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United States: In 2013, workers tried new angles and alliances
North Carolinians mobilised against an anti-worker (and anti-woman, anti-civil rights) legislative assault by bringing thousands of protesters to the state capitol every week for “Moral Mondays”, with close to a thousand arrests. Photo by Ajamu Dillahunt.
By Jenny Brown
December 30, 2013 -- Labor Notes -- Lean meanness stalked workplaces. The political and economic outlook continued dismal. But the year was marked by workers trying new things and setting higher standards, for their employers, their unions, and—in the case of low-wage workers—their pay.
Unemployment ticked down slightly, but the jobs created paid worse than ever. Mainstream media reported with amazement that jobs that once paid the bills, from bank teller to university instructor, now require food stamps and Medicaid to supplement the wages of those who work every day.
California Walmart worker Anthony Goytia spoke for many when he said it’s no longer pay cheque to pay cheque for him and his co-workers, but payday loan to payday loan.
When long-awaited provisions of Obamacare [health insurance] kicked in, the promise of covering the uninsured was blighted by perverse incentives for employers to cut hours. Businesses that didn’t want to give insurance cried crocodile tears, so Obama delayed their fines by a year. But when unions objected that the new law unfairly undermined their multi-employer funds, the administration stonewalled.
Direct to voters
As layers of corporate cash further insulated politicians from people’s needs, unions and workers' groups had some success putting questions to voters directly. In New Jersey they overruled the governor’s veto and put a higher state minimum wage into their constitution, while Minnesotans raised income taxes on the well-to-do.
Transportation and hospitality workers at Seattle-Tacoma airport and the surrounding town voted in a $15 minimum, paid sick leave and the ability to sue if hotels steal tips from banquet workers. In Seattle, socialist Kshama Sawant won a city council seat and shamed the two mayoral candidates into supporting a $15 city minimum.
Minimum wage ballot questions are expected in 2014 in Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, South Dakota and Massachusetts, where nurses are also running an initiative for safe staffing ratios.
Ohio unions ran independent candidates—after municipal officials tore up an agreement on city contracts and personally scabbed on a Teamster sanitation strike. The labour independents won two dozen city council seats in Lorain and three nearby towns.
With their voting rights under attack, North Carolinians mobilised against an anti-worker (and anti-woman, anti-civil rights) legislative assault by bringing thousands of protesters to the state capitol every week for “Moral Mondays,” with close to a thousand arrests.
Immigration rights activists mobilised locally all year, including brave human blockades against deportations, most recently in Los Angeles, D.C. and New Jersey. But none of this was enough to get a bill through the House—not even the Senate’s compromise, with its poison pill of more indentured guestworkers.
The mother of all secret deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is still under negotiation. TPP would gut nations’ rights to pass legislation limiting corporate predators. But the sheer outrageousness of TPP’s reach, along with the secrecy around it, generated grassroots opposition, including from a few unions. Congress looked likely to vote on a “fast track” for TPP in January.
Unions tried new angles on organising—some promising, others vaguer.
Some attempted city-wide organising: in Pittsburgh with a “community union”; in Boston with a multi-campus organizing drive by college adjuncts; and in the Twin Cities, where joint actions knitted together struggles against banks and employers.
Anti-eviction campaigns were bolstered by union support in Minneapolis, Portland, Detroit and Boston—including by home-based child-care providers, fighting off both eviction and the job loss that would come with it.
Emboldened by the Chicago Teachers’ 2012 strike, teachers rose up against the corporate reform agenda. Seattle teachers refused to give yet another standardised test. Los Angeles teachers fought the promise of iPads for every student, a wedge to bring in more tests and corporate curricula.
Newark teachers elected a slate to fight two-tier and merit pay. Chicago teachers continued to anchor a widening movement against school closings, driving mayor Rahm Emanuel’s poll numbers down to only 2 per cent “strongly approving”.
Labour-community coalitions sometimes won the day. One Brooklyn hospital sits on land coveted by high-end condo developers—a constituency used to getting its way. But rather than give a résumé workshop, the New York State nurses picketed with the surrounding community and refused to give up even after the bosses re-routed patients… So far they’ve saved the hospital.
Among the fuzzier new directions were the AFL-CIO’s enthusiastic but amorphous outreach to community groups and the UAW’s bid to get Volkswagen to allow organising at a Tennessee plant—in order to install a German-style “works council” for union-management cooperation. Where’s that leading?
$15: Demand of the year
The same question came to mind as fast food workers walked out of restaurants—and briefly occupied some—in hundreds of cities in December, in a Service Employees-funded effort. A year of protests and strikes demanding “$15 and a union” have made low wages an issue politicians are finally scrambling to address, or at least explain away.
While the demand for $15 has made a small dent, the demand for a union seems as far off as ever. Between small shops, large turnover and hostile labour law, signing a contract with McDonald’s or Pizza Hut sounds farfetched.
But fast food workers have been winning small victories: getting workers rehired after retaliatory firings, winning air conditioning in unbearably hot kitchens. In Chicago, Whole Foods workers securing a day off for Thanksgiving by holding “Strikesgiving” on the busiest grocery shopping day of the year.
The good old-fashioned strike also worked in Hialeah Gardens, Florida, where Walmart workers unassociated with recent organising walked out to protest low hours and a tyrannical supervisor. With most of the shift out, management caved to their demands.
While retail workers struggled for more hours, others from nurses to postal and UPS workers protested as employers crammed more into those hours.
Auto workers, forced onto an alternative work schedule that obliterates weekends and evades overtime pay, demanded their union fight the schedule. They got no satisfaction, but demanding a higher standard from union officials seemed to be in fashion.
When machinists' union higher-ups, following secret negotiations, pushed surprise mid-contract concessions on 31,000 Boeing workers, the membership tore up the ransom note and said no, two to one. Boeing had threatened to take its new 777X plane out of Washington state if workers didn’t cave. Now a slate is challenging the machinists’ national leadership.
And a reform slate took over the 200,000-member American Postal Workers Union, promising transparency in negotiations, a strong 2015 contract fight, cooperation with the other three postal unions and outreach to customers to save US Postal Service from privatisation.
Nobody would say the US labour movement is doing well—we’re down to 11.3 per cent and concessions are still rampant. But the alarming slide in living standards, while politicians assure us the economy has recovered, has stirred union members, and brought out voters, to demand better.
How did Seattle do it?
By Paul Bigman
December 16, 2013 -- Labor Notes -- Is there something in the water in Seattle? The area has seen dramatic actions by and on behalf of workers in the past few months: defeat of concessions at major grocery chains, Boeing workers’ big “no” vote on concessions, a $15 minimum wage voted in for airport workers and election of a socialist to city council—a candidate who made a city $15 minimum the centerpiece of her campaign.
Activists are hoping what’s happened here has implications far beyond the Puget Sound. “We may be ahead of some areas, but we’re not unique”, predicted Dave Freiboth, head of Seattle’s county labour council. “This kind of change is coming nationally.”
In October, two hours before a regional grocery strike would have jumped off, 30,000 Food and Commercial Workers and Teamsters won a contract that defeated onerous health care concessions, and more, that had been forced on their co-workers in other states.
A few weeks later, Boeing Machinists (IAM) turned down an extortionist demand to freeze pension contributions for current workers, abandon defined-benefit pensions for new hires and pay new hires $21,000 below current workers. Boeing had demanded an eight-year contract extension to keep work on the 777X airplane in Washington. Despite extraordinary intervention by the IAM International, the 31,000 Boeing workers voted “no” two to one.
Meanwhile in November’s local elections, voters in SeaTac (a small city home to the area’s airport) by a slim 77-vote margin established a $15 minimum for airport-related workers.
And community college teacher and Teachers (AFT) member Kshama Sawant, running as a socialist on a platform of taxing millionaires and a $15 city minimum wage, raised over $100,000 in contributions and a small army of volunteers for a city council election. (Each seat is contested separately—Position 1, Position 2—but races are citywide.)
When the smoke cleared, Sawant had received almost 95,000 votes—defeating the congenial liberal 16-year incumbent by a little over 3000 votes, and getting almost as many votes as the incumbent mayor. Her red socialist signs and T-shirts were seen all over Seattle.
How did it happen?
Lynne Dodson, secretary-treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, believes these developments reflect a cultural shift in labour. A former co-chair of statewide Jobs with Justice, she says labour is recognising the need to work with community allies.
Seattle labour has particularly strong ties with environmental groups, economic justice organisations, communities of colour, the LGBT community and immigrant rights groups, including a day labour organisation affiliated to the state labour council.
Dodson relates this fall’s victories to social movements of past decades, starting with the 1999 Seattle action against the World Trade Organization. The WTO protests forged unusual alliances that remain to this day. Washington’s union density is also the fourth-highest in the country.
Freiboth believes Seattle labour has an unusually strong ability to “minimise dysfunction and leverage unity” despite differences—thanks to local labour’s democratic traditions and the city’s progressive politics.
Both credit the Occupy Movement with “changing the conversation”—“a general uprising of young, displaced workers trapped in low-wage jobs”, as Freiboth saw it. “People looked at the wage disparities and saw that, as a simple matter of fact, the system isn’t working.”
“How long were we in labor talking about income inequality, but nobody listened?” said Dodson.
And both think the Tea Party inadvertently helped. Dodson credits the right wingers for having made socialism seem less alien, particularly to young people, by describing modest reforms like Obamacare as “socialist”.
State senator Bob Hasegawa, a former Teamster leader who still sits on the state labour council, sees the machinists’ vote as a reaction to Boeing’s over reaching at a time when workers were increasingly fed up. He was one of only two state senators to vote against giving Boeing a multi-billion dollar tax break (bribe) to keep work in Washington.
He’s not so sure the string of victories heralds a major change, but maybe so: “People are open to new solutions, because the old solutions sure aren’t working—concession after concession.”
Stewards made the difference
Why were grocery workers in the Puget Sound able to hold the line against those concessions when others have given in? Mary Ann Schroeder, a 20-year Safeway worker, credits two steps.
Because of local mergers and a renewed commitment to internal organising, the number of shop stewards in area stores has increased enormously. In a departure from the past, when many stores had no stewards at all, she said co-workers were kept continuously informed about negotiations.
She also credits community support. In past contract fights, many workers were uncomfortable with actions in front of the store, worrying it would just bring management down on them.
But this year, they got thousands of shoppers to sign cards pledging to boycott if there were a strike. Also important was the union’s great visual: a giant clock at a downtown plaza counting down the hours until the strike deadline.
Boeing workers, too, showed a resolve to resist concessions that’s increasingly rare. Larry Brown, IAM 751 political director, credits part of that to workers’ high skill level.
The planes are hand built, like a Lamborghini: “The difference is that a jet has about 4 million parts, and a Lamborghini has about 10,000”, he said. “Boeing would like to have a compliant workforce and a highly skilled workforce—but they only get to have one of the two.”
But Brown stressed that the action also reflects the good work District 751 has done with “intergenerational” education, building solidarity and union consciousness among young workers. The result has been a lot of union pride—and a group of workers who aren’t easily intimidated or bought off.
After the “no” vote, the Washington Labor Council held a rally of about 500 for the Boeing workers in downtown Seattle. Council president Jeff Johnson said, “We gather to say ‘thank you’ to the machinists for standing up for community standards.”
Politicians take notice
All this has had a real impact on local politics. During the November election, the mayor made a big issue out of opposing city accommodations for virulently anti-union Whole Foods, arguing no subsidies should go to a corporation seeking to undermine local labour standards.
Some union people knew candidate Sawant from her work in Occupy, which had substantial labour involvement in Seattle. Her vigorous push for $15 brought her endorsements from a half dozen locals, mostly public employees. A large Electrical Workers (IBEW) local and an AFSCME state employees local gave money. Some labour leaders publicly supported her campaign; far more backed her quietly and helped build support within their ranks.
Now that she’s won, labour has largely united behind her and she is a popular speaker at rallies. Tellingly, four of the other eight city council members joined Sawant at a December 5 rally to support the national fast food workers’ strikes and a $15 city minimum wage.
$15 campaign plans
Still, neither Sawant nor the labour movement is willing to sit back and count on the actions of other council members. An ordinance to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 in 2014 will be introduced when the council reconvenes in January—but at the same time, plans are being made for a citywide referendum.
There’s precedent for that. In 1998 Washington voters established a state minimum that rises automatically with inflation each January 1. The 2013 minimum, $9.19, is the nation’s highest—and will rise to $9.32 for 2014.
The campaign is already influencing local labour negotiations.
Business manager Dave Westberg of Operating Engineers Local 609, which represents non-teaching K-12 employees, wants to make the Seattle School Board the poster child for the need to raise the minimum wage.
“Locally, there is no greater example of income inequity than Seattle Schools”, Westberg said. “The current entry wage in the nutrition department is $11.67 and for custodians the (apprentice) rate is $11.61.
“Most of these are full-time employees who are forced to live far outside the city and commute or live in public housing in order to work at Seattle Schools.”
Freiboth says the vote in SeaTac and the election of Sawant mean “the political establishment can’t ignore wealth inequality any longer. We have a whole generation of baby boomers with kids in crap jobs without health care, and they’re starting to see the connection between that and a strong labour movement.”
[Paul Bigman is on the executive board of the Martin Luther King Jr. County Labor Council.]
Ohioans elect two dozen city councillors on independent labour ticket
By Bruce Bostick
December 4, 2013 -- Labor Notes -- Union-dense Lorain County, Ohio, is now home to an independent labour slate of two dozen newly elected city councillors — recruited and run by the central labour council there. All labour’s candidates had strong showings, and all but two were elected.
“This was a step we took reluctantly”, said Lorain County AFL-CIO president Harry Williamson. “When the leaders of the [Democratic] Party just took us for granted and tried to roll over the rights of working people here, we had to stand up.”
A series of disputes between organised labour and the Democratic Party leadership led the labour council and its allies to recruit and run their own slate in this Democratic Party stronghold, home of Ohio’s largest steel and auto facilities.
‘The Final Straw’
The unions had worked for years to build a labour-community partnership that resulted in a Lorain city Project Labor Agreement (PLA), which required that city contracts be staffed by at least 75 per cent local and 9 per cent minority workers, and unionised during the period of the project.
But mayor Chase Ritenauer pushed the city council to repeal it.
“It took us three years to negotiate this historic agreement”, said Joe Thayer, marketing director of the Sheet Metal Workers Union, “and it took them three days to kill it!”
The city council voted 8-2 in favour of the repeal. It was reported that an estimated $29.6 million in city road and water projects were soon to be awarded.
“Before we had the PLA, Lorain regularly hired contractors from outside the city and county”, said Rick Lucente, counciller and Steelworkers member, who voted no on repeal. “Repealing the PLA is taking work away from people here and revenue away from our city.”
Another big fight was over a contract dispute involving the Teamsters and the city. Mayor Ritenauer, with some of the council members, borrowed city trucks from nearby Elyria — another Democratic Party stronghold — and actually worked on the trucks to try to break the sanitation workers’ strike.
“That was the final straw”, according to Williamson. “You just plain do not cross a picket line and scab! There has to be a line in the sand.”
Teacher beats commerce captain
So the labour council decided to run its own slate of two dozen candidates, mostly union members, for city council seats in the towns of Lorain, Amherst, Avon and Avon Lake.
Union teacher and newly elected Eighth Ward Council member Josh Thornsberry triumphed over incumbent Frank DeTillio, who is also president of the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce. “This is just a first step”, Thornsberry told the labour council, “but we will be taking many together in the future”.
The union crowd at the labour council meeting, some in “Independent Labor Party” shirts, greeted the victorious candidates with loud cheers and optimism. The council has ordered more shirts to supplement the 500 used during the campaign.
“We didn’t pick this fight, but we had to finish it”, said Thayer. “We need to build stronger alliances, work with more friends. Even if we put our issues on a back burner to help and fight for our friends in the communities, we need to keep reaching out and show that our interests are the same as others. If we do that, then we’ll grow.”
The Lorain central labour council is a wide federation, including unions both in and out of the AFL-CIO. A local immigrant rights organisation is slated to affiliate, and a student-labour group at nearby Oberlin College will be brought on board, too. Over the years the labour council has often fought alongside community forces — including defeating a Walmart coming in, working against racist attacks and working for minority hiring.
‘We can elect our own’
In an angry letter, Lorain County Democratic Party chair Tony Giardini called for Democratic Party union leaders to resign from their party posts as precinct captains.
The meeting decided not to publicly reply, but to offer to buy a table at the upcoming party dinner and give all proceeds to Matt Lundy, a progressive Democratic Party state representative now running for the only GOP-held county commissioner position.
“Running independent wasn’t our first choice, but hopefully this can help bring the Democratic leaders to their senses”, said machinist Art Thomas. “If not, we’ve shown them that we can work with our friends and elect our own!”
[Bruce Bostick is now Ohio state coordinator for the Alliance of Retired Americans and the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees and was a delegate to the Lorain County central labour council for more than 30 years.]