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.

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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.

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Mobilizing Home Care Workers for Higher Wages

10622925_10152156814975736_772016087576101767_nNew Orleans   Just maybe the publicity campaigns of the $15 per hour efforts by fast food and other workers are about to get serious.

Steven Greenhouse in the Times reported that SEIU is claiming that “thousands” of the several hundred thousand home health care workers represented by the union are preparing to join upcoming actions and participate in civil disobedience along with fast fooders in advancing their claims.   In and of itself this announcement doesn’t move the needle on the campaign, but what it does indicate is that the campaign might finally become very real if organizers and leaders are willing to broadly mobilize the half-million or more homecare workers under union contracts from Illinois to California, New York to Washington State and many places in between.

The unionization of these informal, precarious workers over the last thirty years has been the single crowning organizing achievement of our generation of labor organizers.  The advances these workers have achieved have been significant, going from minimum wage – or less – to better wages and finally benefits and real protections.  At the same time the gnawing problem for unionized homecare workers continues to be their relatively low wages, partially because of the complicated matching requirements of state and federal reimbursement dollars bumping up against the impacts of the Great Recession on state budgets across the country.

A major national campaign by SEIU, AFSCME, and other unions representing homecare workers willing to move contract wages across the country to $15 per hour would be huge both within the unions and in changing the way the American public sees the legitimacy of the demand.  Campaigners have done a good job of moving some of the perceptions of fast food workers from a picture of entry level teen jobs to a recognition that many older workers with families are now supporting themselves by asking if you want fries with that.  With homecare workers there is no confusion.  These are inordinately African-American, Latino, and new immigrant women hanging onto the only job many find available and doing the thankless, but vital, tasks of caring for elderly and other clients in their homes.  People may like a big Mac or a Whooper, but they love their homecare workers and depend on them for life-and-death care for their loved ones.

Real actions of homecare workers on the issue of their wages changes everything about $15 per hour.  What was fanciful, becomes real for them.  For the unions though there are risks.  Greenhouse reports grousing within SEIU that leadership have spent millions trying to see a new jurisdiction in fast food, when their own members are low paid.  Wrong whine, but fair complaint.  SEIU – and other unions – need to invest significantly in organizing new jurisdictions. And, the emperors have to wear real clothes. Recently, NYU Professor Ruth Milkman’s painful comments on the fast food campaign flatly stated that, “While that’s a very visible campaign, they have yet to organize.” Ouch, even though her words had the ring of truth.

For homecare workers and even many janitors and security workers, all of which are the heart blood of SEIU, a real fight to get $15 per hour on the job under all of their agreements would upset the symbiotic relationships with politicians, employers, and legislators that often has been the key to winning the organizing rights and the contracts in the first place.  If this first step by thousands of homecare workers triggers real movement and a real campaign among the half-million union members for higher wages finally, that’s not only a real campaign and real organizing, but finally we could have a gamechanger in moving lower waged workers up to something approaching a living wage.

 

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The Co-Employer Fight at McDonald’s Searches for an Employer and a Strategy

protest at McDonald's headquarters in Oak Park

protest at McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Park

New Orleans       More than a thousand fast food workers rallied at a convention center near O’Hare Airport in Chicago in a boisterous, morale boosting event sponsored by the Service Employees International Union in the on-going campaign for a living wage. More interesting is the ongoing effort by the union to define the employer for many of these workers, determine whether there is a co-employer status between the parent companies and franchisees, and puzzle out a real organizing strategy across thousands and thousands of different locations.

Having been there and done this before, let’s start with the obvious. It is incredibly difficult to win a co-employer case before the NLRB! Some years ago Local 100   had Waste Management, the garbage company, by the short hairs as a joint employer employing the “hoppers” or manual laborers working the business end of the truck loading the garbage into the hopper and recruited and paid by their subcontractor on a cost-plus agreement. We endured a lengthy and expensive hearing and had the company cold, but we were missing a “smoking gun,” which we later found incidentally, that would have established the co-employer status in correspondence on company letterhead, so we narrowly lost, took the election and won, rather than going through another five or six years of court appeals.

