Uber Deal with Machinists is Worrisome

uberNew Orleans   Uber, the ride-sharing service, has announced that it has come to an agreement with the International Association of Machinists (IAM) to create a guild or association of some sorts that it will informally recognize for its drivers in New York City. James Conigliaro Jr., the guild founder and assistant director and general counsel at the International Association of Machinists District 15, which represents workers in the Northeastern US, said, “…we’ve successfully come to agreement with Uber to represent the 35,000 drivers using Uber in New York City to enhance their earning ability and benefits.”

I’m a big advocate of majority unionism and alternative organizing models and techniques, but whatever this is, it doesn’t quite smell right to me. Uber is still maintaining that its drivers are not employees, yet the union is claiming, based on an “agreement” with the company, that it can “represent” all of the workers. The Machinists are also claiming that they can improve their wages and benefits without offering details about how that will happen other than the fact that they now have a five (5), yes five year, agreement that provides for monthly meetings of some bodies with somebody from Uber.

So, if I get this right, a company without workers is signing an agreement on behalf of those workers with a union without members among those workers to create a way to talk about wages, hours and conditions of employment. Except for the fact that everyone has agreed to play-pretend that the drivers are not real Uber employees, under the National Labor Relations Act this would pretty much categorically constitute an 8(a)2 violation or what is known commonly as a “company union.”

Meanwhile, certainly known to the Machinists, more than 5000 real Uber drivers have already signed authorization cards seeking to be represented by the Transport Workers’ Union in New York City. Both the IAM and the TWU are members of the AFL-CIO, so how does this not constitute an Article XX violation of the AFL-CIO’s constitution or what is known commonly as “raiding?” If not raiding, it’s certain interference.

On Uber’s part they already are familiar with direct unionization efforts in Seattle, San Francisco and other cities. Their recent settlement of a class action suit in California was widely seen as an effort to buy time for the company’s effort to continue to pretend that its drivers are not employees, and they agreed in that settlement to also begin meeting in some form or fashion with their drivers on issues as part of the settlement.

All of this also smells a little like the company was union “shopping” for a partner here. The Machinists certainly do a bit of organizing, though that is not their primary reputation. According to NLRB statistics for the five years between 2008 and 2012 they had an excellent win rate and ranked in the top ten, but during that period they only gained 11869 workers in units they won, which isn’t much over 2000 workers per year, if they converted all of them into members, which never happens. Their organizing totals were five times less than the NLRB results for either the Teamsters or the Service Employees and half as many as the Food and Commercial Workers. Meanwhile they have fallen from 730673 members in 2000 to 570,423 in 2013. I’m not saying they won’t try to take this lemon and make lemonade, but when Uber was looking for a partner, Uber would have known the Machinists were “needy” and desperate to grow, one way or another.

When it comes to benefits, still without either talking to the drivers or the Machinists, Uber also announced that it has contracted, yes, contracted, with the so-called Freelancers’ Union in order to see what they can cook up in terms of portable benefits and the like.

It is easy to see that Uber wants, and is getting, huge cover from all of this, but when the workers are on the sideline reading the news in the paper or getting alerts on their smartphones, it seems more like a scam that something substantial for the workers.

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UAW Objections Withdrawal A Sign They Want a Second Shot Soon

UawHouston    Politicians and the in-plant anti-union committee at Volkswagen in Chattanooga were both chortling and celebrating the announcement that the UAW had withdrawn its election objections before the NLRB hearing on the issues raised in its recent, narrow defeat.  They are laughing too soon.  They are actually totally misreading the organizing tactics, and interpreting a tactical withdrawal as a concession, rather than the more accurate understanding that this is a huge signal from the UAW that they are in fact deepening their commitment to keeping the campaign alive for a second shot at an election.

            There are never any future guarantees in organizing about when the time might be right to go another round, but the UAW at the crossroads faced two choices.  One was to fully engage on the legal struggle around their objections and run the clock out for years in back-and-forth appeals.  This is usually the “long game” after an election defeat where basically the union tries to save face institutionally and to maintain other organizing efforts by giving organizers and leaders’ talking points framed on the notion that there’s still a heartbeat, that justice will be done, and hope is a plan.  It’s a sad organizing strategy since even miraculously winning a second election after years would have tended to alienate the workforce, making a better result difficult. 

The other choice, which is bolder organizing, is to immediately get the clock ticking for a second election, and this is clearly what the UAW is doing, signally in truth that they are committed to the campaign and in fact that they like their chances inside the plant and, perhaps as importantly, with Volkswagen.  You can bet that UAW organizers have done extensive work in the last three months to reassess their “yes” votes and gauge the hardness of the “no” votes and whether they can turn them if they can offset the onset of fear and panic before the last vote count.  You can also bet that UAW leaders have had extensive discussions with Volkswagen union leaders in Germany, who have board seats in the company, about how a second election would work and how the company would react.  The signs have obviously been encouraging on both counts.

