With tens of thousands of workers at the state’s university campuses still on strike, negotiations continue between the unions, affiliated with the United Auto Workers and the administration of the University of California. The strike, which began Nov. 14, involves some 48,000 teaching assistants, lab assistants, researchers and other UC employees.

Striking academic workers on the University of California, Berkeley, campus.
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

At issue is pay which currently averages only $24,000 a year. Teaching assistants say that their rent alone takes up close to 60 percent of their wages. The university has offered an increase of only 5 percent the first year and 3 percent afterward which the union flatly rejected.

Campuses in the university system from Berkeley to San Diego were being picketed and many faculty members cancelled classes or transferred to Zoom rather than cross picket lines. “We’re the backbone of the university,” said Rafael Jaime, a doctoral student and president of UAW Local 2865, representing 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors, tutors, and other classroom workers. “We’re the ones who perform the majority of the teaching and the majority of the research.”

Graduate students have long been a way universities have avoided hiring more higher paid, tenured professors and saving money. Over the past year, these grad students around the country have voted to unionize and engage in collective bargaining to improve their conditions. They have successfully negotiated contracts at Columbia University and New York University and are seeking recognition at a number of other campuses.

NY Times, 11/14, KRON 4, 11/21

In the current tight labor market, an area that is currently coming under increasing scrutiny is the pay of workers who rely on tips for a living. Existing labor laws, both federal and in all but eight states, substantially modify prevailing minimum wage requirements. In these states, employers can pay tipped workers subminimum wages, resulting, in some cases, for the minimum wage for tipped workers to be as low as $2.13 an hour.

This has mostly affected workers in the restaurant industry where wages remain low and workers complain that they are often cheated by their employers out of their rightful tips, usually added onto credit cards. Many are immigrants who fear that there may be repercussions if they challenge employers they feel are withholding their tips. There are so many cases of employers cheating tipped workers that one former official of the Labor Department, David Weil, who headed the Wage and Hour Division, declared, “It’s baked into the model. And it’s very problematic.”

In some places, there have been steps to meet the problem. Michigan will scrap its subminimum $3.75 cents an hour for tipped workers in February. They will now be covered by the state regular minimum wage, set to rise from $9.87 to $12 an hour. Portland, Maine, has a referendum on the ballot this year to end subminimum base pay and raise the regular minimum wage to $18 an hour over a three year period. And the District of Columbia also has a ballot proposal to end the subminimum wage.

NY Times, 10/13

Nurses at the University of Michigan hospital won a big victory Oct. 1 when they approved a contract with management that ends the impossible burden placed on them caused by the shortage of nurses nationwide.

That shortage has resulted in nurses working in extra-long shifts and neglect of the patients they serve. Their schedules were consistently changed and the hospital created an uncompensated on-call system and mandatory overtime. It became a routine strategy for the hospital to try to resolve the perpetual understaffing of nurses.

After six months of difficult negotiations and the threat of a strike, a contract was finally agreed upon and ratified by the nurses. It provides that nurses will not be used to resolve issues of short staffing; it was management’s responsibility to resolve the problem but not on the backs of its nurses.

“Our job is to take care of patients,” said Renee Curtis, president of the 6,200 member Michigan Nurses Association-University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council. “Our job is not to worry about who is being hired or how to hire or how to retain staff. That is management’s job.”

The problem dates back to the 1980s with the corporate takeover of health care systems and staff cutting became a way to cut costs and increase profits. Nurses have been demanding that staffing reflect a realistic nurse-to-patient ratio that accurately reflect the number of patients a nurse can care for. Otherwise, declared union member Anne Jackson, you’re just “running room to room putting out fires.” Another commented, “It can feel a lot of times in our health care system like nobody really gets the care that they deserve.”

This new Michigan contract breaks the ground for other nurses actions that can result in better patient care.

Jacobin, 10/8

By now, much has been written about the narrowly averted railroad workers strike. Although salary issues are nearly always paramount in collective bargaining and was an issue here, the key sticking point was the punishing work schedules that was wreaking havoc on workers lives. Workers were expected to be on call at any time for weeks on end. They couldn’t take time off for a doctor’s appointment or a family emergency without being penalized with loss of pay beyond the loss of the day’s pay or possibly even fired.

The policy comes from a business model increasingly being adopted by other companies. It seeks to enhance its profits by cutting costs, which usually involves cutting the work force, thus cutting labor costs. It means that the existing labor force is pressured to do more and more to make up for it. Rail companies are now reported to be operating with 30 percent fewer employees than 20 or 30 years ago.

Thus, as the freight railroads have racked up record profits in recent years, their workers have suffered from burnouts, marriages and family lives have been upended, and workers’ health has been severely endangered by the scheduling policies.

Although all the details of the rail settlement have not been revealed in the press, it appears that the unions have gained important concessions on this. From initial reports, aside from important salary hikes, the companies have agreed to issue set schedules that allow workers to enjoy time off without being called back at the will of the company. They will also have days off for medical appointments or family emergencies without additional penalties.

The agreement now has to be ratified by votes of the membership of the 12 unions involved.

NY Times, 9/16

Most American baseball fans watching their favorite major league teams don’t think too much about the minor league players. If they do, it’s usually that these athletes are just being groomed for the high salaried majors.

But minor league players are among the most exploited people in the country with salaries that can be as low as $10,000 for the full season which amounts to less than the federal minimum. Their working conditions are miserable; up until this year the owners did not provide housing and players had to scrounge around looking to find shelter. When they are on the road, they endure long bus rides (no jet planes) and lousy meals. Most don’t make it to the majors and wind up with nothing when they hit their thirties and are let go for younger players. The teams used to be called “farm teams.” They are owned by major league organizations who have enjoyed record-breaking profits through lucrative TV contracts and as fans are rapidly coming back to the stadiums as the Covid epidemic recedes.

But the situation for 5,000 minor league players is about to change. In mid-September, they voted overwhelmingly to join the union that represents the major league players, the Major League Baseball Association. The union victory comes on the heels of the settlement of an eight-year-old federal lawsuit in August in which the owners were sued by minor leaguers over widespread violations of minimum wage laws. The settlement will result in some 23,000 current and former players sharing $185 million in back pay. The latest baseball unionization is part of the chapter that is unfolding all across the country as young workers, fed up with miserable pay and working conditions are discovering the meaning of solidarity and are forming unions.

And, breaking with the practice of other employers like Starbucks and Amazon, the union vote will not be challenged by the owners or brought to the NLRB. The players can now begin to look forward to collective bargaining with owners over their pay and working conditions like millions of other unionized workers.

The Nation, 9/16

Glamor industries often attract young workers despite their usual practice of paying terrible wages and imposing staggering working conditions. The recruits are lured by the superficial aspects the job promises. They become flight attendants – young women with visions of travel to exotic places who did not reckon with a job that made them glorified waitresses. Lack of pay when they were not actually in the air but in a hotel room far from home waiting for their next flight assignment. Often subject to sexual harassment. Expected to look like models and heaven forbid if they gained two or three pounds. And subject to termination as they reached their mid-thirties and no longer looked like barbie-dolls.

That all began to come to an end when they started coming together in their union, the Association of Flight Attendants, which has fought for and won contracts that put an end to many of the medieval practices in their treatment by airlines. Their president, Sara Nelson, is among the most prominent of the current group of progressive leaders in the labor movement today.

Another industry in this category is book publishing. The prospect of cocktail parties where they would meet famous writers, helping to influence national discourse, and of rising to top positions at major publishing houses has lured many young men and women into the editorial departments at these houses for years, tolerating the low pay and working conditions that have grown more grueling year after year.

A recent article in Publishers Weekly titled “Is the Publishing Industry Broken?” discusses some of the problems that have accumulated over the years. Editorial assistants, the position they start out at  (and often remain for years), talk about the growing corporate consolidation of the industry – medium-sized companies devouring the smaller ones and large companies gobbling up the medium-sized ones – that have seen the disappearance of some of the legendary publishing houses. Accompanying this is the “intensifying corporate culture that prizes meetings over meaningful work” during their days at the office and forces them to spend hours of work at home on their editing jobs. A “creeping feeling that they’re pushing a product more than a passion.” And the fact that many of these publishing houses are located in New York where their low pay cannot support the high cost of living in the city. The prospects of promotion have also largely dried up as corporate consolidation leaves fewer and fewer companies and corporate structures bring in business executives to higher positions.

In the face of these miserable salaries and staggering work loads, many of these young editorial assistants are looking to the prospects that unionization could bring. On July 20, unionized workers at HarperCollins went out on a one-day strike in an effort to push the company into negotiations with their union (see item further down on this page.)  HarperCollins is about the only publishing house that has had a union for a long time. Before it was swallowed up in a corporate merger, it was known as Harper & Row. At other publishers, including Image Comics and Seven Seas Entertainment, employees have recently unionized. And labor organizers are reported to have been building organizing networks in the industry for the past few years.

No one is sure how the current drive for unions will go in the publishing industry. There have been efforts before. For right now… stay tuned.

Publishers Weekly, 9/22

When George Orwell wrote his classic novel 1984, few people could envision the idea of Big Brother watching over them every minute of the day. Well now, the Big Brother moment has arrived in many workplaces and is rapidly expanding.

An astounding piece in the NY Times, 8/14 (8/15 in the print edition), details the mushrooming growth of the “spying on workers” industry that installs apps in computers used by them to monitor their “work periods” and “idle periods” at their computers.

“In lower paying jobs,” the Times writes, “the monitoring has become ubiquitous:” not just at Amazon, where the second-by-second measurements became notorious, but also for Kroger cashiers, UPS drivers and millions of others. But the practice has also spread to professional and white-collar jobs that require advanced degrees where workers are subject to being “tracked” and “pauses can lead to penalties, from lost pay to lost jobs,” with “electronic surveillance over every minute of their workday.” The relentless tracking has robbed them of any semblance of workplace dignity that many have described as “demoralizing,” “humiliating” and “toxic,” with some saying “they don’t even have enough time to use the bathroom.”

In many cases, the system prevented them from doing the job they should be doing, Social workers, for example, at UnitedHealth, a company that uses the system, complain that much of their time is spent on counseling patients which counts as “idle periods” because it is not spent at their computer keyboards. Grocery cashiers complain that monitoring the rate at which they scan items often prevents them from spending a little more time with older folks who are slower at checkout stations, causing tension between workers and customers. Many say that even if these situations are taken into account by electronic systems, they are often wrong because they are “inept at capturing offline activity, unreliable at assessing hard-to-quantify tasks and prone to undermining the work itself.” In some instances, workers have been monitored for signs of union activity.

The system has also given rise to apps that are advertised to beat the system, such as a “mouse jiggler” that create the appearance of computer activity. One professional employee said, “You have to be in front of your computer, in work mode, 55 or 60 hours just to get those 40 hours counted and paid for.”

The system conjured up by Orwell was also satirized by Charlie Chaplin in his classic film Modern Times, where the worker spends his day tightening bolts on an assembly line. When he takes a bathroom break and an extra minute or two for a smoke, the boss appears on a screen in the men’s room and shouts at him to get back to work. And, in an old folk song about miners and railroad workers who have to use explosives, a lyric goes that one day a premature blast went off and a worker was blown “high in the sky.” When the next payday came around, the worker found his pay short and asked why. The boss responded, “You’re docked for the time you was up in the sky.”

What was once in the imagination of writers and satirists has now become a reality for millions of workers and it is no longer funny.

The NY Times, 8/14

The Teamsters Union has begun preparing for negotiations scheduled to begin early next year. They are intent on undoing parts of the current contract, set to expire next July, that deal with pay scales and working conditions and are a sore point with the membership.

For the first time, rank and file members of the union will join the union team at the bargaining table. The team will be led by Teamsters newly elected president Sean O’Brien who has shortened the time frame for the talks to prevent the company from dragging them out, a favorite tactic of management. He has threatened a strike if an agreement is not reached in that time.

Among the issues the union is seeking to undo are:

—A class of drivers, hired in the past four years that are paid at a lower rate even though they perform the same jobs.

—Excessive overtime – Assigning drivers to overtime shifts for Saturday deliveries, with longer days and more stops.

—Company use of temporary workers to make deliveries using their own cars, a device the union calls “outsourcing” and “sub-contracting.”

—A raise for par-time workers to a starting rate of $20/hour and more opportunities for part-time workers to become full-time.

–Another big issue arose this summer after heat waves across the country took the life of one driver and hospitalized many others. The union is demanding the installation of air conditioning in UPS trucks to protect the health ad safety of its drivers.

International Brotherhood of Teamsters website,  8/’22; More Perfect Union, 8/24

“Unions may finally have the energy to reverse their decades-long decline” declared Steven Greenhouse as he opened an online forum July 28 on the current surge in union activity and prospects for the future. Outlining the new labor activity, Greenhouse, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation which sponsored the event, cited the 68 percent approval ratings unions are now receiving, the highest in more than 50 years.

He recounted the drive for unionization in the past year or two at Amazon, Starbucks, Apple, Chipotle, museum workers, hospital workers,, university graduate school workers, and so many others. “Never have I seen such pro-union sentiment in my lifetime,” he declared. Among people ages 18 to 34, 77 percent approve of unions and three out of four say they

would join a union if they could. The question now is “what can be done to build on this moment,” he said, in the face of “corporate America’s ferocious opposition to unions. Are the nations major unions doing enough to help rev things up? Can this promising moment be built up to be a truly lasting movement?

Citing the new enthusiasm and energy in the current union drives, Sara Nelson, president  of the Association of Flight Attendants and one of the panelists, quoted Mother Jones, the legendary labor organizer who campaigned for workers to join unions back in the days when workers were being killed for it. “You will fight and lose, you will fight and win, but you must fight. If you don’t fight, you can’t win. If you don’t try, you can’t win,”

The forum, featured, in addition to Nelson, Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union; Jaz Brisack, a union organizer at Starbucks; and Joseph McCartin, professor of labor history at Georgetown University. The panel was moderated by Harold Myerson, editor-at-large of The American Prospect, and Steven Greenhouse, senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

The panelists highlighted several key points about the current surge in union activity. Smalls spoke of the importance of grass-roots organizing, with worker speaking to worker about the benefits of collective bargaining. “Listening and finding out what most concerns your fellow workers and talking about how these concerns can be addressed by collective bargaining,” he said, “was more effective than organizing from the top down by outside organizers sent in by a union.” Amazon showed the importance of creating a “union culture” where we show that “we care for one another where workers lean on each other for support.”

His point was emphasized by Brisack who noted from her experience that “Like all workers, Starbucks workers are an incredible source of energy” for organizing at the grass roots. This was important at a company like Starbucks which poses as a company with progressive values on issues like race and climate change.

But, said Brisack, we came to workers with the message  that you betray these values “if you don’t also have union values.”  This was important in the face of Starbucks responding with their “scorched earth” union busting tactics. Both Smalls and Brisack  told of some of the union-busting tactics they encountered and how they counteracted them. They spoke of the forced meetings where management representatives harangued them with falsehoods about unions. Brisack told of several management people surrounding individual workers and intimidating them into voting against the union. Smalls enumerated some of these “disgusting” tactics:  demonizing unions, isolating workers from each other, drilling them with captive audience meetings – there have been some 3,000 such meetings at Amazon, he noted.

One point noted by the panelists is the extent to which current union organizing is being driven by young workers who are striving for a better future than the one now offered by low-paying jobs and stressed working conditions. They want a voice in their workplace and are not content with being told that “if you don’t like it here, find another job.”

At the same time, all the panelists as well as the moderators strongly emphasized the need for the support of the established labor movement to help carry through the fight against the multi-billion dollar corporations these new unions are up against, particularly when they now have to force the companies to the bargaining table and negotiate a good contract. Brisack spoke of the gratitude Starbucks workers felt when other unions opened their union halls for her new union and offered other measures of support.

Workers have to be told that they may need to use the ultimate weapon – to strike – if they have to in order to gain a fair contract, both Nelson and Brisack noted. “The labor movement has enormous resources and funds,” observed Nelson, “and this moment is too important to them to let it pass by.”

Nelson, who spoke from her experience of a number of years leading airline flight attendants, talked of then need to define the union struggle for the public so they understand the issues and the stakes in it. This is especially true since these giant corporations have so much money and resources to influence public opinion.

She also emphasized the importance of political action to pressure politicians to act. “Now,” she said, “people with money are the ones pressuring politicians. We have to put enough organized pressure the other way. If Amazon refuses to negotiate with the union,” for example, we should let Biden know that he “should pressure Jeff Bezos to sit down at the bargaining table with the union and negotiate a contract.”

But, first and foremost, Nelson declared, organized labor has to get out on picket lines “where workers are taking a stand and striking because workers are seeing that with a union you  can make a difference.”

Amazon union website; Starbucks workers websiteCentury Foundation website


Photo viahcpunion

About 100 employees at HarperCollins publishers Manhattan office staged a one-day strike July 20, picketing for higher wages, better family leave policies, and stronger action to improve diversity in its staff. Negotiations with the company have been going on since the union contract expired Dec. 31 with little headway.

The HarperCollins workers are members oi Local 2110 of the UAW and it is the only union shop in the book publishing industry. The union represents employees in the editorial, sales, design, publicity, legal and marketing departments. Average starting salaries in the industry range at about $42,000 with average salaries topping out at $55.000 annually, not enough for professional people who live in a high-priced area like New York. The company, the union charges, can afford strong salary increases since it has recorded record breaking profits in recent years.

Another big issue is the demand to include the employees who became part of HarperCollins when it took over Houghton Mifflin last year in the bargaining unit and recognize their seniority.

NY Times, 7/20

In another development in the publishing industry Atlantic’s business and technology workers announced the formation of a union, calling themselves The Atlantic Union: Business & Technology. It is represented by The NewsGuild of New York.

They are calling for more equity and diversity in the workplace, fair compensation, and meaningful professional development and growth opportunities for employees. The 130-person unit covers workers overseeing the tech infrastructure and business operations of Atlantic, including data scientists, analysts, software engineers, product managers, project managers, assistants, designers, in-house creative studio, sales and marketing, and customer care employees.

Labor Press, 7/25