Union-backed Walmart and McDonalds’ Campaigns Face Uncertain Futures

DSC_6745New Orleans    The emperor with no clothes is not a pretty sight, and it’s almost as bad when the finger pointing at him is Dave Jamieson, a labor reporter for the Huffington Post in a piece entitled “Labor Groups are Taking on Walmart and McDonalds. But Who Will Fund the Fight?” I don’t have anything against him or the Huff Post, but this was a story we knew would be coming, the only surprise might be that it took so long to get here, and it still seems to catch us unprepared with our pants around our ankles.

The trigger for this tale is the annual meeting of Walmart gearing up in Bentonville, which has also become an annual action by organizations trying to force one of the world’s largest retailers to more accountability and better practices and standards for its workers. This year OUR Walmart is once again on the scene, but now divorced from its supporter and financier, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and trying to go on its own. A decade ago, UFCW did much the same thing with a competing effort called WakeUp Walmart not so much as to organize but to keep their brand and jurisdictional claims alive and compete with the SEIU-backed WalmartWatch and the multi-union effort we ran to prove that Walmart workers could be organized in Florida and to establish that we could stop their expansion with aggressive work and community allies both in the US and India. New leadership at UFCW jettisoned the program support for OUR Walmart leaving them trying to keep the flame alive, all of which seems terribly reminiscent of our earlier efforts.

Jamieson asks the simple question no one likes to hear in public about the viability of OUR Walmart and the sustainability of its effort without a deep-pocketed sponsor. He raises the same question about the multi-year expenditure that SEIU has made to organize McDonalds in companion with its support of the Fight for $15 campaign. SEIU has been resolute in its commitment to these efforts. Both campaigns can claim significant victories. Walmart did move on wages at the bottom. Not to $15 per hour but up to $10 across the board at a cost of billions. SEIU has seen dividends from its Fight for $15 in cities like Seattle and Los Angeles and in states like California and New York where it has significant membership, so they can claim some success from their advocacy. McDonalds does not seem to have moved any closer to the union than Walmart has moved towards UFCW, though closer observers with better information than I have claim that SEIU’s strategy is global, is sound, and may still yield significant organizational victories as well.

And, that’s the rub. Unions are not foundations. They have to eventually see members and dues or some direct benefit from the expenditure of dues or the reaction will be predictable, just as is was with UFCW’s leadership change. And, when it comes to funding, foundations are not a substitute for workers and their dues or workers and their unions. Foundations will shine a bright penny for a minute, but they will never double down to the level needed to get to scale in fighting giant enterprises like either of these companies.

Can OUR Walmart create a real workers’ movement at the giant retailer with a strategy that produces sufficient organization and membership that will finance a long struggle? It’s possible, we proved that in Florida, but that’s a 10, 20 or 30 year project, and would represent the life work and sacrifice of many to survive, and, even surviving, would, having proven the concept, still need support at some point to get to scale. The same transition will need to occur in the McDonalds’ campaign, but hopefully with the continuity of SEIU’s support and assistance.

No one else is going to finance these struggles without workers carrying a huge part of the weight. The publicity is great, but smoke and mirrors is not organizing. David Rolf of SEIU’s big Washington State local, was quoted as saying, “The old model has failed several generations … We should encourage these experiments, but we shouldn’t romanticize it. We still haven’t figured this out.” Certainly, he’s right, but his remarks must seem gratuitous to organizers and workers deep in the struggle. OUR Walmart has proven that the day of reckoning for such experiments comes quickly, so the time for figuring it all out for all of these organizing projects remains now, before it’s too late.

***

Please enjoy Beck’s Wow. Thanks to KABF.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Was the Weird Labor Dustup over Airbnb Housekeepers a Trojan Horse?

Protesters at a rally against illegal hotels Jan. 21. (Photo: Jaime Cone)

Protesters at a rally against illegal hotels Jan. 21. (Photo: Jaime Cone)

New Orleans   Over recent weeks there has been a spit fight involving the controversial in-home rental app, Airbnb, and various labor unions, including the frequently controversial Service Employees International Union and its even more controversial former president, Andy Stern, and the now much less widely known hotel workers union, Unite HERE, and a bunch of housing groups. At issue was a potential deal, now scuttled, that would have had Airbnb recommending union cleaners to its hosts and guaranteeing that they would be paid at least $15 per hour and “green” certified. What in the world was this all about, other than perhaps the easier work of making a mountain out of a mole hill?

