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?”


Anti-Union Forces Leaving the Courts and Statehouse to Hit the Doors


Freedom Foundation Campaign Ad

New Orleans   The assault on unions is getting very personal. The legislative and legal attacks are part of the environment of constant struggle between unions and companies of course. People try to talk about America as a classless society, but when it comes to the labor-management tussle at work and in community, the class struggle is still part of the everyday experience.

Recently this has been politicized more crisply, especially after Citizens’ United and the surge of money into politics, when mega-rich, hyper-conservative gazillionaires realized that unions were one of the few institutions on the other side of the political divide that had the base and motivation to cobble together the dollars to meet them partway. What started with hate then morphed into strategy, and from there the tactical targets were clarified.

The right realized that the deep labor union pockets were still in the public sector since the industrial and private sector membership was falling like a rock towards 5% membership, if not below. If public sector unions and their membership could be eroded, then there was an almost open field for the right. So we’ve had Harris v. Quinn that broke union shop for homecare workers starting in Illinois. We’ve had near misses for union shop for school teachers with Justice Antonio Scalia’s death allowing us to dodge the bullet. And, thanks to the Koch brothers and their allies with ALEC, we’ve seen one statehouse and legislative chamber after another go right with new right-to-work campaigns and successes even in states like Michigan, an evisceration of public employee unions in Wisconsin, withdrawal of recognitions for lower wage workers in homecare in Michigan and Ohio, and more.

Now, they are engaging in hand-to-hand combat with teams of canvassers going door-to-door to attempt to convince union members to drop their membership and leave their unions. The Wall Street Journal reported on this new alarming anti-union tactic. A group called Freedom Foundation has raised a budget of more than $3 million in 2015 to employ hundreds of outreach people to work the list of union members in Oregon and Washington, available through public information, and do home visits with the sole purpose of getting home health and home childcare workers to withdraw from their union, which is the Service Employees International Union in this instance.

Tom McCabe who heads the Freedom Foundation claims that they have “knocked on the doors of about 15,000 home health-care and child-care workers out of about 50,000 overall in Washington state since July 2014.” He also claims he is targeting about 35,000 workers in Oregon. He also claims “the number of unionized child-care workers has fallen by 60% since he started the effort.” If true, they might have done 4000 or so home visits and convinced a couple of thousand workers to drop their membership at a cost of about $1500 per drop. That might make his program too pricey even for the mega-rich. Putting even more cold water on his claims, the head of the union in Washington, David Rolf, was quoted as saying that McCabe, “talks a big game, but they just aren’t having the impact they claim to be having.”

I’m sure Rolf is right, but that doesn’t mean this is any less painful for the union. This is about money. This kind of door-to-door, hand-to-hand combat means that a good part of the money the union might have spent on “offense,” in expanding rights, wages, and benefits for its members or new organizing, is now having to be spent on “defense,” to put organizers and others in the field to offset withdrawals and increase membership percentages. The objective of the conservative forces is to reduce labor’s expenditures on politics, and a field program like this has to be met in full and in force, allowing conservatives to win at either heads or tails if they reduce the level of contributions unions can make to advance their members’ interests.

The article in the Journal was obviously sales-and-promotion for McCabe and his so-called Freedom Foundation. He says he wants to take this door-to-door attack to California, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. We better hope he doesn’t succeed, but in the meantime, his advertisement, needs to also be our call to action.

Freedom Foundation Door Knockers

Freedom Foundation Door Knockers


Building Trades Unions Playing Role of Roaring Mouse

AFL-CIO_Headquarters,_Washington,_D.CDenver   Hey, give ‘em a break, the Democrats can’t stand to have the Republicans getting all of the attention for their splits, factions, and divisions, so it was only a matter of time before they got in the act. Perhaps not surprisingly it’s a family fight that starts with an argument about money and the company other parts of the family are keeping, and then ends up with demands about getting a job and working for a living. The difference is that the family is the fractious house of labor, which is pretty much always a house divided among itself, the bad company are billionaires and environmentalists, and the jobs are a spat over work now on such controversial projects as the Keystone pipeline coupled with a devil may care view of any future consequences.

