This Week in Working: VA Workers and Teachers Unions

The Working In These Times newsletter for the week of February 5

Hamilton Nolan

Hello my friends, 

The wretched groundhog predicts six more weeks of winter. Sounds like something a scab would say. Don’t trust him. In the meantime, harangue your friends about subscribing to this newsletter, and sending me top secret tips of labor-related malfeasance. Together we shall defeat the groundhog — he can’t read. 

This Week in Working

Enormous VA Union Contract Moves Towards Uncertain Conclusion Under New Biden Administration
Hamilton Nolan

The fate of 265,000 federal workers is up in the air, as AFGE races to wrap up its new contract for VA workers. 

The Working People Podcast

In the Shadow of Covid, ACLU Joins Nonprofit Unionization Surge: There have a few unexpected bright spots over the past year, including a boom in union drives at nonprofits around the United States. One of those nonprofits is the American Civil Liberties Union, where staff workers recently voted to unionize with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU). In this episode, we talk with two representatives from ACLU Staff United, Gillian Ganesan and Alex Ortiz, and NPEU President Kayla Blado about the unionization effort at the ACLU and the growing nonprofit labor movement. Listen here.

The Big Issue: Teachers Unions Probably Know Something About Teaching

Lotta people talking about teachers unions these days. Great! Any publicity for unions is good, if you ask me. Yet opinions are, shall we say, mixed. While those of us in the labor movement see teachers unions as one of the most visible success stories of organized labor in the pandemic — a widely unionized industry that has demonstrated the ability to flex labor power to keep its workers safe, unlike a ton of other industries — there is another, more widespread strain of conventional wisdom in the punditocracy that views teachers unions as an unconscionable obstacle to reopening schools. That is the technocratic strain of opposition, and then there is the normal, right wing, long-established strain of those who just despise teachers unions on principle. 

In fact, the American Federation of Teachers published a comprehensive plan for reopening schools safely last spring. The root of the problem of reopening schools is the United States federal government, not any local teachers unions. It is hard to imagine that thousands of teachers are clamoring to keep teaching their classes via awful Zoom calls because they like it better. They don’t want to get sick! If risking death or serious disease were considered a standard part of teachers’ job descriptions, their states should be paying them more. Everyone, including teachers, certainly wants to reopen the schools. It is up to the federal government to provide the resources to do so safely. 

In a perceptive essay this week, a Massachusetts teacher named Karen Engels wrote about the pandemic’s odd dynamic of causing many parents to find a newfound appreciation of individual teachers, and also to despise those teachers’ unions even more. Engels notes that there are no better experts on effective teaching methods in this strange time than teachers themselves, and that governments at all levels serious about reopening schools would be working hand in hand with teachers and their union. Of course, as the federal government’s coddling of ICE’s union shows, there is no principle at work here other than playing favorites. Perhaps it would help teachers to redirect the ire of pundits and politicians onto a different public union that actually deserves the criticism: police unions.

Labor News This Week

  • John Sweeney, the former SEIU and AFL-CIO leader who prioritized organizing in a way that has not been seen since on a national level, passed away this week. 

  • Kim Kelly is in Bessemer, Alabama covering the Amazon union drive, check it out.

  • And if you didn’t think working for Amazon could get any more Orwellian, welcome to always-on surveillance cameras in delivery vans.

  • Health care workers are having a rough time for obvious reasons. 

  • The same thing is true for TSA employees!

  • A look at a right wing law firm’s involvement in fighting a possible Chicago Teachers Union strike.

  • Hazard pay for grocery workers is now an issue that’s coming up in local legislation.

  • Philly community center workers are suing their former employer, saying they were fired in retaliation for raising concerns about Covid safety. 

  • And a Gizmodo editor says she was fired as retaliation for her union activity. 

  • Rihanna has joined the international class war. 


One time I asked the assistant manager … Do you think I can have a break?’ He’d say, You got a break when you were hired.’ Ha ha ha. Even when they joked it was a put down.” –Brett Hauser, supermarket box boy, quoted in Working” by Studs Terkel 

In solidarity,

Hamilton Nolan

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Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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