10 Years of Working In These Times: The 25 Best Stories

Jessica Stites

Milwaukee low-wage workers on strike in September 2014. (Wisconsin Jobs Now / Flickr)

This month marks the tenth anniversary of Working In These Times. When I became its editor, in 2012, the site had just turned three.

Founded in July 2009 as a daily labor blog,” WITT had already become much more, providing full-length, original reporting on each and every major labor story of the day.

We had a void to fill. With the exception of Steven Greenhouse at the New York Times, major newspapers lacked a single reporter dedicated to labor (and most still do). When they deigned to cover labor at all, mainstream outlets published management-slanted pieces in their business sections.

Working In These Times boasted a fleet of top-notch reporters: some casualties of downsized U.S. newsrooms whom we’d lucked out to inherit, some young journalists just cutting their teeth, and David Moberg, a veteran In These Times reporter who had been pounding the picket lines since the magazine’s founding in 1976.

Those reporters — David, Stephen Franklin, Kari Lydersen, Michelle Chen, Sarah Jaffe, Josh Eidelson and many more — taught me the principles of labor reporting: Cheerlead the labor movement and the power of unions, while keeping a critical distance so as to inform labor strategy. Talk to the rank and file. Make sure workers understand the risks they’re taking when speaking out about workplace conditions. Don’t twist their arms to get the story.”

And the golden rule: Report from the workers’ perspective, not the bosses’.

Reading through the more than 4,500 articles we’ve posted in 10 years of Working In These Times, what I noticed most is the variety of workers you meet. Coal miners, transit workers, teachers and domestic workers: the working people who rarely get a forum to tell their stories.

What struck me, too, was how dogged labor’s fights are — and how long they’ve lasted. Hotel workers spoke out about sexual harassment years before the #MeToo movement erupted. The Chicago teachers walkout in 2012 helped lay the groundwork for the teachers strike wave that took the country by storm in 2018. Fight for $15 protesters demonstrated for years before $15 minimum wage ordinances were won in cities across the country (and the position became de rigueur for Democrats seeking office). Domestic workers came together in New York nine years before the first national Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was introduced, just last week.

In the stories below, which chronicle the iconic labor battles of the last 10 years, you’ll meet the workers who formed the backbone of those fights and many more.

1. Labor Advocates, Unions Split Over Single Payer”

July 292009

By David Moberg

In 2009, labor faced a tough decision about healthcare reform: Support the Democrats’ public option” compromise, or hold out for John Conyers’ and Bernie Sanders’ single-payer bill?

560 labor organizations, including 39 state federations and 130 central labor councils, have now endorsed the Medicare-for-all bill introduced by Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers. (The bill is formerly called The United States National Health Insurance Act; a parallel Senate bill was introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I‑Vt.) While a few unions are pushing for single-payer — most forcefully the California Nurses Association (CNA) — and others have formally endorsed the idea, nearly all are promoting some variant of the Congressional Democratic proposals.

… Mark Dudzic, organizer for the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Healthcare, a coalition formed last winter, said that the decision still has to be made whether these [Democratic] bills are something we don’t want to stand in the way of or they’re so horrible for working people we have to oppose them.” Dudzic doesn’t want to be accused of blocking reform, but he worries that a bad plan with a weak public option could end up discrediting the public role in healthcare. It’s a set-up for failure,” he says. 

The rest is history: Obamacare passed, and the fight for single-payer continues. Members of National Nurses United, cofounded by the CNA, are currently out knocking doors to build support for Medicare for All.

2. Farmworkers March Across Florida for Freedom, Fair Wages”

April 192010

By Kari Lydersen

The Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ campaign for fair tomato picking conditions was perhaps the most successful public shaming of corporations since the United Farm Workers’ grape boycotts. As Lydersen wrote, the coalition had notched a decade of victories, getting Taco Bell, Burger King, McDonald’s, Subway, Whole Foods and Aramark to sign agreements to buy only fair-trade tomatoes. But in 2010, the campaign had been somewhat stymied by the powerful Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which had threatened to fine its members tens of thousands of dollars for raising pay.”

The CIW stepped up the fight with a three-day march across the state of Florida:

Worker Francisco Figaroa, a 27-year-old migrant from Oaxaca, Mexico, who has three kids here, laid down on an asphalt path in Sulphur Springs Park halfway through the march Friday as others crowded onto a bridge to watch a manatee feeding or ate oranges in the shade. He picks tomatoes in the late summer and fall in Immokalee and then does landscape work (“yardas”) in Naples during the off-season. He described skin problems from the herbicides used on tomatoes. 

The march built solidarity for the CIW:

As the marchers — wearing green t‑shirts, carrying cardboard tomato bushel baskets and playing pre-Colombian instruments — wound through the streets of diverse, working class Tampa neighborhoods and suburbs, drivers honked in solidarity, bystanders gave thumbs up and some just looked on in bemusement. Many bystanders said they had never heard of the coalition or the fact that many migrant farmworkers labor in near or literal slavery just several hours drive away. 