All of this was so predictable. Once there was a big announcement that the two big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) had joined with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the three big, almost exclusively public worker unions, along with billionaire, environmental funder, West Coast political aspirant, and former hedge fund operator, Tom Steyer, to create a get-out-the-vote bankroll for certain battleground states in November, you could just smell trouble. The Service Employees had reportedly considered joining and then opted out, which was another sign of dark clouds building, since they had frequently been in alliance with Steyer on other projects and a comfortable part of the Democracy Alliance, a prominent political player among rich liberals. The ante to get in the game was one million dollars for each player, and Steyer was going to throw in five million to match it up to more than ten million.

Stopping for a second, what did any of the labor unions have to gain? The big union political players would have ponied up anyway, along with the AFL-CIO unions, big and small, to try and put $60 to $100 million into the election one way or another. SEIU certainly will spend a pile regardless. In recent years, Steyer has leveraged his money more and more around climate issues, so his interest in pledging to move more money with his own is clear, and his interest in publicity for a possible race in California is a matter of wide speculation. I suspect that’s part of why SEIU bowed out, but that’s just a guess.

Now we have a mess. The building trades unions not only have their own federation within the larger AFL-CIO federation through the Building Trades Council, that works as a world unto itself, but really should be in a federation of their own since most of the unions operate in a night to day different fashion compared to the industrial, service, and public unions. Nonetheless, the trades couldn’t seem to stop themselves from bringing their sense of permanent grievance to the table. They are only truly happy when they are the small tail wagging the dog. So, they joined behind the largest of their number, the Laborers, to pen a couple of protest letters to Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, complaining about billionaires, hedge funders, job killers, and the enviros. Not that Trumka seems to have had much to do with this from what anyone can tell. The point was to get to pout in the press at the public unions and the company they keep.

What they seemed to have achieved was simply a widespread, public notice of the accelerating weakness of labor even in the political arena which, until recently, had been one of the last bright spots for unions. So, sure none of this GOTV PAC money deal makes any real sense, but that still doesn’t justify the trades’ tactics. With little ability to relieve themselves outside of the tent, they seem more than happy making a mess inside it.


Will Quicker NLRB Elections Make a Difference?

watermark.phpHouston           The National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) new rule has survived numerous delays, Congressional attacks offset by a threatened veto, and huge corporate pushback to finally find dry ground and take effect.  We have not seen the corporate equivalent of the zombie apocalypse, so the country still stands.

For all the hype the rule itself is “not all that” really.  This is not card-check, where the majority of workers’ signatures would be enough to bypass an election and win recognition of the union.  This is not a guaranteed quick election within a prescribed number of days of the union filing for representation along the model of Quebec or similar jurisdictions.  The heart of the rule is that it obviates management lawyers’ effort to delay the election on play-pretend questions about whether or not certain workers belong in the voting and bargaining unit or invite pie-in-the-sky legal theories to push the election date longer and longer.  The new rule doesn’t eliminate these challenges as much as it postpones them, letting workers and their unions vote first, and deal with the mess later.  There will still also still be pre-election hearings when there are not stipulated elections, but significant efficiencies have been baked into the new rule to allow simultaneous notifications, electronic submissions, full statements of position, and more localized decisions rather than being caught in the Washington NLRB timeless gridlock.

Many believe that this will shorten the time between filing and elections drastically, but some of that is more in the nature of company lawyers squealing like stuck pigs.  In the most recent fiscal year 2013 report the NLRB noted that the median time between filing and elections was 38 days and 37 days with an election agreement but 59 days with a hearing, now it would be theoretically possible, if the bureaucratic stars and moon lined up, to have an election as early as two-weeks after filing.  No surprise that comparatively corporate America was calling this an “ambush” or “quickie” election, if it might be one-third the time previously.

How much difference will this change make to unions and our declining numbers?  First, it is hard to tell, since clearly it will take some time for union organizing strategists and tacticians to think through the types of campaigns that would be best suited for the new rule and train field organizers in how to maximize its potential.  There is certainly no question from all past studies that victory goes to the fleet when unions face an election under the NLRB.  Win rates have been statistically over two-thirds even under the old rules when elections were held with a modicum of promptness.   Even if this new rule was Christmas, which it definitely is not, it will take some time to embrace after years of unions resisting the quagmire of the NLRB and its hyper legalistic procedures favoring management so extravagantly.  A whole generation of union organizers is clueless about dealing with the NLRB, so that’s a problem in assessing the rule’s immediate potential.

