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Labor Notes

Response to Greg Butler's critique of the Green New Deal and the Rank-and-File Strategy

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, February 7, 2021

As stated in our standard disclaimer (at the end of this editorial), the opinions expressed in this text are those of the author alone and do not represent the official position of the IWW or the IWW Environmental Union Caucus. This piece includes very strongly worded opinions, therefore the author deemed it best to emphasize that point.

There are certainly plenty of constructive, comradely criticisms of the Green New Deal, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Kim Moody's "Rank-and-File Strategy", The North American Building Trades Unions, and Jacobin (none of which are either mutually inclusive nor mutually exclusive). Unfortunately, Greg Butler's The Green New Deal and the "Rank-and-File Strategy", published on December 17, 2020, by Organizing Work, is not a good example. In fact, Butler's piece is little more than a sectarian swipe at a number of targets which are only indirectly related to each other, and worse still, it's full of inaccuracies and unfounded claims that have no evidence to support them.

Review: Blood Runs Coal Tells the Notorious Assassination of a Mine Workers Union Reformer

By John Lepley - Labor Notes, January 20, 2021

Most people are familiar with the politically motivated killings that punctuated the 1960s. From Medgar Evers to Robert Kennedy, bloodshed galvanized the antiwar, civil rights, and student movements, but eroded trust in government and higher education. The labor movement was no exception to the rule.

On New Year’s Eve 1969 in Clarksville, Pennsylvania, three gunmen shot Mine Workers (UMWA) leader Joseph “Jock” Yablonksi, his wife Margaret, and their daughter Charlotte as they slept. The killers were petty criminals from Cleveland, one of whom had ties to the union by marriage.

This horrific moment is the subject of Mark Bradley’s book Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America.

Jock Yablonski is a tragic figure in the classical sense: a good person killed while trying to do the right thing. Bradley tells the story well—although readers of Labor Notes will wince at his frequent references to “union bosses” and “big labor,” and his focus on attorneys that overshadows miners.

Bay Area Transit Unions Join Forces to Win Safety Protections and Beat Back Layoffs

By Richard Marcantonio - Labor Notes, January 12, 2021

Transit workers have been hit hard by the pandemic. Last year at least 100 from the Amalgamated Transit Union and 131 from the Transport Workers lost their lives to Covid-19.

Before Covid, transit unions in the Bay Area—six ATU locals, and one local each of TWU and the Teamsters—often faced their individual struggles in isolation. But during the pandemic, these locals united across the region and came together with riders to demand protections for all.

That unity forced reluctant politicians to make Covid safety a priority. It also set the stage for the unions and riders to team up again to stave off layoffs. And there are more fights ahead.

PUBLIC TRANSIT STARVED

More than two dozen public transit agencies serve the Bay Area. They include MUNI in San Francisco, Bay Area Rapid Transit, AC Transit in Oakland, Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose, and Golden Gate Transit, which links San Francisco with counties to the north.

As a public service, transit depends on government funding. Yet federal support for operations—keeping the buses and trains running—was eliminated in 1998. Since then, federal funding has been restricted to capital projects, like buying buses or building light rail.

This austerity led many transit systems to cut service and raise fares. With each new round of cuts, union jobs were eliminated and vacancies left unfilled. A “death spiral” set in: cuts and fare hikes drove riders away; fewer riders meant less revenue.

With the onset of the pandemic, transit ridership plummeted, most dramatically on commuter systems that carry white-collar workers to downtown offices. But local service became more important than ever. Today over a third of transit riders are essential workers.

In March, the CARES Act earmarked $25 billion for emergency transit funding. Departing from past federal policy, this funding was eligible for operating expenses to keep workers on the payroll.

A new regional coalition called Voices for Public Transportation had been taking shape in 2019, bringing together unions and riders to push for more transit funding. When the pandemic hit, this coalition turned its attention to the urgent organizing for safety measures, and participation continued to grow.

The Australian Green Bans: When Construction Workers Went on Strike for the Environment

By Steve Morse - Labor Notes - July 28, 2020

Imagine a building trades union that broke new ground in the 1970s in its support for environmentalism, community preservation, and women, and in its opposition to racism, even as it fought hard for all its members. Imagine a union that determined what got built, based on community interests rather than profit and greed.

From 1971 to 1974, the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation (NSWBLF) conducted 53 strikes. The strikers’ demands were to preserve parkland and green space, to protect the country’s architectural heritage, and to protect working-class and other neighborhoods from destruction.