What’s the beef? SEIU has been the driving force in the “fight for $15” campaign and they have long “owned” the jurisdiction on many types of cleaners. This could not have been a big deal for them. Maybe they would have gained a couple of members or more likely a couple of more hours for work for already existing members, and that only in jurisdictions like New York and California where they have fought and won high union density for such workers. Largely though this would have been little more than a press flurry for a couple of days that then would disappear from consciousness. For Airbnb operators this would have been a fix looking for a problem, since most are either cleaning their own places or already have cleaners, many, if not most of whom are already making more than $15 per hour since they are on-demand workers with more individual bargaining power.

What SEIU seems not to have fully realized is that the fight around Airbnb in tight housing markets like San Francisco, New York, and others where there are active housing groups is intense and polarized, and there is no demilitarized, neutral zone. But, SEIU certainly was well aware that these same areas are also areas where Unite HERE has significant organization among hotel workers, so they have common cause in seeing Airbnb or any service that takes guests out of a union hotel as the anti-Christ. Going back to the jurisdictional wars within labor what was a close labor partnership between the unions went way, way south, when SEIU offered a safe haven for parts of UNITE and its former leader, Bruce Raynor, in an internecine struggle with John Wilhelm. To put another finger in Unite HERE’s eyes, the architect of that shotgun merger was Andy Stern, who reportedly was also representing Airbnb in these preliminary negotiations about this deal.

Neither Airbnb nor SEIU had much to gain other than a couple of props and press releases from this deal, so it is no surprise that current SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, saw this as a distraction, and quickly went to current Unite HERE president’s Dee Taylor’s Las Vegas stronghold to, in all likelihood, get her hand slapped, apologize, and hope the whole mess would die like other things in Vegas. This was all much ado about nothing.

Unfortunately, this let’s-make-a-deal love affair between some unions and Silicon Valley tech operations is worrisome still. Airbnb doesn’t really have a labor problem in any classic sense, but something like Uber, the ride sharing app really does. In a recent court settlement on Uber, in exchange for pretending their drivers were not employees, Uber agreed to some vague language about being willing to meet with – or help create a forum – for associations of their drivers to discuss issues. Actual unions of Uber drivers have been in formation in Seattle and other West Coast cities. Was it a lawyer or a union advisor that thought these meetings and company “unions” were a good idea as anything but a union-avoidance strategy? Certainly, the campaign master and deal maker for Uber is someone with rich Democratic politics experience from the Obama campaigns and relationships with a lot of current – and former – union leaders. I would worry that Airbnb might have been a Trojan horse for an Uber type problem, since too many are painfully fuzzy about the hard core anti-labor, job destroying, disruption philosophy that is the dominant ideology of Silicon Valley.

The next shoes that fall could hurt a lot more than this one.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Is NUHW Homeless in the House of Labor Again?

State-of-the-union-2015New Orleans   It’s easy to lose touch when I’ve been on the road and out of the country too much, but sadly sometimes it’s just deja vu all over again.

For years one of the hot buttons in the labor movement was the so-called tragic civil war in California within the ranks of healthcare unions in that state. There’s no way to put lipstick on a pig, and it was a mess for all involved as the Service Employees International Union trusteed a recalcitrant, but huge, local union over issues large and small, and the rump group reorganized under the banner of members-first, no concessions, and militant local unionism in way many saw as a David versus Goliath contest, either rightly or wrongly. The big prize was a 40,000 worker unit at Kaiser Healthcare which David tried to decertify and Goliath in a series of NLRB ordered elections managed finally to retain for the most part. The rump group, calling itself the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) seemingly shook itself off and organized its way to more than 10,000 members and though undoubtedly still a thorn in the side of SEIU and its local affiliate, United Healthcare Workers West (UHW), many would have hoped there was plenty of unorganized healthcare workers for all and finally peace in the valley.

