Depressing Reports on the State of Union Organizing

USW campaign to organize at Pitt

New Orleans   Just by the luck of the draw in a 48-hour period I happened to have a chance at some “state of the unions” shoptalk with three former high ranking union officials with deep backgrounds in organizing as well as a younger former organizer whose current work forces him to try to find the pulse of union organizing around the country from the rank-and-file forward. Spoiler alert: it was really depressing, especially in these times that cry for a revival of a workers’ movement demanding change.

Let’s have some good news first.

There’s been progress in organizing adjunct professors, graduate students, and other university employees by several unions. These kinds of workers may not be at the heartbeat of the labor movement in some peoples’ estimation, but more pink and white collar workers in unions is always good news for the future and a hope that more trickles down. The shifting emphasis by unions like the Service Employees towards airport-based workers and subcontractors is achieving some successes, especially along Atlantic Coast cities. A unit here and there of hospital workers breaking through to win elections on the West Coast still holds hope as well. There was some hints that some workers’ centers are migrating from service provision, job training and referral to assisting immigrant workers in organizing unions.

And, now for the rest of the news.

The McDonalds’ initiative and much of the Fight for Fifteen which propelled some cities and states to raise their minimum wages, seems virtually all over but the shouting. The encouraging efforts supported by large unions and federations to develop what I have called “majority union” strategies among Walmart workers nationally and warehouse workers in the Imperial Valley of California have now seen their support wither so substantially, as their sponsors have pulled the plug, that they are trying to subsist at some level almost like advocacy organizations hoping to score foundation and various philanthropic funding.

In fact several conversations veered dangerously into the “grasping for straws” area of how to shore up declining organizing prospects and membership dues support for worker organizing with private monies. A social media action network that seemed to be growing rapidly to support organizing and union work was trying to figure out how to appeal to foundations. Workers’ centers who were debating helping organize unions, shop to shop, were asking for advice in mapping the borderline between their tax exempt, nonprofit status, and the more direct work entailed in actually union organizing, which is not exempt.

Several former officials speculated that membership figures of various unions were being propped up by “creative accounting” of associate members and various affiliations of worker associations in order to maintain the public claims of membership strengths even as actual full-fledged dues payers were dropping precipitously. Such moves might be politically tactical and even defensible in a more expansive view of worker organization, similar to what I have advocated, especially in these trying times, but are certainly not strategic as organizing strategies, and, needless to say, are not sustainable. Meanwhile published reports indicate that a lawyer being vetted for a seat on the National Labor Relations Board is a certified and registered union-buster or “persuader” as they call themselves, currently involved in trying to take away recognition for over 20,000 home health care workers in Minnesota in the ongoing efforts to push back on the area of greatest organizing success for organized labor in the last generation of organizers.

What’s the old saying, “if it weren’t for bad news, there wouldn’t be any news at all?”

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Mike Garcia Stood Strong for Low Waged Workers

Mike Garcia

New Orleans   We used to kid a long time and excellent organizer who worked for our sister union, Local 880. In an early session as a newly hired organizer being handed a standard training document extracted from remarks that Cesar Chavez had made about the importance of the dues system in building the farmworkers’ union, he had innocently asked, “Who was Cesar Chavez?” The story was both shocking and unsettling. On one hand those of us only a decade or so older wondered, how could anyone not know something about the legendary Chavez, the grape boycott, and the struggle to organize the California fields? On the other hand, it hit us all like bricks how quickly working peoples’ history is smothered in silence.

The State of California has declared a Cesar Chavez Day, and that’s well and good, but it’s Mike Garcia who is on my mind. Mike passed away this week. He was a great labor leader and an excellent organizer. He was a comrade and friend. His song should be sung. His work and memory needs to be raised to the sun, because his shadow will be long.

I first Mike in the late 1980s in the mountains outside of Denver. He had come over to Colorado from California as a trustee and then president of SEIU Local 105 to try and build a presence and power for janitors in Denver and Kaiser healthcare workers. Jon Barton, who had worked for several years as an organizer with Local 100 until his homesickness for California had pulled him back west, was Mike’s lead organizer, and they had invited me out to a staff retreat, training, strategy, and planning session for the local somewhere near Evergreen. As Jon had suspected, Mike and I were kindred spirits and hit it off, beginning a permanent friendship and alliance both within the SEIU and with ACORN.

