I witnessed a jarring worker tutorial in social organizing in Poland in 1995, when AFL-CIO desperation over labor’s decline and my good luck resulted in a leave of absence from my elected Central Labor Council job to work in those early post-revolutionary years with Solidarnosc leadership and membership. Ironically, at one point, I was tasked with organizing a conference on American union organizing for Solidarnosc activists. Just as the accomplished, well-educated American organizer sent over by the union began his presentation, one Solidarnosc members interrupted to ask, “What do you mean “organize?” A moment of awkward silence followed. Then, charitably, another Solidarnosc member suggested, “Do you mean, join our organization and we’ll represent you?” The original questioner jumped in, “we had 45 years of that with the Communists.” The workers then came up with their own definition of organizing, “co-creating our own future.” Workers, not the organization, were the of, by, and for.

Post-revolution, the solidarity of Solidarnosc dissipated into political and institutional factions. Still, this incident illuminates the commitment to social organizing that helped spark this transformational worker movement.

When all we have is each other, social organizing is where we start.

Back to basics

Social organizing built the labor movement. When 19th-century American workers had virtually no institutional or political voice or power, they developed both by caring about and for each other. In nearly every inch of America, now-forgotten workers came together with that definition of solidarity.

In 1894, Coxey’s Army of unemployed workers marched on Washington, D.C., to press for defined jobs and meaningful work. As branches passed through cities and towns—including Fort Wayne, Ind., where I work—the Fort Wayne Sentinel reported that local residents lavished them for days with food and social support. That same year the Sentinel reported, during the 1894 streetcar workers strike, housewives directed garden hoses at scabs, horse drawn wagons inexplicably unhitched on the tracks, and riders boycotted the streetcars. Returning the solidarity, striking workers went back to work without pay for one day, Memorial Day, so citizens could visit the graves of their departed. Streetcar workers and the community won that strike.

Thousands of lost histories such as this were the roots of community-based solidarity in industrial America. This populist industrial solidarity spawned and supported Workingmen’s Associations, Knights of Labor chapters, Trade and Labor Councils. In turn, these organizations incubated worker organizing in workplaces and by trades. Local solidarity in railroad towns and company towns built the institutional, political and legal foundations for our now diminished labor movement. The gravity of solidarity drew workers into the inextricably intertwined labor market and community. This culture of solidarity included direct actions such as strikes and boycotts but, more consistently and importantly, direct education of, by, and for workers. Apprenticeships,“lectors” who read news and literature aloud to workers on the job, and intentionally educational union meetings with guest speakers were part of the culture. Railroad and industrial activities were regularly covered in newspapers, with the reporting focused more on workers than bosses or business. Journalists, whether Knights of Labor or just solid reporters, would commonly cover union federation meetings. Union leaders understood their role as representative in the community meant talking to reporters, not hiding from them. Everybody had something to teach and everybody had something to learn and an obligation to do both. A culture of solidarity meant educate to organize and organize to educate.

We could take solace and avoid the hard work of organizing by saying America and the world are different now. Our mid-twentieth century institutions, economy, and democracy have decayed or been hijacked. Our social divisions can feel insurmountable. We’ve been sliced, diced, monetized, politicized and controlled. But are we so special that we now believe we are the first ones to have ever been so seemingly screwed? Or do we try to work through it, experiment based on what we can learn from other times and places and most importantly, each other?

Social organizing after the 2008 Recession

Since 1996, the folks I’ve been working with at the Workers’ Project, a research and education nonprofit, have experimented scores of times with worker representation through social organizing. We are confident and hopeful various configurations of workers have been experimenting elsewhere. We have learned some lessons from our successes and failures.

One instructive experiment focused on unemployed workers’ social organizing for voice and power during and after the Great Recession. A torrent of mostly non-union workers, newly jobless after the economic crash, were overwhelming Indiana’s unemployment offices. The state offices were disinterested or actively hostile toward unemployed workers. Meanwhile, a union foundry in Kendallville, Ind., was closing. Busted up from years of foundry work, the union president, the late Leonard Hicks, was ready to quit working but unwilling to stop representing his folks as their lives became even tougher.

To address both problems, we brought together union and non-union unemployed workers to bargain with the state through a social organizing movement, Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers’ Initiative (UAEWI).