Raising awareness of the plight of migrant farm workers has been a key goal and accomplishment of the CIW, with solidarity chapters springing up on campuses and through interfaith networks around the country. Students and other supporters from Denver, Baltimore and a number of other cities road-tripped or flew to Tampa for the three-day march. 

By October, two of the nation’s largest tomato growers, both members of FTGE, had signed on to the pledge. In November, the FTGE itself signed.

3. “‘The Help’ Gets Its Due: New York Passes Domestic Workers Bill of Rights’

June 42010

By Michelle Chen

Domestic workers came together against steep odds in New York City under the banner of Domestic Workers United in New York City to win their first big victory with the 2010 New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. With customary eloquence, Chen covered the historic moment:

Deprived of basic labor protections, often isolated from their communities and working alone, domestic workers are stifled by barriers of language, culture and color. Those who do manage to speak out, however, resonate powerfully. One worker, Freda, testified before the New York State Assembly in 2008 about the impossible demands her boss placed on her:

Domestic workers are not supposed to get sick, you’re not supposed to take time off. Last year, both of my employers were sick for two weeks, and they both lay in bed for two weeks, but I still had to come to work full time. When I needed to go to the doctor, I would come to her a month ahead and she would write it down and say, I’ll see what I can do for you.’ Sometimes she would say, Do you have a friend who can fill in for you?’ Then, she wouldn’t pay her – I’d have to pay her myself.” …

From day-to-day economic hardships to unspeakable cruelty, these stories trace a narrative of discrimination ingrained in America’s economic order. After all, affluent women’s access to the labor market is in part subsidized by the help.” The underpaid nannies taking over traditional housewife” duties indirectly enable career moms to chip away at the glass ceiling, juxtaposing women’s progress and regression at opposite ends of the city’s gilded wealth gap.

On its own, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights can’t dismantle the structural racism fueling the industry. It will not amend federal labor law or fully empower domestic workers to unionize as other sectors have. But the legislation can finally tip the balance toward equity for nonstandard” workers across the country. Not a day too soon, women and people of color in the workforce are finally getting what they’ve been waiting for since the New Deal passed them over the first time around.

The Domestic Workers United help birth the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and eight states and the city of Seattle would follow New York’s lead. November 2018 saw the announcement of the first federal domestic workers bill of rights, officially introduced last week.

4. Housekeepers Charge Hyatt Fired Them for Taking Down Their Own Photos”

November 292011

By Josh Eidelson

Six years before the #MeToo movement took the national stage, Josh Eidelson reported on hotel housekeepers’ fight against sexual harassment:

Passing through the halls one day in September, Martha Reyes stopped to see why a group of her Hyatt co-workers stood laughing in front of a bulletin board. Looking closer, she saw photos of her head, and those of other housekeeping employees, pasted onto bodies in swimsuits. I got really angry,” says Reyes, seeing her face on a figure that looked almost naked, and a very different body that wasn’t mine. I felt very humiliated and embarrassed.” Martha’s sister Lorena was also included in the beach-themed display, which Hyatt management had posted over the weekend as part of Housekeeping Appreciation Week.

Martha Reyes took down her picture and her sister’s. A month later, alleging they spent too long on their lunch break, the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara fired both of them.

The sisters charge that the non-union hotel was retaliating against them over the bulletin board. Hotel workers’ union UNITE HERE (full disclosure: my former employer) is championing their cause. …

The Hyatt Regency Santa Clara also offers a reminder that labor rights and women’s rights aren’t naturally severable. Their connection is especially obvious in housekeeping, where a usually invisible, sometimes sexualized workforce does dangerous but undervalued work. 

5. Strong Local Support — And National Labor Allies — Lend Chicago Teachers Negotiating Clout”

September 132012

By David Moberg

From the authorization vote to the picket lines, David Moberg followed the historic 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike every step of the way. He unpacked what made the strike succeed at a time when teachers (and public-sector walkouts) were often demonized: The teachers built solidarity by insistently pitting the needs of students and communities against the interests of financiers and neoliberals.

While members of the public bear the hardships of the strike, they can also be natural allies for advocating improvements to public services such as schools.

A clue to city sentiment could be found on Monday, as more than 20,000 red-shirted, striking teachers and their supporters flooded downtown Chicago. They spilled over the rally space into the adjacent streets, which are home to the city’s political and financial power elites. Unlike most demonstrations, however, the police moved out of the way. As one group of strikers and supporters crossed the normally heavily traveled street, a cop shouted out, Go get em, teachers.”

By them,” he most likely meant those politicians and financiers, united in promoting a school reform” agenda that has proven deeply flawed in theory and practice but is embraced by many elements of both political parties.

The cop’s shout-out was a common, if not universal, sentiment in Chicago. 

After eight days and careful review of their contract offer, printed and distributed on the picket lines, the teachers ended their strike and declared victory.

6. Chicago Teachers Strike Ends, But Multi-Year Revolution’ Begins”

Sept 192012

By David Moberg

The Chicago teachers strike rightly scared those in power. In his post-mortem, Moberg quoted a top Emanuel advisor, charter school advocate and wealthy venture capitalist’” named Bruce Rauner (not yet Illinois’ governor), who warned his cronies, prophetically, that the strike heralded a multi-year revolution.”

