2015 Year in Review: Grassroots Resistance Points the Way Forward

As the assault on union standards continues, glimmers of hope in 2015 came from grassroots resistance. Photos: Elliot Stoller, Sarah-Ji Pix, Slobodan Dmitrov, Fight for 15

As the assault on union standards continues—wherever we still have them—glimmers of hope in 2015 came from grassroots resistance.

Employers who wrung temporary concessions during the financial crisis are doing their best to make the cuts permanent. Companies are coming after us in auto plants, on the docks, in hospitals—anywhere members make a solid wage, retire with pensions, or have health care paid for by their employers.

It’s six years since economists declared an end to the Great Recession. Corporate profits and state budgets have largely bounced back. Employers like Kohler are pushing concessions not because they need them, but because they can.

They sense labor’s weakness; these union standards were generally established decades ago. Now union members are down to 11 percent of the workforce, and often divided into tiers, with recent hires making less—a recipe for shrinking power.

Chrysler workers inspired us with their bottom-up backlash against a contract that would have made the two-tier system permanent. They got no help from union top brass, who had recommended a yes vote. But organizing with homemade flyers and Facebook groups, rank and filers voted down the tentative agreement, 2 to 1, forcing the higher-ups to go back and do better.

Carhaulers too voted down a bad deal—handed down by a bargaining committee of yes-men, handpicked to exclude challengers to the union’s entrenched international officers. These truckers who transport new cars to dealerships have the advantage of an ongoing organization, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, to help them turn a surge of anger into a sustained campaign.

TEACHERS LEAD

Teachers have become a hub of militancy, spurred on through a growing national network.

The Chicago Teachers (CTU) and their community allies, who touched off this wave with their 2012 strike, continue to inspire. In September, activists’ four-week hunger strike to save Dyett High School ended in a partial victory. In December, the teachers swept another strike vote—with 88 percent of the full membership voting yes—while hundreds of high-school students sat in for the reopening of their school library and rehiring of their librarian.

Members of the nation’s second-largest teachers local, United Teachers Los Angeles, last year elected reformers cut from the same cloth as CTU. This year the new leaders drew fresh rank-and-file energy into a contract campaign that culminated in a 15,000-person rally and won the local’s first-ever language on class size.

Half the teacher locals in Washington state joined rolling strikes over class size and pay. The idea started in a small school district near the Canadian border and snowballed. Seattle teachers springboarded from there to a five-day strike that won guaranteed recess for all elementary school students.

In Jefferson County, Colorado—where last year students walked out of schools against a plan to censor the U.S. history curriculum—teachers and their allies ousted the school board’s conservative majority in a recall election.

The same reformers who’d organized a 2012 work-to-rule campaign wrested leadership of Hawaii’s statewide teachers’ union, after a vigorous fight to get the ballots counted. Others are gearing up to run and change their unions in Philadelphia, Massachusetts, and more.

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CHIPPING AWAY

The starkest attacks are in labor’s traditional industrial strongholds. Steelworkers are locked out at Allegheny Technologies—health care cost increases are the biggest sticking point—and deadlocked at the big steelmakers. Earlier this year, a national strike in oil refineries won a pact the Steelworkers hoped would salve unsafe staffing.

Telecom workers at Verizon are battling stalled negotiations with spirited local actions. A four-month winter strike at FairPoint, Verizon’s successor in New England, wrapped up in February, when workers won limits on subcontracting and beat back two-tier wages, but gave up pensions and retiree health care for future hires.

Pensions are a prime target. After the Central States Pension Fund announced plans to slash payouts, current and retired Teamsters turned out to protest by the hundreds in city after city across the Midwest.

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Grassroots mobilization, fueled by outrage, wasn’t confined to the labor movement this year. As police continued to kill unarmed African Americans and evade prosecution, protesters filled the streets of major cities to insist that Black Lives Matter.

Resolutions and press releases notwithstanding, unions have struggled to find their place in that movement. But a few locals have begun to point the way. AFSCME 3299, representing campus workers in the University of California system, is starting with conversations, getting members talking to one another about their own experiences with policing and discrimination.

After nine African American churchgoers were killed in Charleston, South Carolina, Longshore (ILA) Local 1422 organized a march and strategy conference, trying to channel outrage into policy change. The local had long fought to take down the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s Capitol building, a goal that was finally realized this year.

Besides mobilizing around the problem of police violence, several groups are highlighting and tackling the Black jobs crisis, including UNITE HERE in Miami, United Workers in Baltimore, and the L.A. Black Workers Center.

The Fight for $15 continues to gain momentum, in fast food and beyond. New York fast-food workers scored a statewide $15 minimum wage for the industry. Los Angeles joined Seattle and San Francisco in phasing in $15 citywide.

Workers seeking $15 through union drives or contract campaigns included berry pickers in Washington, UPS package delivery drivers in New York, and hazardous waste temps in Portland.

ON DEFENSE

Electoral politics remained a mostly bleak landscape for labor this year, and as we gear up for another presidential election, it’s safe to assume unions will put more in than they get out of it.

Union-friendly progressive Bernie Sanders is scoring impressive support in his bid for the Democratic nomination. He’s drawn big crowds and even a few national union endorsements. Despite rank-and-file enthusiasm for Bernie, however, most big unions are backing the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton.

And the union-backed coalition that sought to unseat Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel lost in the spring, though it did elect one of its city council candidates, teacher Susan Sadlowski Garza.

One bright spot in December was the glad tidings that Congress had agreed to delay for two more years the so-called "Cadillac tax," previously slated to kick in in 2018, which has plagued unions’ health care bargaining. Could the tax be on its way out for good?

But the legislative news was mostly bad. Over the protestations of labor and environmentalists, Congress handed the president the authority to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal many are calling “NAFTA on steroids.”

Wisconsin, the birthplace of public sector unions, became the 25th state to pass a so-called “right-to-work” law banning union shops—though Kentucky, the last Southern holdout, once again staved off such a law.

Public sector unions remain on the defensive, facing down state legislative attacks and waiting for the other shoe to drop in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The Supreme Court decision, expected as soon as next spring, could ban fair-share fees in the public sector nationwide.

In the best cases, unions are taking the urgency of the threats as a motivator—not just to sign up new members, but more importantly, to make members feel the union is theirs, by training more rank-and-file leaders and helping them take on workplace fights.

And public sector workers in Quebec ended the year on a high note, showing the rest of us what a general strike by 400,000 people looks like.

For us, the 2016 Labor Notes Conference is the place we’ll try to channel the best strategies and toughest lessons from these fights and many more. We hope to see you there—and to report on your troublemaking in the pages of Labor Notes next year.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #442, January 2016. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.
Alexandra Bradbury is editor of Labor Notes.al@labornotes.org

Comments

Alexandra Bradbury | 12/21/15

The following comment comes from Mike Bradley, who sent it by email. -A. Bradbury.

It’s been a good year, all in all, given our lousy circumstances. Still, I don’t see robust, consistent growth for the labor movement until we break out of the collective bargaining straightjacket. Most of the labor movement is ignoring what we all know—the future of work is not in full-time long-term employment. Some unions are organizing temps and the self-employed, both the willing and unwilling, and good for them, but even their efforts are often aimed at bringing the workers into collective bargaining.

When unions bargain, they build a wall between those who are covered by the contract and everyone else. It’s inevitable, even when there’s a good community bond with the union. The wall is a major vulnerability of unions, maybe THE major one. We’ve all heard it: “Unions are only out for themselves.” The wall, the collective bargaining contract, justifies that comment more times than we’d like to admit.

Unions shouldn’t rely on collective bargaining, they should rely on organizing. Winning a contract brings isolation in victory. Contracts should be a tool, one of many, of which more than a few are adapted to the needs of temps and the self-employed. Otherwise, our world will continue to shrink, regardless of our militancy behind the wall.

= Mike Bradley
National Writers Union-UAW 1981

don Johnson | 01/11/16

I wouldn’t agree that difficulties faced by organized labor are the results of the “straight jacket” of collective bargaining but rather the negative effects of the Taft Hartley Act. The Taft Hartley Act was created to limit and stifle the ability of the American blue collar worker to organize and collectively bargain from a position of strength.

The Taft Hartley Act made illegal the two most important tools of organized labor when in the act of organizing the unorganized. These were the secondary boycott and the closed shop. The prohibition on secondary action prohibited the working man from assisting his fellow worker in their struggle. It prohibited act of vertical organizing. Prior to the passage of the Taft Hartley Act the Painters Union for example could organize the paint makers and then the paint makers could refuse to sell paint to any paint contractor who would not sign a collective bargaining agreement, or union members who were painters could refuse to use paint if it was not made by union members. This is how the Teamsters grew exponentially. Rather than chase down individual truckers and organize them the Teamster’s Organizer could organize a dock or a terminal and then refuse to process trucks who were not operated by a union members. Or the retail clerk who could and would refuse to stock the shelves if the clothing lacked a union label.

The Taft Hartley Act also prohibited the “closed” shop. The “closed” shop, illegal since 1947, would require that the employer be limited to hire only Union members. By prohibiting the “closed” shop loyal Union members are now forced to work alongside of anti-union management suck ups, and if that wasn’t bad enough it also allowed the anti-union management suck up to refuse to pay dues while forcing the loyal union member to pay to represent that individual. Should the loyal union member say anything that may hurt the anti-union management suck ups feelings that anti-union coworker can then bring litigation against the members organization. Prior to the introduction of Taft Hartley should a member forget which team he/she was on the Union membership could expel them from their membership and this in turn would cost that individual his ability to enjoy the benefits of working under a collectively bargained agreement. This made Union membership something that was highly valued and ensured that the membership conducted themselves in way that was beneficial to their fellow co-workers who were members also.

As far as a changing workforce, I would say look at the Building Trades Unions. These are 15 Unions whose membership is primarily comprised of temporary workers. There are no permanent jobs in construction. The nature of the industry is to complete a project and then move on to the next job and the next employer who is in need of skilled hands. The Building Trades are also the Unions which have the highest stakes in organizing. Construction workers are in a constant battle with the non-union sector and those workers which are willing to undercut their fellow trades worker to stay employed. There is no static workforce in construction. Employer simply do not keep the construction workforce employed if there is no building. There is usually also a surplus of labor at any given moment so employers can easily terminate employees and hire folks waiting for an opportunity.

Where most other Unions who work in manufacturing or the public sector are immune from the immigration situation. The construction worker competes on a daily basis with a easily exploitable workforces who earn less than minimum wage in many instances. These highly exploitable workforce are employed under a semi- feudal like system of labor brokers. Actual wages over the past 30 years for open shop drywall installers and finishers have been reduced by 27% in many regions and in some cases where large crews are managed by brokers the employees earn from $50 to $80 a day for 14 hour days. Unionized workers and employers signatory to a collectively bargained agreement are forced to compete with these unscrupulous employers on a daily basis. There is no help from the government to combat exploitation in the construction industry, likewise there is no help from liberal interest groups to address this issue but rather a belief that the indigenous workforce should simply step aside and surrender their jobs and their ability to provide for their families to these exploiters of labor.

From so called “right to work” legislation to prohibitions on political activity and from prohibitions on organizing tactics to the ability of employers bring legal action against labor organization and be awarded substantial monetary penalties while labor unions have no similar remedy against employers who violate labor law, our troubles stem from the Taft Hartley Act. It is the Taft Hartley Act which we should be fighting in the political arena, nothing else. We simply cannot survive in the long run as long as the Taft Hartley Act remains the law of the land. Labor has done its share in helping other interest and it is time that those other groups which you appear to be so concerned with help the working man free himself from unwarranted government oversight into our organizations.

It must also be noted that since the passage of the Taft Hartley Act in 1947 the Democratic Party has held the Executive branch and the legislative branches of government with veto proof majorities several times. Not once in any of these instances has the Democratic leadership advocated for, fought for, or passed labor law reform which would benefit the American blue collar worker. Not once have the so called liberal advocacy groups stood with organized labor in this fight. At the same time the Democratic Party has used rhetoric surrounding labor law reform to secure our support but simply failed to act and while so called liberal groups have been quick to criticize organize labor they have been reluctant to assist workers in their struggle.