First, we listened as workers talked about problems and possibilities. We developed a survey. In the unemployment office parking lot, we surveyed unemployed workers about how the office was doing, giving them a report card style survey to fill out, with a voluntary contact information form. The state immediately called in the police to stop us—claiming that we were trespassing on private property, because the public office was housed on private land. We alerted the media and the state received reams of bad press.

The media coverage revealed to unemployed workers they could have a voice and some grit. They began coming to UAEWI meetings, along with the union foundry workers in Kendallville and other union shops experiencing mass lay-offs.

Our ranks of unemployed included workers with education and experience in sociology. With their assistance, the UAEWI members developed and collected a broader survey. The survey was not for academic publication, or for an institutional or partisan agenda, but instead for collective self-representation. It had real value for public policy discussions. While the political class talk about or for unemployed workers, UAEWI represented themselves.

Membership was determined solely by a worker’s decision to participate in the survey—to voluntarily add their voice to the collective voice. We conducted education and training classes as well as group talk sessions. Within a few months, the State’s unemployment office management found themselves in a union hall across a bargaining table with the UAEWI members. Unemployed workers gained improvements in services including increased staffing and training but most importantly, a change in attitude. Most UAEWI members had never been union members; they learned how collective representation worked.

For seven more years, we continued and broadened annual UAEWI surveys. We gathered responses wherever we found voiceless workers: from folks leaving food banks, township trustee office, social service agencies, a mobile Mexican consulate. Our sampling exceeded 500 workers in 2012 and was conducted in English, Spanish and Burmese. We asked more wide-ranging public policy questions about issues such as economic development.

UAEWI members bargained in the public sphere. They provided local, state, national, and international journalists with reliable data, context, and access to socially organized workers willing to tell compelling stories. Some of the stories supported Peabody and Murrow investigative journalism awards. UAEWI members presented survey report results to other members and the public in very public formats ranging from traditional research reports to semi-theatrical presentations and even cinematic effort. UAEWI members attended and spoke before the local and state Workforce Investment Boards, Fort Wayne City Council, Indiana Economic Development Board meetings.

Just the modest act of asking drew workers out of their isolation and into solidarity. Many UAEWI members were personally transformed as they shaped public policies from the unemployment office to well beyond. They were co-creating their own futures. This was bargaining in the public sphere, bargaining with the state over the terms and conditions of our lives. Bargaining with state is foundational for worker representation in the 21st century, just as it was with Coxey’s Army in the 19th century. The UAEWI effort only updated representation with a bit of worker-driven social science.

In the last four years, learning from UAEWI effort, we have experimented with applying worker-driven social science and applying it to original NLRA intent in workplaces. In labor speak workers develop “non-certified minority status bargaining” with so-called private employers. (This less legalistic, institutional and technocratic organizing was envisioned when the NLRA was first implemented—the work of labor law scholar, the late Clyde Summers, as well as Charles Morris’s in Blue Eagle At Work documents this well.)

We helped workers develop their collective understanding and identity to, from the worm’s eye view, make things better at work. In each case, their self-organizing grew from “solidarity selfies” and a survey of co-workers’ thoughts on the terms and conditions of their employment. It is simultaneously concerted activity under the NLRA and, more importantly, intellectual property owned by the workers. We provided supportive research and education for Latina workers at a manufacturing plant; sub-contracted workers at a retail outlet; and Burmese workers at a manufacturing plant. One group faced unsafe work conditions causing miscarriages. The second faced a classic bullying boss culture. The third faced systematic ethnic and language discrimination.

We provided them access to social science, legal support, and social organizing talent, as well as a place in our community of solidarity. We supported their conversations to develop strategies to negotiate with the boss. They succeeded on their own terms. First the survey process overcame employer-imposed isolation. Workers experienced their own workplace “me too” revelations which led to collective voice. They built their representational power by developing a research report on their work lives that became collectively owned and copyrighted intellectual property with real bargaining value. Each unit could choose to share the findings with whoever they decide in the public-private spectrum: media, government regulators, elected officials, customers, suppliers, competitors, stockholders or, if willing, across the table with the boss.

The Latina factory workers met with the plant owner to present their findings. Safety conditions improved, maternity leaves were granted, healthy babies were born, and little Jose Manuel now attends our events. Some of the workers were fired, most moved on to other jobs, some won legal settlements. Most remain active in the Hispanic Workers Circle.