The “Green Bans” were the first environmental strikes by workers; almost a half-century later, they remain the largest and best example.

Union leader Jack Mundey, who died on May 10, was mourned in Australia by labor militants, environmentalists, and preservationists. The movement he led is credited with saving Sydney—the country’s biggest city, where 42 of these strikes took place—by preserving its housing for working-class and other residents, its character, its open space, and its livability.

No corporate U.S. medium mentioned Jack’s death (or his life); both Mundey and the Green Bans are almost unknown here. But the Green Bans deserve to be well known, because alliances among labor, indigenous communities, communities of color, and environmentalists (such as under the umbrella of the Green New Deal) are crucial to our future.

BUILD IT NOW?

The NSWBLF’s approach was profoundly different from the approach of building trades unions in the U.S. at that time (and now).

In 1975, as I was installing ductwork in San Francisco on my first high-rise job, many co-workers walked out. Their demand was to move forward the Yerba Buena project in the SoMa District.

The delay was because of community demands, including the relocation of the working-class residents who were living in the single-room occupancy hotels that would be demolished. The building trades unions (along with big business and the city’s political class) were saying “Build it now,” even though retired union members were among those who would be thrown under the bus.

Moreover, the project would eliminate shops full of unionized blue-collar jobs, to be replaced by office buildings full of non-union jobs. I didn’t join the walkout.

DETERMINING WHAT TO BUILD

If the U.S. unions’ demand was “Build it now,” here’s how Mundey as secretary of the NSWBLF in 1972 saw it:

“Yes, we want to build. However, we prefer to build urgently-required hospitals, schools, other public utilities, high-quality flats, units and houses, provided they are designed with adequate concern for the environment, than to build ugly unimaginative architecturally-bankrupt blocks of concrete and glass offices...

“Though we want all our members employed, we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment. More and more, we are going to determine which buildings we will build...

“The environmental interests of three million people are at stake and cannot be left to developers and building employers whose main concern is making profit. Progressive unions, like ours, therefore have a very useful social role to play in the citizens' interest, and we intend to play it.”

First U.S. Union-Authorized Climate Strike?

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 2020; images by SEIU Local 26

Above: Thousands of Minneapolis cleaning workers walked off their jobs and struck their downtown commercial high-rises. Among their key demands was that their employers take action on climate change. Quite possibly the first union sanctioned strike in the U.S. for climate protection demands. Credit: SEIU Local 26.

It isn’t easy for unions to strike to protect the climate. U.S. labor law doesn’t make it easy to strike over anything except wages, hours, and working conditions – even over things like climate change that profoundly affect workers and their future. So it was important news when Minneapolis commercial janitors held an Unfair Labor Practices strike this week to protest employer stalling – including on demands that their employers help fight climate change. This is the third in a series of commentaries on The Future of Climate Strikes. For the entire series see here.

On Thursday February 27 thousands of Minneapolis cleaning workers walked off their jobs and struck their downtown commercial high-rises. Among their key demands was that their employers take action on climate change. It was one of the first—as far as I have been able to discover, the very first—union sanctioned strike in the U.S. for climate protection demands.

The janitors are members of Service Employees International Union Local 26. They are employed by over a dozen different subcontractors like ABM & Marsden to clean corporate buildings like IDS, Capella Tower, EcoLab, U.S Bank, Wells Fargo, United Health Group, Ameriprise and many more across the Twin Cities.[1] The workers are overwhelmingly immigrants and people of color. One observer described the meeting authorizing the strike as “a rainbow coalition of immigrants from all over the world and people from every race and religion in the state.” The union provided simultaneous interpretation into Spanish, Somali, Vietnamese, Amharic, and Nepalese.[2]

I wanted to know something about the background to the strike, so I called Steve Payne, who wrote an excellent article about plans for the strike in Labor Notes.[3] He spent years as an organizer for Local 26 and now works for the North Star chapter of the Sierra Club. Much of this commentary is informed by my discussion with him.

Twin Cities Janitors and Guards Feature Climate and Housing in Their Strike Demands

By Steve Payne - Labor Notes, February 20, 2020; images by SEIU Local 26

“Twin Cities janitors and security officers vote to authorize strike over pay and sick leave,” read the headline in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

It’s true that those are among the workers’ top demands. But Service Employees (SEIU) Local 26’s fight is also for something bigger: affordable homes and a healthy planet for us all.

The union is demanding that companies negotiate over climate emissions and pay more to support affordable housing.

On February 8, 500 janitors, security officers, and their allies crowded into a warehouse space normally used for photo shoots. Banners lined the walls as people waved signs.

Local 26 has lined up every single one of its contracts, covering 8,000 workers, for this moment. Commercial office janitors, retail janitors, security officers, window cleaners, and airport workers are all fighting simultaneously.

The room was a rainbow coalition of immigrants from all over the world and people from every race and religion in the state. The union provided simultaneous interpretation into Spanish, Somali, Vietnamese, Amharic, and Nepalese. Chants in multiple languages filled the air.

Supporters from other unions and the city’s regional labor federation were there, along with a more unusual set of allies—representatives of the state’s environmental movement, including MN350 and young climate strikers.

Municipalist Syndicalism: From the Workplace to the Community

By Alexander Kolokotronis - ROARMag, October 2019

Union membership in the United States is at its lowest level in decades. Nonetheless, unions have hit a 50-year high in public approval. Enthusiasm for unions is not manifesting solely in polls, but also in shop floor organizing by young and lower middle-aged workers.

Simultaneously, the 2010s have seen a proliferation of social movements focused on race, gender and other forms of identity. Despite this simultaneity, it is unclear if present-day union structures and leadership are capable of learning from and incorporating the insights of such social movements.

At a national scale, unions have been slow to diversify their leadership, with continued underrepresentation of women and people of color. Even where there is such representation, it is unclear if unions are positioned to convert this newfound mass approval into an inclusive rising tide for the entire labor movement — let alone for, and towards, socialism.

In this context, what should socialists opposed to all forms of domination and exploitation be doing about labor unions? Through what framework might insights and personnel offered by social movements be learned from and incorporated into unions?

A partial answer has come from a broad swath of socialists: rank-and-file power. This means union members exercising control over their unions, rather than union bureaucrats or officials doing so. The 2018 re-release of Kim Moody’s “The Rank-and-File Strategy” has most widely propagated this approach. Moody’s rank-and-file strategy has become the terms of debate within Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and a point of discussion for socialists in general.

However, this strategy overlooks the potential for rank-and-file interventions on various forms of structural racism. Such interventions translate into a rank-and-file strategy that does not consign itself to a simplistic focus on bread-and-butter and the point of production but rather points itself towards the interwoven wealth issues of racialized housing and education. This brings us to a modified union position that accounts for and immediately acts upon the dynamics of an immediate and racialized lived-space: municipalist syndicalism.

Municipalist syndicalism broadly means democratizing unions as a means to democratizing local and regional public power. This is done through advancing an anti-racist dual power agenda for the labor movement by building and acting with communities of color on issues beyond the job. Jobs are simply not enough, even as unions often exclusively focus on them as a means of community empowerment while harmfully conceding total control over land use. Yet, as Marnie Brady notes, “Pitting decent jobs against decent housing is a false dilemma,” particularly where the legacy of “redlining” (housing discrimination and wealth differentiating residential segregation) is still with us.

Thus, a municipalist syndicalist rank-and-file strategy begins with pluralistic “militant minorities” democratizing unions so as to include the rank-and-file of neighborhood, housing and other municipal struggles. It means reorienting labor unions towards funneling resources into constructing and sustaining vibrant tenant unions that in the long term seek to democratize residency and bring about a housing and homes guarantee and reducing harmfully long commutes.

Just as Big Capital increasingly controls real estate, making the lives of workers more precarious, One Big Union is needed to combat this. It means One Big Union includes not just labor unions, but tenant unions and those struggles addressing structural racism head on — and this One Big Union finally takes municipal and regional power and democratizes it.

When labor fails to do this, it fails surrounding communities and fails itself in the process, as shown by the case of 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

A Green New Deal for American Labor?

By Saurav Sarkar - Labor Notes, February 15, 2019

The simple yellow protest signs were stenciled “Green Jobs for All.” Speaker after speaker stepped into the middle of the office floor, marked with a U.S. House of Representatives seal. Representative-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, fresh off her election win, gave the protesters high fives.

That was the scene in November when the youth climate justice organization Sunrise Movement held a sit-in at the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who was soon to be the Speaker of the House.

Most Americans had never heard of the “Green New Deal” at the time.

Now, it’s on the mainstream radar. The New York Times and the Washington Post ran multiple stories when Ocasio-Cortez introduced a resolution on February 7 to reduce carbon emissions through a massive good jobs program. The resolution has 67 House co-sponsors, while the Senate version has 12.

Even stronger than the original New Deal in the ’30s, her version of a Green New Deal would include a federal guarantee of living-wage employment—that is, anyone who wanted a job could get one at a salary that could support a family, with an emphasis on union jobs and protecting the right to organize.

The plan would also include public investments in clean energy infrastructure. But “there are millions of good, high-wage jobs that will be available through the Green New Deal, and they’re not just jobs that are in the manufacture of clean energy,” said security officer Judith Howell, a Service Employees 32BJ shop steward. For instance, she said, it will take work to clean up the environment where it’s already been damaged.

Howell has been an environmental activist since hearing Ray Charles sing “America the Beautiful” on Earth Day. Last year she helped push through a carbon tax in her hometown of Washington, D.C.

Activists like her are responding to the acute necessity to deal with climate change before the earth is drastically damaged.

It’s not too soon. Scientists now estimate that humanity has 12 years to cut carbon pollution by 45 percent to avert dramatic increases in droughts, flooding, heat, and poverty. Among the costs will be exposure to deadly heat illnesses for 350 million more people around the world by 2050 and $500 billion lost annually to the U.S. economy by 2100.

Viewpoint: What’s Good for the Country? New Owners for GM

By Toni Gilpin - Labor Notes, December 13, 2018

Move over, Mr. Grinch: the executives at General Motors have you beat.

Just after Thanksgiving, GM declared that in 2019 it will close three major assembly and two smaller transmission facilities in North America. The bombshell announcement, which came despite GM’s recent robust profit reports, ensures unhappy holidays for some 6,000 production employees and their families, along with the communities where the assembly plants are located: Detroit-Hamtramck; Lordstown, Ohio; and Oshawa, Ontario.

The Grinch only threatened to ruin one day for a tiny town. GM’s decision devastates the future for thousands of workers across North America.

“We’ve done so much for this company,” Nanette Senters, a 20-year veteran at the Lordstown plant, told a Vox reporter. Like the other blue-collar workers affected by the shutdowns, Senters is a union member—the U.S. facilities are represented by the United Auto Workers, the Canadian plant by Unifor—and so earns good wages on the GM assembly line.

If you think decent compensation constitutes a big burden for GM, keep this in mind: labor costs make up less than 10 percent of the average vehicle.

Facing a grim New Year, the 55-year-old Senters sobbed quietly. “It’s a very depressed area; this factory has the best jobs here,” she said about Lordstown. “This is such an inhumane way to treat people.”

But employee pain is just collateral damage to General Motors CEO Mary Barra, whose top priority is “increasing shareholder value.”

After all, Barra, who pulled in $22 million from GM in 2017, most of it in stock awards and options, must know what she’s doing. Forbes hails her as among GM’s greatest CEOs, while Business Insider says she’s assembled “the best management team” the company has ever seen.

Barra’s shutdown announcement wowed Wall Street, sending GM stock soaring. And establishment voices were quick to attest that everyone benefits when the decision-making is left to bosses like Barra. “The old business adage is true,” the Chicago Tribune intoned. “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”

Big Business, Political Allies Look to Turn Hurricane Crises to Their Advantage

By Samantha Winslow - Labor Notes, September 25, 2017

You have to hand it to Big Business and their minions: in every storm cloud they find a silver lining.

The hazards faced by residents of Texas and Florida (and now Puerto Rico) come not just from the flooding but from business interests eager to take advantage of the crisis to toss out the rules—“it’s an emergency”—and squeeze workers.

Days after Harvey hit Texas, Grover Norquist’s right-wing think tank Americans for Tax Reform was already calling for suspending Davis-Bacon on the Houston clean-up and rebuild. That’s the law that requires prevailing wage standards (read: living wage) for businesses getting federal contracts.

With Trump as president, companies are hoping for a permanent repeal.

The precedent is there. After Katrina, President Bush suspended Davis-Bacon for six months, allowing contractors to drastically lower their wages. When Davis-Bacon was reinstated, existing low-wage contracts were grandfathered in.

Bush also suspended OSHA’s enforcement of health and safety standards and had the EPA waive standards for emissions and fuel refineries.

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