Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘union’

Women Deserve a Raise

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

Today is International Women’s Day, and there is no better time to lift up the role unions play in achieving economic equality for women. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research recently released a brief, titled The Union Advantage for Women, which quantifies the benefits of union membership for working women, and the numbers don’t lie!

 IWPR estimates that the typical union woman makes a whopping 30% more per week than her nonunion sister. The benefits of unions are greatest for women of color, who otherwise face stronger economic barriers than their white counterparts. Latina union members make an estimated 47% more than Latinas who are not union members, and the union wage premium for black women is about 28%. For comparison, the union difference for men overall is not as large; union men make about 20% more than nonunion men.

So what’s behind the union advantage? When working women come together (and with our male allies), we are able to bargain for the wages we deserve, robust benefits, and respect and dignity on the job. Outside of the workplace, unions fight for state and local policies such as paid sick leave, family and medical leave insurance, fair schedules, and raising the minimum wage—all which disproportionately benefit women and their families.

Ladies, we deserve a raise! And it starts with a voice and power on the job.

West Virginia Teachers Are About to Stage a Statewide Strike. Here’s Why.

Wednesday, February 21st, 2018

Teachers and service personnel across West Virginia are planning to strike on Feb. 22 and 23 in an effort to boost pay and lower their increasing healthcare costs. It will be the first statewide walkout in nearly 30 years.

The strike was announced by the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) during a weekend rally at the state capitol in Charleston that attracted teachers and other public sector employees and supporters. Hundreds also showed up at the capitol on Feb. 2, where they sang “Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, hey, hey, goodbye!” while Tim Armstead, Republican Speaker of the W.V. House of Delegates, gave a speech on the House floor. At this past weekend’s rally, WVEA President Dale Lee declared that all 55 of the state’s counties were prepared to stand united. “The entire state of West Virginia will be shut down,” declared Lee, whose union is an affiliate of the National Education Association.

According to a 2017 study that ranked each state’s average teacher salary, West Virginia is the sixth worst in the country. On average, the state’s teachers make $45,477, compared to first-place-ranking Alaska, where teachers make $77,843. W.V. teachers want the state to fund the state’s Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA) and increase their salaries. The state’s House of Delegates has voted to give public school teachers 2-percent raises next year and a 1-percent raise over the next three years, while the state’s Senate has approved a 1-percent raise, every year, over the next five years. Union representatives believe these raises are inadequate, especially when considered alongside the rising costs of healthcare.

Kym Randolph, director of communications for the WVEA, tells In These Times that dissatisfaction has been brewing for years. “It’s a number of things,” says Randolph. “PEIA, lack of salary, years of neglect, anti-worker policies … healthcare that’s inadequate.” According to Randolph, lawmakers have become “entrenched” on the issue of teacher salaries and are difficult to persuade.

One of those lawmakers is Republican Gov. Jim Justice. He has proposed freezing PEIA for a year, effectively preventing health premiums from rising, and he doesn’t believe that the 1-percent raise, every year, over the course of five years should be increased in any way. “I think the prudent thing and the smart money is to fix PEIA like we’ve done, and the smart money is to stay at 1-1-1-1-1,” said Justice at a recent press conference. However, his critics point out that a PEIA freeze is merely a short-term solution for a problem that isn’t going away, and such a temporary action could give birth to even higher healthcare costs in 2019. The teachers are looking for a long-term plan that provides security while finally making salaries competitive.

In that same press conference, Justice said that a teachers’ strike would be a “crying shame.” He also dismissed a Senate Democrat proposal that would fund PEIA by raising the state’s severance tax on natural gas as “political grandstanding.”

West Virginia is often portrayed as a steadfastly Republican state where progressive developments are nearly impossible. Nearly 70 percent of the state voted for Trump, who promised to revive the floundering coal industry, and the state’s Democratic Senator Joe Manchin votes in line with Trump almost 60 percent of the time.

However, a deeper analysis of the state’s current politics reveals a slightly more nuanced picture. Bernie Sanders won all 55 counties in the 2016 Democratic Primary, and recent data suggests that support for Trump is actually dropping. Between January and September of 2017, Trump’s level of net support in West Virginia went down by 13 points. Last month, Paula Jean Swearengin, a progressive Democrat who is running against Manchin in the primary, told In These Times, “We have fought so many labor struggles and won. This nation and state deserve true democracy. … We all struggle and are going to fight like hell. I believe a new West Virginia is being born.”