Until he was forced to retire several years ago to deal with health issues, Mike ended up leading a 40,000 member amalgamated service workers’ union of janitors, security workers, landscapers, and other lower waged workers built out of sweat, struggle and steel over decades. Before Jon had come to Louisiana, he had done a stint with a small, craft union trying its hand at organizing Silicon Valley, and it was exciting to be in regular touch with him and Mike when they reunited in California to systematically, and largely successfully, organized janitors in major companies in the Valley. I still can’t read about Apple and other mega-rich tech companies talking about their generous employee benefit programs without remembering how hard – and corruptly – they fought against fair pay and decent standards for their janitorial and service subcontractors.

These campaigns made Mike’s reputation as an organizer and his leadership of Justice for Janitors with his organizing team around the state including the decisive strike in Los Angeles at the turn of the century marked his stature as a unique, unbending labor leader in California. For years Los Angeles was part of my regular route, and there weren’t many times that I didn’t reach out for Mike to catch up, if our schedules intersected, or spend time with him when we were on the board of SEIU together, catch as, catch can.

I had heard his health was getting worse. I wish I had seen him in recent years. For a last laugh. For old times’ sake. For his advice and counsel. And, just to thank him for his friendship and his life’s work that allowed all of us to stand strong with him and be steadfast to the cause.

For organizers and leaders like Mike, there won’t be any special day, but every day was special in solidarity and struggle.

Si se puede!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Temporary Employment Agency Workers are Organizing in Montreal

Conchita Poonin and her co-workers strike for a $15 starting salary. Thousands of Quebec nursing home workers have walked off the job in their first-ever series of coordinated strikes. Photo: Immigrant Workers Centre

Montreal   While in Quebec with the ACORN Canada head organizers, several of us stopped by to meet with our friends and partners at the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal. We talked to Eric Shragge, president of the board, and longtime activist and academic as well as other long time staffers. In addition to the work and campaigns that they have been pushing consistently during the fifteen years since their founding, we caught up with several exciting and important new initiatives that are central in Center’s current focus and work, especially because it is critical to understand that the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal is not a job training and placement or social service center, so common in the United States and even Canada, but is better understood as an organizing center for immigrant workers.

Most intriguing to me was the activity of the Temporary Agency Workers Association (TAWA). Many of the issues this association is targeting are the common complaints of most workers employed through such placement agencies, but foreign and immigrant workers are obviously even more vulnerable and precarious with fewer resources and protections on these jobs. It also goes without saying that many jobs they find working through the agencies are dangerous and low paying.

All of this resonated deeply with me, remembering that in 1971, as ACORN was expanding our work in Arkansas past housing project tenant issues and welfare rights issues, we started two additional, area-wide rights-based affiliated organizations, the Vietnam Veterans Organizing Committee and the Unemployed Workers Organizing Committee (UWOC). The central issue for the UWOC quickly became their lack of rights and exploitation by temporary employment agencies or buy-a-job shops, as we called them. We ended up winning some legislative reforms guaranteeing rights for temporary workers as well as better guarantees for employers picking up the fees and making some jobs permanent. Nevertheless in the way that labor has been squeezed and union strength has diminished over the last 45 years, the growth of non-contract, unprotected temporary work has ballooned making some companies the largest US private sector employers after Walmart, handling jobs at all skill positions.

In Quebec all fees are paid by the employers, but most of the rest of the issues are the same, except worse, as we learned from the Immigrant Workers’ Center. They had won a campaign recently with a group of workers from Mauritius who had been trapped in bad workplace conditions when immigration laws changed in Canada no longer guaranteeing permanent residence after four years of employment and won their residency despite the regulation.

