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Labor Notes

TV Review: Workers of Deep Space Unite!

By Eric Dirnbach and Ksenia Fir - Labor Notes, March 24, 2022

This is part of an occasional series where we look back at the “labor episode” of a TV show. The Star Trek series Deep Space Nine has a great union episode with lessons about organizing in a customer service industry. Spoilers ahead for the fourth-season episode “Bar Association”!

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) is generally considered the most overtly political of the Star Trek franchise. Unlike other iterations of the show, it is set not on a Federation Starfleet ship, but a space station populated by individuals of diverse races whose cultures are often in stark contrast with the post-scarcity, post-capitalist Federation.

The fourth-season episode “Bar Association”—a must-watch for Trekkies interested in unions—depicts a labor struggle at the station’s prominent entertainment spot: Quark’s Bar, Grill, Gaming House and Holosuite Arcade. Bar owner Quark (played by Armin Shimerman) is a Ferengi—a member of a non-human species whose culture is very capitalistic and misogynistic. Their behavior is strictly controlled by The Rules of Acquisition, a set of tenets like “Employees are the rungs on the ladder of success—don’t hesitate to step on them.”

The workers at Quark’s Bar fall into two categories: Ferengi male waiters (Ferengi women are forbidden to work) and “Dabo girls”—a diverse group of beautiful women from non-Federation planets who act as eye candy and encourage guests to spend more at a roulette-style game. Dabo girls experience frequent sexual harassment from patrons and Quark himself.

Texas Union Activists Fight 'Microtransit' Privatization

By Joe DeManuelle-Hall - Labor Notes, March 8, 2022

When “microtransit,” the new rage in transit privatization, showed up in Denton, Texas, union activists decided to fight back.

Microtransit is a loosely defined term that combines on-demand service with flexible scheduling and routes—imagine replacing a bus system with shared Ubers. It is presented as a high-tech alternative to public transit, but in reality it’s an extension of the drive to privatize.

Some local governments around the country have already handed off operations of their public transit systems to large private operators like Keolis and MV Transportation. This move takes it one step further: dumping the buses and bus drivers altogether.

MICRO-PRIVATIZATION

Denton is a small city in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, home to two universities. The Denton County Transportation Authority operates buses and a light rail line in Denton and two neighboring cities.

The mayor and the transit agency began exploring alternatives to the existing transit system several years ago, nominally to save money. In 2020, Dallas’s transit system adopted a microtransit pilot, contracting with Uber to provide the service. Following their lead, Denton sought out microtransit and decided to go with a company called Via, a former competitor to Uber and Lyft that got iced out of the rideshare market and rebranded itself as a microtransit company. It has since chased after cities and counties, offering to supplant their public transit systems.

And that’s exactly what Via set out to do in Denton: replace all fixed-route bus service with on-demand vehicles driven by independent contractors who are hailed by an app. Drivers operate rented vehicles that they’re responsible for. For the DCTA, this comes with the benefit of getting rid of the existing unionized workforce and the capital investment that comes with maintaining and operating a bus system.

Transit Workers Deserve Hazard Pay

By Joty Dhaliwal and Nathan Swedlow - Labor Notes, February 15, 2022

Throughout the pandemic, transit workers have kept our cities in motion. In California’s East Bay, even when most residents were isolating at home, AC Transit bus operators were on the front lines ensuring that people could get where they needed to go, including to other essential jobs.

Bus operators spend hours every day in close contact with strangers. More than 200 transit workers have perished from Covid, including members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union.

Despite this tragedy, and while it has touted their essential work in the press, AC Transit has yet to award hazard pay to front-line employees. The agency currently has a budget surplus of well over $66 million dollars, thanks to the federal relief money it received.

The following photographs and testimonials are taken from four interviews where members of East Bay Democratic Socialists of America spoke with AC Transit bus operators about their experiences on the front lines of the pandemic and the largely unacknowledged sacrifices and risks that come with the job.

Farmworkers and Firefighters Are on the Front Lines of Climate-Fueled Catastrophe

By Lin Nelson - Labor Notes, February 14, 2022

Despite the short flurry of support (it seems so long ago) for workers on the front lines, many of the folks who help hold our health and the economy together feel abandoned and used up. The Covid calamity and the escalating climate crisis are creating worker sacrifice zones.

In December, more than 700 workers and allies from across the country made their way (online) to the 10th annual Council on Occupational Safety and Health conference, where they shared stories about the conditions that make going to work a risky affair.

Heat and climate were major threads. We might be in the chill-blast of winter now, but we remember the summer’s heat, from fires in British Columbia to evacuated towns in Oregon to the blistering heat in Washington farmlands.

Outdoor workers were at the center of risk this year. Many were sent into floods and fires—to harvest food, to fight the infernos in the West, or to do dangerous storm cleanup throughout the South and Midwest.

These workers grappled with urgent but often inaccessible health alerts about temperature, air quality, signs of heat stress and fire risk. Many didn’t have the benefit of unions, protective legislation, or functioning public agencies, and faced reprimand or firing if they spoke up about their concerns.

How Lobstermen Formed a Union Co-op to Claw Back Fair Prices

By Bernadette King Fitzsimons and Rebecca Lurie - Labor Notes, February 7, 2022

When you think of workers hamstrung by the “independent contractor” label, you probably don’t think of Maine lobstermen.

But it turns out that lobstermen—a title claimed by women as well as men who catch and sell lobster for a living—have something in common with warehouse temps and Uber drivers. As independent contractors they’re denied the collective bargaining rights and various other workplace protections and benefits afforded (to some) by U.S. labor law.

And the strategy they used to confront low wages is one that similarly exploited workers might want to try too: they teamed up with a union to set up a worker-owned co-op.

The lobstermen partnered with the Machinists to create both an affiliate union local and a marketing cooperative. Their success demonstrates how union membership coupled with worker ownership can strengthen worker power.

Rail Unions Are Bargaining Over a Good Job Made Miserable

By Joe DeManuelle-Hall - Labor Notes, February 2, 2022

Contract negotiations covering 115,000 rail workers in the U.S. are expected to heat up in 2022.

Workers are seething over the impact of extreme cost-cutting measures. Rail unions are escalating through the slow steps of negotiations under the Railway Labor Act—toward a resolution, a strike, or a lockout.

Rail remains one of the most heavily unionized industries in the country, and rail workers maintain the arteries of the economic system.

In 2018, U.S. railroads moved 1.73 trillion ton-miles of freight, while trucks moved 2.03 trillion. (One ton-mile is one ton of freight moved one mile.) A slim majority of rail freight consists of bulk commodities, ranging from grain to mined ores to automobiles; slightly less is made up of consumer goods.

COST-CUTTING FRENZY

In the flurry of reporting on what’s slowing down the supply chain, little has been said about one contributing factor—the years-long squeeze that major railroads have put on their operations and workforces.

Precision Scheduled Railroading is a nebulous term that has come to cover many measures aimed at cutting costs and increasing profits. (Although the name refers to trains operating on a set schedule, that’s just one piece.) All the railroads engage in elements of it.

PSR is basically the railroad version of lean production—the methodology of systematic speedup and job-cutting that caught on in manufacturing in the ’80s and spread to many industries.

The railroads have done it by cutting less-profitable routes; closing and consolidating railyards, repair barns, and other facilities; running fewer, longer trains; and laying off tens of thousands of workers while demanding the remaining workers do more.

Class I railroads—the companies with annual revenues over $900 million—employed fewer workers this January than any month since 2012, falling below even the early-pandemic slump.

Railroads have cut as many as 35 percent of workers in some titles over the past several years. Overall there were 160,795 Class I rail workers in December 2015, and only 114,499 by December 2021.

At the same time, individual freight trains were hauling, on average, 30 percent more tonnage in 2020 than in 2000.

But all these practices add up to a system that doesn’t function well under pressure—the pressure of a global pandemic, or even just the pressure of normal operations. In stretched-out, just-in-time supply chains with no room for error, delays cascade into more delays.

Railroad worker strike blocked by US court

Bay Area Transit Workers Organize for Hazard Pay, Build toward Contract Campaigns

By Elana Kessler and Richard Marcantonio - Labor Notes, January 21, 2022

Oakland transit worker Connie McFarland drove home after a long shift last July 28 and logged onto Zoom for a board meeting of her employer, AC Transit. She joined a chorus of 40 workers and riders who held up the start of the agenda with nearly two hours of public comment.

Their demand: hazard pay for frontline transit workers.

Bus operator Sultana Adams, an assistant shop steward with Transit (ATU) Local 192, described the trauma of an assault by a rider who spat in her face. McFarland told the board, “We really would like to have some form of appreciation that’s more than lip service.”

By coming together around this popular demand, Bay Area transit workers built power across unions in the lead-up to their contract campaigns and fought to improve transit for their riders.

Viewpoint: Climate Justice Must Be a Top Priority for Labor

By Peter Knowlton and John Braxton - Labor Notes, September 21, 2021

Today’s existential crisis for humanity is the immediate need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. All of us have to. Everywhere. For workers and for our communities there is no more pressing matter than this.

We need to begin a discussion among co-workers, creating demands and acting on them at the workplace and bargaining table. We need to show up at local union meetings, central labor councils, and town halls supporting demands that move us toward a fossil fuel-free future.

At the same time, we need to protect the incomes and benefits of workers affected by the transition off of fossil fuels and to make sure they have real training opportunities. And we need to restore and elevate those communities that have been sacrificed for fossil fuel extraction, production, and distribution. We should promote candidates for elected office who support legislation which puts those aspirations into practice, such as the Green New Deal.

If the labor movement does not take the lead in pushing for a fair and just transition, one of these futures awaits us: (1) the world will either fail to make the transition to renewable energy and scorch us all, or (2) the working class will once again be forced to make all of the sacrifices in the transition.

The time is long past ripe for U.S. unions and our leaders to step up and use our collective power in our workplaces, in our communities, and in the streets to deal with these crises. That means we need to break out of the false choice between good union jobs and a livable environment.

There are no jobs on a dead planet. Social, economic, and environmental justice movements can provide some pressure to mitigate the crises, but how can we succeed if the labor movement and the environmental movement continue to allow the fossil fuel industry to pit us against each other? Rather than defending industries that need to be transformed, labor needs to insist that the transition to a renewable energy economy include income protection, investment in new jobs in communities that now depend on fossil fuels, retraining for those new jobs, and funds to give older workers a bridge to retirement.

Like any change of technology or work practice in a shop, if the workers affected don’t receive sufficient guarantees of income, benefits, and protections their support for it, regardless of the urgency, will suffer.

Washington Carpenter Revolt Swells Picket Lines

By Luis Feliz Leon - Labor Notes, September 17, 2021

Two thousand Washington carpenters went on strike yesterday, out of 6,600 who currently work under the master agreement with the Association of General Contractors (AGC). Five jobs were picketed, including construction projects at Facebook’s Building X, the Microsoft’s Campus in Redmond, and Alphabet’s Google.

“I didn’t know what to expect. People can talk on Facebook, but you don’t know until it’s time for people to show up,” said Joe Rice, a general foreman at Local 30.

Local 816 carpenter Bryce Owings was required to report to work, but he took the day off to stand on the picket line. “I’m a card-carrying carpenter” before anything else, said his superintendent at the jobsite, when Owings asked for a personal day to stand on the picket line.

“This is the beautiful part—now the membership is taking their union leadership and guiding them in the right direction,” said Jimmy Castillo Matta, Jr., a delegate in Local 41, who spent his 25th birthday on the picket line.

The support has also come from other trades. “The fight they’re having, we’re all facing. The AGC isn’t stupid,” said H.M., a member of Operating Engineers Local 612 who asked to use only her initials.

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