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A Quiet Trump Administration Rule Change Could Allow a Federal Union-Busting Spree

Friday, July 19th, 2019

Image result for Heather GiesThe Trump administration has proposed a change in rules governing union membership for federal government workers that could embolden federal agencies to discourage staff from joining or remaining in their union.

The proposed rule, published in the Federal Register on Friday, would enable federal workers to drop union membership—and opt out of paying membership dues—at any point after their first year of membership. A rolling opt-out rule would mark a break from current practice, in which workers can revoke their membership at yearly intervals upon their anniversary of joining.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, senior lecturer and director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, tells In These Times that beyond a mere administrative tweak allowing workers to opt out of membership whenever they please, the policy opens the door for employers to bully workers out of staying in their union, or joining in the first place. She said the issue of dues deduction could be a pressure point for employers to “intimidate and coerce workers” out of union activity.

Employers, in this context, are the Trump appointees heading dozens of federal agencies that together employ millions of workers, including 1.1 million employeesrepresented by unions. These agencies include the Departments of Veteran’s Affairs, Defense, and Agriculture, the Internal Revenue Service, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and many more.

“Under the current administration, we’ve seen very intense anti-union activity,” Bronfenbrenner says. “This is not a law for employees. This is a law to allow employers to push workers out of the union.”

Nicole Cantello, president of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 704 representing 1,000 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, tells In These Times such rules interfere in the union-worker relationship by eliminating the opportunity for meaningful conversations about why a member might consider leaving the union, or what she calls a “cooling off period.”

“We’re already struggling under a similar rule,” Cantello said, referring to directives in a contract the EPA “imposed” on nearly 9,000 EPA employees. “We feel it is equivalent to union busting.”

The latest salvo in an ongoing attack

J. David Cox, national president of AFGE representing 700,000 federal and D.C. government workers, said in a statement that the Trump administration’s rule change request represents “part of an all-out assault on federal employees’ collective bargaining rights.”

“They are throwing out our contracts, enforcing illegal executive orders, and now trying to make it harder for workers to join and stay in the union,” Cox said. “Their ultimate goal is to destroy federal sector unions, and we will do everything in our ability to prevent that from happening.”

The proposed change comes amid a series of moves aimed at hollowing out federal unions. Those efforts received a boost this week when the U.S. Court of Appeals gave the green light to Trump’s executive orders limiting collective bargaining and the amount of time federal workers can spend on union activities. The National Labor Relations Board also just made it easier for employers in both the public and private sector to eliminate unions.

The proposed membership withdrawal change also follows on the heels of Janus v. AFSCME, a 2018 Supreme Court decision that barred public sector unions from collecting “fair share dues” from workers who are represented by the union, but who opt out of full membership. Janus, the result of a suit bankrolled by right-wing think tanks, brought the rest of the public sector in line with the status quo for federal workers’ unions, where union membership and dues payment was already voluntary. By invoking Janus, which argued that fair share dues infringe on workers’ free speech rights, the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) new membership revocation proposal lays bare its anti-union sentiment.

“Consistent with Janus,” the proposed rule states, “upon receiving an employee’s request to revoke a previously authorized union dues assignment, an agency should process the request as soon as administratively feasible, if at least one year has passed since the employee initially authorized union-dues assignment from the employee’s pay.”

Borrowing Corporate America’s playbook

The drive to wipe out federal unions isn’t new. “They have wanted to get rid of AFGE and other federal unions for a long time,” Bronfenbrenner said, pointing to the history of Reagan era union-busting and privatization under both Bush administrations. Now,  increased organizing in federal unions in recent years—including a historic 2011 AFGE win securing a bargaining unit of 44,000 Transportation Security Officers as well as support among federal workers for the $15 minimum wage campaign—could further unsettle the anti-union bosses at the helm under Trump.

“This administration is tied with Corporate America,” Bronfenbrenner adds. “They are going to act in the federal sector the way they’ve acted in the private sector.”

In research published in a 2009 briefing paper, Bronfenbrenner found that “the overwhelming majority” of private sector employers in the United States “are willing to use a broad arsenal of legal and illegal tactics to interfere with the rights of workers,” including a “combination of threats, interrogation, surveillance, and harassment” to undermine union election processes.

Bronfenbrenner tells In These Times that anti-union maneuvers, from Janus to the rule change on federal union membership revocation, introduce a similar playbook to the public sector. Together, she believes these actions are about “giving employers more power to bust unions.”

Conservative groups such as the State Policy Network, which helped fund Janus, already have aggressively targeted public sector workers urging them to opt out of their unions, but those campaigns have proved far less effective at ushering in a fatal blow to unions than many anticipated.

The OPM, the federal agency that manages the government workforce and human resources matters, submitted the proposed rule to the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which will accept public comments on the policy change until August 12.

Bronfenbrenner says the new guidelines would ultimately enable employers to “interfere with the day-to-day ability of workers to engage with the union without fear of intimidation, coercion, and threats.”

“The way the law has worked, once you are part of the union, it has been an unfair labor practice [and] a violation of labor law for the employer to oppose your participation in the union,” she said. “But with Janus, and now this, the employer has the ability to interfere with your membership in the union, and that goes against the way the law has been interpreted for years.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 18,  2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Heather Gies is a freelance journalist who has written on human rights, social movements and environmental issues for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, In These Times and National Geographic. Follow her on twitter @HeatherGies.

“Bezos, Our Backs Are Tired”: Amazon Workers Strike on Prime Day

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

On Monday afternoon, in the blistering heat of a 95-degree day, approximately 50 Amazon workers and community supporters rallied outside of a suburban Minnesota Amazon warehouse chanting, “We work, We sweat, Amazon workers need a rest!” That chant was followed by, “Hey Jeff Bezos! Our backs are tired and our funds are low!”

The crowd was picketing to support workers at the Shakopee, Minnesota warehouse (or “fulfillment center”) who timed their strike to coincide with “Prime Day,” one of the company’s key online sales events. Prime Day is being promoted on Amazon’s website as a “two-day parade of epic deals,” when monthly subscribers to the company’s Prime service can shop for discounted items and expect fast home delivery.

Workers say these deals are taking a toll on those tasked with fulfilling customer orders at a breakneck pace. From 2:00 p.m. to at least 8:00 p.m. on July 15, approximately 100 warehouse employees at the Amazon facility in Minnesota are expected to walk off the job in hopes of calling attention to what they say are unfair working conditions, as well as the company’s reliance on temporary employees.

They are joined by workers at Amazon facilities across Europe who are also be walking off the job, according to Mike Murphy of Quartz, to call attention to labor issues such as stagnant pay and unrealistic work quotas.

The majority of workers at the warehouse are East African immigrants, according to an event announcement for the July 15 strike. There are more than 100 such centers in the United States, but this is the only known facility participating in the walkout. These workers are being assisted by a Minneapolis-based labor rights group called the Awood Center, whose stated mission is to “build economic and political power amongst workers in the East African community of Minnesota.”

Meg Brady has worked at the Shakopee fulfillment center for nearly 18 months, although she says she is currently off the job due to a workplace injury. She joined coworkers and local labor activists on the picket line outside the Amazon facility. As a hot, blustery wind took hold, Brady described the stress fracture in her foot that is keeping her from her work as a “rebinner,” or someone tasked with grabbing items off a conveyor belt and putting them in a cubbyhole.

“I group items for orders,” she said, noting that she has to pull 600 products off the conveyor belt per hour. A big screen mounted in front of her keeps tabs of her work speed. There is pressure to keep up, Brady insisted, as she has seen fellow warehouse workers get written up and sometimes fired for being unable to meet Amazon’s requirements. All of this has led to a repetitive stress injury—one she says she had to fight to get recognized as job-related.

She joined the walkout in solidarity, hoping the workers’ actions will lead to reduced work rates, as well as an investment from Amazon in ergonomics. “Right now, we have poorly designed workstations,” Brady said.

Bryan Menegus of Gizmodo notes that workers at this “infamous” Amazon facility have spent the past year engaging in walk-outs and other actions on behalf of religious freedom and other labor concerns. Thus far, workers have won some concessions, including the right, in 2018, to honor the Muslim holiday of Ramadan during that year’s Prime Day event.

William Stolz also works in the Shakopee fulfillment center and helped organize the strike. In a July 9 interview with National Public Radio, Stolz described his work as a “picker”—someone who works in tandem with robots to put customer orders together, at a rapid pace dictated by Amazon.

Workers want to be treated like “human beings, not machines,” Stolz told NPR, before citing other labor concerns—such as Amazon’s use of temporary workers—as reasons for the planned walk-out. Currently, around 1,500 employees work at the Shakopee facility.

As the strike got underway at 2:00 p.m., a small but growing group of workers and labor activists began to hold picket signs demanding workplace concessions from Amazon, including reduced work rates and allowing more temporary employees to become permanent workers with access to benefits. In response to news of the planned action, Amazon has insisted that it provides competitive wages and benefits in Minnesota.

Still, the July 15 strike comes amid a year of increasing pressure on Amazon to alter its business practices and put labor, climate and human rights first. In 2018, thousands of Amazon workers in Europe mounted their own Prime Day strike, citing such concerns as unfair labor practices and union-busting. Similarly, the company backed off plans for a proposed second headquarters in New York City, thanks in part to union-led pressure.

Amazon began doing business in 1994 and has grown to become a global company with billions in annual earnings. In 2018, the company raked in over $232 billion in revenue and paid zero dollars in federal income taxes, according to sources such as CNBC. First-quarter earnings for 2019 have come in at close to $60 billion, putting Amazon on track to surpass last year’s revenue totals.

One of the company’s central income-boosting strategies has been increasing speed of its product-delivery rate, especially through its fee-based Prime service. The company recently announced plans to pour $800 million into making one-day delivery the standard for Prime members, who pay a monthly fee in exchange for free shipping on millions of products.