            The clock works this way.   The election was February 14th.  A second election could be held at the earliest in only nine more months, and the UAW could file as early as mid-January, only eight months away.  With a unit of a couple of thousand, that’s like tomorrow!

            The other reason it is easy to read the UAW’s intentions can be found in their statements upon the withdrawal.  Shrewdly, they withdrew by laying down the gauntlet to the Tennessee governor and local business establishment to hurry up and restore the $300 million in incentives for VW to locate a new SUV line in Chattanooga which would add another 1000 workers to the mix.  This is a win-win for the UAW.  It gets them back into the framework of being a job creator rather than a job threat, which had sunk their first vote.  If the Governor and the union baiters can’t convince VW to add the line, they are losers, bullies, and blowhards, and the UAW doesn’t have that problem on its shoes.  Moving the campaign right now to restore the commitments to add the line also turns the bargaining power from the politicians back to the company and its allies.  The UAW is no company union, but any Tennessee politicians have to know that VW is not going to add 1000 workers in Chattanooga without a behind the scenes commitment that the pols and the local chamber will keep out of its employee relations in the plant.  This time the Governor and the locals may have to decide if they want a 1000 jobs more than they hate the union.  If the line doesn’t get added by VW, then the Governor and the union-haters are defanged in a 2nd election.  If the line does get added, there will categorically be non-interference concessions privately made to the company, the UAW will have publicly been on the right side in advocating for more jobs, and will face a second election, the workers willing, on much, much stronger ground.  And, they will face it with the same workforce on the re-run election, because even if a plant is added, it won’t be ready in nine months or even two years in all likelihood.  None of this is to say that there won’t be bombast from the peanut gallery, but it will be a distant hum in the background in a second election, not in the workers’ faces as they go to vote.

            Does this kill off the other UAW organizing efforts with transplants in Mississippi with Nissan and with Mercedes-Benz in Alabama?  Of course not.  Both of those drives have been multi-year commitments by the UAW already and will continue to be.  Neither from all reports are anywhere near ready to go forward now, so at this point the UAW will try to rebuild its momentum with its battle-tested committee in Chattanooga, who must correctly feel that they weathered the worst the opposition could throw at them and came within 100 votes, have reassessed their yeses and maybes, and are hunkered down for another run at a second election.  Best for the UAW to wait for the momentum to change with a win, and let Mississippi and Alabama continue to toughen up so they can be ready to capitalize on a VW victory.

            There are no guarantees, but all signs indicate the UAW has now made a decision that it is in it to win it for as long as it takes.  Good news for workers in the South and everywhere!

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UAW Lesson: It Takes a Village to Win a Union Election

JP-LABOR-01-master675New Orleans  Ok, I was dead wrong.  I called the union election for the UAW at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as a solid victory for the union, and I could hardly wait to see whether or not this opened up important organizing throughout the South.  Surprisingly, and tragically, when the votes were counted, the UAW had lost by a 90 vote margin.  

            Having a clear majority of card signers in the fall of last year would never have assured an election victory.  The old organizing saying that “cards can’t walk or talk” is always true, and of course, neither under current US law can the cards vote.  In this case it seems clear that the real erosion of the union’s support came not from the opposition inside the auto plant but from the hysterics and catcalls of loud voices among business and political interests in the community and throughout the state.  Potential tax subsidies for any Volkswagen expansion were threatened by legislators.  The governor weighed in that jobs were at stake and the union had to be stopped.  Local business groups, and of course the Koch Brothers, ponied up with billboards and advertisements, making this a political campaign more than a worker election, and all of it added up to enough to sway some “yesses” into the “no” column sufficient to turn the tide against the union.

            This kind of opposition isn’t unheard of for a union election or an organizing drive.  Unquestionably, the mid-90’s drive to organize the Gulf Coast Mariners, one of the few seagoing groups without a union, was beaten in the Louisiana coastal swamps of Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes by virulent opposition, right down to yard signs and homemade plywood billboards dotting the bayous with calls to stop the union.  Certainly, the textile organizing drives throughout the South over the many decades when we still had a robust textile industry were frequently marked by organizing struggles to win the workers and either hold many of  the community forces at bay or convert them for the union.  The company camp kind of industries marked by mineworkers organizing witnessed the same kind of polarization.  Movies from Norma Rae to Matawan make the point vividly, and no matter their weaknesses, they paint clear pictures of the class conflict leeched deeply in the community.

