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Labor Becomes Part of the National Conversation: The Best and Worst of 2012

11:50 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Sign: On Strike for Better Schools

The successful Chicago Teachers' Strike was a high point for labor in 2012.

This was a tumultuous year for working people and their families. From the grassroots uprisings last winter to the low-wage workers’ strikes at year’s end, 2012 saw many people coming together for the first time and finding their voices. Below are the items that I would highlight as the best and worst developments of 2012 in the world of labor and progressive social movements.

THE WORST:

  • Conservatives have repeatedly tried to pass anti-worker legislation under misleading names and false slogans in 2012. This approach hasn’t always worked—California’s Prop 32, which would have unfairly restricted workers’ political speech in the state, failed at the polls in November. Sadly, though, at the end of the year, Michigan’s lame-duck legislature, dominated by a billionaire-funded GOP, passed a so-called “right to work” law. As has happened in other states, the new law will pit Michigan workers against each other by forcing those who pay union dues to represent and bargain for those who don’t. The state has been a union bulwark historically, so this is a sad sign for working people all over the country.
  • Neoliberal trade policy has continued to undermine the American middle class in 2012. As reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele have documented, the so-called “free trade” deals modeled after NAFTA are part of a pattern that has resulted in huge job losses here in the United States. This year, the Obama administration has been promoting a new pact based on this same model that would create a “free trade zone” made up of ten countries along the Pacific Rim, called the TransPacific Partnership (TPP). As Matt Stoller has said in Salon, the creation of the TPP has mostly flown under the radar, but it could lead to “offshoring of U.S. manufacturing and service-sector jobs,  inexpensive imported products, expanded global reach of U.S. multinationals, and less bargaining leverage for labor.” None of this is good for Americans who desperately need jobs to be created here.
  • Another disturbing trend that continued this year was giveaways of public funds to private companies. As watchdog Good Jobs First documented earlier this year, state and local governments handed out $32 billion to private corporations in the name of job creation, but with no real accountability or guarantees of public benefit.

 

THE BEST:

Not everything was bad news; there were also some positive developments that offer hope for the future. Four of these were:

  • Student activism allied with union advocacy paid off in San Jose, California, where a student-led coalition got a ballot initiative passed that will raise the minimum wage from $8 to $10 per hour for everyone working within the city limits. Organizers estimate the number of workers who will get a raise to be in the tens of thousands. I see this as a fine example of regional coalition-based organizing, and I hope it becomes a trend.

In 2013, as Obama starts his new term, we can find hope in these examples of regionally based innovation. Rather than waiting for change to come from above, we must take what is working at the regional level and turn it into a people’s agenda for Washington.

This was originally posted on The Century Foundation.

Photo by Shutter Stutter under Creative Commons license.

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.

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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.
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