The TAWA key demands are easy to support. They want a living wage for their work, and have joined the campaign for $15 per hour that has been a signature effort of the Immigrant Worker Center over the last several years. They want to shut down the fly-by-night operators, which are little more than labor contractors involved in bait-and-switch exploitation of workers. Importantly, they want to win some co-employer guarantees between the contracting employer and the agency hiring the workers to prevent the efforts to bypass provincial labor standards.

We need to follow the work of TAWA and the IWC in Montreal. They could break a new path for precarious and informally employed workers that all of us should follow.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

After a Twenty Year Campaign, Aramark and Privatization Shown the Door in Houston

New Orleans  It was a “pinch me” moment when the news finally broke that after United Labor Unions Local 100’s 20-year fight to get rid of Aramark as the food service subcontractor in the giant Houston Independent School District, they were finally being shown the door. The district was close lipped about its decision to not renew the $6 million contract with Aramark, but news reports were clear that the constant complaints and criticisms from food service workers was a critical factor.

Undoubtedly, the soaring cost of this privatization fiasco in Houston was also part of the problem. As the report indicated, there were few sweet nothings being whispered in anyone’s ears about this divorce. Aramark making sure that it left the district with as bad a taste in their mouths as the children they had been feeding, threw a rock through their own glass window dredging up a story from the last century alleging mismanagement of the district of the cafeteria operation. Their parting shot, we took as a relief, because it indicates that they know they won’t be back so they saw no risk in fouling the trough where they have gorged for decades.

Our members are celebrating because they paid for this contract with overwork and underpay, as the food service workforce was decimated in order to line Aramark’s pockets. Where individual schools had previously enjoyed a modicum of oversight and quality control, Aramark lopped off hundreds of jobs in order to establish a central kitchen that would deliver tens of thousands of meals to the individual schools. It’s not hard to imagine the daily problems of such a mammoth enterprise!

Local 100 was recently successful in winning an agreement from the HISD to raise the wages for food service workers, and more recently has been campaigning to win an increase in hours for their work in order to improve service and food delivery for the children. Another factor may be the level of lead found in many of the water fountains and kitchen faucets after Local 100 forced the district to begin a comprehensive testing program.

Recent studies by researchers from Massachusetts and Sweden found that outsourcing workers through privatization imposed a wage penalty of up to 7% for janitors and up to 24% for security guards. The same has been true for food services workers, though perhaps worse, because they often have had to endure split shifts and part-time work hours, often lucky to make six hours a day during the school year. The much-loved and iconic “lunch ladies” by children and parents have been starving and impoverished by Aramark for much of their careers.

Despite the horrors of privatization for the last several decades in Houston, the ideology of privatization more than the economics will continue to be at the heart of every campaign as businesses continue to search for profit by pretending that they are always more efficient and better at delivering public services than government, when their only real skill is reducing wages, hours, and workers and in food service, cheaper, low-quality food. At least in Houston we can enjoy the victory for a minute, but there’s still no cure for the plague.

***

Please enjoy Pokey LaFarge’s Riot in the Streets.

Thanks to KABF.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Could the US Labor Movement Lose 3 to 5 Million Members Under Trump?

Sheffield   Visiting with a British union organizer in touch with colleagues in the United States, I was shocked, though perhaps I should not have been, when he told me he had been hearing of worst-case scenario meetings of labor strategists meeting after the election estimating that the American labor movement could lose 3 to 5 million members based on policies and initiatives that might be unstoppable at every level under a Trump Administration. Needless to say, such a mammoth disgorging of union membership would be crippling, not just for existing unions, but for the entire array of progressive forces throughout the country.

In the last 35 years, union membership density in the US has already fallen from slightly over 20% of the organized workforce to barely 11%. There are somewhere around 14.5 million members of unions, so a loss of even 3 million would deplete membership by more than 20%. A loss of 5 million would rip away over one-third of US union membership. The private sector membership of unions is now less than 7%, and even without Trump, organizing strategists for 20 years have warned that without major restructuring of organizing programs and significant organizing initiatives and policy shifts, labor was on a path to only 5% density or one in twenty American workers enjoying union membership. The current jet fueled conservative assault is likely against the more than 35% public sector membership that remains in unions.