Amazon has said that its quick order-turnaround system is accomplished not just by human labor but also by technological advances, including its own Amazon Robotics design.

While Amazon’s earnings continue to grow, however, workers charged with filling orders at faster speeds are working under “endlessly brutal and punishing conditions,” as reporter Ravie Lakshmanan put itThe Guardianhas described warehouse workers being injured on the job and then denied benefits or help. In another case, a former Amazon employee said he was fired for supporting unionization efforts.

These conditions led Amazon workers across Europe to go on strike on Prime Day in 2018. This year, Amazon workers at the Shakopee fulfillment center will take up the mantle and engage in a six-hour work stoppage.

So far, this is the only known action planned by Amazon employees in the United States. The striking Minnesota workers were joined, however, by a handful of engineers from Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, who  reportedly flew to Minnesota to join the protest and pressure the retail behemoth to take a more active role in addressing climate justice concerns.

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and former English Instructor. She is a 2015 Progressive magazine Education Fellow and blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.

Here’s Where the 2020 Candidates Stand on Labor

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

FOR A FEW DAYS IN APRIL, a grocery store chain in New England magnetically attracted Democratic presidential hopefuls. Thousands of Stop & Shop workers were on strike in the biggest private-sector walkout in years. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Mayor Pete Buttigieg (South Bend, Ind.), former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) all joined picket lines to stand in solidarity. Others tweeted messages of support.

“This is morally wrong what’s going on in this country, and I’ve had enough of it,” Biden said. “I’m sick of it, and so are you. We gotta stand together, and if we do, we will take back this country—I mean it.”

By May, the labor conflict making headlines was McDonald’s workers striking for a $15 wage. Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro, Mayor Bill de Blasio (New York City), Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Gov. Jay Inslee (Wash.) joined street protests. Nearly a dozen others expressed support for workers.

“We have got to recognize that working people deserve livable wages,” Harris said, noting she once worked at McDonald’s.

During the primaries, Democratic presidential candidates have always made a point of showing up at union halls and playing up ties to working people: It’s one of the first pages in the Democratic political playbook. Biden officially started his campaign at a Teamsters banquet hall in Pittsburgh, announcing he is a “union man.” Warren kicked off her campaign at the site of the historic 1912 textile workers’ Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Mass. Klobuchar and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) mention union members in their extended family while speaking to union audiences.

The next by-the-book move is a pivot to the center during the general election. After fighting for union endorsements during primary season, the Democratic nominee zeroes in on swing voters, taking union voters for granted even as unions send a door-to-door army to get out the vote. Labor has been a core part of the Democratic Party’s coalition going back to the Great Depression.

Eighty years later, in 2016, something changed. Donald Trump had the best GOP presidential candidate performance with union households since 1984, trailing Hillary Clinton by only 8 percentage points. In 2012, Mitt Romney trailed Barack Obama in this demographic by 18 points. All of which raises the question: Are Democrats losing labor as a reliable constituency? Dems can still count on union endorsements, to be sure. But with Trump attacking from the left on free trade, support from white male union members—who still make up a plurality of the movement’s members—is up for grabs.

This uncertainty was born of neglect: Since the 1970s, as the country’s industrial base withered and unionbusting flourished, Democrats in Washington have done little to reverse the labor movement’s decline. Under Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, union money and organizing muscle helped deliver control of Congress and the White House to Democrats. Each time, the party failed to pass labor law reform that would have empowered workers and bolstered the movement.

In 2016, the party paid an electoral price for their waywardness. This time around, will candidates do more than pander during the primaries? Public support for labor is at a 15-year high, especially among young people, women and college graduates. Nearly half a million workers were part of a strike or lockout last year—the highest figure since 1986. Might we finally see Democrats place unions at the heart of their political agenda? It’s far-fetched, but conceivable. Candidates know they can no longer take union votes for granted.

More significantly, the center of gravity on labor and economic issues has moved left.

“There’s this sense now that we have a big problem of inequality and capitalism run amok,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy. “That’s clear on the Democratic side. But what is the solution? Is it about taxation? Or is it vitalization of the union movement? That latter idea has become more understood.”

In some ways, candidates’ rush to the left makes it harder to discern just how deeply committed they are to strengthening unions. Everyone always says they want to rebuild the middle class. Who really wants to rebuild the labor movement?

RAISING THE BAR

If you zero in on the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) ACTthe answer appears to be: most of the leading candidates. Co-sponsored by 40 senators and 100 members of the House, the PRO Act offers a litany of labor law reforms. The larger context here is that the United States has among the weakest workers’ rights protections of any industrialized country—on par with Myanmar, Pakistan and Ethiopia. Over the past 40 years, employers have aggressively fought unionization through (perfectly legal) tactics like “captive audience” meetings, when workers must sit and listen to anti-union presentations, or the (sometimes legal) firing of striking workers.

The PRO Act would strengthen the right to organize and strike by, among other things, eliminating so-called right-to-work laws, banning permanent strike replacements, legalizing secondary boycotts and picketing, and broadening the definition of “employee” to include many current independent contractors. Compared to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the reform law pushed by the labor movement during the 2008 election cycle that ultimately died in the Senate, the PRO Act is a progressive smorgasbord. But the PRO Act does fall short of EFCA in one significant regard: While EFCA enabled workers to organize through a majority sign-up process (“card check”), the PRO Act only requires card check if an employer is found to have violated labor law during a failed union election. Every current senator running for president backs the bill.

With multiple leading candidates able to point to a history of support for unions, today’s Democratic field stands in stark contrast to the 2016 primary with its binary choice of establishment liberal Hillary Clinton versus change agent Bernie Sanders. Nearly all unions endorsed Clinton, many early on, rankling rank-and-file Sanders supporters. This time around, unions are in no hurry to back a candidate—only the International Association of Fire Fighters has done so (Biden got the nod). The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association and others have unveiled new endorsement approaches to more deeply engage both candidates and members (and, one assumes, to close any perceived distance between the wishes of the rank-and-file and executive boards).

“There’s intensity for a bunch of candidates this time,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT. The union endorsed Clinton in July 2015 and poured $1.7 million into her campaign and pro-Clinton PACs.

Heartburn from the calamitous 2016 election appears to be giving the union endorsement process a dose of democracy. As millions of union members decide who to back, they’ll be wrestling with the question of which candidate would most effectively fight for their interests. Because the leading Democratic candidates are staking out similar ground to make their case, it’s important to look at the candidates’ records, how central the union movement is to their theory of change, and what unilateral actions they would be willing to embrace as president (should Congress fail to act)

DIFFERENCES BIG AND SMALL

This much is clear across the Democratic primary field: Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 and taxing the rich have become table stakes. All the leading candidates—Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas), Sanders, Warren—support both. Beyond those two issues, the top of the field is replete with differences big and small.

It’s easy to sort out where candidates stand on a raft of proposed legislation. It’s harder to know what they would try to do for the labor movement if all those proposals become moot—which will be the case should the GOP hold the Senate.

Biden is an old pro at signaling he’s a fighter for the union cause, but it’s hard to find an example of him sticking his neck out for workers. In May, Biden held a fundraiser at the Los Angeles home of a board member of Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, a subsidiary of healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente. The National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which has a longstanding dispute with Kaiser in California over mental health staffing levels, called on Biden to cancel the event. They never heard back, says NUHW President Sal Rosselli. NUHW members protested outside the house, but Biden “went into the event and didn’t even talk to our folks,” Rosselli says. “That’s very disappointing.”

Biden also didn’t endear himself to the labor movement by voting for NAFTA and supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, both of which unions opposed. Biden did support EFCA as a senator but has not committed to the PRO Act, and his campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

In contrast, the leading presidential candidates from the Senate have been out front on labor law reform. Sanders has been pushing the Workplace Democracy Act (WDA) for decades (beginning as a congressman in 1992), which is co-sponsored by Booker, Harris and Warren. The WDA can be seen as a forerunner of the PRO Act; it also legalizes secondary boycotting, stops companies from delaying a first contract with workers and gives bargaining rights to many workers who are currently classified as independent contractors. (Unlike the PRO Act, it would let all workers unionize via card check as a matter of course.) Sanders’ method has been persistence: He reintroduced the WDA throughout the 1990s in the House, then brought new versions into the Senate in 2015 and 2018. As with other issues, such as Medicare for All, the Democratic Party has now caught up to him.

It took Sanders years to earn the backing of any national union. They didn’t flock to him when he first ran for Congress in 1988, but came around after he won congressional campaigns in the early 1990s. Today, Sanders remains as outspoken as ever about the power of unions—they live at the heart of his agenda. “The trade union movement is the last line of defense against a corporate agenda that not only wants tax breaks for billionaires but wants to privatize Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” Sanders told In These Times via email. “We must strengthen unions and bargaining rights of workers everywhere.”

It’s not hard to imagine the other leading candidates saying something similar—indeed, most have before crowds of union members. It’s Sanders’ long record of actually supporting labor actions that makes him stand out. Political candidates love to call their campaigns a “movement,” and Sanders is no exception, but it feels less cliched when a campaign actively urges supporters to join protests around the country—like those held by University of California campus workers and Delta Air Lines flight attendants. “What Bernie is doing is very, very unique,” Lichtenstein says. “The most radical thing in this campaign cycle that’s happened is Bernie using his email list to get people to picket lines and protests.”

In March, Sanders’ staffers became the first presidential campaign staff to unionize, starting a trend. Castro’s campaign staff followed in May, and Warren’s team did so in June. The candidates each publicly supported the union efforts. “Every worker who wants to join a union, bargain collectively, & make their voice heard should have a chance to do so,” Warren tweeted.

Unlike Sanders, Warren can’t point to decades of direct solidarity work with the labor movement, but the two New England senators share much in common. Yes, Warren has called herself “capitalist to my bones” while Sanders keeps trumpeting his democratic socialism, but both have New Deal liberalism deep in their blood—including the sense that worker empowerment is vital to economic justice—and they broadly agree that American capitalism needs structural change.

Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act is a good example. Introduced in the Senate in 2018, the bill would empower employees to elect at least 40% of board members at large U.S. companies. This new board could then (in theory) push management to do something about yawning pay disparities between the C-suite and average workers. For Sanders’ part, he unveiled plans in May to boost employee ownership of corporations and attended a Walmart shareholders meeting in June at the request of United for Respect, a workers’ rights group, to support a resolution to require Walmart to put hourly employees on its board.

Both senators want to do more than tinker around the edges of neoliberalism. This perspective, and a willingness to call out the rich as an enemy along class lines, is what sets them apart from their primary season peers.

“Strengthening America’s labor unions will be a central goal of my administration,” Warren told In These Times via email. “For too long, a worker’s right to unionize has been under attack. The rich and powerful have teamed up with the Republican Party to push for measures at all levels of government designed to decimate unions and collective bargaining.”

Warren says she wants to “modernize our labor laws for the 21st century,” noting various reforms included in the PRO Act, and that she would fight for “fully portable benefits for everyone and make sure that all work—full-time, part-time, gig—carries basic, pro-rata benefits.” She also wants to push to amend federal law so the president and federal courts cannot “enjoin lawful strikes that pose a threat to national health or safety.”

“Far too often, these injunctions have been invoked in strikes not because there is a genuine threat to national health or safety, but rather to curb the power of unions engaging in lawful strikes,” she says.

This attitude has endeared Warren to the labor movement. She spoke in Las Vegas at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Center for American Progress Action Fund’s National Forum on Wages and Working People in April, along with a handful of other candidates. “We need more power in the hands of employees,” she said. The Washington Post reported the crowd gave her its “most passionate response.”

THE REST OF THE FIELD

To be sure, other leading candidates have built up support within the labor movement. Buttigieg, for example, has been in tune with the building trades unions in South Bend. “He’s been fantastic,” says Jim Gardner, business representative of the Operating Engineers Local 150. Buttigieg spoke out against repealing the common construction wage and backed a “responsible bidding” city ordinance that requires any company bidding on a city contract to reveal OSHA violations, Gardner says. Buttigieg’s unsuccessful 2010 campaign for Indiana state treasurer was run from the building trades office in South Bend, says Mike Compton, who was business manager with IBEW Local 153 until 2016. “Pete did what he could for us and with us,” he says.

Buttigieg tells In These Times, “I believe that unions must have a powerful seat at the table—to stand up against unfair and abusive practices and to collaborate in improving work environments and productivity.”

With no offense to South Bend, Harris’ deep ties to California unions could prove a bit more valuable come Super Tuesday. The state’s biggest unions backed her 2016 campaign for Senate and the former president of SEIU California, Laphonza Butler, is one of her top strategists. “We’ve known Kamala since she first ran for district attorney in San Francisco, and we have supported her and endorsed her ever since,” NUHW’s Rosselli says. “She’s extremely responsive to workers’ issues, union issues.”

In May, Harris unveiled a gender pay equity proposal that would require companies to seek “equal pay certification.” Companies would be fined 1% of their profits for every 1% wage gap that persists between men and women. Harris has also championed measures to extend full labor rights to domestic workers and farmworkers, two groups excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (in a racist compromise with Southern lawmakers). And she has proposed the largest-ever federal investment in teacher pay: $300 billion over 10 years to boost teacher salaries by an average of $13,500.

As likely intended, the plan piqued the interest of at least one rank-and-file teacher, Lucy Moreno. An elementary school teacher and AFT member in Houston, Moreno frequently spends money out of pocket on school supplies. “We teachers are at our breaking point,” Moreno says. Most of the issues that will be top of mind for her this primary season hook to education—better pay, less testing and student loan forgiveness.

Moreno also liked what she heard from Biden in May at an AFT-sponsored town hall event. She says she has not been following the campaign of O’Rourke, the leading candidate from Texas.

O’Rourke’s relationship to unions has had a few bumps. He didn’t endear himself to the Texas AFL-CIO after failing to attend its January 2018 convention during his challenge to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, but ultimately won the endorsement. And as Vox has reported, O’Rourke’s voting record in Congress was more conservative than the average Democrat’s. He has backed easing regulations on Wall Street and raising the eligibility age for Social Security.

Booker’s current stance on labor and workers’ rights is solidly progressive (relative to the other leading candidates), but he has a bit of an Achilles’ heel: his longstanding support for school vouchers and the charter school movement in Newark, N.J., where he was a city council member and mayor. Along with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, Booker wanted to make the city “the charter school capital of the nation.” Newark teachers unions were less enthused with the plan—and teachers nationwide may prove less than enthusiastic with Booker’s candidacy, given their growing willingness to strike.

The issue isn’t just Booker’s “school reform” past, but the way it illuminates his neoliberal tendencies. In a 2011 speech at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, he said that “disparities in income in America are not because of some ‘greedy capitalist’—no! It’s because of a failing education system.”

Of the candidates polling at 2% or less as of early July, none emerge as a “labor candidate.” Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio), a long-time magnet for union donations, touts his Rust Belt credentials and says he was spurred to run by the closure of the Lordstown General Motors plant in his district. But Ryan’s stump speech rarely includes the phrase “union jobs.” He focuses on the need to invest in electric carmaking. Conversely, Inslee, more known as a “climate candidate,” has made unions and a job guarantee central to his climate plan.

Serial entrepreneur Andrew Yang is running as a capitalist who saw the light on economic inequality and the threat of automation. His trademark proposal is a guaranteed universal income of $1,000 a month that he calls a “freedom dividend.” In a 2018 Labor Day blog post, Yang gave the impression of having recently discovered U.S. labor history, enthusiastically relating the life story of Walter Reuther. He closed with an appeal to unions to support his freedom dividend, noting: “It would also dramatically increase worker bargaining power, as workers would have a cushion to fall back on and could push harder against exploitative labor conditions.”

Klobuchar never misses an opportunity to mention she is the granddaughter of a union miner and daughter of a union teacher and a union “newspaper man.” The line drew weak applause from union workers in March at the SEIU labor forum in Nevada, compared to cheers for Warren’s policy proposals. Klobuchar has also had to contend with reports of emotionally abusive behavior toward her staff.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), historically a centrist, has run hard to the left and brings up labor proposals, unasked, in interviews, including debt-free college, a Green New Deal, affordable day care, a national paid leave plan and equal pay. Her most noteworthy position may be full employment, which she tells Splinter News she will effect through “apprenticeship programs, not-for-profits, and community colleges to train local workers for real, available, good-paying jobs.

EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING

Presidential candidates always focus on legislation as a way of defining their values and political program, and a lot of them this cycle would do a lot of good for workers—from various tax plans to the PRO Act to the Family Act (introduced by Gillibrand in February, it would mandate up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave for various health reasons). But all of it will come to naught if the GOP holds the Senate, and even if Democrats gain the majority, don’t hold your breath: Pro-business Democrats couldn’t stomach EFCA in the Senate back when their party controlled all of Congress in 2009, so they will likely be happy to obstruct the far more expansive PRO Act.

Larry Cohen, former president of the Communication Workers of America, notes that the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome, prevented EFCA from passing and watered down the Affordable Care Act.

“Are [candidates] prepared to work to change the way the U.S. Senate operates, should we be lucky enough to get 50 Democratic senators again?” asks Cohen, who is now board chair of Our Revolution, the organization that emerged from the 2016 Sanders campaign.

Warren, Buttigieg and O’Rourke are in favor of eliminating the filibuster. Sanders, Harris and Booker have vacillated but are leaning toward the status quo. Biden, who spent 45 years in the Senate, tends to defend the chamber’s traditions. He has spoken in favor of the filibuster, although not this year.

Nonetheless, given the likelihood of a divided government (or a divided party), the leading Dems are strikingly silent about how they might directly wield the Oval Office to bolster the labor movement.

A president can do plenty to drive a pro-labor agenda through the federal government without Congress, such as make strong appointments to run the Department of Labor (DOL) and sit on the National Labor Relations Board, says Moshe Marvit, a Century Foundation fellow who focuses on labor and employment. Actually enforcing current laws could make a huge difference, too—the DOL could, for example, aggressively bring lawsuits against companies that misclassify workers as contractors, while the IRS could pursue the same bad actors for tax evasion, Marvit says. Or the president could bring more people from workers’ rights groups and unions with firsthand knowledge of the challenges into policymaking—a teacher to run the Department of Education, for example. The DOL’s Bureau of Labor Statistics could expand data collection on unfair labor practices, union-busting and other employer violations and sexual harassment in the workplace. And, says Marvit, it could restart its tracking of strikes and walkouts that involve fewer than 1,000 workers, which stopped a few decades ago.

In These Times asked Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren what they would do, legislatively and executively, given the chance. Biden, Booker, and Harris did not respond. Buttigieg and Sanders cited only legislative plans—Buttigieg, for example, wants a new National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act to cover workers historically excluded from collective bargaining, and Sanders wants to pass his Workplace Democracy Act, which includes “the right to know if [a] company spends huge amounts of money to run anti-union campaigns.”

O’Rourke sent a brief response, but a spokesperson expanded on it to say that the candidate would increase employer penalties for interference with worker organizing and increase investments in workers’ rights enforcement mechanisms. (Harris has also pledged to crack down on companies “that cheat their workers,” and Sanders has elsewhere promised to restore the Obama NLRB’s expanded overtime protections.)