            Chattanooga isn’t a small town in the hollows or off a dirt road, but there are reminders here of work that has to be done, if we are to win with the transplants or any employers in the South, or for that matter anywhere:  it takes a village.  Whether old school or modern methodology, organizing to win must go deep, not shallow, in building community support.  Workers, no matter how big the plant, are not islands separated from their communities, and unless we are willing to organize the communities as thoroughly as the worksites, we just can’t win.  In too many cases the community work is still transactional, not transformative.  Something on the list to be checked off as an “add-on” or extra, rather than as a fundamental that can decide winning or losing.

            Bob King of the UAW is right as rain that this is a setback, but that we can still win in the South.  At the same time this election in Chattanooga has to be a painful reminder that we have to put as much into organizing the community powerfully as we do into organizing the workers who make their living there.  One can’t be done without the other.  Not only does it take a village, but it has to be our village, if we’re going to win.

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Yes Ma’am, The Help, and Housekeeping

New Orleans        I haven’t been able to bring myselfYes Ma'am to see, The Help, a movie ostensibly set in the early 1960’s in Jackson, Mississippi where a young, white writer gives voice to her African-American maid friends during the Civil Rights era.  Fantasy has little appeal for me.  I did go to see the Gary L. Goldman documentary, Yes Ma’am, about housekeepers in New Orleans that was filmed around 1979 and released more than 30 years ago in 1981.  I had moved back to New Orleans in 1978 to direct a pilot project for ACORN to organize domestic workers under the auspices of the Household Workers Organizing Committee so was organizing exactly those workers while Yes Ma’am was being filmed, so could test what was on screen with the reality of my own experience.
Thirty years on the film is embarrassing and somewhat enraging to watch, but nonetheless an invaluable reminder of the elaborate artifice that was constructed in the social fabric that wove race and class together unevenly in the best of times, and particularly poorly in the aftermath of both civil and women’s rights movements with left both sides confused and without a language to explain themselves.  The elaborate pretense that the mistress and master of the house, their children, and the maid were all family was the most perverse and revealing, but having watched it close at hand and done hundreds of home visits with some of those same housekeepers, I can only comment how lucky both sides got off in Yes Ma’am.

Outside of the family dramas that were likely bridged for Goldman by Bethany Bultman, an old family name in New Orleans uptown society, who is now head of the New Orleans Musicians’ Assistance Foundation and a cultural anthropologist, the interviews that hang truest were with a housekeeping “technician,” as she called herself who was part of a small organization begun in 1973.  We had tracked them down in 1978 as well and their finest hour was past them when we met with them.  She looked no more than in her 30’s and talked about the tensions in the job.  Her children were even more articulate as they both acknowledged the relationship their mother had with her employer’s children and the contradictions presented in their own lives by her work.

We heard these stories by the hundreds.  We had assembled a list from early morning leafleting and contact at streetcar and bus stops dropping off domestic workers Uptown and along the Lakefront.  We had also mined Polk’s and the crisscross directory for names of women who self-identified as maids or domestics.  We had a simple issue that triggered the organizing because for the first time domestic workers had gained coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) and had to be paid the minimum wage.  January 1, 1979 was the trigger, and it was obvious that a form of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was being imposed on many of the estimated 5000 domestic workers employed in New Orleans at the time.  Early on the bus stops the workers were doubtful that employers would pay what many of them called the “top wage” which was really the minimum wage.  Talking to the workers we found many were hardly making $1 per hour even if one credited lunch and transportation which were allowable offsets commonly paid and expected.

[It was painful for me to watch one segment of Yes Ma’am where a maid and her “friend” employer started the day with coffee au lait, knowing that it might have been effectively deducted from her wages!  It was disappointing that Yes Ma’am missed the almost the entire boat on wages and livelihood as they focused on the relationships almost exclusively so the fights about social security payments and minimum wages were not part of their shoot, which I obviously regret, even while appreciating what was revealed.]

We were careful to always frame the HWOC as an organizing committee and an association or co-op for household workers and decidedly not a union, since we were so often asked if in fact that is what people were building.  At the first meeting of some 50 domestics the women on the organizing committee elaborately drew the distinction.  The HWOC organized a march in the center of the Lake Terrace neighborhood that attracted more than a 100 people, starting at a park space in the middle of the upper middle class suburb, while every door was leafleted with information demanding compliance with the newly instituted minimum wage of $1.65 per hour.  We ended up suing the IRS for not forcing compliance with the minimum wage and not informing the DOL Wage and Hour Division of tax returns where domestics as having been provided social security payments (also a legal requirement), and settled that well.  There were other highlights that had to do with calling out employers like the Gambino’s of the well known bakery family for paying peonage wages in violation of the FLSA.