The bizarreness of this story seems to rage on I now discovered. NUHW may not have loved SEIU and they were not alone in their disenchantment, so given the divided politics in the house of labor, that didn’t mean they couldn’t find other suitors, despite their posture of independence. First there was the Steelworkers, which seems odd, but that ended quickly with another million dollar plus debt from NUHW on top of the settlement still hanging from a court trial the newly formed local union had already lost to SEIU. Then they fell in the arms of the California Nurses’ Association and its national formation, which is also an affiliate of the AFL-CIO and a longtime competitor of SEIU with their vision of being a trade union of nurses in healthcare and SEIU’s vision of being an industrial union of all healthcare workers. This marriage at least made some more sense, if you believe in marriage, since at least they both had something in common in their enmity of SEIU. The CNA paid an expensive dowry though which according to NLRB records of their own testimony has been more than one-million dollars a month in a subsidy to NUHW to keep them alive and kicking.

Unfortunately, there remained trouble in paradise, and the steepness of the CNA investment may have another classic story of a prenuptial affiliation agreement gone sour. Piecing the story together from the various claims, it seems NUHW struck Kaiser with the members it retained and CNA despite its long history of Kaiser and contract bashing seems to have quietly made a deal with Kaiser and not only refused to support the NUHW strike but ordered them to not go forward with it. Some of their previous friends think a unit of 4000 nurses long unable to get a Kaiser contract may have been CNA’s real interest all along, but be that as it may, the real beef expressed by CNA seems to be that they were as unable to get NUHW to walk the line as SEIU had been over many years previously. CNA demanded that NUHW merge with a small, general unit of their national union and dissolve the affiliation agreement or just get on their walking shoes and be disaffiliated one way or another.

Weirdly in October NUHW’s website carried a plea for help to save the NUHW-CNA affiliation, and reported that they have been given the ultimatum early in 2014. Not surprisingly, NUHW liked neither alternative and is demanding that they continue under the language of their earlier affiliation agreement. NUHW reports that the whole mess goes to arbitration in January 2016. The NUHW website reported their claim that many CNA nurses support the continued close working relationships with NUHW and are happily ignorant of the latest turn of events in this mess. The plea included no action that any CNA or NUHW member could take to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Adding injury to insult, NUHW’s own Wikipedia entry says that the affiliation with CNA has already ended.

What’s the line? First there is tragedy, and then there is bathos. I’m not sure but whatever it might be, this is the last thing anyone in the labor movement needs to hear or see, so it’s no surprise that more hasn’t been written about it as another death rattle in our long decline.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Free Advice for Organizing McDonalds’ Workers

 Scott Courtney, a leader of the Fight for 15 campaign, with protesters in Brazil. Credit Fernando Cavalcanti

Scott Courtney, a leader of the Fight for 15 campaign, with protesters in Brazil. Credit Fernando Cavalcanti

New Orleans    There was SEIU’s organizing director Scott Courtney, friend and comrade, in a picture in The New York Times, rallying with Brazilian unions before preparing to testify on the evils of McDonalds’ franchisees in Brazil to their government. Even more surprisingly, he was quoted in the Times essentially saying he was throwing everything against the wall hoping to find some critical vulnerability.

By pushing fast food companies, particularly McDonalds, on its Fight for $15 campaign, the union has succeeded in pressuring the company to raise wages in corporate stores to $9 already and soon to $10 early in 2016. Charges at the National Labor Relations Board have also led to real concerns on whether or not the union has successfully pierced the veil between the corporate locations and its franchisees as co-employers, which has led to mass hand wringing throughout corporate America.

Perhaps the biggest victory though was the success of the campaign in New York State, where the wage board has recommended accelerated increases to $15 in New York City and not long afterwards throughout the state for fast food workers. Several months ago Brother Courtney was quoted as, perhaps too transparently and too willingly, expressing the hope that action by the wage board might have given the union sufficient leverage to be able to make a deal with the company somewhere, somehow to allow the union in on some piecemeal basis. In organizing circles, the New York wage board and a powder keg supposedly ready to explode in Brazil were touted as the one-two punches that were going to bring the company to the mat. One punch seems to have fallen short, and now Brazil is in the ring and though arms are flailing, much of the heat seems addressed at a big franchisee and potential tax scams in that country, which is already reeling from political payoff scandals that have weakened the left, governing Workers Party.

