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Labor Notes

Mexico’s Only Independent Farmworker Union Struggles On Despite Obstacles

By James Daria - Labor Notes, August 30, 2021

In 2015, tens of thousands of poor, mostly indigenous migrant farmworkers (or jornaleros) went on strike in Mexico, blockading the transpeninsular highway that connects agricultural production in the valley of San Quintín, Baja California, with distributors across the border in the United States. These workers produce crops including tomatoes, cucumbers, and berries for U.S. and world markets—under conditions they decry as “modern slavery.”

The federal recognition of the National Independent Democratic Union of Agricultural Workers (Sindicato Independiente Nacional Democrático de Jornaleros Agrícolas, or SINDJA) was one of the few concrete achievements of negotiations between workers, growers, and state and federal governments.

The union—Mexico’s only independent farmworker union—has carried on in the years since, though it’s fighting an uphill battle. SINDJA has yet to achieve a collective bargaining agreement with the local growers and multinational corporations that operate in the valley.

This July, SINDJA elected a new executive committee, which could mark an important turning point for farmworkers in Mexico. Abelina Ramírez Ruiz, the new general secretary, began her involvement with the union by organizing around the multiple forms of violence suffered by migrant farmworker women. This includes issues of gender inequality, harassment, and sexual assault in the fields as well as domestic violence in the home.

Even as the migrant farmworker workforce becomes increasingly female, women continue to struggle to gain equality in both migrant and labor justice movements. Local social movements, community groups, and labor organizations have been largely male-dominated spaces where the voices of women are marginalized. The farmworker strike of 2015 was a watershed moment as female leaders emerged to challenge the gender hierarchies inherent in previous organizing efforts.

In another hopeful development, the Mexican government has agreed to work towards more transparent and democratic labor relations. Recent labor reforms stipulate that all collective bargaining agreements must be renegotiated by 2023 by means of democratic elections where workers decide their union representation. That’s thanks to reforms implemented by Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, as well as pressure by U.S.-based unions in negotiating important labor provisions into the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the successor to NAFTA. This could potentially offer unions like SINDJA a more favorable environment for organizing.

Billionaires Can Have the Cosmos—We Only Want the Earth

By Luis Feliz Leon - Labor Notes, July 15, 2021

Fleeing is what the rich do best. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz fled Texas last winter, abandoning millions to freezing temperatures. But some have tired of the Earth altogether.

Billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson are fleeing to space on rockets with stratospheric price tags.

Branson was the first to venture forth July 11, in a gambit to launch a commercial space tourism industry—as if we didn’t have enough trouble with the carbon emissions from excess tourism.

That’s what it means to be ultra-rich—to squander oodles of untaxed cash and rake in public subsidies on boyhood fantasies of “space hotels, amusement parks, yachts, and colonies,” as Bezos put it in high school.

But the billionaires playing space cowboys aren’t like the rest of us. They’re on the other side of the fault line of an accelerating climate catastrophe caused by greenhouse emissions.

Workers who plow fields, erect scaffolding, haul garbage, lay track, and stuff mail are not going to escape onboard a winged rocket. We are going to have to fight to survive on Earth.

Get Fossil Fuels Out of Our Pension, Say Environmental Protection Workers

By Saurav Sarkar - Labor Notes, June 3, 2021

Not long ago, workers at the Environmental Protection Agency were battling the Trump Administration’s many attempts to interfere with both their agency’s mission and their rights on the job.

Under Trump, the EPA reduced union officials’ official time, restricted the ability to bring grievances, and took away office, meeting, and storage space. Now, with most of those changes undone and the Trump era behind them, EPA workers have begun to work towards a different goal: divesting their federal retirement investment program—the world’s largest defined-contribution plan—from fossil fuel stocks.

“For EPA employees, this is something that is near and dear to our hearts,” said Nicole Cantello, an EPA lawyer and president of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 704.

EPA workers issue and enforce regulations, make grants, conduct research and education, and provide technical assistance for environmental cleanup. They’re probably more aware than most workers of the urgency of the climate crisis, given that they collect greenhouse gas data, regulate vehicle emissions, and educate the public about the issue.

Even limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—the goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement—will result, according to a landmark 2018 U.N. report, in heat waves, more droughts, more intense hurricanes and flooding, a rise in sea levels, harm to ecosystems, lower food crop yields, deforestation, and other damaging consequences.

An increase of 2 degrees or more will have far more devastating effects.

So it’s no wonder EPA workers aren’t happy, about, as Cantello put it, “being forced to invest in instruments that have fossil fuels and [greenhouse gas] emissions that are attached them.”

Gearing Up for Bargaining, Canadian Union Pushes for a Greener, Better Postal Service

By Derek Seidman - Labor Notes, June 2, 2021

With its contracts expiring in 2022, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers is stepping up the fight for its own vision of the post office of the future.

It’s a model for exactly the kind of Green New Deal campaign that U.S. unions should be launching now for a post-Covid economic recovery.

For several years, CUPW and its allies have proposed a visionary plan called Delivering Community Power. It advances a big but simple idea: take Canada Post, an institution that’s already publicly owned and embedded in communities, and reinvent it to drive a just transition into a post-carbon economy.

The post office would help to jump-start green vehicle production and infrastructure; it would provide free Internet access for all; it would create a nationwide system of public banking. And all these measures would help to shore up and expand the post office as a unionized, community-centered alternative to the proliferation of Amazon delivery vans. (For more detail, see the box at the bottom of this article.)

Grieving Transit Local Has Been Leading Fights for Safety and Service Restoration

By Staff - Labor Notes, May 28, 2021

We join the whole labor movement in mourning the nine brothers and sisters from Transit (ATU) Local 265 and SEIU Local 521 who were killed on May 26 in a mass shooting at a workplace union meeting.

At an emotional candlelight vigil last night at San Jose city hall, Local 265 President John Courtney—who was meeting with members when the shooting broke out—told the crowd: “Hold each other, love each other, hug each other. Kiss each other when you get home from the end of the day. We’re all we’ve got.

“These aren’t names to us. These are people we know, and we love, and we’ve seen every single day of our working lives, and it really, really hurts down to the very core of our souls. So please, ATU, let’s do what we do and stand with each other, for each other, by each other.”

Nationally it’s the third workplace shooting in two months, which is unusually high.

This particular local has been important in waging fights on behalf of transit workers and riders across the entire San Francisco Bay Area. The union fought with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to restore fare-free rear-door boarding in January, when Covid cases were spiking in San Jose. Rank-and-file bus drivers forced management’s hand when they started planning to stop boarding at the front door whether the agency agreed or not.

After that victory, Courtney said his union’s 1,500 members had “seen with their own eyes how important it is to be unified within our union, and to have the support of other unions and the community to win what we need.”

That victory inspired a bigger current campaign that has united six Bay Area transit locals with their riders to fight for the immediate release of $1.7 billion in transit rescue funds. Courtney told Labor Notes after a May 6 rally, “It means a lot that the community has our back.”

Bay Area Transit Workers and Riders Demand to Unlock $1.7 Billion Already Earmarked for Jobs and Bus Service

Can Postal Vehicles Help Us Fight Climate Change?

By David Yao - Labor Notes, April 28, 2021

The question of whether the Postal Service acts as a business or as a public service is playing out once again—this time in the discussion over fighting climate change.

The Postal Service has more than 200,000 delivery vehicles, many of which are 30 years old and overdue for replacement. They expose workers to exhaust fumes that are a rarity elsewhere in 2021. Hundreds have caught fire, in part due to age. The question of what to replace them with has become a topic of debate.

The Postal Service has a large carbon footprint, starting with its vehicles. While it set ambitious “goals,” such as decreasing petroleum use by 20 percent from 2005 to 2015, in fact it increased petroleum use by nearly 20 percent during that period, and another 10 percent by 2018. Then there’s the contract fleet of over-the-road truckers who haul mail long distances—these trucks used three times as much gas or diesel as the Postal Service’s own fleet did.

The Biden administration’s January Executive Order on the Climate Crisis called for a transition to zero-emission vehicles for all government vehicles, including the postal fleet. But in February the Postal Service made its long-awaited decision to award the contract for replacement vehicles—accepting the proposal of military contractor Oshkosh Truck for a 90 percent gas-powered fleet, rather than the competing all-electric vehicle proposal from Workhorse Group.

The decision to stick with mainly fossil fuel-powered vans would be a missed opportunity to reduce the Postal Service’s output of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Thirteen Congressional representatives have called on the Postal Board of Governors to delay implementation of the contract until there is a full review, citing in part Biden’s call for zero-emission vehicles.

The Postal Service’s 10-year plan, released in March, states that it would need $8 billion in Congressional funding to enable the Postal Service to transition to a completely electric fleet by 2035. The Biden administration’s newly released infrastructure proposal does provide funding to electrify government vehicles, but at this point it is unclear whether a divided Congress would approve that proposal, or in what form.

Insatiable Shipping Companies Set the Table for the Suez Canal Ship Debacle

By Justin Hirsch - Labor Notes, April 7, 2021

A lot of ink has been spilled to explain exactly what happened in the Suez Canal, where a massive container ship got wedged across the narrow channel, idling ships or forcing lengthy detours around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

Early speculation on social media laid blame on the captain and crew, mechanical failures, or mysterious forces of nature. Was it the fault of a drunken navigator, as was claimed in the 1989 grounding of the Exxon Valdez, which spilled oil across Prince William Sound? Was there a failure of the steering gear that controls the ship’s rudder, or a did a loss of propulsion make it impossible to control the steel behemoth?

High winds were present on the day the bulbous bow of the Ever Given, bound for Rotterdam, made landfall just a few miles into the canal. Was the crew, as one Financial Times article suggested, perhaps overcorrecting for this crosswind while a hydrological phenomenon called the “bank effect” built up water pressure on one side of the vessel, shoving it sideways without warning?

Accident investigators will access the vessel’s voyage data recorder, listen to audio recordings of every command, and consider every choice made by the officers and crew. They will undoubtedly write a report that will disappoint conspiracy theorists and allay the fears of ocean carriers and beneficial cargo owners (BCO’s), or the entities that own the cargo inside the container.

Their final report will make for interesting reading, partially for what it will say and largely for what it will not. It’s unlikely to lay any blame on the material factors in a changing global container shipping industry that set the table for this public spectacle.

Silicon Valley Bus Drivers Restored Community Rides for Free—By Taking Matters into Their Own Hands

By Richard Marcantonio - Labor Notes, February 17, 2021

With Covid cases surging in their ranks, bus drivers in Santa Clara, California, demanded to resume rear-door boarding, which is proven to reduce the risk of infection.

Management of the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) balked, even blaming the workers for getting sick. Pressure mounted from the leadership of Transit (ATU) Local 265, and from rider and community groups.

But it was rank-and-file bus drivers who forced management’s hand when they started planning to stop boarding at the front door whether the agency agreed or not.

Bosses prefer anything to allowing workers to run the company. On February 3, the agency announced that it would resume rear-door boarding.

COVID SURGE AT VTA

Santa Clara County, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is where Covid claimed what was believed to be its first U.S. victim on March 6, 2020. (In fact, several February deaths in the county were later determined to be Covid-related.) By March 19, VTA had stopped collecting fares to reduce contact between bus drivers and passengers at the front door.

Rear-door boarding is a no-brainer during a pandemic. Bus drivers reported story after story of passengers fumbling to get their bills into the farebox or taking off their masks to chat. Boarding at the rear door created a safe distance between riders and the driver, protecting both.

Rear-door boarding also has a secondary benefit. Because the only farebox in a VTA bus is located at the front door, it meant the public would ride for free. At a time when many were calling for free public transportation, and some transit agencies in the U.S. and abroad had already eliminated fares, this additional shared interest attracted more community support for the union’s demands.

On August 1, however, claiming “We have done our part to protect our customers,” VTA resumed collecting fares at the front door. Little had changed to justify the move, other than the installation of what one bus driver described as a “janky plastic barrier” that did little to keep airborne microbes from finding their way from boarding passengers to the driver or vice versa.

VTA’s decision had serious consequences for transit workers. Only 15 had fallen ill with Covid before August, while riders boarded at the rear; 72 cases were confirmed from August through Christmas. One bus driver, Audrey Lopez, lost her life to Covid. The new year started off even worse, with more than 60 positive tests in January alone.

Leveraging Strategic Position, Argentine Vegetable Oil Workers Win Big Raises with Coordinated Strike

By Julia Soul and Ernesto Torres - Labor Notes, February 16, 2021

Argentina’s vegetable oil workers ended 2020 on a high note, with a triumphant 21-day national strike for higher wages. They were pushing to make the minimum wage a living wage, as the constitution mandates.

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