Only Warren’s response detailed proposed executive actions, saying she would appoint people “who have a history of fighting for workers and are committed to fighting for workers’ rights” to help lead her administration. She also says she would give union members a “real voice” in trade deal negotiations, reimplement Obama’s overtime pay expansion rules and prevent employers from misclassifying workers as independent contractors. “I will use the White House bully pulpit to support workers,” she says.

Warren’s two-pronged approach is something Marvit would love—a governance approach that places the struggles of workers at the center of public discourse, while making policy changes in the background. Think of it as flipping the Trump script.

“Every president gets to define how they talk about the economy,” Marvit says. “Trump has made it all about trade and tariffs, so suddenly we’re all talking about trade and tariffs in the news every single day. Another president could really frame economic concerns around labor and employment issues. It will force people to choose sides.”

Imagine a president publicly condemning a company for misclassifying workers as contractors, and then harnessing the full range of executive branch powers—the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor, the IRS—to punish bad actors. The scenario can only occur if the president thinks of workers not just as an interest group, but as their core constituency, Marvit says. “There has to be a worker concern in every single policy that is taken, whether you’re talking about healthcare, whether you’re talking about the environment, whether you’re talking about employment.”

Jane McAlevey, a former union organizer and author of No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, says that getting a sympathetic Democrat in the White House is only the first step. The next, McAlevey says, is a massive wave of strikes.

The relationship between direct action, power and creating a crisis with a Democrat in the White House is “the missing link so often in this discussion,” McAlevey says. The labor movement should back a candidate who will “restore the fundamental constitutional right to strike” (as the PRO Act effectively would) and commit to never calling out federal troops on striking workers. “We need a candidate … who commits to defending the right of workers to be on strike and using the full resources of the federal government to aid workers in re-claiming some of what’s deserved by the working class.”

Nothing like that has been seen in the United States since the 1930s, when FDR first entered the White House and waves of strikes followed. The backdrop was the Great Depression. Short of another crisis, far-reaching strikes are far-fetched. But one thing is clear enough: Waiting for Democrats to lead the labor movement out of decline is a losing strategy.

Anna Attie, Eleanor Colbert, Ramenda Cyrus, Daniel Fernandez, Gabe Levine-Drizin and Alex Schwartz contributed research and fact-checking to this story. 

This article was originally published at In These Times on May 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeremy Gantz is a contributing editor at In These Times. He is the editor of The Age of Inequality: Corporate America’s War on Working People (2017, Verso), and was the Web/Associate Editor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.

Trump's acting Labor secretary pick feared by unions

Monday, July 15th, 2019

Ian Kullgren March 9, 2018. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)Patrick Pizzella, tapped by President Donald Trump on Friday to step in as acting Labor secretary, is a polarizing figure beloved by conservatives for his pro-business views and disliked by unions and Democrats for a history of opposing worker protections.

Pizzella, who has served as deputy secretary of Labor since April 2018, will take over following Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s resignation amid controversy over a plea deal that he brokered for wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein as a prosecutor in Florida. Pizzella comes “highly recommended by Alex,” Trump told reporters Friday.

But Pizzella’s ascendance to the top of the agency tasked with enforcing labor protections is something unions have long feared. He worked alongside disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to shield the Northern Mariana Islands from federal labor laws in the 1990s, and generally has favored easing workplace regulations.

“If the president is serious about helping working people, selecting Patrick Pizzella wouldn’t be the way to demonstrate that,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement. “My dealings with Patrick have been limited, but his dubious track record, including his association with Jack Abramoff, doesn’t bode well.”

Some Democrats on Friday urged Trump to put someone else in charge of the Labor Department. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said in a written statement that Pizzella‘s “checkered past on these issues — including lobbying with convicted felon Jack Abramoff on behalf of sweatshops and pushing anti-worker policies as a member of the Federal Labor Relations Authority — make him unfit to lead the Department of Labor.”

This article was originally published by Politico on July 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Ian Kullgren is a reporter on POLITICO’s employment and immigration team. Before joining POLITICO, he was a reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. and was part of a team that covered a 41-day standoff with armed militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their efforts earned the Associated Press Media Editors grand prize for news reporting in 2017. His real beat was politics, though, and he spent most his time at the state capitol covering the governor and state legislature.

The Media Uses Coal Miners To Attack the Green New Deal—Then Ignores Their Pension Fight

Friday, July 12th, 2019

To stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis, at least 80 percent of coal reserves must stay in the ground, according to a conservative estimate in the journal Nature. This means that coal miners would see their already declining industry all but disappear. The Green New Deal, the resolution put forward by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) for an economy-wide mobilization to address the climate crisis, call for a “just transition” that guarantees good new jobs for coal miners. Some insist that the “just transition” start now, which is why they are supporting the American Miners Act.

Introduced in the Senate on January 3, the Act protects the pensions of more than 100,000 coal miners whose retirement fund was depleted by the 2008 crash. It also rescues the healthcare benefits of miners whose companies went bankrupt last year.

But you wouldn’t know about this bill, or its sister legislation in the House, from reading the New York Times, the Washington Post or Politico, three influential outlets within the Beltway. None have reported on—or mentioned—the legislation since it was introduced in early January, even though it has the support of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and high-profile cosponsors like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Ocasio-Cortez.

Yet these outlets have given considerable space to coal miners and unions to advance other narratives. In a four month period this spring and summer (February 25 to June 25), the New York TimesWashington Post and Politico have published 34 articles and opinion pieces that touch on coal miners or their unions. Collectively, they paint coal miners primarily as a source of votes, and assume that the sole political motivation of that bloc is opposing environmental policies that would close mines.

Seven stories discuss the decline of the coal industry or the new mergers, without mentioning the American Miners Act. Seven describe Democrats’ attempts to reach out to coal miners. One mentions rising suicide rates among coal miners in the Midwest. One includes brief mention of a coal miners’ strike more than a century ago. Only one piece highlights coal miners’ present-day concerns about workplace conditions: an article about silica dust causing a resurgence of black lung, that was produced by Reuters and reprinted by the New York Times. And only one discusses how the Gre­en New Deal could support coal miners.

By far the most frequent reference, in 16 stories, was to depict coal workers as a conservative constituency. These 16 stories either pit coal miners’ livelihoods against robust climate action, reference miners’ support for regressive policies like environmental deregulation, or discuss miners who back President Trump. When coal miners speak against progressive policies, particularly environmental ones, they’re more likely to be given a platform. When they issue demands that affect their everyday survival, they’re on their own.

Politico and the Washington Post gave considerable space to the opposition of coal miners and unions to the Green New Deal, with three articles in this period highlighting the topic. By contrast, only one article, a 855-word opinion piece in the Washington Post, made the case for why coal miners should support the Green New Deal.

Overlooked blue-green alliances

These Green New Deal articles are worth examining, because they establish a narrative that there is an insurmountable divide between elite climate activists and workers just trying to get by. On March 12, the Washington Post ran the headline, “AFL-CIO criticizes Green New Deal, calling it ‘not achievable or realistic.’” The piece centered on a letter of opposition to the Green New Deal co-drafted by Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, on behalf of the AFL-CIO’s energy committee.

Yet, on May 8, when Roberts rallied at Capitol Hill to call attention to the existential threat posed to retired coal miners’ livelihoods, the Washington Post was mum. Alongside the Alliance of Retired Americans, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) and multiple members of Congress, Roberts made an impassioned case for the American Miners Act, the aforementioned legislation that would transfer money to the UMWA pension fund, a boon to workers whose benefits were threatened by the Great Recession. “We didn’t get any of the money you sent to Wall Street. You bailed them out,” Roberts shouted from a podium. “What about the people who work for a living in America? What about the people who’ve given their health to America?”

The press conference would have also offered an opportunity to report on alliance-building between coal miners and Green New Deal proponents. And in fact, Sara Nelson, president of AFA and vocal supporter of the Green New Deal, spoke at the press conference. “Flight attendants are here, with our miners, to make sure that miners’ healthcare and pensions are preserved,” she said. “They earned them.”

In a May interview with In These Times, Nelson emphasized the importance of rallying behind the bill. “We need to push to adopt legislation that keeps America’s promise to coal miners of pensions and healthcare,” she said, “as well as addresses black lung— that’s the bare minimum to show good faith that this process of taking on climate change will focus on making coal miners’ lives better, not worse.”

As labor and climate activists grapple with difficult questions about how to transition away from a fossil fuel economy without leaving workers behind, major media outlets remain stuck in a reductive “elite vs. blue-collar” divide. In These Times contributor Michelle Chen noted that this false dichotomy appears throughout a June 1 Politico article, “Labor anger over Green New Deal greets 2020 contenders in California.” The article quotes Jack Pitney, described as “a veteran California political analyst and political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.”

He says there’s a “cautionary tale” for Democrats, who should remember that “West Virginia, until 2000, was considered solidly blue.” Republican strategist Karl Rove, working for candidate George W. Bush, pushed the fact “that the Democratic nominee was Al Gore, author of ‘Earth in the Balance,’’’ a fact that didn’t sit well with coal miners, Pitney recalls.

The piece cites unnamed coal miners as a warning to Democrats: If you campaign on the Green New Deal, you will lose elections. But reality is not so simple. While it is true that labor leaders in the building trades and extractive industries have expressed criticism or outright opposition to the Green New Deal, they don’t represent all of labor, nor all of their own rank-and-file membership. As Stanley Sturgill, a retired coal miner, told me at the People’s Climate March in 2014, “I worked underground for 41 years and I have black lung disease. I’m actually having a hard time breathing just to get to this stage. I am marching today because I want to build a bright future for my family, for Appalachia, and for this world. I have a vision where my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren can have good jobs that support our families without doing damage to our water, air, land and climate.”

