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Commentary Economic Justice Organizing Social Justice

Commentary: The Dream of a Unionized New Orleans Is Coming True

This post offers commentary on the article, “The Dream of a Unionized New Orleans Is Coming True,” written by Hamilton Nolan and recently published in In These Times. Read the full piece here.

Readers of Voices for New Democracy have long been grappling with the ongoing transformation of the American economy, beginning in the 1970s, towards a post-industrial society. Over the past decades, this has manifested in the decline of manufacturing, rapidly growing financialization, a massive shift towards the service sector, and a series of all-out assaults on organized labor. The American South has been especially hard hit by these trends, particularly in terms of the rights of workers, as Republican control of state governments have created legal regimes that keep wages low, precarity high, and maintain massive obstacles to organized labor.

Amid this trajectory, COVID-19 has been a major disruption, and it remains uncertain whether the fallout could help strengthen the position of workers or serve as a justification for further attacks on labor. That is why the work of unions in the South are so critical, and why the left must focus on these fights; since they represent a model that could upend this trajectory even in the heart of reactionary states.

Hamilton Nolan’s recent piece in In These Times is illustrative. The piece explores the growth of the Unite Here hospitality workers union in New Orleans over the past years, which is especially notable given the low union density across the state and the traditional challenges of organizing in a tourist economy in a right-to-work state. While Unite Here members and staff alike have experienced the fallout from the pandemic, the union has done remarkable work to support its members throughout these challenges, both by negotiating recall rights with employers and providing direct support services to members. All of this work is offering new visions for what the city’s hospitality industry could look like with an organized working class:

The bulk of Unite Here’s organizing in New Orleans happened after the 2008 recession, meaning the pandemic has been the first major economic shock most members have lived through as union members. Even as it lost staff, Local 23 had to transform itself into what Patrick-Cooper describes as ​“a social service beacon.” The union turned its focus to helping newly laid off union members navigate the state’s broken unemployment system. It created a hotline for members to call for assistance, ran a food bank and searched everywhere for fundraising, all while marshaling support for Unite Here’s massive national door-knocking campaign in support of Joe Biden’s presidential run — and fighting for extended recall rights for workers.

https://inthesetimes.com/article/unionized-new-orleans-labor-workers-organizing-pandemic-south

While Unite Here continues to face an uphill battle, its efforts on behalf of its members during the pandemic could help turn the tide for organized labor throughout the state. Union members are the only workers in the city who won guaranteed recall rights, which offers a strong incentive for more hospitality workers to unionize especially at a moment when many working people feel they have little left to lose. And if these local efforts prove successful in these critical right-wing strongholds, they will be key stepping stones to rebuilding a powerful labor movement on a national scale.

As Unite Here’s international president, D. Taylor, says:

You change the South, you change America.

https://inthesetimes.com/article/unionized-new-orleans-labor-workers-organizing-pandemic-south

Read the full piece, “The Dream of a Unionized New Orleans Is Coming True, via In These Times.

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Analysis Economic Justice Organizing

Amazon Appears to Defeat Bessemer Union Drive. What Went Wrong?

Read: Blowout in Bessemer: A Postmortem on the Amazon Campaign

The historic union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, AL appears to have been defeated. 

As Voices for New Democracy covered earlier this year, the union drive of 5,800 Amazon warehouse workers with the RWDSU represented the largest labor challenge to Amazon yet in the United States. The effort drove national attention, to the point that even President Biden released a video affirming the workers’ right to hold their election. The efforts heroic, and had it succeeded, it likely would have sparked union elections in other Amazon warehouses across the country. It is no surprise, then, that Amazon pulled out all the stops to defeat it. 

From forcing workers into overtly anti-union meetings, to conspiring with the Bessemer city government to change traffic light patterns to throw off union organizers outside the warehouse, to colluding with the Postal Service to illegally add a voting dropbox to the Amazon site itself, to countless other nefarious efforts — the deck was stacked against the workers from the beginning. 