Swearengin’s assertion will be put to the test in the coming months as the state’s teachers continue to fight, through the walkout and beyond. “I think what the Legislature is doing is just despicable,” a high school science teacher named Lisa Stillion told West Virginia Public Radio at last week’s rally. “We need to vote them out. Get your heads out of your rear ends; be thinking about who you represent. You work for us. We don’t work for you.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 20, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

Disney is using 'tax cut bonus' to try to force union workers to accept low pay

Monday, February 19th, 2018

Disney got some positive press for saying it would give its workers a $1,000 tax cut bonus—but it’s using the bonus to try to force some of its lower-paid workers to accept a bad deal at the bargaining table. The entertainment giant carefully specified that the bonuses would go to union workers “currently working under existing union contracts”—and that doesn’t apply to everyone.

They say rank-and-file workers in December voted 93% against Disney’s most recent offer of a 50-cent-an-hour raise over the next two years, coupled with a $200 signing bonus. Most unionized Disney World employees make less than $11 an hour, according to the union.

Only 3,000 make more than $15 an hour. The union says the average hourly wage for its members is $10.71.

Eric Clinton, president of the Unite Here local at the theme park, said Disney is forcing the union to accept that same rejected offer for its members to receive the $1,000 bonus due to other Disney employees. […]

He said the union has filed an unfair labor practice complaint alleging that the demand amounts to punishing members for engaging in legally protected contract negotiations.

This maneuver by Disney shows what a load of bull these “tax cut bonuses” are to begin with—Republicans cut the corporate tax forever, but Disney isn’t offering its workers a raise that will be with them next year and the year after. It’s offering a one-time bonus while trying to low-ball on wages. Not just while trying to low-ball on wages—to use the bonus as bait to get workers to accept low pay. We see you, Disney.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on February 19, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

Union membership rose in 2017

Friday, January 26th, 2018

This is somewhat unexpected: overall union membership rose by 262,000 workers in 2017, while union density stayed at 10.7 percent. The Economic Policy Institute’s Lawrence Mishel warns against reading too much into the numbers, but pulls out the following interesting data points:

  • Union membership became more common among men: some 32 percent of the net increase in male employment in 2017 went to men who were union members, leading union membership to rise from 11.2 to 11.4 percent of all male employment. Growth of union membership for men was strong in both the public and private sectors and for Hispanic and for non-Hispanic white men.
  • Correspondingly, union membership dipped slightly among women because women’s union membership did not rise in the private sector although employment overall did rise—private sector employment growth for women was concentrated in nonunion sectors. Union membership growth, however, was strong among Hispanic women.
  • Union membership grew in manufacturing despite an overall decline in manufacturing employment. Union membership was also strong in the wholesale and retail sectors, in the public sector and in information sector (where union membership density rose 1.9 percentage points).
  • Union membership density was stable or grew in a number of Southern states: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia with especially strong growth in Texas.

That last point is particularly interesting, since the South has long been such a challenge to union organizing, and since Republicans are bent on making the union organizing environment in the rest of the nation much more like the South has historically been.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on January 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

King and Meany Brought Civil Rights and Labor Together for a Legacy That Continues Today

Monday, January 15th, 2018

Beginning in 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then-President George Meany of the AFL-CIO began a relationship that would help bring the labor and civil rights movements together with a combined focus on social and economic justice.

Meany was an outspoken defender of individual freedom, and in March 1960, he emphasized the crucial link between the union and the civil rights movements. He told an AFL-CIO gathering, “What we want for ourselves, we want for all humanity.” Meany met with King to privately discuss how they could work together. King proposed that the AFL-CIO invest pension assets in housing, to help lessen economic inequality. The AFL-CIO then established the Investment Department in August 1960 to guide union pension funds to be socially responsible investors.

The next year, King spoke to the AFL-CIO Executive Council, comparing what labor had achieved to what the civil rights movement wanted to accomplish: “We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us. They resent our will to organize. They are shocked that active organizations, sit-ins, civil disobedience, and protests are becoming every day tools just as strikes, demonstrations, and union organizations became yours to insure that bargaining power genuinely existed on both sides of the table.” At the AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention later that year, Meany made civil rights a prominent item on the agenda, and King spoke to the delegates about uniting the two movements through a common agenda, noting that African Americans are “almost entirely a working people.”