And in fact, a survey by the progressive think tank Data for Progress in June found that “union membership is one of the factors most highly correlated with support for Green New Deal policies, as well as the Green New Deal framework as a whole.”

Some unions, locals and labor federations have come out in support of the Green New Deal, including the Service Employees International Union, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, the Maine AFL-CIO and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. And labor and climate groups worked together to pass landmark climate legislation through the New York legislature in June, thanks in part to the backing of the New York State Amalgamated Transit Union, Teamsters Joint Council 16 and the Communications Workers of America Local 1108. Environmental and workers’ groups have long tried to build cross-movement trust and solidarity, years before the Green New Deal was introduced.

The Black Mesa Water Coalition, for example, has long organized in Arizona to build support within coal mining communities for a just transition from coal. And Kentuckians for the Commonwealth organizes coal mining communities, including coal miners with black lung, to push for a transition away from fossil fuel extraction, rooted in opposition to climate change and the devastating health effects of coal mining. The organization has been talking about the need for a just transition for at least a decade, meaning that coal mining communities deserve partial credit for advancing this concept. In the former coal camps of Lynch and Benham, the organization is working to help residents envision and fight for a just transition to renewable energy, from protesting mountaintop removal to retrofitting homes.

The climate stakes

But perhaps the most glaring omission in Politico’s June 1 article is its failure to reckon with the stakes. Whether to support or not support a Green New Deal is not a question of political strategy to win voters or union support, devoid of context. The UN’s IPCC report, released in October, estimated that we have 12 years to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius and save hundreds of millions of people from devastating environmental destruction, poverty and death. This is a crisis that hurts poor and working-class people most, particularly those in the Global South, who are already seeing their societies uprooted by intensifying storms, draughts, and sea-level rise. Miners, who are on the front lines of hazardous fossil-fuel extraction, are not spared.

To be sure, a May 7 article in the Washington Post does emphasize the urgency of the climate crisis before noting the concern that it would “put coal miners out of work.” And it is worth noting the one Washington Post op-ed, published April 19, that defends the Green New Deal against critics like Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr (R-Ky.), who dared Ocasio-Cortez to come his district.

“The Green New Deal specifically addresses the need to help people in communities affected by the transition away from fossil fuels,” the article notes. “It calls for “directing investments [to] deindustrialized communities, that may otherwise struggle with the transition away from greenhouse gas intensive industries.”

Yet the 855-word opinion piece may do little to counterbalance the narrative of conservative, anti-environmental coal miners reinforced across many stories. This lopsided focus contributes to the impression that the gulf between coal miners and climate justice campaigners is impossible to bridge.

“Mine workers are not the enemy here, and I think the press does play them out to be,” says Uehlein. “But they’re not. They’re potential allies if we can wrap our heads around real full-spectrum ‘just transition’ policies and fight for them.”

Accomplishing this transformation will require nuance and respect for the lives of coal miners who are hurting from dried-up pension funds, something influential media outlets could use more of.

Anna Attie, Eleanor Colbert and Daniel Fernandez contributed research to this report.

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 8, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.

The Soul of a Union Man

Friday, July 12th, 2019

Leo Gerard, a longtime contributor to OurFuture, retires Monday after 54 years as a union man and 18 as the International President of United Steelworkers (USW). We thank Leo for his leadership and tireless efforts for working people around the world. 

I was raised in a company house, in a company town, where the miners had to buy their own oilers – that is, rubber coveralls – drill bits, and other tools at the company store.

That company, Inco Limited, the world’s leading producer of nickel for most of the 20thcentury, controlled the town of Sudbury, Ontario, but never succeeded in owning the souls of the men and women who lived and worked there.

That’s because these were union men and women: self-possessed, a little rowdy, and well aware that puny pleas from individual workers fall on deaf corporate ears.

As I prepare to retire in a couple of days, 54 years after starting work as a copper puncher at the Inco smelter, the relationship between massive, multinational corporations and workers is different.

Unions represent a much smaller percentage of workers now, so few that some don’t even know what a labor organization is – or what organized labor can accomplish. That is the result of deliberate, decades-long attacks on unions by corporations and the rich. They intend to own not only workers’ time and production but their very souls.

I’d like to tell you the story of Inco because it illustrates the arc of labor union ascendance and attenuation over the past 72 years since I was born in Sudbury.

When I was a boy, the Inco workers, about 19,000 of them, were represented by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. The union was gathering strength. My dad, Wilfred Gerard, was among the rabble rousers. We lived just a few miles from the mine, and workers would gather at the house. Someone would bring a case of beer, and my mom would make egg salad or baloney sandwiches.

Conditions in the mine were terrible, and these workers were organizing to achieve change. I recall them talking about a work stoppage over safety glasses. I was amazed that they would have to take action like that to get essential work equipment. The company, I thought, should voluntarily take this simple step to ensure workers were not unnecessarily injured on the job.

I learned two important lessons from sitting on the steps and listening to those meetings. One was that the company would do nothing for the workers unless forced by collective action. The other was that labor unions were instruments of both economic and social justice.

I started work in the smelter at age 18, after graduating high school. My mother told my girlfriend, Susan, my future wife, not to let me get involved in the union – because if I did, I would be gone all of the time.

For a few years, I resisted union activism. Still, I carried a copy of the labor contract in my pocket, pulled out just high enough so the boss could see it. I knew what it said, and I wanted him to know I knew.

In 1967, when I was 20, the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers merged with the United Steelworkers (USW), and I became a USW member.

It didn’t take long for the guys at the smelter to see that I had a big mouth. And in 1969, they petitioned for me to become a shop steward.  That was the beginning. My mom was right. It did mean I was gone much of the time.

I got myself demoted so I could work day shift and attend college at night. On day shift, I noticed the company was using a bunch of contractors. Many were performing work that was supposed to done by union members. Other contractors sat in their trucks parked behind the warehouse doing nothing. So I got about six guys to help me track and record the violations every day.

Then we would file grievances against the company. We could not win because the contract language was weak at that point, but we took it through all the stages of grieving, and it cost Inco money. That made the bosses furious.

So they took it out on me. You have to be prepared for that if you are going to be an activist. They made me rake rocks that had fallen off the mine trucks onto the road. They made me pick up trash in the parking lot. They tried to humiliate me. But I always found a way to comply without bowing to them.

The advantage we had in those days was that they thought they were smarter than us. They didn’t understand that we were a team and we stuck together, so there was no way they were going to own us.

That was the 1960s, a different time. Union membership in the United States rose through 1965, when nearly one in three workers belonged. In Canada, the rise continued through 1985, when the rate was 38 percent. The drop off in the United States was fairly slow until 1980, when it plummeted to 23.2 percent. It has now fallen to 10.5 percent. In Canada, the decline was steady, but much slower. The rate there remains 30.1 percent, close to the all-time high in the United States.

The difference is that in the United States, corporations and conservatives engaged in a successful campaign, beginning in 1971, to seize power from workers and propagandize for what they euphemistically called free enterprise. Really, it’s cut-throat capitalism. The upshot is that U.S workers have more difficulty forming unions than Canadians, and U.S. corporations can more easily lock workers out of their jobs and hire strikebreakers. The intent is to enable corporations to own their workers, lock, stock and soul.

Lewis Powell, the late U.S. Supreme Court justice, launched this drive to crush labor, the left and environmentalists in the United States with a memo he wrote in 1971 for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and distributed to corporate leaders.

Powell told the Chamber that it had to organize businesses into a political force because, he claimed, corporations and the free market system were “under broad attack,” and in “deep trouble.” He inveighed against regulations sought by car safety activist Ralph Nader, by environmentalists petitioning for clean air and water and by unions demanding less deadly mines and manufacturing. He castigated those on the left pursuing a fairer, safer and more humane society.

Businesses must cultivate political power, and wield it, Powell said, to secure “free market” advantages, such as tax breaks and loopholes specifically for corporations and the rich.

Powell also told the Chamber: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

That is exactly what the Chamber achieved. It catalyzed a business movement, funded by wealthy conservative family and corporate foundations, including those of Coors, Olin, Scaife and Koch, to name a few. The foundations sponsored conservative professors at universities and right-wing “non-profits” such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which provides junkets for right-wing lawmakers at which it encourages them to champion anti-union and anti-worker legislation. These groups bankrolled conservative candidates and secured appointment of conservative judges.

Between the end of World War II and 1970, during the rise of unions, workers’ incomes rose with productivity. Income inequality declined, and North America became home to the largest middle class in history. After 1970 and the Chamber effort to implement the Powell manifesto, unions declined and workers’ wages stagnated. Virtually all new income and profits went to CEOs, stockholders and the already rich. The middle class dwindled as income inequality rose to Gilded Age levels.

This occurred at the same time that corporations expanded, becoming massive multinationals, with facilities sprawled across the world and without allegiance to any country. This happened to Inco. Vale do Rio Doce, a Brazilian corporation, bought it in 2006, and now Vale is a true multinational with facilities worldwide.

Multinationals spurned their obligation to serve workers, consumers, communities and shareholders. Instead, they focused only on shareholders, the rest be damned. They closed factories in the United States and Canada and moved them to places like Mexico and China, with low wages and lax environmental laws. They exploited foreign workers and destroyed North American workers’ lives and communities.

As far back as the 1970s, the USW, the AFL-CIO, as well as the textile, shoe, steel and other industry leaders, warned Congress about what this trend, combined with increasing imports, meant for American workers and their neighborhoods. In 1973, after the United States experienced its first two years of trade deficits in a century, I.W. Abel, then president of the USW, urged Congress “to slow the massive flood of imports that are sweeping away jobs and industries in wholesale lots.”