Moberg agreed, with the caveat that the revolution needed to go beyond a rejection of education reform:

Education by itself will not significantly reduce inequality and poverty, both of which make teaching more difficult, especially in big city schools like Chicago, where more than four-fifths of students qualify for free lunches on the basis of low family income. Ultimately, reforming public education must be part of — not a substitute for — a broader movement for economic justice. 

7. This Thanksgiving, Spare a Moment to Consider Turkey Plant Workers”

Nov 262013

By Bruce Vail

From Black Friday protests to exploited Santas, Working In These Times has never been one to let you enjoy a holiday in peace. For Thanksgiving 2013, Vail covered the privatization of poultry inspection, part of the death by a thousand cuts to U.S. workplace safety standards:

The poultry privatization plan would eliminate some 800 government food safety inspectors and replace them with employees hired directly by the poultry companies, says Ken Ward, a retired veteran of the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It would also speed up inspections, he says, allowing slaughter line speeds to be increased from 32 turkeys per minute to 55 birds per minute, with similar increases for other poultry. That’s too fast to do proper inspections for signs of disease or other health problems in the birds, he suggests, and could lead to unsafe food being shipped out to local supermarkets and butcher shops.

… As the poultry producers strive to maintain fast line speeds, [worker Carranza] says, they’re subjecting workers to tighter restrictions — and often disregarding the workers’ emotional and physical well-being. They treated us worse than animals,” he says.

8. Midwest Generation and 100 Workers Plead with Illinois Pollution Control Board”

January 302013

By Kari Lydersen

Years before Donald Trump bergan trotting out coal miners as props to support anti-environmental laws, Kari Lydersen was covering the closure of coal mines and the jobs that were lost, as well as the push for a just transition to green jobs.

There was often little love lost between coal miners and local environmental activists. But the story was more complicated, as Lydersen found, with companies stoking these divisions to dodge blame. In 2013, she covered an Illinois hearing where an energy plant and its union argued for more time to meet environmental codes:

Robert Schwartz, a leader of the Boilermakers union and a local resident, accused environmental groups of being special interests who want to put Midwest Generation out of business.”

I know there are environmental people in this room,” he said at the hearing. I ask you to look out these windows today – the sun is not shining, there is no solar energy, the branches on the trees are not blowing, the windmills are not turning, but the lights are on here. You see the steam vapor coming out of those stacks …to turn the generators to make electricity so you can come here today in a warm building with the lights on to conduct your business.” …

Some residents and environmental leaders told Working In These Times that it was disingenuous for company officials and its supporters to profess so much concern for jobs, while failing to invest in pollution control measures that could have saved jobs in the long run until the last minute. …

Verena Owen lives near the Waukegan plant north of Chicago, the one that appears most likely to close given company filings about planned pollution control upgrades. She said the region has seen its share of heavy industrial employers close up, leaving unemployed people and environmental problems in their wake. A prime example is the nearby Outboard Marine Corporation, which laid off about 4,000 workers and left contamination that would become a Superfund site in Waukegan after going out of business a decade ago. Owen’s husband is a public schools teacher and union rep, she said, so she understands workers fighting for their jobs.

It’s unfair to the workers that they made good profits for years and years and didn’t invest” in pollution controls earlier, Owen says. They need to let people know what’s going on and make this a just transition, something the community can prepare for.”

9. 10-Year Strike at Chicago’s Congress Hotel Ends in Defeat, But Leaves a Legacy”

May 312013

By Micah Uetricht

When Chicago’s storied 10-year hotel strike ended, Micah Uetricht offered a personal reminiscence. I first encountered the strike unexpectedly, and embarrassingly, on a daylong trip to Chicago when I was 17, just before moving there for college,” Uetricht wrote. Some friends had booked a room in the cheapest downtown hotel they could find. … When I walked onto Michigan Avenue the next morning, to my horror I had to exit through a picket line.”

The strike had begun in 2003 when the Congress alone, out of 40 hotels, refused to sign on to a UNITE HERE Local 1 agreement doubled workers’ wages. The strike ended in 2013 without winning a single demand. Yet Uetricht argues it was far more than a long, costly, abject failure”:

When companies refused to budge, UNITE HERE would escalate its tactics, often driving their targets insane. I once accompanied the union to a 5K fun run” for attendees of a healthcare conference whose organizers had refused to cancel their Congress reservations. Strikers jogged alongside baffled spandex-clad runners, shoving fliers in their sweaty hands and explaining the impact of the hotel’s intransigence on their families. One older organizer devised a complicated scheme to make runners believe he had laid a tripline across the trail –  – he would pretend to pull it taut ahead of them, causing confused runners to halt in their tracks.

At another event, attended by some company officials who continued doing business with the hotel on the second floor of a mostly glass convention center building, the union raised a small blimp with a message to attendees demanding they cut ties to the Congress.

The union quickly developed a reputation throughout Chicago for the confrontational, and often absurd, lengths to which they would go to challenge anyone crossing the picket line.

And it was that reputation that made the strike significant. Even though the strikers won no concessions for themselves, the union’s confrontational tactics had a chilling effect upon Chicago hoteliers.

For years, union staffers say, other hotels would reference the Congress during contract negotiations. … More broadly, the strike became a fixture in Chicago, a veritable landmark of class struggle in the city’s central district of consumerism and commerce. Students from Chicago and elsewhere often joined the strikers on the picket line or on delegations through alternative break trips or service learning classes. The strike became a cause célèbre for everyone from suburban peace and justice groups to Jewish community organizations and synagogues.

At a time when strikes in the U.S. are at their lowest levels in decades, the Congress served as a daily reminder that a fighting working-class spirit had not been totally snuffed out in the city.

10. Tenn. Lawmakers Threaten to Block Subsidies If VW Plant Unionizes”

February 112014

By Mike Elk

Nerves were tense on the eve of the Volkswagen Chattanoogaunion election, wrote In These Times’ Mike Elk, who was reporting on the scene in Chattanooga. The workers were well aware of the forces massed against them:

At a press conference on Monday, Tennessee Republican State Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson and Republican House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick implied that state subsidies to Volkswagen could be blocked if the plant unionizes. …

In November, Working In These Times obtained leaked documents from Matt Patterson, a Grover Norquist-backed political operative, outlining how he intended to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to persuade workers to vote against the UAW. A top anti-union consultant also told In These Times that national anti-union groups were gearing up to fight the UAW at Volkswagen in order to prevent the union from gaining a foothold as it seeks to organize other plants across the South. … [Norquist] has booked radio spots to air anti-union ads and rented 13 billboards around the city to display anti-UAW messages.

One such billboard has the words United Auto Workers” with the word auto” crossed out and substituted with the word Obama.” The billboard also contains a spelling error that provoked ridicule from some labor activists on Twitter: The UAW spends millions to elect liberal politicans [sic],” the billboard proclaims.

… Union supporters fear that the outside interference is beginning to hurt the likelihood of a union victory.

Right now my feeling is that we are winning but the [anti-union workers] along with their outside help is turning some [people] away that once were supporters” pro-UAW Volkswagen worker Wayne Cliett tells Working In These Times. I believe we have the votes, [we] just have to make sure everyone of our supporters votes. I have a good feeling about the outcome and at the same time, I’m a little nervous.” 

11. After Historic UAW Defeat at Tennessee Volkswagen Plant, Theories Abound”

Feb 152014

By Mike Elk

Four days later, Elk reported on the outcome of the vote: The union had lost, 626 to 712.

I am excited,” auto worker Justin King told me as he put on his cowboy boots to get ready for the victory party planned for late Friday night. At approximately 10 p.m., the United Auto Workers union and Volkswagen would announce the results of a three-day union election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

King had reason to be excited. For nearly three years he had campaigned to get the union into his plant. As one of the leaders of the drive, his sense was that the UAW had the support of the majority of the plant’s 1,550 hourly workers. Unlike in most union drives, organizers didn’t have to worry about the company threatening workers’ job, because Volkwagen had agreed to remain neutral in the process, so King felt cautiously optimistic that the support would hold.

But Justin King never got to enjoy his victory party. An hour after we spoke, retired Circuit Court Judge Samuel H. Payne announced to a roomful of reporters assembled in a Volkswagen training facility that the UAW had lost the campaign, with 626 workers voting in favor of the union and 712 voting against. To the labor reporters, who had seen many union election results, it was jaw-dropping news. How could a union lose an unopposed campaign?

Elk offered a cogent analysis of what thwarted the campaign — not just the outside right-wing forces, but also low-level supervisors who campaigned against the union. He did not spare the UAW (then a sponsor of Working In These Times):

The No 2 UAW campaign used the very neutrality agreement that the UAW signed to argue that the union was making corrupt deals with management without worker input. The anti-union campaign argued that the neutrality agreement seemed to indicate that UAW would not bargain for wages above what was offered by Volkswagen’s competitors in the United States. UAW and Volkswagen agreed to maintaining and where possible enhancing the cost advantages and other competitive advantages that [Volkswagen] enjoys relative to its competitors in the United States and North America.”

We got people to realize they had already negotiated a deal behind their backs — [workers] didn’t get to have a say-so,” hourly plant worker Mike Jarvis of No 2 UAW told reporters outside of the plant last night.

Fiorello also cited the UAW’s past concessions in bargaining with other automakers as another example of why she opposed the union. In a series of contract negotiations in the late 1990s and 2000s, the UAW agreed to a two-tier wage system at Volkswagen’s competitors at the Big Three automakers — General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. …

The neutrality agreement barred the UAW from making negative comments about Volkswagen. It also specifically prevented the UAW from holding one-on-one meetings with workers at their homes except at the worker’s express request. House visits are a common tactic used by union organizers to build trust with workers and answer questions about individual needs and concerns. One longtime labor activist, Peter Hogness, was so shocked that the UAW didn’t do house visits that he sent me a message today to ask me if it was true. …

Also, pro-union community activists, who spoke with In These Times on condition of anonymity out of fear of hurting their relationships with the UAW, spoke about difficulties in getting the UAW to help them engage the broader Chattanooga community. … Indeed, when I attended a forum in December organized by Chattanooga for Workers, a community group designed to build local support for the organizing drive, more than 150 community activists attended — many from different area unions — but I encountered only three UAW members. …

There’s no way to win in the South without everyone that supports you fighting with you,” said one Chattanooga community organizer, who preferred to remain anonymous. Because the South is one giant anti-union campaign.” 