Not only did the AFL-CIO provide much-needed capital to the civil rights movement, but numerous affiliates did as well. Several combined to give more than $100,000 to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The UAW directly funded voter registration drives in predominantly African American areas throughout the South and paid bail money for jailed protesters. Meany and the AFL-CIO also used their considerable political influence in helping to shape the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Union activists were a key part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as well. The Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO endorsed the march, as did 11 international unions and several state and local labor councils. A. Philip Randolph, then-president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a key organizer of the event. UAW President Walter Reuther was a speaker at the march, condemning the fact that African Americans were treated as second-class economic citizens.

King’s final act in pursuit of social and economic justice was in support of the sanitation strike in Memphis, Tennessee. After his death, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the undersecretary of labor to settle the strike, and the city acceded to the demands of the working people, leading to the creation of AFSCME Local 1733, which still represents sanitation workers in Memphis.

In 1964, Meany sent a letter to all AFL-CIO affiliates outlining an new pathway that would directly support housing construction and homeownership. In 1965, the Investment Department helped establish the Mortgage Investment Trust, which was the formal embodiment of the socially responsible investment plan and gave a boost to badly needed affordable housing construction. In 1984, the Mortgage Investment Trust was replaced by the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, one of the first socially responsible investment funds in the United States. Since it was created, the HIT has grown to more than $4.5 billion in net assets and has helped finance more than 100,000 affordable housing units and helped create tens of thousands of union jobs.

The partnership between civil rights and labor launched by King and Meany has helped the country make great strides in the intervening years, and the partnership continues.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on January 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

Union to Southwest: $1,000 worker bonuses don’t make up for years of stagnant pay

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

Southwest Airlines this week announced that it would be awarding its employees with a $1,000 bonus following the passage of the GOP tax bill, which the company’s board of directors said would “result in meaningful corporate income tax reform.”

Union leaders say it hardly makes up for years of unfair treatment.

“We applaud Congress and the President for taking this action to pass legislation, which will result in meaningful corporate income tax reform for the transportation sector in general, and for Southwest Airlines, in particular,” Southwest chairman and Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said in a statement on Tuesday. “We are excited about the savings and additional capital, which we intend to put to work in several forms — to reward our hard-working Employees, to reinvest in our business, to reward our Shareholders, and to keep our costs and fares low for our Customers.”

Kelly added that the company was prepared to donate “an incremental $5 million” to charity and increase business investments in Boeing.

Union bosses representing those employees, however, aren’t completely satisfied, saying that many of those same workers have gone without a raise for five years.

“The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) represents more than 2,700 Aircraft Maintenance Technicians (AMT) at Southwest Airlines (SWA). As of today, the Union has been in negotiations with SWA for more than five years (1,966 days), since the contract amendable date of August 16, 2012,” AMFA National Director Bret Oestreich told ThinkProgress in an email. “Although many members are appreciative of the Company’s recent $1000 bonus in response to the newly passed tax bill, this is a small token of appreciation for what the AMTs have endured over the last 1,966 days.”

While Southwest ratified a collective-bargaining agreement with AMFA-represented Facilities Maintenance Technicians (FMTs) in November last year, it still has yet to reach an agreement with its AMTs. Such an agreement would likely award aircraft technicians with protections and benefits similar to the ones awarded to the facility technicians, which currently include a “complete set of work rules, wage scale, ratification bonus, and job protections,” according to a Southwest news release.

“While the Company experienced record profits during this time, our members have not received increases in pay, enhancements to benefits or, most importantly, job security as they threaten to outsource even more work to 3rd party vendors,” Oestreich explained.

He added, however, that he was “optimistic” Southwest and AMFA would reach a “well-deserved, fair and equitable agreement” by the end of the next union negotiation session, which is set for January 18-19 in Washington, D.C.

Southwest spokespersons did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Southwest is only the latest company to announce worker bonuses following passage of the Republican tax bill. In December, a handful of businesses — including Fifth Third Bancorp and AT&T — stated that they would be doling out one-time bonuses to their employees as a result of the bill, which carves out massive benefits for major U.S. companies by lowering the corporate tax rate to 21 percent. Many companies also announced that they would be “reinvesting” in their businesses, although, as ThinkProgress previously reported, a large portion of that money will likely be used for share buybacks.

Union leaders at the time were equally unimpressed by those announcements.

“Republican leaders have promised that households would receive, on average, a yearly $4,000 wage increase. They also claimed that the corporate tax plan would produce new jobs in the U.S. as companies return work from offshore,” a spokesperson for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), whose workers are employed by AT&T, told ThinkProgress in an email. “[The $1,000 bonus AT&T announced is] a drop in the bucket compared to what was promised.”

