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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Jan 1, 2014, 12:54 pm

The 10 Biggest Wins for Labor in 2013

BY Amien Essif

2013 saw an uprising of low-wage workers demanding better pay and workplace rights, like these Fast Food Forward protesters in New York City. (Fast Food Forward on Facebook)  

What marks a good year for labor? Certainly 2012 didn't end well, with union-dense Michigan becoming the latest “right-to-work” state in a blow to workers’ collective bargaining rights. By that measure, 2013 came out ahead: This year, no state legislature passed such a law. (And while Kentucky Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul did try to tack a federal right-to-work amendment onto the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, the bill went forward without it.)

But besides having dodged more right-to-work bullets, did labor have a good year in 2013? Yes, says veteran labor reporter Stephen Franklin, formerly of the Chicago Tribune, in an email to Working In These Times:

It wasn’t one event but a number of events—demonstrations, rallies, press gatherings—that marked an unprecedented surge in organizing at the bottom of the wage ladder in 2013. The drive to organize fast food workers, car washers, retail workers is unparalleled in the last 70 years of the American labor movement, and a testament to workers’ still vital desire to lead better lives despite all the obstacles they face.

In other words, this year saw an upsurgence of low-wage workers fighting for—and at times, advancing—their rights to dignity and justice at their jobs. Workers at airports, fast-food establishments, car washes, Walmarts and college campuses across the country led the charge, testing new tactics in the struggle to win better jobs for low-wage America. Below, we list 10 of the most significant achievements.

10. First Union Contract for Carwasheros Outside of California

QUEENS, N.Y.—On May 28, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), a branch of United Food and Commercial Workers, ratified a contract with Astoria Carwash in Queens, the first contract for car wash workers—also known as carwasheros—in the Northeast. By October, RWDSU had won contracts at five more car washes in New York.

The Astoria contract mandates breaks, a series of pay raises and paid time off for the workers. “For the first time in two-and-a-half years I’ll be taking a vacation,” Alberto Martinez, a carwashero at Astoria, told Working In These Times through a translator. “There are carwasheros in the union that haven’t been able to take a vacation in 20 years, so it’s going to make a big difference for them.”

Tara Martin, director of communications for RWDSU, tells Working In These Times that while the union expects more organizing victories in 2014, it also has a broader to goal: to “change how the industry conducts its business." With the help of community groups Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change, the union has launched a campaign to combat the car wash industry’s notorious practices of wage theft, environmental damage and health-and-safety risks to workers.

9. AFL-CIO Broadens Tent, Commits to Social Justice

LOS ANGELES—Every four years the nation’s largest federation of unions convenes to elect its leaders and to make decisions about its future. But this year, those decisions were bigger than usual. Despite, or perhaps because of, the onslaught of legislation hostile to workers’ collective bargaining rights, the AFL-CIO charted a new direction at its September conference.

The federation declared its intent to advocate for all workers, rather than the unionized few, and to become more involved in broader social justice movements. The AFL-CIO’s re-elected president, Richard Trumka, “expressed hope,” reported David Moberg for In These Times, “that a new working class movement, using tactics and organizational forms both old and new, can reach and include every working person in the country.”

In that spirit, the buzzworthy changes that came out of the Los Angeles included: the election of Bhairavi Desai of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance to the executive council, making her the first representative of a non-union group to serve on the council; the addition of “gender identity” and “gender expression” to a non-discrimination amendment in the federation’s constitution; and a resolution to assist immigrant workers in gaining citizenship and “exercising their workplace rights.” The federation also resolved to fight mass incarceration. The resolution may have signaled a truce between prison reform activists and prison worker unions such as AFSCME, who have clashed in recent years.

The New York Times reported a sense of revitalization at the conference that was “a far cry from the dark, drab, lugubrious scenes found at many union gatherings of the past.”