Behind the forced cultural conformity there was fire though.  I will never forget a march we did from our office at the time at 628 Baronne Street a couple of blocks away to the DOL’s office in the old post office federal building in Lafayette Square with about 40 or so of the household workers to present the HWOC demands for enforcement of the minimum wage in New Orleans.  In the pre-meeting the ladies had practiced what they would say to the DOL and how they would describe the organization and its aims as an improvement association for housekeepers and so forth.  They marched through the door and demanded to meet whoever was in charge.  The director emerged finally.  I was at the front so could hear the whole exchange.  He asked the spokeswoman who they were and what was going on?
She looked him in the eye and in a loud voice for all assembled to hear announced that, “We are a UNION of domestic workers and we want to be paid what the law requires!”
I learned an organizing lesson that moment that I would never forget, and which all of these movies remind me of vividly, if bizarrely.

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New NLRB Rules: Changing Post-Election Strategy

we-wonNew Orleans One result of the proposed new NLRB election rules, if and when adopted, may require a shift in post-election strategy.

A union will know the results of the election and whether or not the challenged ballots on any unit questions affect the outcome or are aggravations waiting for hearings.  Either way this would mean that the long delays for hearings, decisions, and the potential for appeal to the Board in DC could mean lengthy waits for certification triggering collective bargaining.

Unions may now need to develop strategy and tactics for mounting post-election campaigns to try to do two things.  First to firmly establish the union as a reality in the work, regardless of the NLRB, certification, or bargaining, by electing stewards, defining issues, and taking direct actions on the job around issues and interests, clearly demonstrating concerted, protected activity.  Secondly, the union will have to apply these tactics and others to convince the employer to abandon or negotiate out the unit issues that are slated for hearings in the interest of obviating hearings and accelerating the process to bargaining.  Some of this will be standard operating procedure in settling hearing issues at the 11th hour before the hearing starts, similar to the practice now before representation hearings which are frequently delayed for last minute bargains or caucuses between the parties.

The more the union establishes itself and engages the employer on these issues in “campaign mode,” the more likelihood of a quicker and better settlement.  Too often now post-election work means withdrawing the organizing staff, bringing in the union officers or reps to begin the preparation for collective bargaining and selecting the committee members.   In the new regime with a quick election the campaign strategy should involve a “follow through campaign” of putting the pedal to the metal and pushing the employer to recognize any victory and abandon hearing and unit questions to the union’s interest PDQ…pretty damn quick.

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Mr. President Don’t let Healthcare Coverage be Taken from Healthcare Workers

Obama signes Healthcare Reform Act

Obama signes Healthcare Reform Act

Tegucigalpa Before dawn in Honduras with the birds still loud and the sun still just a rumor, I was writing a petition for Local 100 members (www.unitedlaborunions.org) to be able to get out through our leaders and stewards throughout Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas to demand that President Obama, DHS, Congressional Representatives, Senators and just about anyone who might listen would say no to the industry’s efforts to try and get a waiver from finally providing their workers healthcare under the coming law.  Reading the morning papers on-line, I was amazed at the gall and the bitter irony of healthcare industries trying to deny healthcare workers basic health insurance.

We represent a number of nursing home workers employed by different companies throughout Louisiana and Texas and community home workers providing similar health care support for the developmentally disabled in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas.  These are hard working, caring workers doing the jobs that families cannot do and that companies often pay little for them to do, despite the essential nature of the service.  It has long been an embarrassing blemish in our state and federal reimbursement systems that so much of these industries have been privatized under companies for whom profits are foremost and care is somewhere down the line, and the workforce often amounting to more than half of the care cost is always last on the list.

Reading the article in the Times of the nursing home association and the former governor of Kansas (is it a coincidence that the current head of DHS in DC is also a former governor of Kansas?) and its attempt to get a waiver from the President allowing them to not have to provide the now legally required healthcare for the millions of industry workers who currently provide healthcare but do not enjoy any healthcare themselves, was to put it mildly disgusting and enraging.  The gall!

Workers even in unionized homes such as hours are above minimum wage but still in sight of minimum wages with starting levels only a dollar or two above $7.25 and sometimes as little as $0.50 cents above.  When we first organized facilities in Louisiana almost 30 years ago they were all minimum wage, no vacations, no sick days, no holidays, no nothing, and certainly no health are or pensions.  Now with a union they are above minimum wage by a good number of steps, have regular raises and protections, do have vacations, do have sick days, do have holidays, but still don’t have any health insurance (or where they do have something it is so far out of their reach financially that it is almost an insult to claim it in the contract), and of course pensions courtesy of the Social Security Act.

It is unimaginable that the President or anyone recognizing the plight and paradox of healthcare workers without healthcare would even countenance for a minute giving a waiver, but in these days and times, nothing is certain.  As I write this, we are still writing the petition so we can post and circulate, but don’t hesitate to give a call and/or send a message to the White House and your elected representatives that doggone, don’t approve a waiver:  healthcare workers have to have healthcare, too!

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