Chris Brooks, an organizer with Chattanooga for Workers, would go on to become a staff writer and organizer for Labor Notes. In 2019, when the VW workers in Chattanooga made another bid for a union, Brooks covered the story for Working In These Times, Labor Notes and other outlets. This time, there was no neutrality agreement, and, as Brooks reported in a number of scoops from inside the plant, the company fought dirty. The union drive narrowly failed again, 776 to 833

12. At Market Basket, the Benevolent Boss Is Back. Should We Cheer?”

August 302014

By Julia Wong

Labor actions are not always what they seem. Many left outlets cheered an apparent outbreak of worker militance in New England when 25,000 Market Basket workers went on strike.

Julia Wong unraveled the story behind the story — a rivalry between two cousins named Arthur, and what appeared to be a management-led strike:

The discrepancy between Market Basket’s squeaky-clean reputation as an employer and the experience of workers like Sheridan calls into question the true value of a benevolent” boss like Arthur T. Demoulas. Looking closer at much of the glowing press about Demoulas’ management style reveals that many of his most vocal supporters are managers, even senior management. The testimonials at We are Market Basket come almost entirely from management.

According to Dennis Desmond, a part-time night cleaner at Market Basket Store 48 in Haverhill — whose hours, like those of all the part-time workers, were cut to zero during the strike — management helped coordinate the action. At my facility, and at the [New Hampshire] facility, employees were paid [by management] to hold protest signs,” he told In These Times in an email.

Is a strike really a strike if the rank and file is told not to work by their direct supervisors? And will this strike benefit the part-time workers who make up the majority of the workforce, or just the already well-paid managers who appeared to be leading the charge?

13. The Sharing Economy’s First Strike’: Uber Drivers Turn Off the App”

October 222014

You don’t want to be on the wrong side of Rebecca Burns. In a piece on Uber drivers’ first labor action, Burns deployed her sharp wit and keen sense of injustice to skewer the sharing economy”’s insistence that its workers are not workers:

When tech magnates extol disruption,” of course, they likely aren’t talking about the sort caused by labor actions.

But on October 22, tech-giant Uber got a taste of its own disruptive medicine when drivers in at least five cities who work on the ridesharing platform turned off their apps and stopped picking up passengers. …

Another demonstrator’s sign asked, Uber, are we your employees or your partners?’” and demanded, Stop imposing your unfair rules!” The question gets to the heart of the sharing economy” controversy: Ask the tech companies that create sharing” apps, and they’ll say that people who drive for Uber, rent out spare rooms on AirBnB or do small jobs via TaskRabbit aren’t employees at all; they’re micro-entrepreneurs” or partners” in a new kind of market.

Critics retort that these people are hardly sharing” their time and resources out of the goodness of their hearts; rather they’re workers who have turned to a new niche in the service economy to try to make a living — and find themselves increasingly struggling to do so. 

14. In 3,800-Worker Strike, the Ghost of Tony Mazzocchi Still Haunts Big Oil” 

February 52015

By Steve Early

In a noteworthy blue-green alliance,” environmental groups backed a four-state walkout by United Steelworkers (USW) oil workers over safety conditions. Steve Early reflected on the echoes of the environmental-labor solidarity pioneered by labor leader Tony Mazzocchi in the 1970s:

As a top strategist for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), [Tony] Mazzocchi pioneered alliances between workers concerned about job safety and health hazards and communities exposed to industrial pollution generated by companies like Shell, Chevron, and Mobil.

In 1973, members of the OCAW (who are now part of the United Steel Workers) conducted a national contract campaign and four-month strike at Shell Oil over workplace safety rights and protections. As Mazzocchi’s biographer, Les Leopold notes, the strike helped build a stronger anti-corporate movement” because OCAW members learned that you can’t win these fights alone.” To win — or even just battle Big Oil to a draw — workers had to join forces with the very same environmental organizations long demonized by the industry as the enemy of labor and management alike.

Four decades later, echoes of that struggle could be heard on the refinery town picket-lines that went up in northern California, Texas, Kentucky, and Washington state this week. Thousands of oil workers walked out, for the first time in 35 years, over issues and demands that Tony Mazzocchi helped publicize and build coalitions around for much of his career.