8. United Airlines Workers Get the Upper Hand in Contract Negotiations; Boeing Workers Follow Suit

NATIONWIDE—United Airlines workers showed exceptional moxie this April when they rejected a concessionary contract from their employer, forcing negotiations into federal mediation. By late October, the workers’ union, the International Association of Machinists (IAM), had reached an agreement with United, winning a more favorable contract for roughly 28,000 baggage handlers, ticket counter and gate workers, and storekeepers. By 2016, workers will see wage gains ranging from 19 to 56 percent.

United Airlines employees weren’t the only workers to throw their collective weight around in contract negotiations in 2013. Assembly-line workers with IAM defied company threats to move a Boeing factory out of the Seattle area—and a frantic push by one Republican state legislator to impose anti-union “right-to-work” legislation in order to keep Boeing put—and rejected a contract that would cut compensation.

Indicative of how much this surprised the greater community, Washington state newspaper The Olympian came out against the proposed right-to-work law not on principle, but out of fear about how the Boeing workers would respond:

If the Machinists are willing to walk away from a contract that most private sector workers would consider generous—average $85,000 wages and excellent health care and pension benefits—imagine what they would do if Boeing allowed nonunion workers onto the assembly line?

7. Thousands-Strong ‘Moral Mondays’ Protests Bridge Labor and Social Justice

RALEIGH, N.C.—And then there was the South. On April 29, a Monday, 17 people were arrested inside the North Carolina legislature as part of a peaceful “pray-in” organized by activists with the NAACP-backed Forward Together Movement, who were angered by voter-ID laws and other right-wing legislation. The initial action by African-American activists inspired a two-month-long series of weekly protests that saw more than 1,000 protesters arrested for civil disobedience. According to Ari Berman of The Nation, Moral Mondays became “a multiracial, multi-issue movement centered around social justice. It’s the kind of thing the South hasn’t seen much of since the 1960s.”

Although the Moral Monday protests began as a civil rights campaign, labor got involved in a truly grassroots fashion. Labor Notes reports that the United Electrical Workers (UEW) Local 150 rallied more local labor groups to the events and by the third Monday, the Black Workers for Justice, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and postal union members were participating. Though the AFL-CIO’s involvement was belated by contrast, the federation finally voted to participate by the eighth week, and at the final demonstration, the North Carolina Association of Educators brought out some 1,000 teachers to protest.

The Moral Monday protests helped to forge ties of solidarity between labor and the larger social justice movement. Rev. William Barber, the president of the North Carolina NAACP and the man behind the first Moral Monday, told the Huffington Post, “The one thing they don’t want to see is us crossing over racial lines and class lines and gender lines and labor lines...When this coalition comes together, you’re going to see a New South.”

6. Striking Florida Walmart Workers Win Raise

HIALEAH, FLA.—The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) –backed worker group Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) staged a number of actions this year—demonstrations, strikes, civil disobedience and, on Black Friday, high-profile protests nationwide—in order to draw attention to Walmart’s low pay, lack of full-time work and illegal retaliation against worker organizing. But perhaps the most significant was the October 17 walkout at a Walmart in Hialeah, Fla.. It wasn’t the largest in numbers, and there were no arrests. But the strike resulted in a win that workers could take to the bank. As Salon reports:

The eighty-some strikers secured concrete victories: full forty-hour schedules for workers who wanted them; a manager transferred; 50 cent raises for workers who had been designated on their evaluations for 40 cents; and payment from Wal-Mart for their hours on strike.

Critics of the one-day strike tactic say that while workers may be embarrassing their employers, they aren’t operating as a collective bargaining unit and therefore aren’t in a position to win their demands. While this may have some truth, the victory in Florida is evidence that the tactic can accomplish both.

5. Labor-Backed Candidates Win City Council Seats

LORAIN COUNTY, OHIO AND SEATTLE, WASH.—In union-dense Lorain County, the local Central Labor Council (a county-level federation of AFL-CIO and other unions) assembled a slate of candidates for the November election and stole the show. Independent union-backed candidates across the county won two dozen seats, according to Labor Notes.

One of them, Lorain City Councilman-elect Joshua Thornsberry, told TheRealNews.com that residents of Lorain “were fed up” with a Democratic Party that had “lost touch with the majority of the voters, lost touch with their base, with the union members, and various groups of people were just fed up and ready to do something about it.”

On the other side of the country, the November elections saw another labor-backed candidate upset the two-party system. The socialist candidate Kshama Sawant won a seat on the Seattle City Council with more than 90,000 votes in her favor. An advocate for low-wage workers, Sawant campaigned on a platform of rent control, a $15 minimum wage, and higher taxes on the wealthy. And she won, becoming the first socialist in decades to be elected to public office in a major U.S. city. Her victory in Seattle, along with the turnabout in Ohio—both of which were made possible by the support of unions—are helping labor to understand how electoral politics can work to the advantage of the larger labor movement.

4. A $15 Wage Floor for Local Workers

SEATAC, WASH..—With the president and Congress failing to deliver on calls for a higher federal minimum wage, some cities and states are doing it themselves. The pluckiest of the lot may be SeaTac, a small town in Washington state named after the Seattle-Tacoma International airport that employs about 6,500 locals. Residents voted in November to raise the wage floor for hospitality and transportation workers to $15 an hour, the highest municipal minimum wage in the country.

A minimum wage of $15 an hour is a “very low bar,” says Heather Weiner, a spokesperson for the Yes for SeaTac campaign, yet it’s what “a family of three needs just to get off federal food stamps.” Despite no formal liaison between the SeaTac campaign and the national Fight for 15 campaign (which wants to raise fast-food workers’ wages to $15 an hour), Weiner says that fast-food workers came out to help canvass in SeaTac—door-knocking, rallying, and even speaking at some of the events. “It’s been great,” she says.

The campaign took a blow this week when a judge struck down the section of the new law applying to airport workers, saying that the town of SeaTac does not have jurisdiction over the airport. Supporters of the law have vowed to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

For the rest of the town’s workers, the $15 minimum will kick in this New Year’s Day. And they’re not the only ones starting the year with a pay raise: 13 state-level minimum wage increases are set to go into effect today. While none of those will reach double digits, the state of California is now on track to become the first in the nation with a $10 minimum wage. The boost was approved this year and will go into effect in 2016.

3. NYU Grad Students Become Only Unionized Student Employees at a Private University (Again)

NEW YORK CITY—On December 11, NYU’s graduate student workers voted 620 to 10 in favor of union representation, becoming—or rather, reclaiming the title of—the only private university with a unionized graduate workforce.

They unionized for the first time in 2000, only to be decertified in 2005 by the National Labor Relations Board, which argued that the students’ relationship to their university was educational, not economic—despite their employment as teaching and research assistants, among other positions. Organizers at NYU are saying that they’ve now soundly refuted that argument.

Graduate students at New York University are calling their union a victory over “the corporate vision of the university.” Christy Thornton, a graduate worker in the history department at NYU, wrote in an op-ed for Al Jazeera:

There has been a vast restructuring of higher education in the past few decades, as universities have come to be run increasingly like corporations... [which] has brought about many important changes — an enormous expansion in the number of highly paid executive administrators; a greater focus on revenue generation, with some colleges deciding to cut departments like history and English, which are deemed unprofitable; an increasing reliance on part-time adjunct faculty, whose meager pay and lack of benefits have driven some to public assistance; and most important for students and their families, massive increases in tuition and student debt.

Thornton believes that the vote to unionize at NYU “offers a decisive rebuke” to the corporate business model at U.S. universities and is already serving as an inspiration to campus organizers around the country.