UPDATE: In an email to ThinkProgress on Wednesday evening, a Southwest spokesperson addressed the recent bonuses and related AMFA union concerns. “The bonus is to celebrate the tax reform legislation with all of our Employees. It is not in any way meant to address the contract negotiations with AMFA,” they stated. “We’ve had an industry-leading offer on the table that includes raises for some time now.”

They added, “[We] remain committed to negotiating an agreement that sufficiently rewards our Aircraft Maintenance Technicians, while at the same time preserving our competitive edge.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 3, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Melanie Schmitz is an associate editor at ThinkProgress.

How Bosses Use “Open Shop” Campaigns to Crush Unions

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

U.S. employers have never been particularly accepting of unions. Yes, there were a few decades after World War II when most employers engaged in a largely stable pattern of collective bargaining that recognized unions as junior partners in industry. Wage increases kept pace with gains in productivity, and union endorsements were courted by both parties. But, as heavily as that postwar labor relations compact features in the rosy rhetoric of union boosters who decry global capitalism and the modern GOP, the truth is that corporations have been periodically going to war against their workers far more often they’ve occasionally conceded their basic humanity.

Two new books shed light on the sustained union-busting campaigns that bookended that all-too brief period of labor-management détente. One focuses on the innocuously named “open shop” drive, which was a vicious nationwide union-busting campaign that began at the dawn of the 20th century and lasted well into the New Deal era. The other documents how the last great wave of worker militancy was smashed by a coordinated union-busting drive that anticipated Ronald Reagan’s presidency by more than a decade.

Reform or repression?

The unions that managed to survive the turbulent boom-and-bust cycle of the 19th century were largely organized on a craft union model that bears only a slight resemblance to today’s trades. Unions not only trained their members in their craft skills, but also determined the process, materials and speed of production. Employers had to contract with strong unions for a certain number of orders at prices that the unions determined.

The “open shop” drive was a coordinated effort by industry associations like the National Association of Manufacturers for bosses to gain complete control over production decision-making. This is the subject of Chad Pearson’s Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement.

As Pearson compellingly documents, open shop campaigners sought to place their movement within the mainstream of the vaguely-defined “progressive movement” that preceded the Great Depression.  Corporate executives railed against “union dictation,” and claimed their aim was to wrest control from union contracts in order to promote harder-working men. The breakfast cereal magnate C.W. Post claimed his union-busting work was necessary to protect children from picket-line violence. Some of the earliest appearances of the noxious slogan “right to work” come from this era.

That phrase was disingenuously employed to convey a sense of freedom for workers to not have to pay fealty to a union in order to get hired for a job. In practice, the “freedom” to not join a union was paired with a blacklist for those who chose to do so. Promoting “harder-working men” was a way of speeding up Taylorist production lines to sweatshop standards. And violence on picket lines was almost always instigated by privately hired armies of Pinkertons and other assorted spies and mercenaries.

Open shop campaigners did find allies within the broad political class of self-styled “progressives” who—then as now—did not root their efforts in the centrality of class politics. For example, it is somewhat shocking to read in Reform or Repression about “open shop” endorsements from Louis Brandeis—the attorney who negotiated the vaunted “Protocols of Peace” in the New York City garment industry. Without a base of actual workers, these earlier progressive men supported unions in the abstract, but were uncomfortable with the grisly details of strikes, boycotts and enforcing the union shop that were necessary to maintain unions as a permanent presence in the economy.

In this hair-splitting, open shop advocates probably found their biggest hero in Theodore Roosevelt. The trust-busting “progressive” was the first sitting president to weigh in on industrial disputes and mediate settlements that involved pay increases and other concessions to striking workers. He also steadfastly refused to endorse any deal that forced any employer to recognize any union as the exclusive representative of its workers.

Open shop organizations also recruited “free men” to be face of their drives. We can call them scabs, but forcing workers to join a union before they could get the job rubbed some the wrong way, and bosses exploited this.

Pearson has a good eye for vivid character studies. A particularly engrossing chapter contrasts the stories of two very different class traitors in the Cleveland open shop movement: John A. Penton and Jay P. Dawley. In the 1880s, Penton was president of a craft union of ironworkers that competed for worker loyalty with a more established union called the Iron Molders Union (IMU). In those days, unions competed to see who could organize the most militant protests. A campaign that ended in a union contract could mean terms that forced workers to join the victorious union—or face termination—If they wanted work. By 1893, Penton’s union had been forced to merge with the larger IMU.

The bitterness of that defeat curdled and warped Penton’s principles. He became an “open shop” advocate, ostensibly because men should be free to choose which organization to join—or not join. In practical effect, he served as a propagandist and recruiter of scabs for the industry’s campaign to break the Cleveland IMU in 1900, where he was regarded as “The Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde of the Labor Movement.”