15. Workers Say the Fight for $15 Isn’t Just About Wages — It’s a Fight for Meaning”

April 12015

By David Moberg

David Moberg covered the SEIU-backed Fight for $15 movement from the slogan’s debut in a November 2012 march on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. Ahead of one of the largest-ever rallies, on April 15, 2015, he interviewed a worker about how the movement changed his consciousness:

An African-American from the city’s west side, Hunter is the single father and sole financial supporter of a 16-year-old daughter. For the past four years, he has worked at McDonald’s, now earning $9.25 an hour.

Hunter only joined the Fight For 15 a year ago. I didn’t want to join. It took some time. I was committed to my job. I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do. But in reality I was not.” Managers discouraged him from getting involved: Don’t be part of it,” they said. They’re wasting their time.”

But his daughter changed his way of looking at the world.

My daughter and I were having a discussion one night,” Hunter said. I was complaining about what I wasn’t able to do. But she said, What are you doing?’ I thought about it long and hard. I went to work the next day. The organizers came around, and I said, This is something I can do. I want to have a say. And my daughter supported me 100 percent. Now it feels good every day. She feels proud of me. “

As organizers explained his legal rights, and he saw that other strikers returned to their jobs, he grew more confident. He won recognition from other workers, winning positions of leadership, as well as from his daughter and her friends. He also developed a new sense of morality, a view that justified opposition to injustice and challenge to illegitimate authority. The movement also helped open up his social universe and expand his sense of solidarity with workers around the world — which is what Douglas says so excites him about the April 15 actions.

I remember when we were out at Oak Brook last year,” he said. He was part of a protest on the McDonald’s Chicago suburban corporate campus that involved a sit-in blockade of a street leading to the office complex and arrests for the acts of civil disobedience.

It was the first time I was arrested for doing something right.” For Duncan, the Fight for 15 has turned into a fight not just for money or a union, but a fight for meaning in his life and a moral community. That fight is part of what will continue to grow on April 15

16. How the Fight for 15 Has Inspired Bold Action and Demands from Workers Everywhere”

April 142015

By Sonia Singh

Sonia Singh wrote about the unexpected ways the Fight for $15 movement empowered worker actions far outside fast food:

Temporary workers at the Metro regional government in Portland, Oregon, won major wage increases in their first contract after AFSCME Local 3580 partnered with 15 Now Portland and Jobs with Justice.

Under the new contract, hazardous waste workers will see their wages rise from $13.55 to $17.50, and zoo security workers from $12 to $15.75.

…. Ross Grami, AFSCME Council 75 representative, says the community pressure from allies was a critical factor in their win, with 15 Now and Jobs for Justice joining AFSCME at the bargaining table on the last day.

I don’t think I could have sat at the table five years ago and demanded an employer pay a living wage of $15. Most employers would have laughed at us and laughed at our bargaining unit,” said Grami. The organizing workers are doing nationally and the sacrificing they have had to do has changed the conversation and changed perceptions around the table.”

Tim Combs, a temporary hazardous waste worker who joined the bargaining team, describes the 30 percent raise as a game-changer and says other groups of temps are now approaching AFSCME to organize, too. 

17. How a Right to Your Job’ Law Could Help Unions Fight Back Against Right to Work’”

November 162015

By Shaun Richman

Labor expert Shaun Richman of the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies at SUNY Empire State College has led a one-person crusade in Working In These Times to convince unions to challenge an unfair labor law régime. In 2015, he took aim at the standard of at-will” employment with trademark bite:

Non-union workers generally labor under an at-will” standard of employment, a holdover from English common law that basically tells a worker, Congratulations, you are not a slave. That means you are free to quit your job — and your boss is free to fire you.” It’s a kind of liberty, I guess, but not one that’s particularly appealing.

The only job protection that at-will employees currently have is to try to shoehorn their case into one of a handful of legally protected categories” of workers: be a woman, be a racial minority, be over the age of 42, be disabled, be a whistleblower. And even if a case does fit in one of those categories, a worker can only receive some financial recompense — generally not retaining her job — if she can prove that she was fired because of their protected status. It’s a lousy framework, but the best that an at-will employee has.” 

Richman would later elaborate on this case in a joint New York Times editorial with Working In These Times’ Moshe Z. Marvit, which argued for a just cause” standard to replace at-will employment.

18. 40,000 AT&T Workers Begin 3‑Day Strike”

May 192017

By David Bacon

In one of the largest strikes in recent memory, 40,000 call center workers with the Communications Workers of America walked off the job. Photojournalist David Bacon captured the strike in words and pictures:

The relocation of jobs to call centers in Mexico, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic and other countries is one of the main issues in negotiations. A recent CWA report charges that in the Dominican Republic, for instance, where it uses subcontractors, wages are $2.13-$2.77/hour. Workers have been trying to organize a union there and accuse management of firing union leaders and making threats, accusations and intimidating workers.

… According to Dennis Trainor, vice president of CWA District 1, AT&T is underestimating the deep frustration wireless retail, call center and field workers are feeling right now with its decisions to squeeze workers and customers, especially as the company just reported more than $13 billion in annual profits.” 