Observers are clearly worried that SEIU might be coming to the end of their rope unless they can deliver a knockout soon, just as UFCW has pulled the plug on its expensive OUR Walmart effort. When blood is in the water, even friends line up to offer advice. Steven Greenhouse, long time labor reporter for the Times in an unusual step weighed in at The Atlantic recommending that SEIU start picking off McDonalds’ “hot shops,” though he undoubtedly knows the statistics on the relatively low success rate in NLRB representative elections for such shops. Wilma Liebman, former chair of the NLRB, recommended that SEIU direct all of its organizing energy at corporate stores rather than franchisees to advance the cause, which is curious advice as well. To the public, McDonalds is McDonalds, and unquestionably many of the franchisees, as SEIU has found in Brazil, are way more vulnerable to organizing and pressure. Eighteen months ago a big franchisee in Houston with more than 50 locations flirted briefly with Local 100 for us to sign up his workers for Obamacare. There are athletes and others who own hundreds of locations who might be leveraged as well.

Regardless, the notion of organizing stores one-by-one has been the opposite of SEIU’s strategy in this campaign and many others over the last twenty years. One senior SEIU organizer in Los Angeles commented to me several years ago that there’s an entire generation of SEIU’s organizers that have never run an NLRB election and would be fish out of water trying to do so. SEIU knows that there were 14350 McDonalds in the USA in 2014 and 21908 internationally. The last thing they are looking for is a Vietnam style quagmire where they are locked into a struggle to organize store by store. How many would they have to organize successfully to have the moral rectitude that converts into the equivalent pressure of their current Fight for $15 Campaign? What could they deliver in collective bargaining to the first couple of hundred stores? These are hard problems, and Courtney and SEIU are clearly intent on doubling down before caving in.

It’s one thing for unions, even SEIU, to decide to throw everything up against the wall against a company for a couple of years to see if they can win. It’s another thing to decide that you are willing to make a 20, 30, or 50 year commitment to actually unionize the workers step by step, block by block, or in this case store by store.

SEIU may have to face that decision soon, but it won’t be today, while they’re still swinging hard, and the bell hasn’t rung.

***

Please Enjoy Bruce’s Springsteen’s Working on a Dream

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

An Organizing Retreat and Defeat at Walmart

UFCW-Walmart-ProtestNew Orleans     As we have looked at the effort of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ avowed aim over recent years to organize Walmart using various strategies, many of them based on our own earlier work, and some breaking new and different ground with OUR Walmart in mobilizing actions using the internet and launching mini-strikes with maximum publicity, our consistent counsel has been that this all could work, if (big if!) the UFCW was committed finally to supporting this campaign for the ten to twenty years it would take to win against the dominant employer in the retail sector and the largest private sector employer in the country. The verdict seems to finally be emerging publicly, that many of us have feared continually, and it is not promising for either workers at Walmart or the necessity for new and innovative organizing strategies and models.

David Moberg, the long-time labor reporter for In These Times, finally broke the news publicly in a recent piece called, “Which Way OUR Walmart?,” that many observers had feared was inevitable especially in light of recent developments.

Joe Hansen, International President of UFCW, had retired at the end of last year. Hansen had been a grudging, but fair and open-minded, supporter of our Walmart projects in 2005, though zealous of protecting the jurisdiction and tight fisted financially, forcing SEIU and the AFL-CIO to pay for us to establish the “proof of concept.” Internal labor politics around the split within the federation, hurt feelings around SEIU’s embrace of Walmart on healthcare reform, and general turf concerns, rather than the organizing results, most of which argued that our organizing strategies were working, made that project collateral damage with only the anti-FDI efforts in India surviving another decade. To his credit though once his grip on the union consolidated, he led the UFCW to expand the Walmart initiative, hired talented organizers like Dan Schlademan and Andrea Delhendorf, both formerly of SEIU to make it happen. From 2010 through 2014 the UFCW pumped up to $7 million a year into the effort.

People get confused. We may talk about a labor movement, but unions are not movements. They are highly political membership organizations, where existing, dues-paying members elect the leaders and pay the local union bills and those same officers. This is different from “likes” or press notices or attaboys. Every project like this whether to organize an industry giant like Walmart, fight for equality, or a $15 an hour raise has a hard “use by” expiration date, unless they end up increasing membership.

A new leader of the UFCW now has the same problem that Hansen did a decade ago. He has to satisfy the leaders and power blocks that swept him into office, and they want more members now in their own unions. So Schlademan is out. The budget is on the chopping block. Trial balloons are being floated about redirecting organizing and resources. There will always be something that waves a banner or a sign at Walmart, but this has the smell of death and finality all over it down to the fact that private donors and foundations have stepped in to keep OUR Walmart breathing a little longer. That worked for us another year or so after the plug was pulled too, but these donors will move to a new flavor even faster than union leaders did, and they will never put down the dollars that the UFCW invested, and that will continue to be needed to organize a company as huge and powerful as Walmart.