The early filings say something, but may be just a blip on the screen.  There were about 140 filings between the rules full implementation and now, leading to an average of about 56 petitions per week under the new rule.  More recent reports of the NLRB indicate that the average representation petition filings have been about 38 per week, which is almost a 50% bump.  That’s still way too little too late, and may even be a statistical aberration where organizers might have held petitions for a week or two waiting for the new rule’s start date.

The short story is that the new rule represents an opportunity, not a panacea for workers and their unions.  It won’t be enough to stem the tide, but might help where the will needs a way.


Turner Corn – Union Man Dues


Organized Labor Speaking Without One Voice

UnionButton_180_182New Orleans        It is one thing when we all know the king has no clothes on, but it’s a whole different problem when Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and its op-ed pages broadcasts it far and wide. While we watch the Koch Brothers drive an ideological machinery pushing businesses to hew the line politically hard right with the Republican Party panting happily with them, we have our noses pushed into the mess of division when labor’s “jobs first” bread-and-butter unionism trumps public and longer term interests of our own members. A recent piece by Steven Malanga, who is also a senior editor at City Journal, detailed a listing of locations and political races where the building trades went one way and public employee unions went the other. 

He wasn’t completely correct, because despite his argument about an “emerging political divide,” unfortunately this is divide of long standing. Vexingly, he could have cited many more examples in many other locations where this division has long been standard operating procedure.

He mentions New Jersey where the Building and Construction Trades Council has endorsed a bunch of Republican Congressional candidates, but he could have easily cited many other examples, like the one several years ago when almost every union in Jersey banded together to stop Walmart superstore expansion in the state, but the trades signed an agreement with Walmart to construct the stores union on project labor agreements and trumpeted the company’s expansion until a compromise was reached. Ironically, New Jersey is one of the only states where labor actually admits that the building trades’ interest is diametrically opposed to most other unions and maintains a separate Industrial Unions Council to offset the construction trades and lessen the political confusion.

Of course, where the Journal glosses over labor’s reality is that in the shrinking ranks of labor, the building trades, long the smallest membership sector of organized labor, are as often now simply the mouse that is roaring. Public, service, and private sector unions overwhelmingly have the numbers in the organization we have left, but that only counts when votes are counted. Meanwhile small local unions, unashamed, will do things like stand behind Wisconsin’s union busting Governor Scott Walker with a couple of their members and a state flag, ignoring the tens of thousands of members he is pushing out of other unions and his crippling of labor’s power in the state.

No small part of the problem lies in the toothless federated structure of the AFL-CIO and its imitators. Despite oaths and promises long enshrined in labor’s ritual pledges to stand together and unite, especially around political endorsements, there are really no effective penalties for unions breaking away and pulling such stunts. In New Orleans, the tragedy of Mayor C. Ray Nagin, now serving the public in a jail cell, was abetted by the Firefighters, Operating Engineers, and its ilk, breaking away from the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO endorsement of police chief Pennington, in a similar subversion. In every community there are too many examples, too often led by one building trade or another breaking away from the vast majority for the thin-lipped kiss from a politician promising a few jobs or benefits.

It’s understandable at one level since the hiring hall structure puts constant pressure on the elected business manager’s producing new jobs for the members sitting on the bench, but recognizing the reality of the problem and having a better way to speak with one voice, despite the internal disagreements and conflicting self-interests, has to be a higher leadership and membership priority if labor is going to project even the semblance of unity in these days of continued decline.

The Journal cites a recent campaign where the New York building trades council wanted to endorse Governor Andrew Cuomo in the primary but public-union opposition kept the state AFL-CIO from making any endorsement because of the governor’s position on capping property taxes. The Journal may not like it, but having the majority rule is a good thing, and it allowed each union to act in its own self-interest without pretending to speak for the whole of labor. It’s not the best alternative, but it’s better than putting our divisions on the evening news and undercutting our own internal governance structures for the sake of some politician’s interest, rather than our own. The happy ending to that story is that the building and trades council respected the majority rather than going all New Jersey and jumping off their own way. We need more of that and less of the other, if our own survival and the welfare of all of our members is going to be our highest priority.