Dawley was a compatriot of Penton’s, a lawyer who secured injunctions against union picket lines and defended Penton’s efforts to arm his scabs with .38 caliber revolvers. The former president of the Cleveland Employers Association shocked his white shoe comrades by coming to the aid of the city’s striking garment workers in 1911. It was no small coincidence that Dawley’s conversion-by-fire came just two months after the actual fire at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That the picket lines were mostly full of women helped him finally see that the violence and law-breaking that he so abhorred in industrial conflict was a mostly one-sided affair—and that it was his (former) side that was perpetuating most of it.

Dawley spent the rest of his life as an advocate of union causes—albeit one who counseled peaceful bargaining and arbitration over strikes and boycotts. There’s a lesson about the power of narrative and visible leaders here. The average union member today is more likely to be a black or brown woman than some Archie Bunker cliché. Labor can pick up unexpected allies by putting the actual workers whose livelihoods are on the line front and center in our campaigns.

Knocking on labor’s door

How women and people of color began to organize themselves into the mainstream of the labor movement is the subject of Lane Windham’s new book, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970’s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. It is also a tale of how the open shop drive came roaring back to life.

This is an essential read for anyone grappling with the question of why modern union organizing isn’t more successful. It is also a much-welcome corrective to the false narrative that unions simply stopped trying to gain new members sometime after the merger of the AFL and CIO.

In fact, the early 1970s brought a major wave of worker militancy, the kind that periodically roils the United States. The massive teacher rebellion of unionization that began in New York City in the early 1960s was still in full-swing. Unprotected by the National Labor Relations Act and still with few public-sector labor laws to fill the gaps, teachers continued to stage illegal strikes for union recognition throughout the decade. Other public sector workers fought for union recognition, too. The 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which Martin Luther King was in town supporting when he was assassinated, was a notable flashpoint in that struggle.

The unionized private sector was also in the midst of a historic strike wave. Many of the strikes were formally sanctioned by union leadership seeking wage increases that kept up with record-high inflation. A large number of workers rocked the postwar labor relations framework by waging wildcat strikes in defiance of contracts that traded impressive-sounding wage increases for brutal speed-ups in productivity. There’s a whole bookshelf of material written about how one General Motors factory in particular—its Lordstown, Oh. plant—simply could not maintain smooth production between its periodic wildcats and the thousands of workers who quit every year. 

During this same period, unions sought to organize roughly half a million private sector workers a year in NLRB elections. Much of this organizing was led by women and workers of color. It represented, Windham argues, a second wave of the civil rights era, as regulations like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission opened up new industries and jobs to workers who had previously been excluded. Once in the job, women and minorities soon concluded that actual fair treatment would only come with unionization.

Although the number of eligible workers voting in union representation elections did not decline in the 1970s, the percentage of successful union yes votes did. For the first time since the NLRB was established in 1935, unions began to lose a majority of all representation elections—a decline that has continued to the present day.

Egged on by a then-new cottage industry of “union avoidance” consultants and anti-union law firms, employers aggressively pressed against the limits of labor law when campaigning against union organizing drives. They skirted the prohibition against threatening the jobs of union supporters by phrasing those threats as predictions of the negative impact that a union would have on the company’s bottom line. They threw out fantastical scenarios about how unions might trade away benefits. They swore the unions would make no gains unless the workers went on strike—and that the company would permanently replace them if they did so. They froze planned pay increases and told the workers that the unions and the law forced them to do so.

And when they got caught actually breaking the law—by being too obvious in their espionage of organizing activity or materially punishing a union leader—the paltry punishments that were meted out sparked a new union-busting revolution. Why obey the law at all? Paying an illegally fired union activist just the wages she was owed—minus whatever unemployment insurance or moonlighting money she earned in the years it took for the case to get adjudicated—was far less money that a successfully negotiated union contract would ever cost.

At the heart of American corporations’ renewed resistance to union organizing was the increase in domestic competition from foreign competitors. This was not strictly the dumping of products made cheaper in overseas sweatshops that we tend to think of as the driver of inequality in the global economy. The first pangs of competitive anxiety were triggered by German and Japanese manufacturers who had finally recovered from the world war and could export quality products at affordable prices. Their competitive edge was that the cost of their workers’ health and retirement benefits were not loaded onto their payroll and then passed on to consumers as a higher retail price: Those social welfare benefits were the responsibility of the state.

