Working In These Times

Thursday, Nov 5, 2015, 12:06 pm  ·  By Mario Vasquez

Labor For Bernie Sanders Activists Say They Are Undeterred By Union Endorsements of Hillary Clinton

(Brookings Institute / Flickr)  

The grassroots network for union members aiming to secure labor endorsements for Senator Bernie Sanders, Labor for Bernie, held a conference call to an audience of 1,600 people on Wednesday night.

This is the first Labor for Bernie conference call since early September, when prepared remarks made by Sen. Sanders garnered 26,000 listeners as their candidate outlined his pro-worker platform. Since that call, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest and third-largest unions in the country, respectively, have endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Call host Rand Wilson, a Labor for Bernie volunteer who is also the communications director for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 888, mentioned this in the call.

“Some people on tonight’s call know that your union may have already made the endorsement for the other candidate,” says Wilson. “But regardless of any endorsement, the most important work right now is to keep building support for Sanders in your union at the local level.” Recently, numerous locals in the first-primary state of New Hampshire have endorsed Sanders, taking heed to what Wilson describes because of the candidates’ long history of pro-labor action.


Wednesday, Nov 4, 2015, 4:34 pm  ·  By Shaun Richman

The Promise and the Peril of Members-Only Unions

At a time when unions are increasingly under threat, some bold experimentation could be the right step forward. But we should understand that that experimentation will be risky. (vintspiration / Flickr)  

Unions have taken some hard hits in recent years, with even greater existential threats on the horizon. Labor must consider alternative forms of organization if they want to survive. But unions should watch out for unintended consequences of those new forms of organizing.

In their report for the Century Foundation, Moshe Marvit and Leigh Anne Schriever highlight case studies in “members-only” organizing, where unions cannot reach majority status for legal certification but maintain a workplace organization made up of a minority of workers that presses issue campaigns against the boss. Charles J. Morris, in his 2005 book The Blue Eagle at Work, reminds us that in its first few years, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) used to certify minority unions as the bargaining agent for that union’s members only, and that such a mechanism still exists (although the modern Board has dodged efforts to get a ruling to respond to Morris’ assertion). Some unions in “right to work” states are contemplating “members-only” certifications as a solution to the “free rider” problem, that workers can choose to opt out of joining (and paying dues to) a union, but the union is still legally compelled to represent them. “You want the contract? Join the union,” goes the simplistic (albeit attractive) logic.


Wednesday, Nov 4, 2015, 4:25 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

Oxfam Calls Out ‘Big Chicken’ for Rampant Labor Abuses

Tyson Foods raised its workers' pay in advance of the Oxfam campaign's launch. (Redfishingboat (Mick O) / Flickr)  

One of the world’s most prominent hunger-fighting organizations has launched a publicity campaign aimed at improving wages and workplace safety in U.S. chicken processing plants.

Oxfam kicked off the campaign with a report released October 26 that details substandard wages and benefits, unsafe working conditions, and a culture of hostility to labor rights for the estimated 250,000 workers employed in chicken plants. Titled “Lives on the Line: The Human Cost of Cheap Chicken,” the report was produced in consultation with the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, National Council of La Raza, the Southern Poverty Law Center and worker centers such as the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center. 

Minor Sinclair, director of Oxfam America's domestic program, believes the strategy has already had an impact. Three days before the report's release, the country’s largest poultry company, Tyson Foods—which knew the report was coming—announced it would be raising the base wage to $10 (from $8 or $9) at some of its chicken plants.


Wednesday, Oct 28, 2015, 4:24 pm  ·  By Jeff Smith

Michigan Transit Workers Fight To Prevent City Bus System From Eliminating Their Pensions


In recent years, Grand Rapids, Michigan has gained a reputation as a leader in environmental sustainability, with numerous LEED-certified buildings, an increased number of bicycle paths and an improved public bus system with new routes and more frequent stops after voters approved a recent transit millage.

In 2013, Grand Rapids was named the city with the best mid-size transportation system in the country, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Last year, The Rapid, as the city’s bus system is known, finished an upgraded bus garage facility that also garnered LEED certification status.

Pretty impressive. But for the drivers behind the wheel of this top-of-the-line fleet, not all is well: Grand Rapids bus drivers are without a signed union contract, because city officials want to cut their pension funds. One Rapid board member has called the current pension system a “terrible plan” and claims the board wants to “do better” for drivers, the board claims the pension fund is $2.6 million in the red. The drivers disagree.


Wednesday, Oct 28, 2015, 11:53 am  ·  By Moshe Z. Marvit

In the Midst of Union Battle, Duquesne University Just Laid Off All but One of Its English Adjuncts

(Dan O'Neil / Flickr)  

This week, the adjunct professors at Duquesne University’s English Department received some unexpected news: there would be no classes for them. As a result, all but one of them will not be returning after they file this semester’s grades in six weeks. The one adjunct remaining will have one class, and he was only allowed to keep his class because he is involved with a freshman program called “learning communities.”

The adjunct faculty at the College of Liberal Arts at Duquesne University have been seeking recognition of their union since they voted for the United Steelworkers in the summer of 2012. (Full disclosure: I am an adjunct at the Duquesne University School of Law, which is not part of the bargaining unit.) After initially signing an election stipulation and agreeing to abide by the outcomes of the NLRB election, Duquesne University quickly and inexplicably changed tacks. 