Congress’ failure to heed this alarm resulted in the collapse of the U.S. textile and shoe industries and many others. It very nearly killed the steel industry, which has suffered tsunami after tsunami of bankruptcies, gunpoint mergers and mill closures. Tens of thousands of family-supporting jobs were lost and communities across both the United States and Canada hollowed out.

In 1971 and 1972, the trade deficit totaled $8.4 billion. Last year it was $621 billion. Every imported toy, shoe, bolt of cloth and ingot of steel means fewer U.S. factories and jobs and more struggling towns.

The USW presidents who followed Abel – Lloyd McBride and Lynn R Williams – escalated the battle against offshored factories and unfairly traded imports. The USW even filed suit to try to stop the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) because Williams, like independent Presidential candidate Ross Perot, saw that it would suck Canadian and U.S. factories and jobs south of the Mexican border.

The late USW President George Becker and I agitated for change, confronting and cajoling presidents and prime ministers and members of Congress and Parliament. The USW marshalled all of its forces, including activists in its Women of Steel and NextGen programs, the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, and its Rapid Response coordinators. Tens of thousands of workers rallied, camped out in Washington, D.C., harangued lawmakers and sent postcards.

Working with allies in the community, such as environmental and human rights groups, faith and food safety organizations, together we have won some short-term relief measures. These include  the tariffs on imported steel and aluminum imposed last year and the defeat of the proposed new trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would have extended NAFTA problems across Pacific Rim countries.

In the decades that the USW battled bad trade, I moved through the ranks, from staff representative, to District Director to Canadian National Director to USW Secretary-Treasurer. Among my goals was to forge international workers’ alliances to combat the corporate cabals that always got seats at the table to write the trade deals that worked against workers. When I was elected USW president in 2001, one of my top priorities was expanding the union’s coalitions.

Now the USW participates in three global unions, which together represent more than 82 million workers in more than 150 countries worldwide. The USW and partner unions also created more than two dozen global councils of workers, including those for workers at ArcelorMittal, BASF, Bridgestone, DowDuPont and Gerdau. These employers quickly learned that taking on workers at one factory meant taking on workers at all of their workplaces internationally.

In 2005, the USW and the Mexican miners’ union known as Los Mineros formed a strategic alliance. And the USW gave Los Mineros General Secretary Napoleon Gomez sanctuary in Canada when he was unjustly accused of wrongdoing by a Mexican government intent on shutting him up after a mine disaster.

In 2008, the USW joined with Unite the Union, the second largest union in the U.K and Ireland, forming Workers Uniting to fight exploitation and injustice globally. And the USW formed alliances with union federations in Australia and Brazil, where the organization is known as the CUT.

This international brotherhood and sisterhood stood with Canadian mine and smelter workers for a year beginning in July, 2009.

During its first negotiations with the USW, Vale, the Brazilian corporation that bought Inco, demanded harsh concessions from its thousands of Canadian workers. Though Vale was highly profitable, it said it wouldn’t even bargain with the USW unless the workers first accepted the cuts. That forced them out on strike.

I started talking regularly with the head of the CUT in Brazil to strategize and plan joint actions. Brazilian workers and community groups wholeheartedly supported their Canadian brothers and sisters. They demonstrated in front of the Vale headquarters and threw red paint – symbolizing blood – on the building. They shut down traffic with all sorts of street actions. They protested at the Vale shareholders meeting, inside and out.

They also traveled to Canada, in force with flags, for a rally in Sudbury in March of 2010, when the strike was eight months old and banks were repossessing some workers’ cars and foreclosing on homes. By then, Vale had 100,000 workers in mines and smelters across the world. Supporters from many of those communities – in Asia, Africa, Europe and Australia – joined thousands of Canadians who marched through the streets that cold day.

Vale could see that its Canadian workers, in Sudbury, Port Colborne, and Voisey’s Bay, were not alone. They had allies from around the world willing to stand up to the giant multinational.

The strike ended 12 long months after it started. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we certainly didn’t accept Vale’s concessionary demands. Vale failed to accomplish its mission, which was to spread to all of its operations worldwide the authoritarian, top-down, nasty management practices that it had honed in Brazil. The proof of that is the next round of negotiations with Vale went fairly well, and we got an honorable settlement.

Now, for labor to secure gains, in the United States or Canada or anywhere, workers must mobilize. We have to bring everyone together, women, men, poor people, people of color, gay people – all working people.  None of us is big enough or developed enough to win this fight alone.

If we fight together, I can’t guarantee we will win. But if we don’t fight for justice, I can guarantee we will lose.

Since none of us is willing to owe our souls to the company store, we’re going to have to find ways to continue building coalitions robust enough to confront capital and win the battle for economic and social justice.

This article was originally published at Our Future on July 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Leo Gerard, is the International President of the United Steelworkers (USW) union and is the second Canadian to head the union. He is also a vice president of the AFL-CIO. Gerard is co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute.

Trump administration attacks unions for fast-growing occupation, this week in the war on workers

Monday, July 8th, 2019

A new part of the Trump administration’s ongoing quest to weaken worker power goes into effect this Friday, in the form of a new regulation banning automatic union dues deduction for home health workers paid directly by Medicaid. That means that the workers, many of whom have only recently become union members—and have gotten significant raises as a result—would have to individually pay their union dues.

That means a new hassle in the lives of workers who are still paid low wages and in many cases work long hours at multiple jobs. And it means major administrative hassles for the unions that represent them.

Adarra Benjamin, an Illinois home health worker, told ThinkProgress what this attack on her union membership means to her, saying, “We are the union—the workers in general are the union—and understanding that if we don’t come together, we don’t have a voice. If we don’t have a voice, no one understands where the hard work and the dedication is coming from… no one understands what it takes to take care of yourself and other people.”

Home health work is one of the fastest-growing occupations in recent years. Workers are overwhelmingly women and people of color; immigrants are also a significant part of this workforce.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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

Workers Who Waged the Biggest Trump-Era Manufacturing Strike Just Struck a Deal—Here’s What It Says

Monday, July 1st, 2019

This article first appeared in Labor Notes.

Three months after the largest manufacturing strike of the Trump presidency so far, locomotive plant workers in Erie, Pennsylvania, have a deal. Electrical Workers (UE) Locals 506 and 618ratified a four-year contract on June 12.

In a qualified victory, the 1,700 members conceded a two-tier wage structure with a 10-year progression for new hires to reach parity with current workers, but beat back the company’s demands for a harsher version of two-tier and numerous other concessions.

“We’ve managed to preserve a lot of what we had,” said UE Local 506 President Scott Slawson. He added, however, “There were some gives on the union side for sure—there’s no two ways about it.”

Wabtec, which took over the plant in February following its purchase of GE Transportation, had threatened to move work out of Erie if the union refused a lower wage scale.

Thousands of jobs have been eliminated at the plant since 1955. In 2017, GE vowed to move all locomotive production to Fort Worth, Texas, where it opened a nonunion plant in 2013. But those plans never panned out, as the Fort Worth plant struggled to hire and retain enough skilled workers, with quality suffering as a result. Work has been moving back to the Erie plant over the last year.

The new agreement not only maintains the existing jobs at the plant but also guarantees 100 new positions in the Erie factory by the end of the contract. UE also beat back Wabtec’s demands to institute mandatory overtime and hire up to 20 percent of the plant’s workforce as nonunion temps.

Four hundred sixty previously laid-off workers will be given preferential treatment in hiring as jobs come open—an important gain in the face of Wabtec’s claim that it had no obligation to workers who were laid off by GE, not Wabtec. However, while they will maintain their seniority, they will come back on the new, lower pay scale.

The company and the union compromised on reorganizing to 31 job classifications; previously, workers had 43 classifications, which Wabtec was attempting to reduce to 17. UE argued the reduction would endanger worker safety.

The union maintains the right to strike based on transfer or subcontracting of work that results in permanent layoffs, or on a failure by the company to resolve grievances in a timely manner.

Wabtec—short for Westinghouse Airbrake Technologies—bought the $4 billion-a-year GE Transportation division last year, doubling the size of the company overnight.

The purchase led to the early termination of UE’s national contract with GE. The Erie plant was the last factory covered under the 70-year-old agreement; GE had spun off the other factories’ work in an ongoing series of corporate reconfigurations, or outsourced it, largely to nonunion plants in the U.S. or overseas.

When the sale was finalized in February, the new owner unilaterally stopped offering a pension and retiree health care, and imposed a host of other concessions, including mandatory overtime and two-tier wages starting as low as $16.75 an hour. That prompted a nine-day strike by Locals 506 and 618, ending with a 90-day interim agreement which restored the terms of the union’s previous contract with GE while the parties negotiated the new four-year deal.

During those three months, Locals 506 and 618 took a number of actions to pressure the company. Workers decorated their lockers with numbers counting down the days until the end of the interim agreement. They held pickets before work. They joined forces with UE Local 610, which represents workers at other Wabtec facilities, to rally in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania, where Wabtec is headquartered. And the union and its allies picketed Wabtec’s shareholder meeting in Pittsburgh.

Wabtec eventually moved off its demand for a permanent second tier. The company’s revised proposal would have started workers off at $17 an hour, with an 18-year progression to reach the top tier. But ultimately, with the threat of another strike looming, the union was able to shrink the progression to 10 years, and boost starting pay to $20.47 for the lowest classification. Existing workers on the lowest job classification currently earn $31.49.

This decade-long grow-in is similar to the Auto Workers’ compromise with the Big 3 automakers, where hires after 2007 take eight years to reach wage parity with pre-2007 hires. A key difference, though, is that these auto workers remain in a permanent Tier 2 when it comes to benefits. Everyone at the Erie plant will get the same benefits, and those in the lower tier will actually pay 20 percent less in premiums.

“The 10-year progression is not something that people wanted to happen, but the company would not let that go,” said UE General President Peter Knowlton. He believes that if the union had held out on the issue, it would have been forced to go on another strike—this one self-defeating. The union would have lost community support, he said, and ultimately would have left 460 already laid-off workers without a job to come back to because Wabtec was claiming it had no responsibility to them.

The good-paying jobs at Wabtec’s Erie plant are crucial not only to union members and their families, but also to the community.

Located between Buffalo and Cleveland, Erie falls squarely in the Rust Belt, and its fortunes mirror those of similar cities. It was once a proud manufacturing hub, but factory relocations and closures have sapped jobs and people. The population is 96,000, down from a peak of 131,000 in 1950. And the city is poor, with a median household income of just $35,800.

“Wabtec is one of the area’s largest manufacturers and it still pays a family-sustaining wage,” said Slawson. “I think there’s a relief in the community—we found a way, we found a path, hopefully for the future of Erie and Erie County.”

He is careful to note that this is the union’s first contract with a new employer, and the union will have to stay on its toes with Wabtec.

“We had 82 years of interpretation with GE,” he said. “I think both sides are going to go through some growing pains over the next four years.”

Still, he’s optimistic about the plant’s future, citing the highly skilled workforce and the possibility that Wabtec could shift additional work to the 4.5 million-acre complex.

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Saurav Sarkar is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes. Twitter Username: @labornotes

International Labor Organization Fights Gender-Based Workplace Violence and Harassment

Thursday, June 27th, 2019

Image result for cassandra waters afl cioEight years ago, women union leaders and activists began campaigning for the International Labor Organization to tackle gender-based violence and harassment at work. Last week, at the ILO’s 100thanniversary, workers, governments and employers votedoverwhelmingly to approve a binding Convention on Violence and Harassment in the World of Work.

This victory is a testament to the power of trade unionists organizing around the globe. It’s also a reflection of the profound need for tools to address the harassment and violence too many workers, particularly women workers, face as a daily reality.

The ILO is a tripartite institution, meaning workers have a seat at the negotiating table. Led by our spokesperson Marie Clarke Walker from the Canadian Labour Congress, worker representatives from around the world spent the past two years negotiating strong, inclusive language that ensures all workers have meaningful protection from violence and harassment, particularly gender-based violence and harassment.

You can check out the full convention here, and a supplemental recommendation that further clarifies the obligations spelled out in the convention here. Some highlights include:

  • Establishing that everyone has a right to a world of work free from violence and harassment, and every country that ratifies the convention will “promote and realize” that right.

  • Protecting all workers, regardless of their contractual status, in both the formal and informal economy, as well as interns, apprentices, jobseekers, job applicants, volunteers, terminated workers and employers as individuals.

  • Ensuring protections not just in the physical worksite but in the broader world of work?—such as work-related trips and social events, places where workers are paid, rest or use sanitary and washing facilities, employer-provided accommodations and during the commute.

  • Addressing violence and harassment committed by or against third parties.

  • Requiring each national government that ratifies the convention to:

    • Adopt an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach for the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work, which should be developed in consultation with workers and their unions.

    • Enact both preventative measures and access to remedy, including gender-responsive, safe and effective complaint and dispute resolution mechanisms, support, services and remedies.

    • Identify sectors, occupations and work arrangements that leave workers more vulnerable to violence and harassment.

    • Promote collective bargaining as an important tool to address violence and harassment.

    • Provide specific protections for women and other vulnerable groups.

    • Require employers to take steps to prevent violence and harassment, including developing a workplace policy, providing support and training and identifying and addressing workplace hazards in consultations with workers and unions.

The United States worker delegation included leaders from UNITE HERE Local 1 Chicago’s “Hands Off, Pants On” campaign. The Hands Off, Pants On campaign demonstrates the importance of many of the convention’s provisions. Hotel housekeepers primarily face violence and harassment from third parties. A survey found more than half of housekeepers in Chicago had a guest expose themselves, with many recounting harrowing stories of jumping over furniture or locking themselves in bathrooms to escape unwanted sexual advances. Local 1 successfully negotiated protections, including panic buttons, into collective agreements for unionized housekeepers and then campaigned for a citywide ordinance to provide the same protections for all housekeepers in Chicago. This is an excellent example of how unions can use their power to win meaningful protections for workers.

To read more about what unions can do to prevent sexual harassment specifically, check out our toolkit; and for excellent examples of how unions tackle violence and harassment around the world check out this report.

Winning the convention is an important victory, but in many ways it is just the beginning. Now, workers will turn to ensuring governments widely ratify and implement these important protections to end violence and harassment in the world of work.

This article was originally published at Aflcio on June 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:  Cassandra Waters is the global worker rights specialist at the AFL-CIO.

125 Years After the Pullman Uprising, We Could Be on the Verge of Another Sympathy Strike Wave

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019

Roaming the sleepy streets of Pullman on Chicago’s Southeast Side, it’s difficult to imagine a time when it was the chaotic center of worker struggle in the United States.

Many of the handsome red brick homes in the center of Pullman—once a bustling company town and now a Chicago neighborhood—are occupied and well-maintained, but the shuttered luxury hotel hasn’t hosted a guest in decades, the skeletal factory buildings are locked behind a chain-link fence while the hands of the derelict clocktower that helped govern the working lives of thousands of men and women remain frozen in time.

But in the spring of 1894, a company-wide walkout at the site’s factories snowballed into a two-month long nationwide “sympathy strike” that, at its peak, galvanized as many as 250,000 men and women in 27 states and territories. A sympathy strike, or solidarity action, is when workers strike in support of others involved in a labor dispute in a different company, but often in the same or a related industry.

Later known as the Pullman Strike, the struggle became the largest-ever organized work stoppage and the most significant demonstration of union strength in American history, up until the Great Steel Strike of 1919.

In 2019, 125 years after the monumental strike at Pullman, the area’s physical infrastructure continues to crumble. But the revitalization of sympathy strikes and mass labor organizing all across the country in recent years—from teacher walkouts to the work stoppage threat by flight attendants that helped end the government shutdown—suggests that the legacy of the Great Pullman Strike remains very much alive today.

In a fiery speech to a group of labor leaders and visitors at the 125th-anniversary celebration of the Great Pullman Strike on May 11, Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson said, “Look at how unions banded together during the Pullman Strike. The president of the Chicago Federation of Labor said at the time. ‘We all feel that in fighting any battle against the Pullman Company, we’re aiming at the very head and front of monopoly and plutocracy.’”

“This is again a time when people have a growing consciousness of the ruling class and those with an insatiable need for more money, power and control,” she continued. “Working people are just now understanding the power they have when they stand together and claim our share of the profits we create.”

“Well-wishing feudalism”

The Great Pullman Strike was likely a shock to outside observers who had previously visited and mistakenly considered it a capitalist utopia.

“Here, indeed, seems to be the coming paradise of labor,” wrote one writer in an article from an 1882 edition of The Railway Age MonthlyThe London Times declared Pullman “the most perfect town in the world.”

George Pullman, the town’s mastermind, certainly saw it that way.

The industrialist had made his fortune in the mid-19th century by cornering the market on upscale train cars for the wealthy at a time when the railroad industry held a stranglehold over the economy.

In 1877, Pullman built a luxurious mansion on swanky Prairie Avenue adjacent to Chicago’s elite like department store magnate Marshall Field. Three years later, Pullman purchased 4,000 acres of swamp-covered land near Lake Calumet and invested an estimated $5 million to build a series of factories and hundreds of houses to be rented to up to 10,000 workers. He also approved the construction of school buildings, parks, a library, a theater and the Midwest’s first indoor shopping mall to accompany the new production facilities.

At the time, Pullman stood as a company town: a planned community by which an individual corporation owns all of the businesses and housing in the name of centralizing production.

Hundreds of company towns have existed in some form or another throughout American history from the poorly constructed shanty towns of the mining or lumber industries to Milton S. Hershey’s grandiose amusement park-like model town built for his chocolate factory workers in Pennsylvania.

Like Hershey, Pullman’s intended his village to serve as a shining alternative to the squalor of Chicago’s industrial slums. The streets were paved and outfitted with modern sewers, every house had indoor plumbing and thousands of trees and flowers were planted.

“I want the people who work at Pullman to have the advantages of seeing the best,” Pullman said. “I want no cheap, crude, inartistic work in any department. I have faith in the educational and refining influences of beauty and beautiful and harmonious surroundings, and hesitate at no reasonable expenditure to secure them.”

In other words, Pullman believed he could to increase his profits while also responding to the poor conditions of tenement housing that accompanied rapid industrialization. Protecting his workers from alcohol, disease and vice was good for them—and him.

“He genuinely had a vision for the future in which workers wouldn’t have to live in the slums of Chicago and they’d have this beautiful model town,” said Jack Kelly, the author of the recent book The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America. “His employees would have a better life and in turn would be more productive workers because they’d be sober, educated, and have shorter commutes. He saw it as a win-win.”

Many journalists agreed, especially after seeing it in person during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. “Future generations will bless his memory,” predicted the Chicago Times. Progressives also noted that African-Americans worked as porters on the company’s “Palace Cars” (bellhops serving passengers riding the company’s train cars) and Pullman became the largest employer of freed slaves in the country.

But while the press may have extolled Pullman’s virtues, critics claim that the amenities and bucolic surroundings of his company town served as window dressing for his paternalism and greed, and that his apparent race-blindness was self-serving: no African Americans were allowed to live in the boundaries of Pullman and he paid black workers lower wages than whites.

“The church he built was very telling,” noted Kelly. “He wanted to charge so much rent for it that no one could afford it and it just sat there empty, for decoration.”

Pullman also forced residents to follow a set of draconian rules. For instance, he reportedly required tenants to place decorative flowers in their windowsills and individuals were expected to wipe their feet on doormats before they entered their own apartments. Taverns—an important feature of working-class life at the time—were outlawed and the only bar in town (located in the hotel named for Pullman’s daughter Florence) was strictly for visitors.

No one could vote to change these rules because no democratic town government was put in place. To prevent anyone from unionizing the company, according to Kelly, company spies were planted across the town to report on any attempts to organize.

Not every outsider was taken in by Pullman’s vision. Writing for Harper’s in 1885, economist Richard Ely called Pullman’s system “benevolent, well-wishing feudalism, which desires the happiness of the people, but in such a way as shall please the authorities.”

“It went back to that idea that the Lord of the Manor knows best,” said Kelly. “And the problem is that Pullman’s strict rules built all sorts of resentments among the workers that only got worse over time.”

The Pullman Strike

These resentments were exacerbated by an economic crisis in 1893 that plunged the nation into a depression. Pullman responded to the company’s falling revenue by cutting his workers’ wages five times—including a single 30 percent cut—without reducing rents in his town while continuing to pay stockholders the same pre-depression dividends. By April of 1894, some families living in Pullman’s town were on the brink of starvation.

“There were guys who almost fainted on the job because they hadn’t eaten in days because they couldn’t afford it,” said Kelly. “One guy got a paycheck of two cents—he didn’t even cash it—he just had it framed. That really showed the contempt that Pullman had for working people.”

The workers had tried to negotiate. Forming a union was against the law, but some of them organized a 46-member grievance committee in secret in a nearby neighborhood outside of Pullman. The committee’s leaders met twice with company officials—including Pullman himself during the second meeting—to demand that he reverse the wage cuts and reduce the rents.

The company refused as Pullman argued that, “Arbitration always implies acquiescence in the decision of the arbitrator, whether favorable or adverse.” Six days later, on May 12, thousands of workers walked off the job. The two-month-long strike had begun. “We struck at Pullman,” the workers later testified, “because we were without hope.”

The strike may have been easily defeated or gone relatively unnoticed outside of Chicago if not for the American Railway Union (ARU), the powerful cross-trade railroad labor group founded the previous year and led by Eugene Debs. “Before you had these brotherhoods, these craft unions that bickered, competed and undercut each other,” said Kelly. “The ARU was different.”

In April 1894, the ARU successfully led Great Northern Railroad workers through a different dispute—just one month prior to the Pullman workers’ unrest. Voluntary arbitration had resolved the strike, and three-fourths of the Great Northern Railroad’s wage cut had been restored. In the following weeks, 35 percent of Pullman’s workers joined the ARU hoping that the new union could perhaps do the same for them.

“Pullman, both the man and the town, is an ulcer on the body politic,” the Pullman workers told the ARU in a statement at the union’s first-ever national convention in Chicago in June, 1894. “He owns the houses, the schoolhouses, and churches of God in the town he gave his once humble name. The revenue he derives from these, the wages he pays out with one hand—the Pullman Palace Car Company, he takes back with the other—the Pullman Land Association…And thus the merry war— the dance of skeletons bathed in human tears—goes on, and it will go on, brothers, forever, unless you, the American Railway Union, stop it; end it; crush it out.”

Debs’ response was ruthless in its criticism of George Pullman, calling him “the plutocrat with a soul so small that a million of them could dance on the little end of a hornet’s stinger.” He called for the ARU to support Pullman workers with a sympathy strike because it was not just a single fight but part of a greater movement for workers’ universal rights to higher wages, safer working conditions and other basic protections.

“The forces of labor must unite. The salvation of labor demands it,” Debs said at the convention on June 12. “The dividing lines must grow dimmer day by day until they become imperceptible, and then labor’s hosts, marshaled under one conquering banner, shall march together, vote together, and fight together until workingmen shall receive and enjoy all their fruits of their toil.”

It was an important moment in the history of sympathy strikes. “Eugene Debs knew we all needed to stick together,” said Joe Burns, the author of the book Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America, “It was the hope and future of labor unions—class wide solidarity.”

On June 22, 1894 the delegates of the ARU agreed voted to boycott Pullman cars until the strike was settled. Despite threats from railroad companies that any worker who refused to handle Pullman cars would be fired, the sympathy strike officially began on June 26.

Within a matter of days, railroads west of Detroit were frozen for more than a month as workers either refused to touch Pullman’s cars or unhitched them from trains. Suddenly passengers were stranded, the price of food ballooned, power plants and factories ran out of resources and mines and lumber mills were forced to close.

The reverberations of the sympathy strike were being felt all over the country—especially after the strike had stopped the delivery of U.S. mail. For Debs, an outright struggle between the upper and lower classes appeared imminent as the strike, “has developed into a contest between the producing classes and the money power of this country.”

U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney, also a railroad lawyer and friend of Pullman’s, declared that America had reached “the ragged edge of anarchy.” Olney asked the federal courts to ban the ARU boycotts and on July 2 he received an injunction to end the strike. President Grover Cleveland deployed federal troops from Fort Sheridan north of Chicago to Pullman to enforce the court’s ruling.

On July 4, a thousand troops arrived and set up camp, joining thousands of armed police and guardsmen to break the strike while masses of unarmed strikers crowded the railroad yards. Over the next three days, riots broke out and hundreds of railcars were burned. Violence broke out after a railroad agent shot one of the boycotters and 26 civilians were killed in the weeks-long mayhem that followed.

The soldiers and railroad workers got the trains moving again and in the following weeks, Debs and other agitators were jailed for “ordering, directing, aiding, assisting, or abetting” the rebellion. The strike was officially broken on August 2.

Pullman won the battle, but the industrial kingdom he built would soon fall. His reputation was ruined among government officials, his fellow tycoons and those like Jane Addams—the famous activist and social justice advocate who had tried to help arbitrate the strike.

“She considered Pullman to be like a King Lear figure,” said Kelly.

President Cleveland ordered a commission to discover the causes of the strike, and the final report blamed the boss. “The aesthetic features are admired by visitors, but have little money value to employees, especially when they lack bread,” the report stated.

In 1898, the Illinois State Supreme Court ordered that Pullman either divest itself of the company or the residential property. He chose his company. In 1889, Pullman was annexed by the city of Chicago.

By the time George Pullman died in 1897, he was so despised that his family buried him under thick layers of reinforced concrete so that no one could descrecrate his grave. “It is clear the family in their bereavement was making sure the son of a bitch wasn’t going to get up and come back,” noted journalist Ambrose Bierce at the time.

Meanwhile, Debs, who would later found the Socialist Party, became a populist hero while in jail. Six months after being locked away, he re-emerged in Chicago triumphant—with 100,000 supporters cheering him on. By 1912, when a million Americans voted for Debs as President, both the Republicans and Democrats began to embrace progressive reforms advocated by Debs and other socialists: anti-trust and child labor laws, women’s suffrage, minimum wages and the eight-hour work day.

The return of solidarity

One-hundred and twenty five years after Debs’ speech to the ARU, Sara Nelson sounded ready to continue where the great socialist labor leader left off.

Nelson told the crowd gathered in the Pullman visitor’s center the story of how she called for a general strike in January during the Trump administration’s month-long government shutdown over funding for his border wall. After some air traffic controllers in key facilities called in sick, Nelson warned that flight attendants were “mobilizing immediately” to strike. Hours later, Trump reached a deal to reopen the government.

“Our entire country’s economy was on the line, our safety and security were on the line. If we could just communicate that to the public, and say what we were willing to do—we could end this [shutdown],” said Nelson. “The wonderful news is that no one knew what a general strike was, but it scared the piss out of them. It worked.”

Over the last two years, mass work stoppages have spread across the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 25,000 workers were involved in major work stoppage in 2017 but that numbered skyrocketed to 485,000 in 2018. These actions range from the wildcat strikes of hundreds of thousands of teachers and education workers in four Republican-dominated states to tens of thousands of hospital workers striking in 2018. The first half of 2019 has also seen major work stoppages, including the recent strike of 31,000 employees of the grocery chain Stop & Shop across three northeastern states—one of the largest private sector strikes in years.

These large-scale strikes helped bring victories for both workers and the labor movement as a whole. But Nelson believes that general and sympathy strikes are the logical next step in securing more significant wins.

Today, most solidarity strikes are illegal due to legislation pieced together over the last several decades, says Burns, ranging from the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 to the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. That’s part of the reason why they’ve fallen out of fashion since the days of the Great Pullman Strike.

But the flight attendant union’s successful threat of a walkout—as well as the wildcat teachers’ strikes—are proof that the law can be beaten by mass solidarity, says Burns. “Labor law is set up for workers to lose and it’s going to change through the courts,” he said. “It will only change with workers coming together and fighting for the right to strike and free speech.”

For Nelson, sympathy strikes don’t have to represent the labor movement’s antiquated past. Today’s new Gilded Age is populated by a new generation of robber barons, and the Great Pullman Strike could help illuminate a path forward for American workers.

In what could be a hint of what’s to come, the United Mine Workers of America threatened a sympathy strike in support of West Virginia teachers in early June. The teachers are fighting state Republicans’ proposed retaliation to their 2018 walkout by creating new penalties for teachers who go on strike. Cecil Roberts, the international president of the United Mine Workers of America, said, “Let me make this very clear: If our state’s education workers believe they need to take to the streets once again, we will be there with them. And if someone comes to arrest them, they will have to go through us first.”

A large-scale general strike may not happen tomorrow but Nelson believes it may not be as far off as we think.

“We’re not quite there yet, but when I called for a general strike during the government shutdown, I absolutely expected people to say, ‘You’re crazy lady, you can’t do that!’ Instead what I got was, “What are we waiting for? Yeah, let’s go!’”

This blog was originally published at In These Times on June 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ryan Smith is a Chicago-based journalist. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Jacobin Magazine, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Belt Magazine and other publications.
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