Since most U.S. corporations—to this day—are unlikely to embrace social democracy, those in the 1970s resolved to fight the global pressure by fighting their own workers. But union supporters must grapple with an uncomfortable fact about our system of labor relations, which bases the very existence of a union, as well as the additional expenses of pensions, health insurance and other “fringe” benefits, on the individual firm level. In any industry that is not 100% unionized, the decision by workers to form a union really can make a company less competitive. And high-union-density industries are just juicier targets for capitalist vampires like Airbnb and Uber to compete by undercutting those standards.

In her conclusion, Windham writes “As the twentieth-century version of industrial capitalism gives way to new forms, working people find themselves in need of a wholesale redefinition of collective bargaining.” She finds some hope in the “alt-labor” organizations that are “struggling to shore up workers’ economic security in new ways, such as through workers’ centers, new occupational alliances, and public campaigns to raise wages.”

Both Pearson’s and Windham’s books, by highlighting the controversies in two of labor’s roughest periods, help us sharpen the question of how we regroup and reform to fight back in the 21st century. I would encourage more creative thinking about “all-in” labor rights models. What if we pushed for laws to end the “at-will” legal doctrine and grant a “Right to Your Job” to all workers? And what if we looked to countries that we compare ourselves to that have labor laws that apply wage increases and work rules to entire sectors all at once?

What these books make clear is that bosses rarely stop trying to blow up whatever system workers have won to enforce basic standards of decency—and that their strategies evolve with the times. How much longer will we spend trying to patch-up a badly battered 70-year-old labor relations system?

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

How Business Unionism Got Us to Janus

Friday, November 10th, 2017

In September, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus vs. AFSCME, a case that has the potential to undermine public sector unions by curtailing unions’ right to charge non-members an “agency fee.” This fee covers the protection and services the union is obligated to provide all employees in the bargaining unit.

Many labor leaders and pundits have identified unions’ loss of revenue as the most dire consequence of an unfavorable ruling in the Janus case. Others have pointed out that the forces behind Janus don’t only aim to weaken public employee unions: they are seeking to destroy the public sector and public ownership of resources across the board.

However, the Right’s deeper, darker strategic purpose has been mostly ignored, even by unions: Janus fits in with a larger project, led by the State Policy Network—a network of right-wing think tanks—that aims not only to “defund and defang” unions but to “deliver the mortal blow to permanently break” the Left’s “stranglehold on our society.”

Anyone who cares about democracy and the social and economic well-being of workers has a stake in how unions will respond to the Court’s decision. And with Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch now sitting on the bench, it appears likely that the ruling will not go in labor’s favor.

The real crisis at hand

The tacit assumption of Janus supporters and foes alike is that, when faced with a choice between being a union member and paying dues or not, significant numbers of members will bolt, and non-members who have been paying “agency fees” will not join. Because unions understand the danger posed by Janus as largely financial, they have focused on saving money, cutting staff and pursuing mergers. Some have also determined that they must be proactive to stave off mass desertions and are reaching out to members to solidify their support as dues payers.

Belt-tightening and talking to members may temporarily fortify union apparatus, but this approach ignores the question Janus demands we ask: Why is labor predicting members will desert their unions and that agency-fee payers will refuse to join?

These assumptions labor holds around Janus exemplify the real crisis unions confront—one not often discussed, even behind closed doors. In defining their purpose primarily as protecting members’ narrowly conceived economic interests and shaping the organization to function like a business, unions construct a very limited role for the workers they represent. Under this status quo, members are generally considered passive, with limited authority and voice. Their sole “power” is to pay dues and cast votes in what are generally uncontested elections for officers.

The right-wing forces behind Janus have used their frighteningly vast financial resources to exploit this weakness. The Janus brief, filed by the National Right to Work Foundation on behalf of Illinois public employee Mark Janus, articulates anti-union arguments familiar to any union activist who has tried to recruit skeptical co-workers. The plaintiff’s claims interrogate AFSCME’s purposes, its presence as a political force and whether it serves as a collective voice for working people on the job and in the larger society.

The brief reads:

Janus objects to many of the public-policy positions that AFSCME advocates, including the positions that AFSCME advocates for in collective bargaining. For example, he does not agree with what he views as the union’s one-sided politicking for only its point of view. Janus also believes that AFSCME’s behavior in bargaining does not appreciate the current fiscal crises in Illinois and does not reflect his best interests or the interests of Illinois citizens.