19. A New Model for Progressive Politics in the Heart of Deindustrialization”

By Bruce Vail

May 42018

When Peoria, Ill., was labeled the worst city in America for African Americans, it was the last straw for local workers already smarting from austerity measures under Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner. Locals of SEIU and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) teamed up with the Chicago-based Grassroots Collaborative and founded the Peoria Peoples Project to advocate for progressive change:

Quality healthcare and adequate funding for public schools are obvious priorities for the two unions involved. Most of the tens of thousands of members of the SEIU group are low-income or middle-income African-American women, so bread-and-butter economic issues are foremost, [SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas Vice President Beth] Menz says. 

Progressive organizations have been springing up in Peoria,” as a response to the right-wing agenda of Gov. Rauner and President Donald Trump, adds Chama St. Louis, an organizer for both the Peoria Peoples Project and the Grassroots Collaborative. It’s a fertile field for new organizing, she says, as the increasing power of conservative forces is inspiring pushback in many circles. 

20. Stop Calling It an Arbitration Agreement — Employers Are Forcing Workers to Give Up Their Rights”

May 232018

By Moshe Z. Marvit

In Working In These Times, labor lawyer Moshe Marvit has diligently documented the many ways labor law is stacked against workers, as well as the continued chipping away at the rights that remain (as when Justice Clarence Thomas deployed the Oxford English Dictionary to determine that Amazon warehouse workers didn’t need to be paid for the mandatory 25 minutes spent in security screenings.)

With the inauguration of Donald Trump, Marvit’s job got busier, as Trump appointees took a pickaxe to what was left of worker protections. In May 2018 he exposed a pernicious tool of employers, the forced arbitration agreement, and a Supreme Court decision that elevated the dictates of those agreements above the rights enshrined in the National Labor Relations Act:

On April 2, 2014, Jacob Lewis, who was a technical writer for Epic Systems, received an email from his employer with a document titled Mutual Arbitration Agreement Regarding Wages and Hours.” The document stated that the employee and the employer waive their rights to go to court and instead agreed to take all wage and hour claims to arbitration. Furthermore, unlike in court, the employee agreed that any arbitration would be one-on-one. This agreement” did not provide any opportunity to negotiate, and it had no place to sign or refuse to sign. Instead, it stated, I understand that if I continue to work at Epic, I will be deemed to have accepted this Agreement.” The workers had two choices: immediately quit or accept the agreement. This is not the hallmark of an agreement; it is the hallmark of a mandatory rule that is unilaterally imposed.

When Lewis tried to take Epic Systems to court for misclassifying him and his fellow workers as independent contractors and depriving them of overtime pay, he realized that by opening the email and continuing to work, he waved his right to bring a collective action or go to court. It is estimated that approximately 60 million Americans have already been forced to sign such individual arbitration agreements, and with Monday’s decision, they are certain to spread rapidly.

21. Why We Threw Mark Janus a Going Away Party — But Didn’t Invite Him”

By Sarah Lazare

July 232018

Public-sector unions suffered a major blow with the Supreme Court’s June 2018 Janus v. AFSCME decision, which effectively made the public sector right to work,” rendering unions dues optional. As Mary Bottari reported in a special investigation for In These Times, Janus was the product of a multi-year, many-million-dollar campaign, in which the plaintiff, Mark Janus, was most likely just a stooge.

But he still had union coworkers, and they had feelings about Mark. Sarah Lazare reported on the retirement party” they threw for him:

While he might just be a figurehead, for many members of AFSCME Local 2600, Mark Janus is also a former coworker. And those union members have no choice but to grapple with the intensely personal aspects of the case, in which Mark Janus — a Springfield, Illinois-based child support specialist — successfully charged that workers have a First Amendment right not to chip in for their unions’ bargaining services. Members had to watch a coworker who had spent years benefiting from his AFSCME contract strike a major financial blow against their union and all public-sector unions nationwide.

So, when news broke that Mark Janus was leaving his job to work for the Illinois Policy Institute — a conservative, anti-union think tank that helped take the Janus case to the Supreme Court — members of his union decided to respond with a bit of humor. On Friday, they threw Mark Janus a retirement party, complete with a cake that read, in frosting, There is no union with u.’” But because they declared it union members-only, the guest of honor was unable to attend.

22. Unions Can Protect Workers From Deportation. This Coalition of 3.5 Million Is Showing How.”

October 182018

By Heather Gies

In Working in These Times’ fifth post, on July 14, 2009, David Bacon asked Will Unions Defend Undocumented Members?” Nine years later, Heather Gies answered that question, in a story about a union coalition to protect immigrant workers stripped by the Trump administration of their Temporary Protected Status:

After more than two decades living, working, and building a family in the United States, Cesar Rodriguez feels his life is in limbo. The driver for the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach from El Salvador is one of more than 300,000 immigrants at risk of losing their temporary legal status in the U.S. after the Trump administration scrapped the program for a handful of countries.

I’m a trucker, and I make my living with my license. Without my license, I lose my job,” Rodriguez told In These Times. If I lose my job, I would lose everything — even my family, because I wouldn’t have a way to support them.”

We’re fighting so that they don’t take away our TPS,” he said. I don’t want to be separated from my children, from my family.”

Rodriguez, part of a group of port drivers fighting for rights to join a union, is relieved to have parts of the labor movement on his side. Although he is not unionized, he says he already feels like part of a Teamsters local due to the union’s support for workers like him on two fronts: labor rights and immigration justice.

The Teamsters is one of the labor unions taking a stand to protect TPS holders with the message that immigrant rights are worker rights. Six unions representing 3.5 million workers have teamed up under the banner of Working Families United to join the campaign to save TPS and demand Congress take bipartisan action to allow TPS holders to stay in the country.

The fight to save TPS for us is very clear from both a worker rights side and a union side. That’s what brought us together,” said Neidi Dominguez, national strategic organizing coordinator with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), which is part of the Working Families United coalition.

The coalition was instrumental in the introduction of a House bill in March to protect TPS workers and DREAM-ers.

23. Meet the Militant Flight Attendant Leader Who Threatened a Strike — And Helped Stop Trump’s Shutdown”

February 82019

By David Dayen

David Dayen profiled Sara Nelson, the flight attendant union president whose strike threat arguably broke Trump’s government shutdown. Dayen captured the rising spirit of labor solidarity channeled by Nelson:

One moment during the previous shutdown has stuck with Nelson, a reminder of the unifying force of cross-sector solidarity. I was doing interviews on the shutdown in a cab ride” in Washington, D.C., Nelson recalled. And when I got to the office and went to get out and pay my fare, the cab driver turned around and his chin was shaking and his eyes were watery. And he said, Thank you, I know you’re fighting for me too.’ It was like, oh yeah, there’s been nobody on the streets, and he’s had no fares. And that really shook me, because we don’t really understand how much the effect ripples.”

This notion that we all have a stake in one another’s struggles has driven Nelson’s thinking throughout this government-created crisis, and it’s elevated her to a prominence that could portend a larger role in the future. Nelson begged off such thoughts, insisting that she was focused on saving the lives of her members and airline passengers. But she did leave some room to consider the broader lessons of collective action, in a moment when so many forces are aligned against the working class: I’m very aware that if we do it well, it’s an opportunity for workers to taste their power.”

24. Will the Teacher Strike Wave Hit Mississippi?”

By Michael Arria

April 302019

As teachers across the nation continue to defy bans on public-sector strikes and walk out in protest of school privatization and underfunding, Michael Arria covered the first murmurs of strike talk in red-state Mississippi:

While Republicans couldn’t find the money for a substantial teacher raise, they managed to sneak a $2 million private school voucher program into a non-education bill. That legislation had already been voted down two times before lawmakers found a way to pass it using a backdoor method. If we could have a $2 million voucher bill, why couldn’t that be part of a pay raise?” asked [MAE president Joyce] Helmick. …

Facebook groups have emerged as integral part of teacher actions over the last couple years, as educators can use them to privately share stories and debate tactics. A Facebook group called Pay Raise for Mississippi Teachers” has been created to discuss potential teacher actions. The identity of the group’s creators is not known, and the site isn’t affiliated with MAE, but it already has over 38,000 followers and 40,000 likes on Facebook.

25. American Airlines Mechanics Are Threatening the Bloodiest, Ugliest Battle’ in Labor History”

May 302019

By Michael Arria

Reporter Michael Arria caught a whiff of labor’s new militancy when a Transit Workers Union president John Samuelson had fighting words for American Airlines on behalf of its mechanics (jointly represented by TWU and IAM):

Mechanics at American Airlines are threatening to strike if a new contract isn’t negotiated, and union president John Samuelson has declared that employees are prepared for the dispute to erupt into the bloodiest, ugliest battle that the United States labor movement ever saw.” The statement comes just one day after the airline sued its union workers, claiming that they had engaged in an illegal work slowdown to strengthen their hand at the bargaining table.

It’s been quite a decade. When Working In These Times was founded in 2013, it wasn’t clear which way the arc of history was bending when it came to labor. Workers centers had momentum, but labor unions seemed to be floundering. As unionized sectors like mining and manufacturing withered, employers in growing sectors insulated themselves from unionization through franchises, subcontractors, supply chains and the boondoggle of the sharing economy.”

But there’s been a different tone to WITT posts of late, reflecting a willingness, as in the wildcat teachers’ strikes, to defy the slanted labor law régime. Labor seems to be in a fighting mood. We’re excited to report what happens next.

An enormous thank you to the many WITT editors who made these stories happen: Jeremy Gantz, Brian Cook, Molly Bennet, Rebecca Burns, Kat Jercich, Nyki Salinas-Duda, Micah Uetricht, Dana Ford, Sarah Lazare and Miles Kampf-Lassin.

Jessica Stites is Executive Editor of In These Times, where she runs the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and edits stories on labor, neoliberalism, Wall Street, immigration, mass incarceration and racial justice, among other topics. Before joining ITT, she worked at Ms. magazine and George Lakoff’s Rockridge Institute. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ms., Bitch, Jezebel, The Advocate and AlterNet. She is board secretary of the Chicago Reader and a former Chicago Sun-Times board member.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue