Learning with the Local Union Leaders

New Orleans      Local 100 United Labor Unions held its 38th consecutive leadership training weekend, this year in New Orleans.  Twenty-five leaders from workplaces in Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana converged to share strategies and tactics, tips and tools.

The meeting started with leaders sharing their views of the economy and how it might be impacting their workplaces, and, perhaps more importantly, whether or not the door was now open for our membership of lower waged workers to press for long denied raises.  Even with current minimum wages at $7.25 per hour and stuck there except for Arkansas because of its pending minimum wage bump. The living wage minimum in New Orleans at $10.55 was also important though less than the $11 per hour starting wages the union had recently won in bargaining at seven different nursing homes around Louisiana.  Winning a starting rate over $10 per hour in Houston Independent Schools had the same impact earlier.

Quickly, the debate moved to whether there was a way to push all boats up in the rising tide to bring our cleaners, custodians, launderers, and cooks up as well.  A leader from the Arkansas Human Development Center in Warren gave some tips they had used to put pressure on their state facility by selective utilization of sick and leave time to push the message to the bosses.  Leaders from Pine Bluff and New Orleans as well as Gulf Coast CAA, the giant Houston Head Start contractor, shared how they had used “work to rule” to send the message to their bosses by resisting efforts to cut the staff by speeding up work and piling on additional responsibilities.

One thing was quickly clear.  Everyone knew this opportunity wouldn’t last long and had to be seized immediately, so the discussion moved to how to organize job classification work groups to take action now, in and outside of binding contracts.  How could the leaders communicate and push forward across the union?  Why not try WhatsApp?  So, all of a sudden in the meeting three people already on the app were helping the rest of the leaders get on.  A sheet was passed around with phone numbers so everyone could connect to a Local 100 Stewards group, as the room crackled with humor and excitement.

This debate segued into a conversation about the 2020 election and how the union should approach it in our deep red states.  After some back and forth on candidates that might be promising to working people, there was consensus that we should follow six candidates that had appeal in a room of our stewards, who happened to all be black and brown women.  The six the leaders settled on were Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Beto O’Rourke.  Another list was passed around for volunteers who would monitor each of these candidates over the next six months on our issues and share the intelligence gathered with the rest of the stewards on the WhatsApp group.

All this was just the beginning in what turned out to be a great leadership conference, rich with ideas and energy, giving hope and deepening commitment across the union.

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Worker Shortages Are Pushing Wages Up at the Bottom

New Orleans       With more than twenty candidates signed up for the Democratic primary, they are undoubtedly getting more advice than they want from all corners, friend and foe, including for many that they need to get out of the race, so who am I to throw water on their fire?  Regardless, I’ll say this one thing more than one year out, remember James Carville’s line, “it’s the economy, stupid!”  Once they do, they need to not take lower wage, service workers for granted in the race against Trump, nor should they mistakenly assume they will turn out in huge numbers to beat him despite the rising inequality, his tax cuts for the corporations and the rich, his anti-immigrant and anti-poor positions and policies, and the endless list of other infractions and embarrassments in the White House.

Why?  Because record unemployment is finally forcing wages up at the grassroots.  I’ll tell you from the frontlines of the battlefield how I know.

A chain of nursing homes where our union, Local 100, United Labor Unions, has a contract for a number of homes in Shreveport in north Louisiana, had changed hands over recent years.  One company in more of a real estate play got in trouble with a REIT and had to declare bankruptcy.  A new one has taken over and was bargaining the successor contract for the homes with us.  We made our proposal to improve wages, and they came back.  We are now going to have a starting wage there of $11 per hour, a significant jump in the land of $7.25 minimums, and there were seniority bumps and shift differentials.

Was this one off, you might ask?  No, another contract that came up in Napoleonville on the west side of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge at another nursing home a month ago.  There we also won record increases on starting wages and up and down the scale of almost a dollar an hour.

Did we just become stronger or better?  I wish!

The reality is that we are catching the wave of record, 50-year lows in unemployment rates close to statistical full employment.  Nursing homes require certified nurse aides, so it’s not simply hire-off-the-street, even though companies have not always valued the wages in the same way.

This wave of wage increases shows up in the Fight for $15 effort certainly and has spread to mass employers like McDonalds, Walmart, Amazon, and many others, who can’t get the workers they need.  I’m not pretending this is trickle-down and every boat will rise.  That won’t happen with the level of precariousness, gigging, and less than full-time work. Nonetheless, there are going to be a ton of lower wage workers who would normally be base voters, and still might be, but who are going to hit the polls with more money in their pockets, and less desperate to throw the bum out.  They won’t be focused on whether this employment run is a continuation of the Obama recovery and whether or not Trump’s claims are valid, but they will know their money is better.

Anyone taking these voters for granted will lose badly.  They aren’t Trump voters, but truth to tell, many of them are not chronic voters, so the message to our members and many millions more is going to have to be better than, “come out and vote for anybody but….”  They don’t like him, but they won’t break a leg to beat him, because they don’t like the elites any better than he does, and for all the sound and fury, they will know their money is better now, even if the rich are richer.

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