In building support for Janus, the Right has questioned the meaning of union membership while also criticizing public employee unions’ engagement in politics. Unions have frequently been ineffective in responding to the charge that they are just another special interest group, buying politicians for their members’ benefit. Unions have disarmed themselves in this assault by adopting the mentality and tactics of special interests. Labor has by and large accepted the Right’s definition of the contest (winning over “friendly” politicians in either party), the weapons (campaign donations), and the opponents (workers in other countries as our competitors). In doing so, labor has turned its back on its unique and most powerful resource—an informed, empowered and mobilized membership.

Instead, labor has countered the Right’s arguments on narrow grounds, railing against “free riders,” who they say will require unions “to represent non-members, who would be paying nothing at all, passing that burden off to dues-paying members.”

But this argument has little resonance to workers who already feel they are not well-represented. Like Mark Janus, they don’t feel their voices count. The “union” exists apart from them, with staff and officials insulated from even hearing, let alone responding to, members’ opinions and needs. The economic payoff from union dues can be hard to see when your paycheck hasn’t increased or in some cases, has decreased, despite your union having bargained in your name.

And this argument also avoids addressing the larger case made by the Right: that joining a union is not in workers’ best interest. The Right has confused workers by selling an individualistic, competitive ideology. And unions have been too slow to address why this ideology is harmful and antithetical to principles of collective action and solidarity. As others have observed, organized labor has by and large forgotten the grammar and vocabulary of class struggle.

From “it” to “we”

Though we shouldn’t adopt their methods or mentality, labor can learn a great deal from the Right’s victories. To move from defense to offense, labor needs to develop a new mindset. The strategies being discussed to avoid disaster post-Janus reflect many unions’ unwillingness to reimagine themselves.

One of these strategies is to eschew the legal responsibility to be “exclusive representative” of the bargaining unit, thereby creating competition between unions. Multiple unions representing workers for a single employer is the norm in other countries, where unions are allied with political parties. And some might consider it an idea worth pursuing. But encouraging competition among unions is a disaster, as Chris Brooks demonstrates in a close study of what occurred in Tennessee when an NEA affiliate lost exclusive representation. Workers turn against one another, viewing one another as rivals. Company unions, masquerading as professional groups that offer low insurance rates, compete, successfully, against traditional unions.

Is a “Workers’ Bill of Rights” an answer to Janus and the anticipated loss of collective bargaining in more states, as has been proposed in this publication? This is an interesting strategy but its limitation is that it’s a legalistic solution, not a political one. It doesn’t speak to the reasons workers choose not to join unions when they have that right, or to why they vote them down in elections.

Further, as Nelson Lichtenstein points out, the “rights discourse” is limited by being individual. What makes unions unique is that they represent members’ individual interests through struggle for their collective interests. Moreover, such a bill of rights ignores social oppression that workers experience on the job and separates their lives and rights outside the workplace from those they have inside. This strategy’s major flaw is not in what it tries to do but that it substitute for labor’s ability to critically analyze its losses.

One way to understand what adopting a new mindset would mean is looking to what occurred when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the reform caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), won the union’s leadership. This caucus conceived of the CTU as a member-driven union that served members’ economic interests best when it supported social justice issues across the board. The newly elected leadership altered the way the union made its purpose evident and worked to make all the union’s operations support this new mindset.

CORE put the people it represented, employees of the Chicago Public Schools, at the center of its organizing, as Jane McAlevey puts it. A member-driven union gives people a reason to be union members and not agency fee payers. The goal? Shift the union from being an “it” to being “we.”

Democracy or bust

Putting workers at the center of organizing requires union democracy. It also demands moving towards international solidarity. What Kim Moody calls “labor nationalism” has weakened the unions by allowing workers to fall prey to Trump’s xenophobia. “’Buy American” is very close to “Make America Great Again.” Such slogans lead workers to become hostile to their counterparts in other countries rather than to the transnational corporations and elites that set economic policy.

Overcoming the fallout from Janus will require reimagining union membership by inverting hierarchical relations that replicate disempowerment on the job. To do this, unions need to grapple with a number of pressing questions:

Why have professional negotiators or paid staff sent to the bargaining table by national- or state-level unions rather than members who have been elected based on their leadership and ideas? Should union organizers be elected rather than being hired and appointed? Why aren’t members allowed to know how their representatives vote in the unions’ executive council meetings? Should endorsements for political office be made by the membership in a referendum? Should unions use “participatory budgeting” to have members decide priorities for where their dues are allocated? What is a member’s responsibility for recruiting and educating co-workers about the union?