The subcontracted retail workers successfully confronted top national corporate management. They ended the bullying management culture and maintain an ongoing social “solidarity union” collecting no dues and participating in all Workers’ Project activities.

The Burmese factory workers efforts are ongoing. They constitute a significant portion of our Burmese Workers Circle which is developing as a workers’ and civil rights organization.

Stay tuned for more news: All groups continue full-throated participation in Workers’ Project activities and Fort Wayne’s huge annual Labor Day picnic.

We think collective intellectual property is an intriguing innovation. As workers we are robbed of our intellectual property as employers pick our brains, pick our pockets, only to pick up and leave us jobless. As consumers, our data has collected by others, monetized and politicized at our expense to benefit wealth. Intellectual property we own collectively can help us bargain with anyone in the power spectrum, from private employer to the state.

Owning our own voices and power, collective human agency, is our democracy where we work and where we live. Valuing each other, sharing our experiences, information, ideas, and respect seems a great place to start especially when you are starting at scratch. Social organizing, old school or innovative, is still solidarity.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on November 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

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

Democrats have the House. They should use it to show how they'll fight back in the war on workers

Friday, November 9th, 2018

Winning the House doesn’t just let Democrats block some of the worst things Donald Trump wants from Congress. It also offers a chance to show what Democrats would do if they had the chance. For years Democrats have been introducing great legislation that Republicans would never allow to even come to a vote. Now is the chance to pass some of that in the House and let Senate Republicans explain why they’re not taking action.

Let’s start with the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009, while red states like Missouri and Arkansas (most recently) have voted to increase it, showing how deep and broad voter support is. Democrats should be able to pass a substantial minimum wage increase in the House quickly.

Democrats should pass a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to strengthen protections for pregnant women and prevent abuses like these.

Paid family leave. Sick leave. Protections for Dreamers. These are all obvious, necessary things with widespread support.

But you can go deeper: “Workers should not be forced to sign away their rights as a condition of employment,” Celine McNicholas and Heidi Shierholz write. Democrats should undo one of the worst recent Supreme Court decisions with the Restoring Justice for Workers Act, which allows workers to have their cases against employers heard in a real court, not a rigged arbitration process.

No, this stuff isn’t going to get through the Senate or Donald Trump. But Democrats, show us what you would do if you could. Let the country know that while Republicans use Congress and the presidency to dismantle health care and give big tax breaks to corporations, Democrats would use it to raise the minimum wage and protect pregnant workers and let workers have their day in court.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on November 10, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

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

Labor-Backed Candidates Win Big in Tuesday’s Elections

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

It was a big night for labor’s agenda as pro-worker candidates won election from coast to coast Tuesday.

In Virginia, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam handily defeated Ed Gillespie as AFL-CIO-endorsed candidates won throughout the commonwealth. Virginia AFL-CIO President Doris Crouse-Mays hailed the victories:

“Today, Virginia’s voters turned out in record numbers to stand with working people and reject the hateful, divisive rhetoric that has taken over the airwaves throughout the campaign. Virginia voters have spoken—we must work toward a commonwealth that puts working families first and prioritizes real issues that impact our lives each and every day. All students must have quality public education and job-training opportunities. All workers must be guaranteed fair wages, safe working conditions and the freedom to join in union. And all Virginians must have access to quality, affordable health care no matter where they live.

“We are proud to stand with you all and elect Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, Mark Herring and a host of delegates in districts from Blacksburg to Hampton and so many places in between. Voters came together to enact real change in our commonwealth by flipping control in at least 15 house districts despite our heavily gerrymandered lines.”

In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy defeated Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, one of several key victories for labor in the state. New Jersey State AFL-CIO President Charlie Wowkanech said union solidarity made it possible:

“The results of New Jersey’s critical gubernatorial election are in, and the election of Phil Murphy as governor and Sheila Oliver as lieutenant governor speaks to the unmatched mobilization efforts of organized labor and the New Jersey State AFL-CIO’s political program that is unparalleled by any other in our state or nation.

“Let’s be clear: what made the difference tonight was our unified labor voice, comprised of support from thousands of union volunteers, national, state and local affiliates, central labor councils and Building Trades councils. We had an opportunity to show strength and solidarity and we did. We joined together every Saturday for labor walks, made calls at evening phone banks and delivered thousands of mail pieces around the state. There is no question that our 1-million-member-strong state labor movement determined the outcome of this election.