SEIU had success with this legal strategy several decades ago at the dawn of the Justice for Janitors campaign when they won a ruling in a Pittsburgh building service campaign that the building owner was a co-employer with the cleaning subcontractor, allowing the union to pressure the owner to settle a contract on more favorable terms, since they had the power in the contracting relationship. That NLRB decision was a shot heard across the property service industry, and higher and stronger walls were immediately built in markets throughout the country between ownership and their janitorial subcontractors, making it virtually impossible to win similar decisions, though still allowing the union to target ownership and large contractors more successfully in winning campaigns to organize janitors in other cities. I should quickly add that this does not make that campaign a model for fast food, no matter how many superficial similarities, since cleaning and labor costs are a minimal part of a building’s expense, but are the most significant part of a restaurant’s expense.

McDonald’s runs about 19% of its locations, somewhere over 6000 stores as corporate locations, while almost 30000 are franchised. More than 850,000 workers of the 1.7 million worldwide are employed in the USA by the company. Other fastfood operations are similarly organized. Yum, the operator for Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut is about 25% corporate, while Burger King is only about 8% corporate. Pushing operations over to franchisees has been the increasing trend for all of these companies in recent years. When the United Labor Unions organized fastfood workers in Detroit in the early 1980s under the NLRB with organizers, Danny Cantor, Keith Kelleher, and Mark Splain, driving the program, we were constantly tripping over the problem of which stores were corporate and which franchise, as we filed representation petitions with all of these companies. It was a nightmare!

SEIU and its allies have appealed to the NLRB Division of Advice and the General Counsel for a determination on whether or not the McDonald’s Corporation is a co-employer with its thousands of franchisees and arguing that they are. Reporters seem to believe that a decision is imminent. They must have very good inside sources, because there is no time limit on how long the Division of Advice can chew on a case, and it can as easily take years as months, and the lawyers that do the looking for the General Counsel are not political appointees.

Nonetheless, Steven Greenhouse, the labor reporter for the New York Times speculates that “if the labor board agrees, that would open the door for the SEIU to try to unionize not just three or five McDonald’s at a time, but dozens and perhaps hundreds.” I doubt it. If they wanted to move that way, they already could have done so since in major markets franchisees already own dozens and in some cases scores of locations in places like Houston, as does the corporation. Organizing under the NLRB would mean an additional fight on unit determination, as we often found to our peril, since such ownership patterns could lead to “an appropriate unit” being defined as every store in a geographical area owned by an individual franchisee or by the parent corporation. Furthermore, if the NLRB did advise that there was a potential joint employer status, an army of corporate and franchise lawyers would be revising the contracts and operating agreements at all hours of the day and night to build higher, stronger walls between the parties to prevent such a definition at the point an actual representation petition might be filed. And, then once it were filed, start the clock ticketing on the six or seven years to get the issue to the US Supreme Court.

This is a great SEIU tactic to give a hard poke to the company’s eye and try to pry open another front in its campaign, but as an organizing strategy winning or losing the co-employer case is not a game changer for actually unionizing the workers, , nor does it provide enough leverage to cause the companies to change their willingness to be neutral towards unionization. 

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Unions Pushing Up Wages from Below

4KbHa.St.81Little Rock   I’m not sure whether it’s a backstory, a footnote, or just good organizers grabbing a handle and moving fast and hard with it, but under, over, and around the new push to $10.10, rather than $15.00 per hour, is some good, solid, and exciting union organizing of contract workers in federal facilities around Washington, D.C. and contract workers for LaGuardia, Kennedy, and other facilities under the control of the New York / New Jersey Port Authority.

            After a year of campaigning with protests, rallies, and civil disobedience among contract workers at the airports, led by SEIU building services local union giant, 32 BJ, a letter was made public from the Port Authority ordering big airlines Jet Blue, Delta, United, and American to raise wages by a minimum of $1.00 per hour, eventually making it to $10.10 per hour in line with the new push for the federal minimum.  For good measure they also won retroactive pay for Martin Luther King’s birthday as a holiday.   Given the fact that President Obama’s push in the State of the Union address for progress on raising the minimum wage up to that level was essentially greeted by Republicans in Congress with Bronx cheers and wet rags, seeing unions exert this kind of leadership for the unorganized is critical, and of course it goes without saying that these same contract workers will not miss the message that they might be in a much better place in the future by actually joining 32BJ and going union all the way.

            Ditto for the work by labor federation, Change to Win, in coordinating organizing of federal contract workers in the DC area who have been demonstrating and, yes, striking, for wages for federal contract workers.  I had missed this item on the eve of the President’s address but when I saw a “like” on my blog posted on Facebook by C2W’s Bob Callahan, I took a second to see what Bob was up to, and all over his pages were DC-area stories I had missed of actions by federal contract workers for a $10.10 minimum, including, most importantly, an action with arrests of more than 30 workers, making the demand that Obama make the executive order move on an across the board increase in the State of the Union speech.  Cause and effect?  Maybe yes, maybe no, but as importantly, unions were creating the pressure and the push that makes it easier for such actions to take place.