Activists who have tried to recruit co-workers to their union know that changing people’s minds about joining can be slow and hard work. It requires listening and a deep commitment to union ideals because people often hold beliefs that are inimical to collective action. This work also requires having a union you trust will make a difference in the lives of its members. Like democracy anywhere, union democracy is difficult to obtain and fragile. It can be inefficient and it creates tensions. But it’s also the key to union power. Vibrant democracy and a mobilized membership are crucial to winning at the bargaining table and to enforcing any agreement in the workplace. Like all legal rights, the contract is only as strong as members’ knowledge of its provisions and willingness to protect it.

This is a moment of truth for unions and their supporters. We need to look in the mirror and see that Janus has two faces. The case could reduce organized labor to a shell, or it could be the start of a remarkable revitalization that draws strength from the widespread social movements that have emerged from both the Bernie Sanders campaign and Trump’s election. The latter is possible, but it will be up to all of us to make it a reality.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University who is on the editorial board of New Politics. Her newest book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.

Billionaire Trump donor puts 115 people out of work after some joined a union

Friday, November 3rd, 2017

Last week, writers at the news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist joined a union. This week, the sites’ Trump-supporting billionaire owner, Joe Ricketts, shut them down, putting 115 people out of work.

Ricketts, who deleted negative coverage of himself when he acquired the Gothamist properties in March, has threatened to shut down the site in the past if the writers attempted to unionize.

On Thursday, he made good on the promise. […]

According to the National Labor Relations Board, laying off employees because they are engaged in union activity is illegal, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1965 that shutting down an entire business — like Ricketts chose to do Thursday — is one permissible form of retaliation.

Ricketts’ letter announcing the decision said that “DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure,” but the New York Times reports that Ricketts “lost money every month of DNAinfo’s existence.” It was only after workers dared to organize that he shut it down.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on November 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

Why the Best Protectors for Workers Are Other Workers

Friday, October 13th, 2017

As concertgoers fled the mass shooting at the country music festival outside the Mandalay Bay in Clark County, Nev., at the end of the Las Vegas strip, dozens of off-duty fire fighters attending the concert sprang into action. Twelve were among the wounded by gunfire.

At the same time, more than 150 fire fighters and paramedics from Clark County Local 1908 and surrounding locals rushed to the scene to save lives, treat the wounded and help the survivors.

“Our members–including those attending the concert off duty–reacted as they always do,” said IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger. “They put their training to work immediately, without hesitation and without regard for their own safety, making quick and difficult decisions on how best to save lives.”

As the news of the unfolding tragedy flashed across the nation, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) – the union representing more than 310,000 professional fire fighters and paramedics–also took action, reaching out to Clark County Local 1908 and other affiliates in the area to provide assistance.

On Monday morning after the shooting, Patrick Morrison–a retired Virginia fire fighter who heads the health and safety division at the IAFF, was on the phone with affiliates across the country to organize and mobilize experienced teams of peer support counselors and trauma specialists to help members involved in the response to the mass shooting. Within hours, he too was on a plane to Las Vegas.

“It’s easy to see a broken arm and treat it. It’s more difficult to see trauma to our brains or hearts,” Morrison said. “Everyday, work for fire fighters and paramedics can be traumatic. Mass-casualty events can be much worse. We want to make sure our members understand the signs and symptoms of traumatic stress injuries, so we can treat them.”

Many of the peer support counselors who arrived in Las Vegas have been through similar events. Some pulled bodies from the attack at the 2016 Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla., where 49 people were killed and 59 wounded. Others got a crash course in trauma from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, or from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.

All of them brought their personal stories to Las Vegas to help their union brothers and sisters.

At the school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Col., Ray Rahne was a fire fighter who had responded like everyone else in his department. Afterwards, the Vietnam veteran, who is also a husband and father, would find himself crying at times. And he was skittish and jumpy.

“I would go from happy to depressed at the snap of the fingers. People started asking, ‘What’s going on?’ This went on for over a year. Finally, I thought, I don’t know. I’ve got to go see somebody,” Rahne said.

Now retired from Littleton Fire and Rescue and a IAFF district vice president, Rahne got help and then joined his union’s growing movement to treat mental and emotional injuries to fire fighters, paramedics, and dispatchers.

Two years ago, the IAFF hired its first full-time and permanent behavior health specialist. This year, the union plans to hire a second. And, last March, the union opened the Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery in Upper Marlboro, Md., exclusively for IAFF members.

“Health and safety is a big priority for us. We want to make sure all of our members are as safe as possible,” Morrison said.

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