NYU wasn’t the only university this year to see students, faculty and staff push back against the corporatization of American higher education. Professors and other academic employees at the University of Oregon overwhelmingly approved a first contract in October; faculty at the University of Illinois-Chicago voted in early December to strike if current negotiations with the administration fail; and the American Federation of Teachers has an effort underway to organize Philadelphia-area adjunct professors before the 2014-2015 school year.

Gary Rhoades, a professor at the University of Arizona, writes on CNN.com that “adjunct professors, as part of a growing army of working poor, are at the center of the academic labor movement, just as fast-food workers are now at the center of the larger labor movement.”

2. Fight for 15’s Strikes Catch Fire

NATIONWIDE—The Fight for 15 campaign to organize fast-food and other low-wage workers for a $15-dollar–an-hour minimum wage hasn’t won much ground by traditional labor standards. No shops have won a union contract, and only a small number of stores have been forced to close as a result of the campaign’s strikes. Nevertheless, the series of one-day wildcat strikes and supporting demonstrations that flared up from Chicago’s Magnificent Mile to Manhattan to Tampa, Fla., may very well be the most important display of workers’ power yet in a sector that has, traditionally, been considered near-impossible to unionize.

Fight for 15’s greatest achievements in 2013 should be measured in vitality rather than material gains. When national organizers planned an August 29 action in 35 cities, another 23 cities ended up participating. This kind of unanticipated growth in popular support—despite an underdeveloped base of worker-generated initiatives—is at the heart of the movement.

The “flash” or one-day strike by non-union employees, which Time magazine heralded as the “new labor weapon of last resort,” is the trademark of Fight for 15 and was employed in coordinated actions on December 5 in more than 100 U.S. cities, according to organizers, temporarily shutting down several fast-food establishments.

Backed by SEIU—one of the nation’s largest unions—Fight for 15 has faced criticism for top-down organizing with a focus on publicity rather than unionizing. But Chicago Whole Foods worker and organizer Trish Kahle argues in Jacobin that cynicism is unwarranted:

Certainly, there is a PR aspect of the movement, but to write off the campaign because of this is too cynical. The aggressive media campaign has spread the campaign to places where staff organizers have never set foot, including rural areas and the South. ...

Is this a worker-run campaign that workers have conceptualized and carried out entirely by themselves? Not yet. But workers are being transformed into union leaders for the first time by participating in this movement.

1. Obama’s wealth inequality speech

WASHINGTON, D.C.—No, President Obama himself hasn’t earned a spot in the top ten. It was his December 4 speech (on the eve of planned fast-food worker strikes), in which he called economic inequality the “defining challenge of our times,” that was significant; or rather, what it says about the outrage of low-wage America. After five years of mostly skirting the issue, Obama was uncharacteristically to the point. “The opportunity gap in American now is as much about class as it is about race,” said Obama, “and that gap is growing.”

The speech struck some as belated. Heidi Moore of The Guardian remarked:

This speech is the Obama economic mission statement that the White House would have been smart to roll out years ago. President Obama has given a lot of economic speeches, but they’ve been lackluster for the most part—slicing and dicing the various issues like manufacturing, opportunity, the middle class, and always whining, whining whining about Republicans and how they’re thwarting him.

What makes this speech a departure: It allowed the president to stop complaining about politics—which no one outside Washington really wants to hear about—and make clear connections among the dismal economic metrics on growth, wages, race and opportunity.

Regardless of its timeliness, the speech signals that this year’s mobilization of low-wage workers from Walmart to McDonald's has reached a mainstream audience with its grievances, giving the president cause to cite the struggles of fast-food and retail workers, specifically, and to call for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. It is the workers and organizers, however, who deserve credit for making the speech a politically viable move for Obama.

Full disclosure: AFSCME and IAM are website sponsors of In These Times.

Amien Essif is a regular contributor to Working In These Times and maintains a blog called The Gazine, which focuses on consumerism, gentrification, and technology with a Luddite bent. His work has also appeared on the Guardian and CounterPunch. You can find him using Twitter reluctantly: @AmienChicago

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