Déjà vu is painful and sad, particularly for the workers, not just at Walmart, but throughout the economy who continue to suffer and dream and be willing to fight, if given the opportunity, for a real voice and a real organization to advance their interests and give them voice on the job. Meanwhile Walmart walks away again, maybe a wee bit wiser, but without an organized workforce, whatever lessons they may have learned in recent years, will be quickly forgotten.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Fast Food Organizing Tactics Clouding the Strategy

 PHOTO BY JESSICA SEAMAN Protestors block Broadway Street in downtown Little Rock on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, to ask for higher wages. Some chanted: "Make our wages super-sized."

PHOTO BY JESSICA SEAMAN
Protestors block Broadway Street in downtown Little Rock on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, to ask for higher wages. Some chanted: “Make our wages super-sized.”

Montreal    In two years,  the New York Times notes that there have now been seven actions involving fast food workers and demands for $15 per hour. The latest claimed to have held actions in 150 cities around the US with up to 500 arrested for civil disobedience, largely street blocking. The Times’ labor reporter, Steven Greenhouse, now puts the tab covered by the Service Employees at $10 million for this campaign, though I’m sure that’s “above the line” costs, not counting deployment of much more involving existing staff, offices, and operations, which is one of the ways a flag gets planted in this number of cities.

Grant Williams, an old ACORN organizer in his youth for several years and a longtime SEIU organizer now, left best wishes for me the other day with Toney Orr, Local 100’s state director for Arkansas, when he was in Little Rock trying to expand the campaign from his home port of St. Louis. This is something that must feel like a walk in the park for Grant and right in his wheelhouse, and the number of times fast food workers from St. Louis pop up in these stories, indicates that he and his team are doing a great job. Someone from St. Louis was one of the 19 arrestees in New York City. Three of the eleven arrested in Little Rock were from St. Louis. Not sure how many of the dozen or so in Memphis.

In fact, Missouri must be the real ground zero from this campaign since on the list of 150 cities on the www.popularresistance.org website a full 20 of the cities were St. Louis and Kansas City suburbs with a few other scattered sites in Missouri. Pine Bluff, Jacksonville, and North Little Rock were on the list of cities as well, because folks from those cities were part of the actions in Little Rock. Local papers recorded no actions in the cities themselves. Add Southhaven, Mississippi to the Memphis action on the credit list for the St. Louis team as well. An action in New Orleans included people from St. Rose, Luling, Harvey, and Slidell, all part of the greater metro area, so they were part of the 150 list as well. Three were arrested in New Orleans, two of whom were workers, and though Baton Rouge is on the list of 150, there were no reports in the Baton Rouge Advocate of any Baton Rouge activity.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that the protestors began in Little Rock at 8AM, and had been arrested and were back on the bus by 9AM, and headed to Memphis to continue their protest. The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that a dozen were arrested blocking the entrance to a McDonalds on Popular Avenue in that city at noon, so they made good time, despite that construction past Forrest City. This roving picket line of sorts had managed to stay busy!

From these numbers it looks like New Orleans, Memphis, and Little Rock are right at the epicenter of the fast food organizing with almost 10% of the cities where there are actions. Throw in the Missouri-based work and their 20 hotspots, and going up and down the Mississippi River we have more than 20% of the hotspots. Who knew?

I was optimistic about the reports on homecare workers joining the campaign, and there was evidence that some spoke to the issues, as I predicted, in Illinois, but otherwise they were not part of the story, even if I still hope there may have been others that were part of the action.

Don’t misunderstand me, if a fast food worker was from a city, then nothing wrong with claiming the city, but as an organizer, I know that someone passing through or picking up the bus someplace is not the same as having the location organized. But, when you get involved in the “claims” game of how many cities and how many arrests, it’s just a matter of time before someone starts counting the names and numbers to see if this is manufacturing or a movement, and when that happens the smoke and mirrors can cloud the strategy and workers and supporters get confused between what they know and can see versus what they had hoped was there.

For fast food and other lower wage workers, the anger is real and the demands are just. We better make sure that we don’t get tripped up by the tactics on the way to putting together a winning strategy.

***

Please enjoy Come from the Heart by Hard Working Americans Featuring Rosanne Cash.

Thanks to Kabf.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail