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Working In These Times

Thursday, Dec 20, 2018, 4:09 pm

The 8 Most Important Labor Stories of 2018

BY Rebecca Burns

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McDonald's workers are joined by other activists as they march toward the company's headquarters to protest sexual harassment at the fast food chain's restaurants on September 18, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)  

1. Janus dealt a heavy blow to labor—but public-sector unions didn’t crumble overnight.

In June, the Supreme Court issued its long-awaited ruling in Janus v. AFSCME—and it was just as bad as everyone feared. In a 5-to-4 decision, the court found that public-sector unions violated the First Amendment by collecting so-called fair-share fees from workers who aren’t union members but benefit from collective bargaining regardless.

A report by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute estimated that the resulting “free-rider” problem could eventually lead to the loss of 726,000 public-sector union members nationwide. This diminished strength could result, in turn, in a 3.6 percent decline in public-sector wages.

But the immediate fallout has been less catastrophic than some forecast. Public-sector unions took a hit to their finances, as automatic deductions from non-members ceased. But many are reporting that membership is holding steady, or even increasing. That’s thanks in large part to protective measures enacted in blue states, as well as proactive membership organizing by unions themselves—both of which the Right is attempting to overturn or counter with its own aggressive “opt out” campaigns. While it’s far too early to tell what the long-term impact of Janus will be, the ruling wasn’t the knockout blow that anti-union forces had hoped for.

2. Workers resisted the deportation machine.

This summer, outrage over the Trump administration’s family separation policy sparked mass protests as well as creative new forms of workplace resistance.

In June, hundreds of Microsoft workers signed onto an open letter demanding that the company cancel its $19.4 million contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for processing data and artificial intelligence capabilities.

“As the people who build the technologies that Microsoft profits from, we refuse to be complicit,” read the letter, which was published in The New York Times.

Tech workers weren’t the only ones to take this stand. After flight attendant Hunt Palmquist spotted an ICE agent with five young immigrant children on one of his flights, and confirmed that the children were being transported to a detention center, he pledged to refuse to work any such flights in the future.

 “I have made a decision that if I’m ever assigned to a flight with children who’ve been separated from their families, I will immediately remove myself from the trip due to the nature of this unconscionable act by my government and my employer's complicity,” he wrote in a June editorial in the Houston Chronicle. “I have told my story to many of my flight attendant colleagues and they have pledged to do the same.”

The same week, a number of major airlines, including Palmquist’s employer, issued statements asking the federal government not to use their planes to fly immigrant children separated from their parents.

Both actions had their limitations—Microsoft issued statements opposing Trump’s policies but has yet to cancel its ICE contract, and airlines continue to aid the daily detentions and deportations that take place outside the headlines of family separation. But workers recognizing their role in the deportation machine—and therefore their power to halt it—is a promising development. In some industries, unions have formed new coalitions to fight measures like the cancellation of temporary protected status and promote the message that immigrants' rights are workers’ rights.  

3. Incarcerated people coordinated a nationwide prison strike.

After years of escalating protests by incarcerated people, this fall saw what was probably the largest prison strike in U.S. history. One of the key demands issued by strikers was “an immediate end to prison slavery” and payment of the prevailing wage for all labor performed by prisoners. It’s typical for incarcerated people to be paid as little as $1 an hour, including for dangerous work such as fighting wildfires. In some states, they are paid nothing at all.  

Coordinated with the support of outside groups including the Free Alabama Movement and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, the strike reportedly reached at least 33 facilities in 15 states and lasted for 19 days. Prisoners participated in work stoppages, commissary boycotts and hunger strikes at immense personal risk, and some participants continue to report retaliation months later, according to supporting organizations.

But the strike garnered widespread media attention and lent momentum to one of the strikers’ other key demands: voting rights for ex-prisoners. In November, Floridians voted to restore the vote to 1.4 million people with felony convictions.

4. #MeToo joined forces with the labor movement.

#MeToo was never limited to rich Hollywood actresses, as some bad-faith critiques suggested. The hashtag was originally created by activist Tarana Burke to connect women of color with support and resources for sexual assault, and has also helped shine a light on sexual harassment in low-wage sectors.

But until recently, the movement was generally more focused on public pressure and legal action than on workplace organizing. That changed this fall, when McDonald’s went on what organizers say was the first-ever multi-state strike against sexual harassment. After McDonald’s employees filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission this spring, saying the company was routinely ignoring reports sexual harassment, workers escalated by going on a one-day strike at McDonald’s restaurants in at least 10 cities in September. The actions were backed by both Fight for 15 and Time’s Up, the legal fund launched earlier this year by a group of women in Hollywood.

In November, workers staged a walkout against sexual harassment in another industry rife with it. In a watershed moment for tech, more than 20,000 Google employees worldwide—over 20 percent of the company’s total workforce—walked off the job. The one-day action came in the wake of an article in The New York Times revealing that Google had handed out multi-million dollar exit packages to male executives accused of misconduct while remaining silent about the problem.

Sexual harassment is a problem that cuts across industries, but in all of them, worker power is a key part of the solution.

5. Workers made inroads into unionizing Amazon.

This year, thousands of Amazon workers across Europe went on a three-day strike. Yet despite widespread reports of draconian working conditions in its “fulfillment centers,” Amazon has successfully fended off all attempts at unionization in the United States since the company’s founding in 1994.

That’s why it was so remarkable when, earlier this year, a group of Somali Amazon workers in Minnesota forced the company’s local management to the table to negotiate over working conditions. Agitated by the lack of progress, the workers rallied in the parking lot of one of Amazon’s Minneapolis facilities this month, demanding safe productivity targets, cultural sensitivity for Muslim employees and a fund for affordable housing.

The group organized with the support of the Awood Center, an East African worker center in Minnesota. But now that cracks are showing in Amazon’s anti-union armor, traditional unions are planning to take another shot. Bloomberg reported in December that workers at a recently opened fulfillment center in Staten Island plan to seek recognition with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which is also organizing employees at Amazon-subsidiary Whole Foods.

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum told Bloomberg that the union plans to use the generous subsidies Amazon is receiving for its new HQ2 in New York as a pressure point. “If taxpayers are giving Amazon $3 billion, then taxpayers have the right to demand that Amazon stop being a union-busting company.”

6. Teamsters leadership flouted union democracy at United Parcel Service (UPS).

But in a year when Amazon workers made huge strides, more than 240,000 UPS workers fell behind. UPS is both a provider for and a competitor to Amazon. When the latter, non-union company announced it was bumping employees’ minimum wage to $15 an hour, it added insult to injury for unionized UPS workers who had just been offered a new contract containing a starting pay of $13, with no “catch-up raises” for those who had been underpaid for years.

Incredibly, thanks to a massive “vote no” campaign and a viral YouTube video called “Why the UPS 2018 Contract Sucks!” 54 percent of rank-and-file members voted in October to reject the deal. Even more incredibly, Teamster brass quickly announced that they would ratify it anyway, citing a loophole in the union’s constitution.

As Joe Allen wrote in Jacobin, Teamsters President James Hoffa’s bid to side with the bosses will have far-reaching consequences:

Hoffa’s sabotage at UPS is not only a catastrophe for UPS Teamsters — it is a gift to antiunion forces in the Janus era. If a boss wanted to make up a story to defeat a fledgling union drive — with indifferent union leaders who collect members’ dues, negotiate a contract with a lower starting pay than non-union Amazon, and then flagrantly ignore those workers’ clearly and democratically stated objections to that contract — they couldn’t come up with one as good as what’s just played out between UPS and the Teamsters.

7. Teachers rewrote the rules.

When the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) struck in 2012, the CEO of the powerful UNO charter chain crowed that his schools continued to be open “without interruption.”

Oh, how the tables have turned. The nation’s first-ever charter strike took place in Chicago this December when teachers at 15 schools in the Acero network, the successor to UNO, walked out over stalled contract negotiations.

The strike lasted four days and ended in a resounding victory for the union, which won pay raises for teachers and paraprofessionals, a reduction in class sizes and sanctuary school protections for undocumented students and families.

While the charter strike was a very different kind of action than the teacher rebellions that roiled red states this spring, they have something key in common. In both blue cities and red states, the political class has spent decades diverting funds from public education to private interests, then turning around and crying broke. Teachers delivered a powerful repudiation of that strategy, as well as ongoing attempts to strip them of their power as workers.

The teacher strike wave is still continuing—Los Angeles teachers just set a strike date of January 10, and Indiana teachers have threatened a walkout next year if the legislature fails to address teacher pay.

8. Workers fought the oil and gas industry.

The labor movement remains deeply divided over climate action, with groups like nurses supporting ambitious measures while construction unions and building trades largely remain bitterly opposed.

But this year brought a number of reminders that it’s possible to reframe this debate and confront the fossil fuel industry as a class enemy, as well as an enemy of the planet. In 2018, for example, striking Oklahoma teachers won a tax-hike on oil production to fund public education, and Baton Rouge teachers successfully killed another tax break for Exxon by threatening to strike.

The Green New Deal resolution currently gaining steam provides the best opportunity yet to unite the climate movement and the labor movement, exponentially increasing the power of both. In addition to a “climate jobs guarantee” in the current draft that provides for universal, living-wage jobs, labor could seize the momentum around the popular plan to call for the inclusion of long-sought union recognition and collective bargaining rights. 

There are hopeful signs as the year closes out. Last week, the Service Employees International Union’s Local 32BJ—a powerful property services union with 175,000 members—announced its support for the Green New Deal.

President Hector Figueroa vowed to push other labor leaders to support the measure, telling The Huffington Post, “I fully expect other unions to say, ‘We are behind this’” by early next year.

Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

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