Wednesday, Oct 28, 2015, 6:06 am  ·  By Brian Joseph

Heavy-Spending Trucking Industry Pushes Congress to Relax Safety Rules for Drivers

(Raymond Clarke / Flickr)  

This story first appeared at FairWarning.

Big rig crashes kill nearly 4,000 Americans each year and injure more than 85,000. Since 2009, fatalities involving large trucks have increased 17 percent. Injuries have gone up 28 percent.

Given these numbers, you might expect Congress to be agitating for tighter controls on big rigs. In fact, many members are pushing for the opposite—looser restrictions on the trucking industry and its drivers.

The proposals represent a wish list of the trucking industry, including allowing significantly longer and heavier trucks, and younger drivers. The industry spends heavily on lobbying and campaign contributions, giving largely to Republicans, who control both the House and Senate.


Tuesday, Oct 27, 2015, 12:36 pm  ·  By Ethan Corey

Connecting the Dots Between the “Identity Politics” of Black Lives Matter and Class Politics

(Chris Wieland / Flickr)  

“We like to think of class as the empirical, tangible idea behind everything else. You know, there’s race, gender, sexuality, and all the other social differences that we sometimes derisively refer to as ‘identity politics,’ but class is the real thing” said Jelani Cobb, Director of Africana Studies at the University of Connecticut and moderator of “Black Lives Matter/Fight for $15: A New Social Movement,” held October 19 at the CUNY Murphy Institute for Worker Education and co-sponsored by the Sidney Hillman Foundation. 

Cobb, who was joined by #BlackLivesMatter co-creator Alicia Garza and Fight4$15 organizing director Kendall Fells, continued, “But if we look at this narrative and the history of labor, we find ‘identity politics’ popping up again and again. My mother was a domestic worker. Under the [1935 Social Security Act], she was ineligible for benefits, a concession to Southern Democrats. For her, these questions were not abstract. Her exploitation as a woman, her exploitation as a black person, and her exploitation as a worker were intricately connected and woven together.”

The question of the relative importance of class versus other markers of identity, such as race, gender or sexuality, has often divided the Left throughout its history, but on this chilly October morning, all three speakers were in agreement: The problems facing black people in America are inseparable from the question of class and exploitation and vice versa.


Tuesday, Oct 27, 2015, 11:33 am  ·  By Justin Miller

In Minneapolis, a Strong ‘Fair Scheduling’ Law for Workers Runs Into a Corporate Roadblock

Activists say progressive mayor Betsy Hodges has caved to corporate opposition to the law. (Mark Peterson / Flickr)  

Less than a year after San Francisco passed a first-of-its-kind fair scheduling ordinance for retail employers, progressive activists in Minneapolis began pushing for an even stronger scheduling ordinance of their own—along with paid sick leave, wage theft protections, and the possibility of a $15 minimum wage. 

But the campaign, dubbed the Working Families Agenda, ran into a roadblock earlier this month when its most powerful political ally, Mayor Betsy Hodges, decided to abandon the fair scheduling component. Language in the proposed ordinance called for scheduling notice of at least two weeks in advance and extra “predictability pay” for workers who were scheduled after that threshold. 


Tuesday, Oct 27, 2015, 11:09 am  ·  By Lauren Gurley

Teach Classes in the Morning, Drive Uber at Night: Why Chicago Adjuncts Are Demanding a Union

Chicago adjuncts march in the Fight for $15 rally on April 15, 2015.   (Faculty Forward Chicago)

In 2008, when Wanda Evans-Brewer—still in the throes of her graduate work—was offered an adjunct position at Concordia University in Chicago, she took it as an auspicious sign for her future as an academic. She thought she had earned the respect of her professors at Concordia and was on the fast track to a full-time tenured professorship. 

But now, at 48, Evans-Brewer is still part of the contingent faculty at Concordia University, where she’s lucky if she’s offered two or three courses per semester. Concordia pays a meager $2,700 per course, which pans out to about $2,300 after taxes—putting Evans-Brewer, and likely many other adjuncts at Concordia, at the poverty line. This fall Evans-Brewer was allotted one class—qualifying her for an Illinois LINK card and Medicaid. She says she has had to supplement her income as a part-time Uber driver. 


Friday, Oct 23, 2015, 11:34 am  ·  By Robert Zaretsky

The Complicated Story Behind Those Images of Terrified Air France Executives Fleeing Workers

An Air France executive, his shirt in tatters, escapes a group of angry workers earlier this month. (Euro News / YouTube)  

“A picture has held us captive. And we cannot get outside it, for it lay in our language about France and it has been repeated inexorably.”

Well, this is not what Ludwig Wittgenstein precisely said. Nor did the 20th century’s most enigmatic philosopher have in mind the photos of shirtless Air France executives scrambling up a fence to escape an irate crowd of employees earlier this month. Nevertheless, his observation about the power of images is du jour. While they will not be turned into key chains or postcards, these images have become emblematic of a certain idea of France and French working class militancy in the minds of many around the world.

And yet, the undeniable violence of this event obscures a different form of violence. It is a kind of violence less striking and more resistant to being struck as an image, but equally grim and despairing: the slow, incremental, and deadening violence done to workers whose livelihoods are under constant threat, whose options are increasingly limited and whose traditional parties seem either incapable or unable to help.