“Working people needed a victory and organized labor delivered. The results of this election make clear that the New Jersey labor movement will lead the way forward for the rest of the nation, securing needed reforms that promote job creation, quality education, skills training, modernized infrastructure, affordable health care, equitable taxation, and a sustainable and secure retirement future for all New Jersey families.”

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on November 8, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tim Schlittner is the AFL-CIO director of speechwriting and publications and co-president of Pride At Work

U.S. Pressure Needed to Make Honduran Elections Free and Fair

Friday, November 15th, 2013

On Sunday, Nov. 24, Hondurans will vote in national elections for president, legislators and local governments. The last elections in Honduras, in November 2009, were run by the de facto government that took office after the June 2009 coup and the electoral process was tainted by severe limits on civil liberties and low levels of participation. Candidates from diverse parties withdrew before the election, stating that the ruling party made fair campaigns and elections impossible. As a result, many Honduran and international groups questioned the legitimacy of the elections and the government that took office in early 2010. Numerous governments in Latin America explicitly rejected these elections.

Since the 2009 coup, those who resisted the coup have built a progressive alliance in which unions are a key partner and one of the founders of the resulting LIBRE party. Its candidate for president, Xiomara Castro, has been leading in the polls for more than nine months. Labor has presented numerous LIBRE party candidates, including one for vice president. At the same time, LIBRE members, activists and candidates have suffered violent attacks, threats and intimidation when attempting to exercise their rights and build a movement for social justice. Eighteen LIBRE candidates and immediate family members of candidates were murdered between May 2012 and Oct. 19, 2013, and 15 more suffered armed attacks. Countless more members of LIBRE have been victims of this violence, which observers say has been both increasing and more focused against the LIBRE party. U.S. citizens and taxpayers should insist that the U.S. government play a positive role in the Honduran elections, advocating for full rights and democratic freedoms for all Hondurans.

At the 2013 AFL-CIO Convention, delegates passed a resolution to support free and fair elections in Honduras by having local labor councils ask their members of Congress to insist that the U.S. Embassy call on the Honduran authorities to run the elections free of threats, coercion or intimidation of candidates, their supporters or voters. As the resolution urged, the AFL-CIO is sending a delegation to witness the elections, along with regional unions from Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere in Central America that are also affiliated to the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas.

Since the 2009 coup, the ruling government has failed to respect human rights, advance economic development or provide security to citizens. In this context, labor rights in Honduras have been violated consistently and recent reforms have reduced job stability and workers’ income. As a result, the AFL-CIO filed a complaint in 2012 under the terms of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). In March 2012, 94 members of the House of Representatives wrote to the U.S. State Department to insist that U.S. policy follow laws that link foreign assistance to respect for human rights. Meanwhile, poverty, unemployment and inequality all have increased over the past four years. Lastly, Honduras remains one of the most violent countries in the world outside of war zones.

While some members of the U.S. Congress have properly expressed concern recently about the role of the United States in Honduras and strong concerns about the upcoming elections, the State Department and its embassy in Honduras have not sent a sufficiently clear and public message denouncing the violence faced by opposition candidates and their supporters. Along with others, the United States has called on the current government to respect the democratic process, yet more vigilance will be needed to defend the rights of all Hondurans in the upcoming elections. The Nov. 24 election presents a great opportunity for Honduran citizens and workers to change course toward a more just and peaceful society. They must be allowed a chance to exercise their rights and seize that opportunity in free, fair and fully inclusive elections.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on November 15, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brian Finnegan is a Global Worker Rights coordinator for the AFL-CIO.

Wal-Mart Warehouse Workers Fight for the Future of Work

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Workers responsible for moving an estimated $1 trillion worth of goods a year through the global economy are paid low wages, often denied breaks and basic protective gear, and are employed primarily through temp agencies.

Outside the largest Walmart distribution center in the country, moving the products of the world’s largest private employer, a group of striking workers are asking for small changes they say will make an immeasurable difference to their working conditions. Warehouse workers in Elwood, Illinois, have been on strike for more than two weeks, calling for the subcontractors that employ them on behalf of Walmart to provide shin pads and dust masks – and to listen to their grievances around working conditions.

Early this week, workers forced the warehouse to close early after more than 200 people rallied around the suburban distribution center. A planned civil disobedience action took a surprising turn for many of the assembled protesters when riot police equipped with a sound cannon came to arrest the 17 clergy and warehouse workers blocking a road near the distribution center.

The majority of jobs created since the recession first hit mirror those the warehouse workers do: temporary, low-wage, no-benefit and high-risk. But the strike is also part of a larger trend of workers standing up to the Walmart behemoth – from the California warehouse workers on strike earlier this month to the three women that filed the latest sexual discrimination lawsuit against the company this week.

“The whole warehouse industry is built on temp poverty jobs. Every day, workers tell their sad story of getting ripped off in these warehouses, of sexual discrimination, of racial discrimination,” said Father Raymond Lescher, priest at Sacred Heart Church in Joliet, Illinois, and a member of the Warehouse Workers for Justice Board. “We’ve tried to work with politicians at the county, state and local level, but we haven’t gotten to first base. So, we said we’ve got to escalate this.”

Walmart Warehouse Workers.(Photo: Yana Kunichoff)

“There are rat feces, bat feces … it’s unbearable”

The windowless Elwood warehouse about two hours outside Chicago sits surrounded by chain link fence and empty fields. Warehouse Workers for Justice, the group helping to organize the workers, says Chicago transports half the nation’s rail freight, and seven interstate highways cross the Chicago region. It is the third-largest container port in the world, and almost $1 trillion worth of goods pass through the area annually.  It has the additional distinction of being home to one of the largest concentrations of warehouses on the planet

“If you didn’t make it yourself, it probably came through one of these warehouses,” says Leah Fried, an organizer with Warehouse Workers for Justice. Fried told Labor Notes that the Elwood location is the largest warehouse by far – 70 percent of imported products that Walmart sells make their way through its doors.

While the logistics industry working the warehouses is becoming increasingly lucrative, workers on the ground face a different reality.

Walmart Warehouse Workers.(Photo: Yana Kunichoff)

Chris Tucker, a 22-year-old resident of the neighboring suburb of Joliet, pays more than half of the income he earns as a warehouse worker on rent. With only $1300 dollars a month coming in from his job, the $850 a month to keep a roof over his head “isn’t going to cut it” for a living wage, said Tucker.

But that is only one of the reasons Tucker joined 29 other workers in walking off the job on September 15. He also says that the lack of dust masks isn’t good for his lungs, working without shin pads leaves him and others with constant bruises, and the lack of breaks during work makes the conditions dangerous.

Tucker was employed by RoadLink, the “largest private, independent North American Intermodal Logistics service provider,” according to its web site, during the three months he was at the Elmwood warehouse. Though the strikes are targeting Walmart, whose products they move, most people are employed by a series of subcontractors. Tucker has been working in warehouses for two years – along with RoadLink, he says he has worked under Velocity Logistics Inc., PLS Logistics Services, Staffing Logistics and Shamrock Logistics Operations.

Walmart Warehouse Workers.(Photo: Yana Kunichoff)

Warehouse Workers for Justice estimates that 70 percent of warehouses in the Chicago land area employ temporary labor. The group also says that Will County, where Elmwood is located, has the highest concentration of temp agencies in Illinois

The workers have filed 11 lawsuits in the past three-and-a-half years, according to Father Lescher. Most recently, a lawsuit filed against RoadLink on September 20 in the US District Court of Northern Illinois accused the company of wage theft and not paying overtime.

A class action lawsuit filed by California Walmart warehouse workers against Schneider Logistics sheds light on the role that contractors play, showing that they set payment rates and, in the case of Schneider, set work quotas for the warehouse.

RoadLink and Walmart did not respond to requests for comment from Truthout, but Walmart told the Huffington Post it took the workers allegations “very seriously” but the complaints where “unfounded.

Walmart Warehouse Workers.(Photo: Yana Kunichoff)

On the Picket Line 

Joining the Walmart strikers on the picket line were workers from Sensata Technologies Inc., a company owned by Bain Capital and now in the final stages of moving its production to China. Workers have set up a tent camp outside the factory to protest the closings and the fact that many of them may not get their full severance packages.

Bonnie Borman worked with Sensata for more than 20 years in Freeport, Illinois, as a production technician. Now she’s not sure what she’ll do next. “All that’s left here is just minimum-wage, low-paying jobs that you can’t support a family on,” said Borman, who has already begun training her Chinese replacement. At her current job she makes $15 an hour, a wage she is worried she won’t be able to find wherever she goes to work next. “I’m kind of in that limbo place where I keep thinking: What am I going to do?”

Walmart Warehouse Workers.(Photo: Yana Kunichoff)

The world’s biggest private employer isn’t very appealing to Borman, she said.

It took Jerome Synowicz, a Walmart worker from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, eight years to move his salary from $7 an hour to his current $12. “They get you a check and it’s nothing. It’s very hard to make it go around,” he said.

Copyright, Truth-Out. May not be reprinted without permission. Originally posted on Truth-Out on October 3, 2012. 

About the Authors: Jesse Menendez is the host of Vocalo on Chicago Public Radio’s WBEZ. He is also host of The Music Vox on Vocalo radio, which airs Monday-Friday from 6 PM-8 PM Central, and Live From Studio 10, which airs every Wednesday at 8 PM Central. Yana Kunichoff is an assistant editor at Truth-Out.

President Of Florida-Based Company Threatens To Fire Employees If Romney Loses

Monday, November 5th, 2012

 With fewer than 72 hours before polls begin to close, another report has emerged of a company owner strongly urging his employees to vote for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama, claiming that their jobs are potentially on the line if Obama wins re-election.

Cliff Otto, president of the Florida-based Saddle Creek Corporation, circulated an email to staff this week explaining that, while “we do not support candidates based on their political affiliation,” Romney’s positions are in “the best interest of our company, and therefore our jobs and our future”:

In the past, Saddle Creek has not felt it imperative that we communicate with our associates regarding the political issues that affect our business. This year the positions taken by the two presidential candidates with regard to these issues are starkly different. As such [we] feel it would be wrong for us not to share with you the company’s position on just a few of the critical issues and, at the same time, how each of the two candidates compare to our position. … We do not support candidates based on their political affiliation. We do support candidates that share our positions with regard to the key issues facing our company and our country. Thank you for considering what Saddle Creek believes is in the best interest of our company, and therefore our jobs and our future.

An accompanying flyer, obtained by MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes, highlights by position — not candidate — which would be more beneficial for Otto’s employees’ jobs:

Otto is not alone in his effort to sway his employees’ votes by insinuating that they might lose their jobs should Obama win. Similar tactics have been used by other CEOs across the country who warn of “consequences” should Romney lose on November 6th. One CEO likened the threats to telling employees to “Eat your spinach.”

Indeed, it may be a concerted intimidation effort by right-leaning CEOs that is orchestrated from the top. Just a month ago, leaked audio captured Romney urging conservative business owners to tell their employees who to vote for.

This article was originally posted on November 4, 2012 at Think Progress

About the Author: Annie-Rose Strasser is a Reporter/Blogger for ThinkProgress. Before joining American Progress, she worked for the community organizing non-profit Center for Community Change as a new media specialist. Previously, Annie-Rose served as a press assistant for Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Annie-Rose holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from the George Washington University.

AFL-CIO Head Trumka: Romney 'sure doesn't know anything about coal mining'

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

The United Mine Workers of America is sitting out this presidential race as Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama battle over parts of coal country. But former UMWA president and current AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke to the press Monday not just as an advocate for all workers but from the perspective of a third-generation coal miner.

While Romney has centered his coal country campaign on inaccurate claims that overregulation by the Obama administration has weakened the coal industry (Romney’s beloved free market is the real culprit), Trumka pointed to how workplace safety is enforced in this dangerous industry:

[President Obama] has appointed people who are enforcing safety laws, these are the real regulations coal operators don’t want enforced….MSHA [Mine Safety and Health Administration] is enforcing the laws and now coal operators are not able to get away with violations like they did before, especially high violators.

Among the regulations and oversight that Romney would weaken or abolish are those that save miners’ lives. So it’s important that Romney’s “Obama’s war on coal” rhetoric not be allowed to cloud the picture, obscuring that coal’s recent struggles aren’t due to regulation, and that when he talks about regulations, he’s talking about people’s lives. Beyond that, Trumka drove home the distance between the coal miners Romney pretends to care about and Romney’s own life:

Mitt Romney says coal country is his country. Well, he’s wrong—it’s ours….Mitt Romney doesn’t know about getting his hands dirty, and he sure doesn’t know anything about coal mining.

This article was originally published by The Daily Kos on Monday, October 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006, and a Daily Kos Labor editor since 2011.

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