Efforts to unionize the giant Starbucks chain that began with two stores in Buffalo a few months ago is picking up momentum even though there is still a long way to go. As of mid-May, 78 Starbucks stores around the country have voted to unionize.

And Starbucks is not the only one. The drive of workers to unionize is moving into high gear as about a half-dozen Apple stores, Amazon, REI, and scores of other American workplaces that have never seen a union are facing union organizing drives. And this is taking place even in the face of desperate union-busting tactics by management.

These tactics include the illegal firing of union activists and pouring out millions of dollars in hiring anti-labor law firms and “consultants”.

Workers have a lot to be sore about. According to Robert Reich, the secretary of labor in the Clinton administration and now Professor of Public Policy at the University of California Berkeley, despite the recent uptick in wages, workers are still lagging far behind their real earnings 30 or 40 years ago with corporate CEOs averaging 351 times the typical worker’s salary.

In addition, more than half of  Americans work overtime averaging nine hours of overtime work each week but only 15 percent of them are eligible to receive overtime pay,. Reich figures that the total amount of wage theft from unpaid overtime comes to $35,451 for the average family each year.

But there’s more. The American workplace has become a hazardous place. An example of this was the Amazon workplace in Illinois where six workers lost their lives in a tornado after being told by the company that they couldn’t leave, even though they were warned about the deadly storm hours in advance. The AFL-CIO’s figures put the numbers at an average of 340 workers who died each day because of hazardous working conditions with 4,764 workers killed on the job in 2020.

Robert Reich newsletter, 5/20; Portside, 5/19

All Three Joint Councils of the Teamsters Union  in New York State have urged the state legislature to pass two laws aimed at protecting workers in warehouse industries like Amazon from some of the notorious corporate abuses they have suffered.

In letters to the legislature and in a rally and two press conferences at the Albany state capital, they urged the adoption of the Warehouse Worker Protection Act and the 21st Century Antitrust Act. The first would create a plan to reduce injuries at

Teamsters rally in Albany for warehouse worker protection

large warehouses that result from repetitive movements and unsafe practices, empowering  the state Department of Labor to enforce worker safety regulations more effectively. It also protects workers from firing or disciplinary measures based on secret or unfair production quotas.

“Amazon’s growth in New York is endangering workers,” the Teamster statement said. “The rate of serious injuries at Amazon warehouses in New York was six injuries per 100 full-time employees, 50 percent higher than New York’s warehouses overall.”

The 21st Century Antitrust Act is intended to update New York’s antitrust laws to meet the growing concentration of some giant corporations in the state. As one example, the Teamster statement said, since Amazon opened its first facility eight years ago, it has expanded to 78 facilities statewide, a situation that is endangering workers, given its poor record on worker safety. The proposed act would lower the very high threshold that now exists for proving that a company has monopoly power over the labor market and empowers the state Attorney General to review potentially harmful consolidations and mergers that affect labor markets.

“Amazon has undercut good jobs by paying half the union rate and lengthening the workweek,” the Teamster letter declared. “When a company is this big, and it is non-union, then the employer can dictate wages and working conditions unilaterally for its own workers, and those bad conditions trickle down to the rest of the industry as well.”

Teamsters.org/Amazon

One of the many problems facing American workers in recent years has been the lax enforcement of laws and rules meant to protect them. A very interesting April 29 article on the website of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and reproduced on LaborStart.org details how at union-organized shops these rules are more likely to be enforced than at places where there are no unions. Aside from the usual collective bargaining issues like wages and working conditions, the unions at these shops often take pains to ensure that labor laws and regulations like safety and health issues are realities, not just paper rules that are ignored. For access to the article, click on the link below.

Washington Center for Equitable Growth, 4/29

Photo: Jacobin

Graduate school workers at Indiana University went on strike April 13 demanding recognition of their union in the face of the university’s refusal to recognize it.

The walkout came after the union, the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition, a unit of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (IGWC-UE) obtained a strike authorization vote by a margin of 1,008 to 23, or 97.8 percent of the ballots cast. The walkout is intended to demonstrate that the union has, in fact, the support of a majority of the 2,500 graduate workers and a majority who will participate in collective action.

They were joined on the picket line the first day by undergraduate students who walked out at noon in solidarity with the graduate workers. A number of faculty members also are backing their demand for recognition and bargaining rights.

Graduate school workers perform various duties like rating student exams and papers, aiding in research of faculty members and sometimes teaching classes. They are, most often, vastly underpaid.

Workers in the state of Indiana have few rights to organize unions in the private or public sectors since the state is one with the so-called “right-to-work” laws.

The UE has become one of the leading forces in the drive to organize these workers, recently organizing a large unit at MIT in Boston (see item on this website’s Labor News page)  and others in universities around the country. While UE has been doing this for a number of years, the number of grad workers in its membership has soared in the past year.

UE Website,  Jacobin, 4/13; Who Gets the Bird, 4/16

 

Graduate student workers at MIT have now become the latest to vote for a union in a rank-and-file organizing drive. Last week, they voted 1,785 to 912 to be represented by the MIT Graduate Student Union, a local of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE). The union will become the bargaining agent for nearly 4,000 graduate workers at the school.

The issues in the union organizing drive included supervisor harassment, insufficient access to medical care, and housing insecurity (in Cambridge, Mass., where the school is located, MIT is one of thee largest landlords and charges exorbitant rents

Graduate workers at MIT work primarily as research assistants, in addition to teaching undergraduate classes, and many cited being able to carry out their research free from harassment, unreasonable work expectations, and financial insecurity as a major reason to support the union. Collective bargaining will “make a better MIT for us as scientists,” union member Adam Trebach declared after the victory.

In another grad school action, the Indiana University Graduate Workers Coalition-UE is holding a strike authorization vote after the university refused to recognize and bargain with their union. The union submitted over 1,500 union cards to the school administration in December requesting Indiana University to hold a union election, but the request has been ignored.

UE News, 4/9

Amazon employees waiting to vote in the parking lot of the JFK8 fulfillment center last week., DeSean McClinton-Holland for The New York Times

In a huge win for union organizing, workers at Amazon’s Staten Island, NY warehouse voted by a large margin to be represented by the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), the first victory for a union at the mammoth company.

Hailing the workers victory, ALU President Christian Smalls said: “We want to thank Jeff Bezos (Amazon’s anti-union chief) for going to space because when he was up there, we were signing people up.”

Biggest Union Win on a Generation

Amazon is the nation’s second largest company, employing about 1.1 million workers in the U.S. and a half-million more around the world, and one of the fiercest union-busters in the country. It is second in size only to Walmart, also a fight-to-the-death foe of unions. The Amazon vote was 2,654 for the union to 2,131 against it, a winning margin of better than 10 percent. The union will represent over 8,300 workers at the New York facility, the biggest union win in a generation.

Although Amazon widely heralded the minimum wage of $15-an-hour it paid, workers called the pay highly insufficient for the heavy work they do. They cited a culture of fear with intense monitoring of their productivity – another name for speedup – that sparked their need for a union.

The victory came in the face of a full scale attack on the unionization effort by the company. It mandated attendance at anti-union meetings, repeatedly texted employees with anti-union messages, and spent some $4.3 million nationwide, including at the Staten Island facility (known as JFK8), on anti-union consultants to help plan their strategy.

Grass Roots Organizing Paid Off

The effort appeared to pay off for a different organizing strategy. Instead of the traditional method where a national union sent in professional organizers, the ALU organized workers from the ground up, with workers on the job starting the drive by talking to other workers and forming their own union. The grass roots worker-to-worker effort built confidence that they were joining with others who worked alongside them, instead of some outside entity. After enough of the had signed up, they started wearing shirts and masks with the union’s logo in the warehouse and even set up a working shop outside with a barbecue grill to pass out meals to workers.

A big question for the labor movement now is the extent to which they will help the independent ALU fight potential challenges to the result and negotiate a first contract by providing resources and legal talent.

“The company will appeal, drag it out — it’s going to be an ongoing fight,” said Gene Bruskin, a longtime organizer who helped notch one of labor’s last victories on this scale, at a Smithfield meat-processing plant in 2008, and has informally advised the Staten Island workers.

For Amazon, the stakes are high. Like Starbucks, a successful union effort at one workplace tends to stimulate similar unionizing efforts at others and other Amazon facilities are also starting to organize.

Sean O’Brien, the new president of the 1.3 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said in an interview on Thursday that the union was prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars unionizing Amazon and to collaborate with a variety of other unions and progressive groups.

“We’ve got a lot of partners in labor,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We’ve got community groups. It’s going to be a large coalition.”

Krugman: “Maybe a Turning Point”  

In his New York Times column April 6  Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman dealt with the significance of the union victory at Sraren Island.

Linking the decline in the standard to living  of most  workers and the subsequent growth of economic inequality to the decline in the power of labor unions, he writes that the union win at Amazon could have very significant positive consequences for other American workers and for the economy as a whole.

“Maybe, just maybe, it represents a turning point,” he declares hopefully. “If America manages to steer itself toward becoming a more equal, less insane polity, future historians may say that the turn began on Staten Island.”

NY Times, 4/1; Paul Krugman, NY Times, 4/6

 

 

 

In the face of outrageous working conditions, Workers at Hershey’s chocolate plants, are in the process of holding a union election with ballots to be counted March 24.

http://https://perfectunion.us/hershey-prison-workers-who-make-reeses-expose-brutal-factory-conditions/

The workers, who make chocolate bars, Reese Peanut Butter Cups and other candy products, in interviews have described being forced to work overtime, in some cases working consecutive days for weeks or even a month or two at a time without a break, and being confronted with intimidation tactics from management for expressing pro-union sentiments. They also want an end to the two-tier compensation system under which workers hired after 2008 earn $2 to $3-an-hour less than those hired after that date and have no pension plan.

Under laws and rules governing labor relations, any kind of surveillance, intimidation, or the possibility of retribution, or even a hint of it, is illegal. Yet, Hershey’s workers report being confronted by management representatives for their postings on the union’s Facebook page and being spied on for union activities.

Hershey’s CEO Michele Buck reportedly made $i9 million in 2020, about 630 times the median pay of all other company employees. Its stock value has soared throughout the pandemic.

More Perfect Union

Drivers who deliver food from New York City restaurants will now be entitled to use customer restrooms from restaurants when they’re picking up food. Beginning January 31, the drivers for app-based delivery companies like UberEats, Grubhub, and others will no longer have to resort to the indignity of relieving themselves between parked cars and risking possible arrest and fines.

The new rules, approved by the New York City Council gives the drivers that simple human right to take care of nature’s necessities during their working day. Many restaurants had previously refused to allow them to use the restrooms. The rules come after a campaign waged by Los Deliveristas Unidos, a labor group representing thousands of delivery workers. The effort gained the support of prominent political figures like NY Senator Chuck Schumer, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, City Comptroller Brad Lander and several City Council members who introduced the bill. They were present at a Times Square rally January 23 where workers celebrated their new protections.

A large portion of them are immigrant workers from countries like Mexico, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Mali and others, who historically have been among the most heavily exploited.

More Transparency Over Their Earnings

Among other gains they have received as a result of the new rules are greater transparency from the companies over their earnings, much of which is in tips, usually added onto credit cards customers use to pay for their meals. Workers have complained that companies have dishonestly withheld some of their tips from them. Companies will now be required to disclose how much the customer tips for each delivery and pay drivers at least once a week The city will also set a new minimum pay rate for basic wages. A majority of the drivers earn only $7.87 an hour before tips, far lower than the city’s $15 minimum wage. After tips, their earnings still amount to only $12 an hour. Discussions are currently under way between the Department of Consumer and Worker Protections and representatives of the drivers on the ways to enforce these rules.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez hailed  the development as “expanding the quality of life for people, particularly those who make a living through all of these apps” and expressed the hope that it would become “a launching point for growth in workers rights and greater dignity for workers across the state and across the country.”

The City, 1/23; Portside, 1/28

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eight thousand workers at the King Scoopers supermarket chain in the Denver metropolitan area ended a two-week strike January 24 with a three-year contract that sees many gains in their pay and working conditions.

They Can’t Run Without Workers

The strike showed “the company they can’t run without workers,” triumphantly declared Kim Cordova, president of Local 7 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union representing King Scoopers employees. “The real power is with the people. We hope to set the bar so other workers will follow suit, and so that when enough is enough, they take a stand.”

King Scoopers stores is a subsidiary of the Kroger and Albertson chains which also owns Safeway stores.

Under the new contract, workers at King Scoopers will get raises of $2 to nearly $6 an hour, depending upon their positions. The company will contribute a larger share of health care costs and better guarantees on pension plans. Agreeing to a union demand, the company will implement better health measures in the current pandemic and better safety members to protect workers from violence in the stores. Workers had complained about undersized staffing that was putting an undue burden on them and jeopardizing their safety. In the new contract, King Scoopers agreed to hire 500 additional full-time workers within 90 days.

On the issue of safety, workers cited violent incidents in the current atmosphere of tensions raised by the pandemic. “I have had a guy with a machete run through my department threatening people,” recalled Liz Wesley, a worker in the floral department. “There was the Boulder store shooting. It is a real threat, a real worry for people in these stores.”

Strike Got Wide Support

 The terms of the agreement is a far cry from the company’s initial demand for concessions that would have resulted in higher health care premiums for workers, caps on sick leave of six days a year and a lifetime cap of  only 12 days. The company had also demanded a reduction in overtime pay. Their demands, the union pointed out, comes at a time when it is recording record profits and could well afford the union’s gains.

A key element in the union win was the wide support it received, noted Local 7 President Cordova. “This would not have been possible without the support of our allies throughout Colorado and across the country. To those who stood alongside our members, honored the picket line, and showed up in solidarity, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts,” she said.

Denver Post, 1/25

Striking students march in Harlem on Dec. 1, 2021. Credit: Erica Andrade

Striking graduate school student workers at Columbia University ended their labor action Jan. 7 with an agreement that includes a 7 to 11 percent raise for workers with annual contracts based upon the length of their appointments and an hourly wage boost from the previous $15/hour to $21/hour. The annual salaries of doctoral candidates on a 12-month appointment will rise to from $41,080 to $44.500 retroactive to last August. Those on nine-month appointments will go from the present $35,140 to $39,000 and an increase to $42,425 in the contract’s fourth year.

The 3,000 strikers are are represented by the Student Workers of Columbia, United Auto Workers Local 2110. The 10-week strike had developed into tense hostility at times when the university issued a directive firing the strikers if they did not report back to work and the union urging faculty members to join them to shut down the university. Some classes were cancelled when a number of faculty members did join the union picket line.

In addition to the wage increases, the new four-year contract provides for Columbia to cover 75 percent of student workers’ dental insurance, higher stipends for child care and an emergency fund of $300,000 that the workers can access for out-of-pocket medical expenses. It also provides for third-party arbitration in cases alleging discrimination or harassmanet.

“Solidarity Forever”

The Columbia strike, with spirited pickets  occasionally singing the old labor song “Solidarity Forever,” came as workers around the country are organizing in record numbers. On Dec. 15, the University of California, Berkeley, agreed to recognize Student Researchers United, a union that plans to affiliate with the United Auto Workers, as the bargaining agent for 17,000 grad student researchers across the UC state university system.

The UC recognition came after nearly 11,000 researchers across the state authorized a strike with 97.5 % voting in favor, according to the UAW. The 17,000 SRU members may constitute the largest bloc of new workers with collective bargaining rights in recent years.

In a series of other actions, grad school workers are demanding collective bargaining rights in record numbers. At Indiana University, the Grad Workers Coalition, part of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Union (UE) presented 1,500 union cards, 60% of the 2,500 graduate workers, to formally request a union election. Three days later, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Graduate Student Union, also affiliated with UE, announced that an overwhelming majority of MIT graduate employees have signed union authorization cards. They have asked the university for voluntary recognition of their union. And at the University of New Mexico, the state Employee Labor Relations Board announced that 887 graduate student workers, or more than 57% of the total employed, had signed cards designating the United Graduate Workers (UE) as their bargaining agent.

The Columbia strike, which began Dec. 6,, was the second one this year by the student workers at the school. It was, at the time of the settlement, the largest one in the country. The graduate school workers teach classes, serve as teaching and research assistants, and perform duties, at much reduced pay and benefits, that many of the professors would ordinarily do.

Taking on the perception that the strikers are just students and not workers, Paul Brown, a Local 2110 organizer at Columbia, called on he university to “respect the labor that we put into this institution.”

The strike came as many universities in recent years have increasingly relied on grad student workers rather than tenured professors to teach classes, thus reducing the cost to the university. “We are the ones who do the research that wins grant money for the university,” said Johannah King-Slutzky, one of the strikers in an interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. “I teach my own class. Many of my colleagues teach the same classes that a professor would teach. We’re the ones who have the most face-time with the undergraduates who are paying Columbia’s bills, paying tuition.”

Early on, the school responded with heavy-handed attempts to break the strike.One was an email from its Vice President of Human Resources to the strikers that if they do not return to work by Dec. 10 they will be terminated and replaced. Branding it “an illegal form of retaliation,” King-Slutzky pointed out that it is “an unfair labor practice (that) protects us from our labor being permanently replaced.”

For a reprint of the interview with Columbia strikers, see Democracy Now.orgFor further details on the Columbia strike settlement, see NY Times, 1/7; The Real News Network, 1/14; Portside, 1/17.

For news of the other grad school actions, see Portside, 12/16 12/20; The Herald-Times (Indiana), 12/18. and the Boston Globe.