You are browsing the archive for unions.

Walmart Organizing Comes of Age: An Interview With UFCW Organizing Director Pat O’Neill

8:18 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

United Food and Commercial Workers’ Pat O’Neill talks about the difficulty of organizing retail and the new tactics that have been developed, shoppers’ support and Walmart workers’ extraordinary courage in the rolling actions leading up to Black Friday.

Walmart Workers Speak Out

Black Friday Walmart Worker Strike

This fall has witnessed a wave of rolling strikes and other employee actions at America’s largest private-sector employer: Walmart. The actions, spread across more than a dozen cities, have been the first in the retailer’s 50-year history. This week, things are set to get bigger: Walmart associates across the country are now promising pickets, leafleting, and creative flash mobs on and around Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year.

One of the main groups involved in planning the actions has been OUR Walmart, a labor-community organization for Walmart employees, backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Rather than going through the arduous process of forming a traditional union by signing up majorities in each store, they have developed a more flexible process for employees to get involved early on. Smaller groups can use OUR Walmart to take collective action to advocate for rights and for better conditions. Such advocacy harkens back to the early days of the US labor movement, before the labor laws of the New Deal institutionalized processes for collective bargaining. It may also be a bellwether for future employee action, reflecting an age in which labor law has again failed to catch up with the reality of the American economy.

To get inside insight on the new activism taking place at Walmart, I talked with UFCW Organizing Director Pat O’Neill. We discussed the rolling strikes, the revived use of “minority unions,” and why OUR Walmart is not calling for a boycott.

I started by asking how many employees are part of OUR Walmart.

“It’s in the thousands of workers who are paying the $5.00 a month in membership dues for OUR Walmart,” O’Neill replied. “There are a lot of others that are not paying, but they’re active. On Black Friday, our goal is to have in excess of 1000 Walmart workers striking, and there will be many more that take some other form of action.”

I asked what sort of message the public will be getting on Black Friday.

“The public’s going to be asked to support Walmart associates as they fight for better hours and better working conditions and as they call on the company not to continue with reprisals against workers for their organizing activity,” O’Neill said. “It’s two-fold: we want people to support the workers in pushing for better conditions, but also in standing up for their organizing rights.”

I next asked about his hopes in terms of the outcomes from the rolling actions.

“We want to put pressure on the company and let them know that the workers are upset, ” O’Neill responded. “We want the company to know that they’re not going to squash them in their endeavors to organize by taking retaliatory action. The workers are not just crawling under the table and hiding. They’re actually taking stronger action; they’re upping the ante, if you will. When Walmart changes somebody’s schedule, suspends someone, or terminates them even for their organizing activity, the rest of the workers are upset over it and know about it.”

Pointing to a long history of unsuccessful organizing at Walmart, I asked what he thought today’s employees have learned from some of these past efforts that haven’t been successful.

“I think the past efforts weren’t successful because it’s always difficult in retail, period,” O’Neill said. “It’s not like one plant. The workforce doesn’t have that much camaraderie with each other. There are so many people at the store; there are part-time hours. A lot of workers don’t even know each other. Then you lay on hundreds or thousands of different locations, it makes organizing under the [National Labor Relations Act] very difficult. Even if you get in at one store, then you got to worry about whether you can get a contract.”

“The old way of organizing that we did didn’t work,” he said. “Now we really studied the history, not just what we’ve had with Walmart, but the civil rights movement and the beginning of the labor movement, what the United Auto Workers (UAW) and others did back in the ’30s. That’s where we came up with the concept of minority unionism and trying to hook people up with each other, even if there’s only one activist in one store.”

“Traditionally, it was all about signing cards, then holding an election and hoping you win. You don’t charge dues or anything until after you get a contract. With OUR Walmart, workers put some skin in the game up front with a five-dollar-per-month contribution. They buy into it and want to do it. I think those two pieces are really major differences from the past.”

I pressed further, asking what he thought Walmart associates themselves have learned from the past efforts to organize.

Read the rest of this entry →

President Obama Reelected—But Where Is the Pathway to Good Jobs?

2:15 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

With Barack Obama’s reelection last night, we witnessed the labor movement once again, as in every successful Democratic presidential race in recent decades, saving the president. Its ground troops and financial backing provided the bulwark to shore up Obama’s lead against Romney. By aiding in Obama’s victory, unions helped avert the crisis that the election of Romney/Ryan would have represented—an attack not only on organized labor, but on women’s rights and the whole of the social safety net.

But what, in terms of a positive agenda, should working people expect that’s different from when President Obama was first elected? After the election of the last two Democratic presidents, organized labor had a clear legislative priority to hand to the successful candidate—the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) in the case of Obama’s first term, and a proposed ban on striker replacement in the case of President Clinton. In both cases, labor waited for the White House to lead on those issues, and that never happened. Neither EFCA nor the striker replacement ban came to pass.

This time around, labor does not have a single marquee piece of legislation that it is rallying around. We already know that any worker-friendly legislation that the White House advances will certainly face a blockade from Congressional Republicans. But that’s no excuse for the president to neglect using the bully pulpit to stand in defense of the rights of working people.

This is not a question of transactional politics. It’s not an issue of President Obama showing appreciation to labor for helping with his reelection. The need to revive the right to collective bargaining is important for a far more fundamental reason: without strengthening the ability of workers to negotiate for living-wage jobs, President Obama’s vows to restore the American middle class have little chance of being fulfilled.

Voters affirmed that the message presented by the Obama campaign was correct: the administration had inherited an economic mess, and under Obama’s presidency we have begun a recovery; it’s not moving fast enough, but the administration has put us on the right path. A Republican win would have destroyed any hope of achieving a true recovery for the 99 percent.

While that message is valid, Obama hasn’t provided an answer for how to make sure that new jobs that are being created in the economy are good jobs. In fact, the evidence is that the preponderance of jobs being created in the recovery do not support a middle-class standard of living. The National Employment Law Project’s report from August of this year, entitled The Low Wage Recovery and Growing Inequality, found that, during the recession, low-wage jobs grew 2.7 times as fast as middle- and high-wage jobs together. A total of 58 percent of the jobs created were low-wage jobs.

It’s not just the latest recession that has resulted in the loss of good jobs: the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) published a report in July that estimated that, since 1979, the economy has lost about one-third (28 to 38 percent) of its capacity to generate good jobs. One look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of the top thirty fastest-growing occupations bears out CEPR’s observation: a majority of the jobs listed pay less than $50,000 per year.

In the end, the only path to making new jobs into good jobs is to restore and support workers’ collective bargaining rights.

The reason our country has so often gotten itself into the position of being stuck in low-wage recoveries is that no president has taken on the issue of making the right to bargain collectively legal again in this country. If Obama does not address this in his second term, his administration will continue to watch the majority of Americans experience economic hardship.

The key issue for the president’s second term will be whether he understands that the health of our democracy has depended on having an enfranchised middle class, something that was built through collective bargaining and cannot be restored in its absence. If President Obama fails to recognize the stakes, the stated goals of his economic agenda—the creation of good jobs and the rescue of the American middle class—will be perpetually out of reach.

Four years ago, candidate Obama made a commitment to stand shoulder to shoulder with working people if their rights were ever threatened. That time has come. America’s working and middle class is in a fight for its life. The only question that remains in Obama’s second term, given that legislative remedies are not available, is whether America will see the president send a message by walking the picket lines and being an unabashed public spokesperson for workers’ rights.

Originally posted on The Century Foundation.

The Top Takeaway from the Chicago Teachers’ Strike: We Need Collaboration to Fix Public Schools

12:32 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

“We are striking to improve the conditions in the schools. Right now the children are getting a raw deal.”

That statement came from a striking member of the Chicago Teachers’ Union… in 1969. It still resonates in September 2012, when the CTU’s members have again walked a picket line. Although it has often been obscured in the news headlines and in the rhetoric of city officials, the real message of the strike of the past two weeks is simple: We’re for good schools; we’re for kids; and, yes, we’re for teachers too.

There’s no shame in teachers standing up for their self-interest. When one is devoted to working for the common good over the long haul, taking care of oneself is a necessary part of being a good steward. People who go into the teaching profession don’t do it to get rich. They do it with the goal of inspiring and educating the next generation.

By framing the strike as being about greedy teachers threatening the public well-being, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his lieutenants have not only done long-term damage to the cause of repairing our schools; they have engaged in a practice that, sadly, is all too common in our nation’s politics. They attempted to blame a complex problem on a single group. It’s called scapegoating. And scapegoating should never be a substitute for leadership.

The takeaway from the Chicago strike is that true leadership in education requires partnership — an approach that supports what is working in our schools and creates a collaborative effort among teachers, school officials, and policymakers to make sure we build on that success.

Education as Engine of Urban Economies

There’s a reason why many big city mayors are trying to take a stronger role in steering their cities’ school systems. In a globalized economy, there isn’t much mayors can do independently to foster development and improve the economic competitiveness of their metropolitan regions. They have some tools available in the realms of housing and transportation. But good schools are a reliable driver of economic success, as prominent education thinkers like University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan have documented. Ambitious mayors recognize this fact. That’s why Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — who himself came out of a teachers’ union — has joined Emanuel in moving to exert more influence over his city’s schools.

Such mayors are right to understand the economic importance of schools. The question is, are regional political leaders like Emanuel willing to work with teachers to educate poor and wealthy kids alike? Or will we wind up, as respected education scholar Diane Ravitch warns, with a permanent two-tiered system, with elite charter schools for the (mostly richer) kids who score high on standardized tests? Under such a system, kids who may be smart but lack the vocabulary and support to succeed on the tests will languish in sweltering, inadequately supplied classrooms.

Iconic Chicago mayor Harold Washington understood that collaboration around education could enhance the economic vitality of the city. That’s why he brokered the peace in response to public outcry at the last Chicago teachers’ strike in 1987. Washington saw that business leaders and parents needed him to work with teachers to keep the machinery of education running, so working parents wouldn’t have to take more time off for the strike, and so kids could resume learning the skills they would need later to be effective members of the workforce.

The way forward is to create abundantly resourced public school systems that will push economic growth in cities and regions. Innovating and improving public schools helps attract middle- and upper-income families to cities and regions to build a healthy tax base. Mayors such as Emanuel should be funding public education and supporting what is already working — including strategies invented by unionized teachers — within public schools.

Partnership in Practice

Successful examples of smart educational investment in partnership with teachers’ unions do exist. Take Montgomery County, MD, where students at one neighborhood school continually scored low on tests. The administration, working closely with the teachers’ union, managed to turn the school completely around in just three years without using draconian pay cuts or firings. “We take the quality of teaching and learning seriously, so we jointly created and implemented a thorough, meaningful and transparent evaluation system that ensures intensive support for all new and underperforming teachers,” said Montgomery County Education Association president Doug Prouty.

Mayor Emanuel’s great failing in his approach to the strike is that he did not come to the conversation about reform with an attitude of building on what is going right. Even Chicago has had areas of hope and progress in public education. Chicago’s public school teachers have proven they can academically outcompete just about anyone. This last year, more than 24,000 children competed for about 5,000 slots in the top 5 selective enrollment high schools. The students and families lining up to apply to selective enrollment high schools accept that public schools can achieve excellence with unionized teachers. The principals at these schools accept it too, providing leadership development and mentoring for teachers and rewards for their good work.

Emanuel could have started the discussion by celebrating these successes and looking for ways to spread them. To be fair, the mayor has done some work to improve public education in the city. He created 10 new International Baccalaureate (IB) academic excellence programs in existing high schools throughout the city. He also lengthened the school day, which was sorely needed as Chicago had one of the shortest school days in the country.

Rather than saying to teachers, “I did this in spite of you,” he could have asked, “How can we do more of this together?” For we know from best practices in the business world that without cultivating buy-in from all the key stakeholders, efforts to promote change are destined to be far less effective.

Underneath the Chicago Strike Headlines

The stories about the strike printed in the media have often perpetuated an unhelpful framing of the issues at hand. We were told teachers didn’t want a longer school day. However, the true issue was not whether a longer day should be implemented, but rather what the process for putting this into practice could be. With real input from teachers, rather than a heavy-handed move to shove an altered school day down the throats of those who do the educating, this issue might not have reached an impasse.

Likewise, we were told that teachers did not want to be evaluated. But that was not the case. Educators merely wanted to be evaluated based on meaningful criteria that they could actually impact in their work — not just high-stakes test scores whose value as a measure of students’ success is highly questionable. In Cleveland, the teachers’ union and the school district worked together to create and implement a totally new teacher evaluation system that will phase in over a four-year period. As Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon noted, using teamwork to resolve such a big, contentious issue is worth the longer timeline: “This is complex work and it takes time to build it thoughtfully and carefully. It really has been a joint commitment in the beginning. We all believe that this is the right [approach].”

Emanuel has said he favors the Waiting-for-Superman strategy of linking teacher pay and job security to students’ performance on standardized tests. But that approach has been found by education experts to be no more effective than traditional teaching and evaluation methods.

Simply corporatizing the schools is not going to magically make students learn. The use-tests-to-declare-public-schools-failing-and-siphon-the-money-to-corporate-branded-charters methodology has been discredited as bad pedagogical practice and thinly disguised union-busting.

Teachers have rightly asked, if they are only going to be held accountable for teaching to tests, when is the real educating supposed to happen? Sadly, this pressing question has not been heard above the din of political rhetoric.

Beyond the Strike

By making some of the changes teachers have called for, like installing air conditioning in classrooms and creating a teacher evaluation system jointly with the union, Emanuel could have made the teachers’ union into a powerful ally for improving schools. Instead, he yanked the already-stretched thread of teachers’ goodwill toward the school system, and it snapped.

Pointing fingers and placing blame is not the way to build partnerships, and it’s not the way to move forward on education. Whatever happens with the strike in Chicago, maybe we can look at some of the case studies of successful initiatives in education and see that strong respect for teachers is not at odds with the interests of students. Conversations about how to replicate and build on the things that are working in our schools need to be happening not just during contract negotiations, but on an ongoing basis.

For those conversations to happen, city officials must repair the relationships that were broken in the hardball politicking around the strike. They need to embrace teachers as full-fledged partners in conversation about reform. That’s harder than just placing blame. But it is needed if we’re serious about fixing our kids’ schools.

Smart Start for the Workers of OUR Walmart?

9:20 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

This month, workers at Walmart formed a group called the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union is investing seed money in this new organization, envisioning it as a way that Walmart workers can both advocate for themselves and engage with the rest of the labor movement, even though these employees are not able to create traditional labor structures within Walmart stores.

At a time in history when employers like Walmart do everything they can to deny employees their right to freely form a union in their workplaces, organized labor sees that it must reach out to workers in new ways. OUR Walmart is one of a variety of efforts launched in recent years that blend workplace and community organizing. These experiments mobilize workers around the difficulties they face everyday at work, yet these new groups look more like community advocacy organizations than like traditional labor unions; that is, these new efforts usually frame their activities less around particular workplace wrongs and more around broader questions of economic justice.

In our book, A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement, we argue for just this sort of a multifaceted labor movement–one that is rooted in communities as well as in workplaces. In the past, organized labor grew when it was part of a broad impulse of working people to better their lives and transform society. If labor is seen as a narrow special interest, relevant only to the small section of the workforce that belongs to traditional unions today, it will grow more and more marginal. Instead, the labor movement needs to establish itself as a strong advocate for all employees in America.

The non-traditional labor effort represented by OUR Walmart has precedents in the “associational membership” drives spawned by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and others in the 1990s and before. These included The Alliance@IBM as well as WashTech, an effort to enlist employees at Microsoft and other tech workers in the Seattle area. And in 2003, the AFL-CIO launched Working America, a national-level effort, that has allowed millions of workers who do not have the benefit of a union to join the labor movement and work on public policy issues that are important to them, such as health care, green jobs, education, social security, and a more just economy. Likewise, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) recently announced a campaign called “Fight for a Fair Economy.” In cities throughout the country, SEIU will be working both in communities and workplaces to raise awareness and build collective power around issues affecting all working people.
Read the rest of this entry →