But the loss cannot be blamed on entirely on Amazon’s massive opposition. If the labor movement and new union drives are to succeed, then we must reflect on our defeats soberly to make sure we do not repeat them. Fortunately, Jane McAlevey’s recent article in The Nation offers a much-needed retrospective of the campaign — where it went wrong, and what we can learn from it. 

McAlevey highlights three general reasons for the loss: Amazon’s own union-busting, weaknesses in the union’s strategy, and the local context within Bessemer. 

The union-busting is nothing novel. On top of the previously mentioned actions, Amazon effectively threatened layoffs if the union drive was successful. In a city suffering from a stagnant economy, such an outcome would be unacceptable. And given Amazon’s enormous influence within the city as a major employer, it is understandable why workers would fear going up against it. Especially considering reports that Amazon was ramping up surveillance and heightening tensions within its sites over the union drive, many employees likely developed concerns that joining the union would lead to Amazon permanently instituting these tensions and hostilities.

Messaging against such a behemoth is no easy task. But difficult opposition is no excuse for giving up. These fights can be won, and to make sure we win the next one, we must explore our mistakes. 

McAlevey offers an important summary of the weaknesses within the RWDSU campaign. For one, the union had a widely inaccurate assumption of how many workers were in the warehouse — while they assumed ~1,500, Amazon quickly countered with a demand to include all 5,800 workers in the campaign, significantly raising the number of employees they would have to win to their side to clear the 30% threshold required to start the election. 

The organizers also fumbled their messaging, particularly around the question of dues. Because Amazon is a right-to-work state, organizers explained that unionization would not necessarily mean workers have to pay dues — but dues are essential to build the power required to take on monstrous employers like Amazon, and the organizers missed an important opportunity to “ask workers why the company suddenly wants to discuss how workers spend their own money.” The organizers also treated the union as an external entity with messages like “the union is on your side,” missing an important opportunity to highlight that the workers themselves are the union.

Organizing tactics were another key issue in the trajectory of the campaign. The majority of face-to-face contact between workers and organizers was happening at the plant gate, effectively giving Amazon a home court advantage. Successful campaigns require house calls because, as McAlevey explains, “[t]he last thing nervous workers want is to be seen near the place they work, talking with union supporters.”

Finally, McAlevey highlights that the campaign simply had not built up the capacity that they needed to win the election. Rather than pursuing public structure tests — where a majority of workers publicly declare their support an action — the organizers declined to ask workers to go public with their support in a misguided attempt to protect the workforce. But what really protects the workers is the collective action of the majority. Ultimately, the organizers ended up reinforcing the atomization and fears of collective action that workers already experience at Amazon. 

Regardless of these weaknesses in the campaign strategy, the final nail in the coffin was the lack of local support. While the campaign quickly garnered national media coverage, it did so at the expense of building relationships with local groups with more direct ties to the community. 

It should be noted that this is not the end of the fight. The RWDSU has already announced that it will dispute the election and file a number of “Unfair Labor Practice” charges against Amazon — and some are still holding out hope for another election down the line. The tenacity is inspiring, and progressives should applaud efforts to try again. But if the union is going to win next time, it must be careful not to make the same mistakes.

Read: Blowout in Bessemer: A Postmortem on the Amazon Campaign

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Analysis Economic Justice Organizing Social Justice

Forum on Labor’s Future: Possibilities for Labor Transformation

As part of our recent Forum on Labor’s Future, panelist Eric Gill delivered a presentation on his experience in driving labor and union transformation. The following is a summary of the key points he presented, and the full presentation is available to watch below.

Given the state of the American labor movement, it’s critical that the left renew its commitment to labor transformation. When unions transform, it happens from the bottom-up. And as many unions have seen their power decline and their administrations fail their workers, they will need activists to help renew and transform them.

With this analysis, Eric and his cohort pursued the transformation of the hotel workers’ union in Hawaii. Eric himself joined as a janitor in Waikiki after a discussion about strategic industries in the islands, recognizing the major role that the tourism industry plays in Hawaii’s economy. But the union had long been a reactionary one, and was in desperate need of reform.

Knowing that the union is defined by its membership, Eric and his cohort worked to develop a core of activist left workers within the union as the vehicle for change. And ultimately they were successful, managing to transform union leadership.

This work was not without its challenges. The cohort had to immerse itself within the union, learning which leaders could be allies and which were opposed to their aims. Organizing within the union, they made a point to unite with leaders when they were doing the right work, and were not afraid to expose them when they didn’t. Strike actions were especially fertile ground for driving change, since they move workers’ class consciousness rapidly and move the economic struggle into a political struggle. Nevertheless, the “price of admission” was high, as Eric’s cohort had to contend with participating in both of the administrations they eventually deposed.

Transforming union leadership is not enough, though. Eric and his cohort continued to build out their progressive core by finding worker leaders and starting a committee-building program. The reason is clear: worker leaders are much more effective than anyone else at getting through to people. Their efforts have largely been successful and continue to pay off, as much of the union’s work is now led by the committee leaders they trained.

After their successful takeover, the renewed union began to focus on what was important. They began to turn their attention towards development of worker leaders among immigrant members — the large majority of the membership, which had previously been neglected. These efforts continue to pay off, as the support of immigrant workers has made their continued work possible.

With this transformation, the union has since been able to achieve a number of major victories. During a strike, the union created the slogan “one job should be enough,” which went beyond the very small $1.50 wage increases the union previously devoted attention to. Not only did this strengthen the resolve of the workers, but it also transformed the union’s public relations. As Eric explains, they were no longer seen as the corrupt guys, but rather the guys in the red shirts out there fighting and supporting the other movements in the community. As a result, they were able to build support among tourists, some of whom even donated to the strike fund.

The union also developed new capacity to shape change on a national level. During the 2020 Presidential election, the union deployed 1,700 trained organizers to the field to work doors in swing states like Arizona, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. As one of the only unions deploying an effort like this, their work was invaluable and ultimately succeeded in helping flip the states and ensure a Trump defeat.

Eric’s experience demonstrates that we have an extraordinary moment where we can build worker power and start shifting the balance, as public perception of unions and labor is high — but we must not miss our chance. Now is the time to salt the unions with progressive activists who are focused on long-term unity with workers and wider social change in unions. And it’s vital to remember, workers want this. They want the union to be powerful, they want a program that advances their conditions, and they want solidarity.

As Eric concluded, “Solidarity for many years has been a word. Now, we need action.”

Hear the full presentation from the Forum on Labor’s Future below.

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Economic Justice Global Peace & Collaboration Organizing Social Justice

Forum on Labor’s Future: International Solidarity

As part of our recent Forum on Labor’s Future, panelist Carolyn Kazdin delivered a presentation on her experiences in the international solidarity movement and the links between the American labor movement and the international context. The following is a summary of the key points she presented, and the full presentation is available to watch below.

To understand the possibilities for international labor solidarity, it is first essential to understand that the American labor movement has traditionally been a reactionary one on the international stage. The U.S. trade union movement has been known for engaging in “trade union tourism” in visits to other countries, rather than building relationships and forging solidarity. While progressive unions around the world have already been working together, U.S. unions have largely been left out of the picture.

Fortunately, this is beginning to change. And as the American labor movement begins to explore international possibilities, it is worth taking a look at the trends already unfolding across the world.

The Brazilian labor movement is an important place to start, as they elected one of their own as President of the country with the election of Lula da Silva of the Workers Party (PT). In his 8 year tenure, Lula and his movement lifted 40 million people out of extreme poverty, and created 20 million jobs. While the movement has since faced significant setbacks under the Bolsonaro administration and the corrupt trials that jailed Lula and his associates, their successes are an important reminder of what a robust trade union movement can achieve when it wins power.

International solidarity work also offers an important illustration of the ways that global capital works. During NAFTA struggles, for example, amid all the anti-immigrant rhetoric a number of U.S. workers were sent on delegations to Mexico to see where their jobs went. Those American workers saw firsthand what had happened to their jobs with heightened exploitation, which is why these jobs were offshore to begin with: to exploit workers in the Global South, where their governments would allow it. And when they came back, those workers were able to speak to other workers across the U.S. to explain what was really happening with NAFTA, why Mexican workers are allies not enemies, and why global capital is at the root of the issues they face.

When these international bonds are forged, they pay dividends. When Brazilian companies bought steel mills in the U.S. and mines in Canada, workers across these countries resisted the union-busting efforts and launched campaigns forcing those companies to respect unions and right to bargain. When the UAW attempted to unionize Nissan workers in Canton, MS, they recognized that the U.S. is the only country where Nissan workers are not unionized, and brought in unionized Nissan workers from other countries to show why their unions are so important to them. And when the tire maker Firestone opened new sites in Liberia, the Steelworkers union sent delegates to the Liberian workers to help them in collective bargaining.

International solidarity work also casts an important light on the intersection of class and race. As the U.S. and Brazilian labor movements have built relationships, they’ve also been able to explore how racial struggles fit into the labor struggles both domestically and internationally. Brazil’s is over 50% Black, home to the largest Black population outside of Africa, and Black Brazilians face many of the same struggles as Black Americans. In particular, Black Brazilians suffer from an epidemic of police murders and a growing prison-industrial complex. With that in mind, Black Brazilian workers have been inspired by the recent resurgence of racial justice movements in the U.S., and have been eager to learn more about how the Black Lives Matter movement was launched so that they could develop their own.

All told, international solidarity work offers an important reminder that the labor movement is a global struggle. And in building relationships between labor movements across countries, we can both strengthen our own campaigns at home and gain new insight into how we can advance our shared struggles.

Hear the full presentation from the Forum on Labor’s Future below.

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Analysis Democracy: Rule of Law & Elections Economic Justice Organizing Social Justice

Forum on Labor’s Future: Labor and Social Justice Movements

As part of our recent Forum on Labor’s Future, panelist Joe Alvarez delivered a presentation on his experiences and insights around the relationship between the labor movement and the growing social justice movements across the country. The following is a summary of the key points he presented, and the full presentation is available to watch below.

The Black Lives Matter uprisings of summer 2020 shook up the labor movement significantly. In one illustrative protest in Washington, D.C., protesters defaced the AFL-CIO building, putting up signs challenging the inclusion of police in the labor movement. This was followed by calls across the country to expel police unions from the AFL-CIO. A number of unions even joined the calls, with some teachers unions going so far as to launch their own campaigns to expel police from their schools.

While labor would typically be a natural ally in the fight for social justice, events during the uprising suggest a rift between social justice movements like BLM and unions. In this national moment of reckoning, we will continue to see fights and debates around the role that unions have to play in these social justice struggles. But if unions can find the right ways to ally with these movements, it could reignite the labor movement’s momentum in tremendous ways.

In fact, we are already beginning to see these trends in the new generation of labor leaders. New generations of young Black and other activists of color have been creating pressure on their unions to support social justice struggles — and notably, they have not always been doing so from a position of power. Even as outsiders, rank-and-file union workers are increasingly organizing to make demands of their unions and of the labor movement more broadly to advance a bolder vision of both social and economic justice.

There are a few key trends driving this momentum:

  • New organizing
  • Diversifying leadership
  • Changing paradigms around bargaining
  • Leadership development
  • Generational change

New organizing, for one, is bringing new populations into the labor movement, particularly people of color. In doing so, we are seeing a dramatic transformation of the face of labor. And with that comes new insight into the concerns of those communities and the need for the unions that represent them to fully stand up for the rights and needs of their communities.

Efforts to diversify union leadership are likewise transforming the what unions stand for. Diversity is important in and of itself to ensure that leadership reflects the demographic makeup of the membership. But this also comes with new understanding of the role that unions can and should play in advancing rights of workers and their communities, both in and out of the workplace.

Changing paradigms around bargaining and campaigns are also driving these transformations within the labor movement. While major union campaigns have traditionally focused almost exclusively on economic issues (e.g., the workplace, safety, conditions of employment, etc.), there has been a recent rise in bargaining that involves the broader community and that demands more fundamental changes, often targeting finance and Wall Street. Teachers, in particular, in places like Chicago have recently led campaigns demanding changes in how education is funded, as well as changes in non-workplace issues like municipal relationships with banks. Likewise, strikes in West Virginia have demanded taxes on the wealthy, and strikes in Oklahoma have targeted tax breaks for oil and gas interests. Increasingly, the labor movement is embracing a new understanding of its role in driving broad social change.

The growing emphasis on leadership development within unions is also changing the trajectory of the labor movement. Union leaders are increasingly grappling with questions about how to change culture within unions themselves to make them a stronger vehicle for leading social change: i.e. “How do we change ourselves to better lead change?” And importantly, leaders are not only thinking about leading change in the workplace, but also about how unions can contribute to broader social movements. By cultivating relationships between labor and social movements, leaders can strengthen their own unions and also play a larger role driving in social change.

Finally, the generational changes in the labor movement are also transforming it. New generations of union members are advancing new visions for social and economic justice, and the role that labor can play in both. It bears noting that these changes are themselves the result of historic victories that enabled new workers to enter into the labor movement to begin with. While these are important victories in and of themselves, they have also laid the groundwork for further change and we are currently seeing the baton being passed to new generations bringing new momentum to the labor movement.

Labor organizers must take note of these trends and recognize where momentum is growing to strengthen our movement. If we can do this and embrace new visions for our unions and social/economic justice more broadly, the labor movement will only grow more powerful.

Hear the full presentation from the Forum on Labor’s Future below.

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Analysis Democracy: Rule of Law & Elections Economic Justice Organizing Social Justice

Forum on Labor’s Future: The State of the American Labor Movement

As part of our recent Forum on Labor’s Future, UCLA Labor Center Director and moderator Kent Wong began the discussion with a recap of the state of the American labor movement. The following is a summary of the key points he presented, and the full presentation is available to watch below.

On May 1st, 2006, 1 million immigrant workers in Los Angeles held the largest May Day action in US history. Billed as a “day without immigrants,” the informal strike brought the city to a standstill and successfully defeated a major anti-immigration bill. But while this represented a major victory for the immigrant rights movement and demonstrated the power of organized labor, it is notable that this action was not led by the American labor movement.

The May Day action is just one illustrative example of broader issues facing the labor movement in the United States. It has faced years of assaults by federal and state governments, shocks of austerity and deregulation, and fissures within the labor movement that have sometimes left it at odds with other social justice movements like the struggle for immigrant rights. With that in mind, it is critically important to understand how we got here, so that we can craft the right strategy to rebuild stronger than ever before.

Since the 1950s, union density in the United States has been steadily on the decline. American unions reached their height in the 1950s with roughly 35% union density across all sectors of the American economy. But since then, this number has declined to just ~10% today, with only 6% of private sector workers represented by unions. Today, the public sector is the last stronghold of the American labor movement, with major unions like SEIU, AFSCME, NEA, AFT, UFT holding strong.

Faced with this reality, the key task for the labor movement is rebuilding. And these five strategies and tactics may hold the key to doing so:

  • Build labor-community unity with a broad vision for social & economic justice (like Fight for $15)
  • Embrace racial justice
  • Organize the unorganized
  • Fight for immigrant rights
  • Link organizing power and political power

By embracing these principles and expanding the scope of its vision – both of the working class itself and the social transformation it seeks to build – the labor movement can recapture momentum and power.

Recent campaigns are a testament to this fact. The Justice for Janitors campaign, for example, successfully reorganized the industry through pathbreaking organizing strategies and tactics. Likewise, the hotel workers campaign embraced nonviolence and use of direct action/civil disobedience, pioneering creative organizing tactics resulting in the reorganizing of the hotel industry across LA.

Even beyond the workplace, recent events show that the labor movement can also exert major strength in the political sphere, provided that it adopts the right strategies and visions. The LA Federation of Labor, for example, recently developed a major political mobilization campaign that successfully flipped the political alignment in LA and California based on a union organizing framework. This battle was won precisely because the Federation tapped rank-and-file union members to engage in political process, offering lost-time wages paid for by the union to members who were doing political organizing.

Likewise, the Biden-Harris presidential victory was won by an alliance of labor and communities of color. The context is important: Trump had won (by thin margins) former union strongholds like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania (which have been the target of robust anti-union attacks and legislation). But in 2020, they flipped back — in part, due to massive union infusion of organizing, which also played out in Arizona and Georgia. Hundreds of full-time canvassers were sent by their unions to do door-to-door mobilization even during the pandemic, which decisively helped flip Arizona and secured the victories of Senators Warnock and Ossoff in Georgia.

Labor organizers and unions must take note of these trends and these case studies as we continue working to build the power of the labor movement. If we can do so, labor’s future looks bright.

Hear the full presentation from the Forum on Labor’s Future below.

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Commentary Economic Justice Organizing Social Justice

Commentary: The Unionizing Workers Who Became Amazon’s Biggest Threat

Commentary on the new Vice article, The Unionizing Workers Who Became Amazon’s Biggest Threat.

“It wasn’t lost on workers that Amazon wanted to spend hours filling workers’ ears with anti-union rhetoric, but resisted calls to give workers more time to eat lunch, socialize, and use the bathroom.”

Since the beginning of our transformation to a post-industrial society, and especially throughout the pandemic, we have seen a new wave of consolidation of capital. Nothing exemplifies this quite like Amazon, the digital retail behemoth that has propelled founder Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest man.

But despite promises of innovation, career advancement, community investment, and starting wages of $15/hr, Amazon workers are reporting that Amazon workplaces are increasingly looking like the shop floors of the early Industrial Revolution. They recount how workers are surveilled constantly and hounded to keep up productivity at all costs, leading many employees to forgo bathroom breaks and sleep in their cars in the parking lots of Amazon’s “fulfillment centers.”

Amid these conditions, Vice has published a new article highlighting how workers are finally beginning to push back. Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama are mounting a major unionization effort with the RWDSU that would mark the first American union of Amazon employees — 5,800 of them.

The article is an important look at a union drive that is increasingly seen as a national referendum on unions, with major national figures and even President Biden voicing support for the vote. The Amazon drive could also be an important bellwether for the American labor movement as a whole, as it represents the changing face of the American working class (which is increasingly occupied in the service sector rather than the traditional union strongholds of manufacturing). Downwardly mobile millennials and former union manufacturing workers in their 40s, 50s, and 60s are the driving force behind the unionization effort for a workforce that is 85% Black. This intergenerational and interracial solidarity could be the key to their success.

It’s also notable where this effort is taking place. Bessemer has a poverty rate of nearly 25%, but stands out compared to the rest of the South as having a relatively high unionization rate of 8%. As union manufacturing jobs have left American shores, those former union workers are turning to Amazon, bringing with them their direct understanding of the power of organized labor. And historically, Bessemer has been a hotbed of labor organizing going back to the efforts of the Communist Party in the 1930s.

Nevertheless, there are major challenges. Amazon has colluded with the local government to decrease the length of red lights to limit the amount of time organizers can speak with employees on their way to work, and employees report being forced to sit in meetings full of anti-union propaganda. Vice reports that the 18-24 year-old cohort has been especially skeptical of the unionization effort, both because the decades-long assault on organized labor has left many young workers with little understanding of the importance of having a union and also because Amazon has all but threatened to slash pay or even shut down the facility if the union drive is successful. Effectively, they have become so accustomed to low expectations that even the promise of a better workplace seems fanciful.

Whatever the results, this unionization drive represents a major strategic effort for the American labor movement, and deserves close attention.

Read more via Vice: The Unionizing Workers Who Became Amazon’s Biggest Threat