Harris v. Quinn Part 2: Creating a Permanent Precariat in Public Employment

Harris v. Quinn Press Conference at Supreme CourtNew Orleans    As terrible as the impact of the Supreme Court’s Harris v. Quinn decision is for unions and their capacity, the equally profound and perhaps more permanent implication may be in its attempt to create different sets of rights and entitlements for a permanent precariat in public sector employment.  The 5-4 majority decision written by Justice Samuel Alito denigrated home-based healthcare aides by referring to them as “partial public employees” creating a new, dangerous, and previously unknown labor classification in order to pretzel his decision in such a way that it could inflate the importance of some family member caregivers and camouflage a huge setback in the long organizing campaign to formalize what had been completely informal, precarious work.

The historic changes that organizing and unionization has established over 35 years of organizing home-based, informal workers are essential to understand no matter how the court has tried to disguise and devalue the importance of the contribution.  When we first began organizing these workers they were not just minimum wage workers, they were lucky to be even that.  Domestic workers only received minimum wage coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1978 and though now we recognize home healthcare workers as a critical piece in the health care mosaic and a cost saving, humane option to nursing homes, these jobs were just evolving in the 1970’s from their historic position as household servants.  Workers were seen as unskilled and classified as homemakers, chore workers, and generally, unskilled domestic labor.  Like domestics they had a series of clients, often traveling throughout the day until reimbursement was won for them to get pay for these hours, and received no benefits, holidays, vacations, health insurance, or even much respect.

Nonprofits first entered the field in some markets, and still are significant in New York, offering to match desperate families with workers able to meet the need.  For profit companies with names like McMaid, quickly followed with efforts to make the workers independent subcontractors and match workers with clients while receiving Medicare reimbursement dollars.  Moving from home to home to provide their special service, the workers were only marginally tied to the company paymasters since they provided no fixed worksite.  In the early days there were shapeups where workers showed up for their checks, until unions used these check days to sign-up the workers.  Requirements for regular training might create the only time a worker would meet others working for the same company.

When the United Labor Unions affiliated with the Service Employees in 1984, we had contracts covering this work with nonprofits in Boston and a bargaining order and no members but big dreams if we could get more legal and financial resources for our homecare local 880 in Chicago.  In Justice Alito’s classification of “partial public employees” he is ignoring years of litigation at every level of judicial review that established through the NLRA that these workers when handled by private companies were not independent contractors nor where they government employees.  As state reimbursement programs grew in states like Illinois, California, and elsewhere, entities like the Illinois Department of Rehabilitative Services (DORS) became significant employers and providers of home health workers, organizers were forced to establish the rights and entitlements of these workers at every level just as they did under the NLRA.   Some states with smaller programs, like Arkansas where Local 100 represents these workers, simply did the right thing and classified them as public employees, even while paying minimum wages.  Other states with more extensive health and benefit systems, like Illinois, balked at integrating tens of thousands of workers in benefit programs that were already in many cases overburdened and underfunded.  The compromise negotiated through constant bureaucratic and political struggle was to ease these workers, and later home daycare workers as well, into many of the rights and protections of public employees without accreting them fully into health and pension programs and instead concentrating on wages and some health coverage, all of which were won as critical milestones of substantial progress through unionization on the way to a future promised land.

What the Supreme Court is now trying to do through the backdoor of Harris v. Quinn is tear down the houses that our unions have built to hold safe and secure the employment of these workers.  Classifying them as “partial public employees,” and somehow not only different, but inherently substandard and diminished in comparison to firefighters and police for example opens the door to a definition of permanent precarity in a cruel paradox since these workers, just like fire and police, often are also among the few public servants with life and death of the public literally in their hands.   In the Hobby Lobby decision, Justice Alito tried to warn the religious and rightwing zealots that they should not take the religious exception into other attacks against minimum wages, discrimination, and other worker entitlements.  Sadly, nothing I have seen in this decision is a similar call for restraint in not expanding the diminishment of rights and entitlements for precariously employed, but public subsidized workers, way past the simple issue of paying servicing fees to a union, putting dark clouds in front of millions of workers in the future.