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!

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Does Former SEIU President Andy Stern Really Advocate Labor Law Waivers?

Andy Stern with SEIU members

New Orleans   I know Jay Youngdahl, as an old friend and comrade, dating back to his father, Jim, a legendary labor lawyer, when he introduced us in the early 1970s. Our building on Main Street in Little Rock, and the home of KABF radio and ACORN for years, was once the old Youngdahl law offices. Jay after a typically winding road from the 60’s ended up as a labor and civil rights lawyer as well, based in New Mexico for years, who ended up sometimes thanklessly representing ACORN in some matters, just as his father had done. Jay is more an occasional labor lawyer now for a Laborers’ region, while also publishing and writing a column for the East Bay Express. All of which is a long way of saying that when I noticed that Jay had written a piece for In These Times “Working” bulletin it caught my eye, especially because there was a picture of Andy Stern and the title of the piece was “In the Fantasy Land of Labor Theorists: Andy Stern’s Latest Contribution.”

I know Andy Stern even better than Jay Youngdahl though, having worked with him for more than twenty years when Local 100 was part of SEIU and serving on SEIU International Board when he was president for eight years, and, if anything, would count him normally as an even better friend and comrade. I found myself reading Jay’s piece incredulously. Andy had teamed up with a conservative author to write a piece in the recent number of National Affairs. The essence of their argument, according to Jay, was to “reform” various labor laws by giving the federal government the ability to issue “waivers” to the states similar to what they are able to do for federal health programs and did to wheedle raw red states like Arkansas and others into participating in Obamacare.

Surely, Stern and Eli Lehrer’s argument were much more nuanced than Jay was painting. Surely, Jay was gilding the lily just a bit, given the hardcore Bay Area trepidation on all things Stern since the bitter trusteeship battle over old Local 250, the giant healthcare local in California. Jay makes the point that a transfer of these federal protections and powers, as argued by Stern, to states and local jurisdiction would exacerbate the blue-red state divide, along with a list of other weaknesses in their arguments. I figured I should reserve judgement until I read the original article and considered it carefully. Perhaps this was something run up the flag along the Beltway before the Trump truck crashed through the Washington wall. There must be more to all of this.

And, there was, but it wasn’t necessarily better.

Especially disturbing was the weight in their argument given to the success of state and local efforts to raise the minimum wage. Here Stern and Lehrer were confused about the difference between minimum standards and preemption, in fact arguing that Fair Labor Standards allowed “state preemption,” which is incorrect. The statute does what it says by establishing a minimum standard. Nothing prevents a state in such situations from raising standards, but in a national policy, no state can lower standards below the FLSA thresholds. Red or blue, they are also silent on the fact that such increases have largely been in areas where the majority of voters had the opportunity because of democratic reforms introduced by previous movements through citizen initiative and referendum which undercuts their pretended consensus that “all labor reform” has come at the state level, rather than mostly through popular demand. Much of their admittedly controversial proposals are cast as the ability to “experiment” as well, but there has been nothing stopping many jurisdictions from experimenting by offering procedures or protections for workers exempted from the NLRA or FLSA. California’s farmworker representation regime with its strengths and weaknesses is an example, as is Seattle’s current effort to create representation norms for on-demand or gig employees. The protections provided in law by states in India for example for many categories of informal workers are vastly superior to the silence of US law at every level, and even though nothing has stopped activity, it is certainly not because there is a need for a waiver to start it.

But, no need to pile on. Jay was not picking nits, and little more needs to be said, other than the one question that perplexes me: Why? I think we’re in no danger of seeing such waivers to federal labor protections allowed even in Trump time, so was this just about stirring the pot? Stern can’t really believe the arguments made in his name in this piece, so why would he allow himself to be associated with them? Inarguably, Andy Stern was one of the most dynamic and creative labor leaders of our generation, albeit with strengths and weaknesses, rights and wrongs, as we all have, but even having forsaken his voice as the head of the nation’s largest union, why would he allow himself to be placed in a position where any of his brothers and sisters would be allowed to wonder now, which side is he on?

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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.

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Please enjoy Beck’s Wow. Thanks to KABF.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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