            Importantly, full recognition that in this era of our weakness, we have to sometimes prove our merit and mettle to unorganized workers and even show them that we can deliver before they are paying dues and under contract, is an important tactical shift that could make a difference for many for much to come in the future.  Change doesn’t come in a vacuum, so props to organized labor for using real worker power to push for power, not just publicity.  

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The Low Percentage Odds for Short-term Victory for Fast Food Workers

Fast-Food-Workers-Strike1New Orleans   In a somewhat perplexing article by Arun Gupta on fast food workers organizing featured in the December issue of In These Times, once the reader was able to get past the obvious, his feinted surprise, and anonymous ex-organizer interviews about recent fast food worker organizing (that these are publicity strikes, that they are financed by SEIU, that community organizations originally part of ACORN are doing the work, and that these are not grassroots, spontaneous worker eruptions), there was an interesting recitation of the SEIU strategy for the “endgame” or next steps in the organizing.

            There were three pieces articulated:  (1) break down the wall between a parent corporation and its individual franchisees, which means essentially proving for the purposes of labor law that they are co-employers; (2) try to ratchet up the liability of “wage theft” proceedings which can multiply the damages, particularly under DOL rules if able to prove that the breach was willful and deliberate, and use these claims as leverage to negotiate “neutrality agreements” for organizing, and (3) try to exert international pressure on global fast-food chains to provide additional leverage in the US for worker unionization.

            Categorically, regardless of the merits of the organizing or the validity of the strategy, SEIU deserves unanimous applause, which was certainly not the tenor of the Gupta piece, for being willing to put their dues dollars, organizing talent, and institutional prestige behind organizing millions of underpaid, low wage fast-food workers.  This shouldn’t be a left-handed compliment or one-hand clapping, this should be a full-throated, standing ovation for SEIU once again stepping up to the obvious demand of workers for a plan and responsibility of the labor movement to organize the unorganized.   Hip-hip-hooray!

            What was unspoken and almost snarky in the piece is that the real investment by SEIU was less strategic than a search for worker “heat.”  There’s no way to read the strategy and not understand that what SEIU was willing to do, and it was laudatory, was essentially to “throw it up against the wall and see if anything would stick.”   The unnamed SEIU official quoted in the piece as saying that, “Definitely over the next two years we’re going to have to take a look at this and see where we’re going” was also speaking plainly that not even SEIU can afford to keep pouring in millions if there’s not enough “heat” by workers on the near term, because everything about the articulated strategy is long term, perhaps measured in decades, if the union is really serious, and is more an “exit” strategy for keeping the campaign going with lawyers and allies, than something with a serious expectation of victory anytime soon.

            There are cases before the Supreme Court now that challenge “neutrality” agreements by HERE and indirectly challenge the co-employer status of home care workers between the state and clients for homecare workers in Illinois.  The McDonalds and other fast-food corporations have a legion of lawyers and have survived decades of commercial law challenges that try to parse the distinction between parent and franchise holder and the big boys have won.  Going through the NLRB to prove co-employer status would be a more likely route, but winning those cases, though achieved in homecare, is notoriously difficult and would not finally be decided for years, even if successful at every step until it also survived a Supreme Court challenge.  The same would have to be said about proving deliberate intent on wage theft cases under the DOL rules.  It would take years of winning smaller decisions, dodging whether or not the infractions were committed by franchisees or based on corporate policy, and then finally surviving all of the court challenges to prove the case.  International pressure isn’t an easy fix either, given the very limited organizational success in organizing fast-food globally and the hard problems Sodexho created for that strategy as well.

Not that all of this isn’t possible.   This was also part of the strategy and tactics behind victories in homecare, but it ignores how low the odds of success are, how difficult to thread the needle, and the stark historical differences, including the reality that private sector home-care is still virtually unorganized, compared to our success with public forms of homecare.

Nonetheless this is work that needs to be done, requires long term commitment, and patient investment, and let’s hope SEIU and the labor movement as a whole understands that that is what is needed here not just more publicity about a few workers stepping out in various cities.   The fire is coming, but it may take a while to kindle.           

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