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solidarity unionism

They killed themselves with greed: How a strike stopped privatization in DC’s Metro

By Ray Valentine - Organizing Work, December 29, 2019

Ray Valentine describes how a scheme to cut labor costs in the DC-area transit system through privatization backfired when workers at the private subcontractor went on strike.

On October 24, 120 bus operators, mechanics, and other workers represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 walked off the job at the Cinder Bed Road MetroBus garage in Lorton, Virginia, launching the first strike to hit the Washington, DC metro area’s mass transit system in more than 40 years. The strike was unplanned and small — small enough that it won’t show up in the federal government’s tally of work stoppages — and after more than two months, workers are still out with no settlement in sight. But even though the issues that provoked the dispute have not been resolved, the fight has led to major changes that have strengthened the position of workers throughout the transit system.

The buses out of Cinder Bed drive routes that are part of the Washington Metro system and the workers wear Metro uniforms, but the garage is operated by Transdev, a French multinational. The garage was outsourced as part of a long-term plan by Metro management to cut costs by contracting out as many services as possible in order to drive down labor costs. The strike began as a fairly straightforward economic conflict over wages and benefits, and the union’s ambitions going into it were modest. But on December 13, the union and Metro reached a deal that would halt further privatization and even bring some services that have already been outsourced back in-house. 

The result is a rare win for labor, but it’s not entirely clear how it happened, even to the people who won it.

Tough Times Organizing Street Canvassers

By Gavin McAllister - Organizing Work, December 5, 2019

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organized the Seattle office of Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. (GCI) from July 2017 to August 2018. GCI is a company neck-deep in the “nonprofit industrial complex”: it is a fundraising company that contracts with nonprofit organizations to provide high-volume small donor funds. Their business model consists of selling canvassing shifts to organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and Doctors Without Borders. The worker’s job is to stand on a public street wearing the nonprofit’s uniform, flag down passersby, and try to convince them to donate to the nonprofit. GCI would then also collect the donor’s contact information and sell it to third party organizations, primarily the Democratic Party.

The union drive began when disgruntled workers approached the Seattle IWW General Membership Branch (GMB) in 2017. Through the course of the campaign, the union grew from a small committee to a wall-to-wall solidarity union. The drive ended on a difficult note when the employer closed the shop and fled the state in August 2018 to avoid having the union in the workplace. All 15 workers, including me, were laid off.

The campaign ultimately taught the Seattle IWW a few important lessons about the nuts and bolts of organizing in this type of workplace. We learned that it is absolutely possible to organize a fighting union at a small, high-turnover workplace. However, we underestimated how far the bosses would be willing to go to keep a union out, and we overestimated what the Labor Relations Board could do for us.

Progressives in the Streets, Union-busters in the Sheets

By Marianne Garneau - Organizing Work, November 22, 2019

In the past few weeks, we’ve seen multiple headlines about social justice advocacy groups and other progressive nonprofits resisting their workers’ attempts to organize. The tactics range from hiring anti-union law firms and holding “captive audience” staff meetings challenging the need for a union, to ruthless responses like mass layoffs.

Basically, we’re witnessing the same anti-union playbook that we’re used to in the corporate or for-profit sector, applied within organizations that claim to have a mandate to actively fight for good. These organizations will even tout their support for unions and partnerships with them, and yet having one in-house, representing their own workers, is apparently intolerable.

We’ve said before on this site that a boss is a boss is a boss. Managers want to control wages and workflow, and any pushback against that will unleash a power struggle. But it’s worth digging into the particular form this takes at nonprofits: why workers at these ostensibly progressive institutions feel the need to organize, and why they face so much resistance.

This isn’t just about calling out the hypocrisy of so-called progressives. It’s about preparing nonprofit sector workers, who are often young and idealistic and inexperienced at asserting their rights, for what they might face from these employers, and inoculating them against the bosses’ attempts to convince them they don’t need or deserve a union.

Workers go to work for these organizations thinking they can do good, and assuming they will be treated well by employers committed to social justice. But it turns out that good treatment for workers is not a matter of philosophical commitment to progressive political values, but a matter of how power is distributed in the workplace.

Concrete Examples of Non-Labor Board Organizing

By Nick Walter - Organizing Work, September 27, 2018

Nick Walter describes several examples of concessions-winning labor organizing that does not rely on the labor relations board model of filing for an election and bargaining a contract. The examples span transportation, logistics, food service and retail, in Canada and the U.S. The author is candid about both successes and failures.

Yellow Cab in Edmonton

Taxi drivers in Edmonton, largely an immigrant workforce, had an association for a number of years that would make demands on the City of Edmonton, various hotels, and their own company. They would back up these demands with direct action. Their main tactic was car pickets. They would circle around a hotel where there was a grievance, or City Hall. In at least one instance, they blocked the on-ramp to the airport.

Advantages: They had a very high level of member engagement and a capacity to take action that could achieve some pretty big wins and take on large institutions.

Disadvantages: They didn’t seem to have a method for clearing out small grievances: little issues that didn’t require hundreds of cars in an auto picket.

What happened? They were eventually certified under the Teamsters, who made some big promises. The Teamsters failed to get a first contract and called a strike. The strike collapsed because a number of cabbies scabbed and didn’t honor it. This was in stark contrast to the auto pickets, which had had a high level of participation and almost no scabbing. Many workers were afraid of losing pay or felt they couldn’t afford the Teamsters’ full-on strike. Some of this is probably bad or sloppy organising on the part of the Teamsters. But also, unlike the Teamsters, the advantage of the old association was they could also engage in job action while at work without being threatened with Alberta Labour Relations Board fines for not having followed the legal process for a strike authorization. This let them collect fares and take action in the same day. Ultimately, the Teamsters failed to secure a contract and Yellow Cab promptly decertified.

Here’s How a Supreme Court Decision To Gut Public Sector Unions Could Backfire on the Right

By Shaun Richman - In These Times, February 8, 2017

Janus v. AFSCME, which begins oral arguments on February 26, is the culmination of a years-long right-wing plot to financially devastate public-sector unions. And a Supreme Court ruling against AFSCME would indeed have that effect, by banning public-sector unions from collecting mandatory fees from the workers they are compelled to represent. But if the Court embraces the weaponization of free speech as a cudgel to beat up on unions, the possibility of other, unintended consequences is beginning to excite some union advocates and stir fear among conservative constitutional scholars.

The ruling could both wildly increase workers’ bargaining power and clog the lower courts with First Amendment challenges to routine uses of taxpayer money. At a minimum, it has the potential to turn every public sector workplace dispute into a constitutional controversy—and one Midwest local is already laying plans to maximize the chaos this could cause.

“There’s No Trick”

By Jamie McCallum - Jacobin, January 22, 2018

“We are worried, but we are ready to fight,” says Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). “We are more ready than ever, actually.”

With 110,000 members, the MTA is the largest union in the state, a status that could soon change once the Supreme Court hands down its anticipated ruling against unions in Janus v. AFSCME [the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees]. That decision would allow public-sector workers — some of whom are currently mandated to pay “fair share” fees if they opt out of full-fledged union membership — to receive union representation and benefits without paying anything. This would expand right-to-work conditions to the entire public sector in the United States, a crisis even for a movement that is accustomed to crises. Say the word “Janus” to union organizers and they say things like “devastating,” “catastrophic,” “cataclysmic,” and “fucked.” And “organize.”

Two years ago, unions escaped with a victory in a similar case, Friederichs v. California Teachers Association, only because the timely death of Justice Antonin Scalia resulted in a 4-4 decision. But no one is counting on a favorable court ruling this time around; hence, a call to arms.

New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class Struggle Unionism (Ness)

By Henry Laws - LibCom.Org, January 19, 2018

This is the first book to compile workers’ struggles on a global basis, examining the formation and expansion of radical unions in the Global South and Global North.

Bureaucratic labor unions are under assault. Most unions have surrendered the achievements of the mid-twentieth century, when the working class was a militant force for change throughout the world. Now trade unions seem incapable of defending, let alone advancing, workers’ interests.

As unions implode and weaken, workers are independently forming their own unions, drawing on the tradition of syndicalism and autonomism—a resurgence of self-directed action that augurs a new period of class struggle throughout the world. In Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe, workers are rejecting leaders and forming authentic class-struggle unions rooted in sabotage, direct action, and striking to achieve concrete gains.

The tangible evidence marshaled in this book serves as a handbook for understanding the formidable obstacles and concrete opportunities for workers challenging neoliberal capitalism, even as the unions of the old decline and disappear.

Read the report (PDF).

Unions, Trade and Nationalism

By Tom Crofton - CounterPunch, October 31, 2017

A recent statement from the AFL-CIO regarding a rejection of NAFTA and other corporate/globalist trade agreements unfortunately only skims the surface of the issues working people face.

As the dominate union leadership in America, the AFL-CIO and its member unions need to take a deeper look at their historical behavior, and their role in enabling the evolution of the corporate state with its current right wing/anti labor swing.

American unions never were interested in taking responsibility for production. American unions developed to confront management but not to replace it. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was the only organization that tried to organize horizontally across all sectors to create a “new world in the shell of the old”. The vision of workers building a society where prosperity was available to all and artificial class barriers would dissolve was never a popular theme in American labor. We have always felt that we needed the owners, agreeing at least subliminally that capital has more power than basic human needs; that human weakness, pettiness, and laziness would wreck any sort of money-free effort to exchange services; that hierarchies of wages and benefits were natural and that those at the bottom were there due to their own fault.

The evolution of trade unions cemented in place these hierarchies, leaving the least skilled workers unorganized until the CIO attempted to fill the need while organizing mine workers and African Americans during the Great depression. The following era of war-induced prosperity, and the ongoing economic expansion during the Cold War, created a phony, unsustainable sense of American prosperity for a growing middle class, where 5% of the world’s population consumed 80% of its resources. The AFL-CIO was active in this period wrecking third world union organizing attempts as a front for a CIA run, right-wing sponsored, American style Imperialism. On the home front, a rising middle class of workers were happy to build low quality products, for good wages, as the disposable society offered an endless supply of the “latest” consumer goods. Conspicuous consumption and keeping up with the Jones’s did not include the working poor or the third world.

Democratic Ownership and the Pluralist Commonwealth: The Creation of an Idea Whose Time Has Come

By Gar Alperovitz - Truthout, September 19, 2017; excerpt from Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times by Charles Derber (NY: Routledge, 2017)

The following piece by Gar Alperovitz forms one of the guest "interludes" in Welcome to the Revolution.

On September 19, 1977 -- a day remembered locally as "Black Monday" -- the corporate owners of the Campbell Works in Youngstown, Ohio, abruptly shuttered the giant steel mill's doors. Instantly, 5,000 workers lost their jobs, their livelihoods, and their futures. The mill's closing was national news, one of the first major blows in the era of deindustrialization, offshoring, and "free trade" that has since made mass layoffs commonplace.

What was not commonplace was the response of the steelworkers and the local community. "You feel the whole area is doomed somehow," Donna Slaven, the wife of a laid-off worker, told reporters at the time. "If this can happen to us, there is not a secure union job in the country." Rather than leave the fate of their community in the hands of corporate executives in New York, New Orleans, and Washington DC, the workers began to organize and resist. And they joined with a new coalition of priests, ministers, and rabbis -- headed by a Catholic and an Episcopal bishop -- to build support for a new way forward. I was called in to head up an economic team to help.

Working together, the steelworkers, the ecumenical coalition, and our team put forward a bold proposal to re-open the mill under worker–community ownership. With support from a creative Carter Administration official, a study was financed that demonstrated the feasibility of a plan to put the old mill back into operation with the latest modern technology. A worker–community-owned facility could operate efficiently, re-employ 4,000 people, and generate a profit.

Peace activist, civil rights advocate, and labor lawyer Staughton Lynd worked with me and the coalition to develop the transition effort. Lynd subsequently wrote:

What was new in the Youngstown venture was the notion that workers and community residents could own and operate a steel mill. ... Employee–community ownership of the Campbell Works would have challenged the capitalist system on the terrain of the large-scale enterprises in basic industries. ... This was the ownership model the workers themselves chose.

The coalition knew that their only chance against big steel was to build a popul

Rebuilding Radical Unionism: An Organiser’s Notes

By an Anonymous Organiser - Novara, January 31, 2016

Britain is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Still, a substantial minority of the workforce works for less than what it takes to get by. A much larger part of the workforce gets by in a haze of exhaustion, alienation and frustration, with little recourse. For the unemployed, disabled, ill or precariously employed, the sorrows of work are replaced or compounded by the malicious bureaucratic violence of the Department for Work and Pensions. For the retired, pensions are among the worst in the developed world and social care is a disgrace.

Chronic low expectations, low levels of worker solidarity and enfeebled official union structures – all the consequences of very deliberate legislative and executive action by successive governments – make it difficult to see a way out.

Still, a functional, scaleable, radical, rooted trade unionism capable of transcending bureaucratic hindrance and legal repression is a necessary starting point for a freer, more democratic, more equitable society.

With looming, sweeping automation threatening the movement’s last vestiges of strength in the industrial sectors – on the railways, and in some parts of distribution – the task of building this trade unionism is urgent.

Extensive automation achieved purely on the terms of capital will eradicate what’s left of the unionised working class, hastening the arrival of a purgatorial post-democracy. The absence of any industrial organisation with any means of obstructing the means of production and distribution in moments of conflict will lead to the total exclusion of the working class from civil society and political discourse. Protests and mobilisations are one thing – good unions secure and enforce the gains of the class in a permanent, scaleable way.

To unpack some of the obstacles to this work in the UK today, we need to approach this from the workplace and national level. We need to interrogate which demands, tactics and strategies could – just could – begin to rebuild the political and industrial power of workers and the economically excluded. And such interrogation is a matter of urgency: the Conservatives’ trade union bill – a bill that will make useful trade unionism close to impossible within the law – looks set to pass through parliament with little more than a whimper of labour movement opposition.

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