We already can see the attack unfolding on several fronts. Republican-controlled legislatures and statehouses have already eviscerated union security provisions in Kentucky and Missouri is likely to fall with the house already having acted and the senate approving after current contracts expire with the governor’s signature seemingly inevitable. Other states are on the list. A bill was offered in Congress and then withdrawn, but certainly close at hand. The other major front already manifesting itself is more broadly aimed at public sector workers. Memorandum attacking paid union leave time in the federal sector for grievance handling and contract enforcement is already proceeding. The defeat in Wisconsin, which had been the birthplace of public unionization, provides a road map for other states to follow, but as we have seen elsewhere home health care and home daycare membership won by executive orders can easily be withdrawn.

Antonio Scalia’s death provided temporary relief when the Supreme Court split on the issue of withdrawing union security provisions for public workers in California and one or two Trump nominees, barring another miracle, means that even in staunch labor redoubts public union membership at the city, county, state, and educational level could be devastating, as we have seen in Wisconsin. Powerhouses of progressive labor like the teachers, service employees, government workers, and even industrial and private sector unions like the communication workers, auto workers, and teamsters which also represent significant bargaining units of public workers would all be hit hard.

Some unions are reportedly taking steps to prepare for these losses, both in their organizing and servicing programs, but lessons from not only Wisconsin but also from the British labor movement where union security was lost under Prime Minister Thatcher, indicate the losses under any reckoning will be severe. Never make the mistake in believing this will be a crisis only for American workers and their organizations. Conservatives know well what progressives should never forget, crippling institutional labor will have a seismic impact on all progressive organizations and capacity.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Digital “Tools” for Organizing Protests and Building the Movements that Follow

New Orleans    Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina, wrote an interesting op-ed in the Times, headlined, “Does a Protest’s Size Matter?” The answer is easy: of course it does!

But, that’s not the point she wants to underline. The professor wants to underscore the fact that a protest about something is different than the outcomes it produces. And, once again, of course that’s right as well.

Although this is not the answer the professor wants on this quiz, she is comparing apples and oranges. A protest is not a movement. In fact it is just what it says it is, an expression of dissent, a tactic hopefully in a larger strategy. Make no mistake, when communicating dissent, the numbers matter hugely. Say what anyone will from the President and his people on down, when an estimated 3.5 million women in the United States stepped to the street that sent a powerful message of protest, and that’s what it was meant to do. Mission accomplished.

The professor makes the case in a digital age that organizing such protests are hard work, but easier. Gee, I wish I believed that, I really, really do. Communication is quicker and cheaper for sure in a digital world, but nothing is really easier, partly because too many will think it’s easier and put more pressure on organizers to produce eye-popping, mind-boggling numbers. If one could spare one nanosecond of empathy for the anti-abortion protestors heading to Washington now, their numbers will be compared to the American-record historic numbers of the Women’s March, and they don’t have a prayer, no matter how much they hosanna in DC.

A protest is not a movement and neither are organizations, though both require huge levels of organizing. Where the professor is correct is that now even more work is needed to take the energy and anger and forge actual social change.

A related point was made by Columbia professor Todd Gitlin after the march that other historic marches were the product of organizations and their efforts to highlight long struggles with significant protest. Professor Tufekci almost paints the picture that the women’s marchers would be starting from scratch to building what Gitlin called a “full service movement.”

Talking on Wade’s World to Mark Fleischman, the president of Corporate Action Network, whose actionnetwork.org supplied the digital platform for the Women’s March, there is an easy answer to one of the professor’s questions. She says, “But if those protests are not exchanging contact information and setting up local strategy meetings, their large numbers are unlikely to translate…” In this case names of all of the people who registered for the march in DC or the sister marchers were turned over to local organizers in each city to use as the building blocks for the future. An item on their website also provides tools for organizing follow-up.

Fleischman, an old comrade from the labor movement, talked extensively about the “tools” the network is building for many purposes not just these kinds of mobilizations, but more importantly building real movements, real organizations, and real social change. Of course tools only work if there are people ready and able to wield them, so everyone can agree that remains the open question and real challenge.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail