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Overhaul US labor laws to boost workers’ power, new report urges

Friday, January 24th, 2020

More than 70 scholars, union leaders, economists and activists says unions are key to tackling the crisis of economic inequality

This article was originally published in The Guardian and was written by Steven Greenhouse.

Members of the United Autoworkers (UAW) picket outside the General Motors (GM) plant in Arlington, Texas, USA, on 17 September 2019. The 40-day strike won improved wages and benefits for the workers.
 Members of the United Autoworkers picket outside the General Motors (GM) plant in Arlington, Texas, on 17 September 2019. The 40-day strike won improved wages and benefits. Photograph: Larry W Smith/EPA

More than 70 scholars, union leaders, economists and activists called on Thursday for a far-reaching overhaul of American labor laws to vastly increase workers’ power on the job and in politics, recommending new laws to make unionizing easier and to elect worker representatives to corporate boards.

The report argues strengthening labor unions and worker power represents the most effective strategy to combat America’s economic inequality and corporations’ sway over the economy and politics.

“Today, the struggle to preserve democracy in the face of extreme wealth concentration is acute because we live in an historical moment when vast disparities of economic power have been translated into equally shocking disparities in political power,” says the report, Clean Slate for Worker Power: Building a Just Economy and Democracy.Advertisement

“A large part of the explanation for our current crisis of economic inequality is the decline of the labor movement. Unions redistribute wealth – from capital to labor, from rich to poor – and without unions we have lacked for a check on economic concentration.”

The report calls for having workers elect “workplace monitors” at every workplace in the nation to educate workers about their rights. With many union leaders and presidential candidates calling for sectoral bargaining, the report recommends enacting a law that would require such industry-wide bargaining once 5,000 workers or 10% of the workers in an industry, whichever is less, request such bargaining.

Such a radical recommendation would greatly increase workers’ bargaining leverage at a time when unions represent just 6.2% of private-sector workers, down from a peak of 35% in the 1950s.

The Clean Slate report, nearly two years in the making, aims to rethink American labor law from scratch. “We firmly believe that we’re past the point of tinkering around the edges, that to really fix the problems in our economy and political system we need a fundamental rethinking of labor law,” said Sharon Block, one of the report’s main authors and executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

The report says unionizing and gaining a voice at work far too often mean a huge battle with companies and their anti-union consultants. “Democracy at work should be a right, not a fight,” the report states. “For too long, securing power and voice at work has required workers to fight herculean battles against nearly impossible odds.”

Among the Clean Slate report’s recommendations:

• Require the creation of employee committees, similar to German-style works councils, at any workplace once three workers at a worksite petition for one. These committees could have a voice on work scheduling, safety, new technologies and managerial decisions that affect workers.

 Allow minority unionism. Once 25% of the workers at any workplace sign cards saying they want a union, the employer would be required to recognize that union and bargain with it. This would be a sharp departure from the current system in which companies have to bargain with a union only after they demonstrate majority support, usually through a vote, with that union becoming the exclusive representative of all workers.

• Require corporations to let employees elect 40% of the members of corporate boards, and require a supermajority board vote on decisions that have the greatest impact on workers.

• Adopt a national system of “just cause employment. Under this system workers can be fired only for just cause, ending America’s longtime system of at-will employment.

• Give domestic workers, farmworkers, incarcerated workers and disabled workers collective bargaining rights. “Labor law reform must start with inclusion to ensure that all workers can build power and to address systemic racial and gender oppression,” the report states. “Our nation’s labor laws have long excluded too many workers,” most notably farmworkers and domestic workers, who are disproportionately workers of color.

• Allow unions to bargain over a far broader array of issues, and not just wages and working conditions. Allow unions to bargain over, for instance, a company’s dumping toxic chemicals or contributing to climate change or the need for affordable housing.

• Give independent contractors a right to bargain collectively and make it far harder for employers to misclassify workers as contractors.

• Make it easier to unionize by prohibiting employers from requiring workers to attend meetings where managers or consultants give anti-union speeches. Greatly increase penalties against employers that break the law in fighting unions.

• Prohibit employers from using permanent replacement workers to take the jobs of striking workers.

“This is an attempt to lay out a comprehensive vision of what labor law reform ought to look like,” said Ben Sachs, a professor at Harvard Law School and one of the report’s main authors. “We need this as a kind of North Star to know where we’re going when we have a chance to do reform of any kind.”

One of the report’s main themes is that when unions were at their peak they were a vital countervailing force to corporate power – at the workplace, in political campaigns and in policymaking.

To increase the voice of workers in politics, the report calls for a “public campaign finance system to limit corporate influence and allow greater participation by workers and their organizations”. The report also recommends mandating same-day voter registration, early voting and voting by mail. It also calls for mandating paid-time off for workers to engage in civic activities, including voting.

Harvard’s Block, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board, said it’s vital to have a series of legislative proposals ready if and when progressive candidates come to power.

She noted that the Democratic presidential candidates “are talking about big picture progressive change they want to take. Our pitch is labor law is a way to do these things. We see it as the key that will unlock the door to a fairer economy and democracy.”

Women’s March ~ Labor Contingent

Wednesday, January 8th, 2020

Title: Women’s March ~ Labor Contingent
Location: SF City Hall Plaza
Link out: Click here
Description: We are pleased to report that the SF Labor Council has once again endorsed the Women’s March and invite you to join us — with your family, friends and colleagues — on Saturday, January 18th and march in our Labor Contingent.

We will rally at SF City Hall Plaza beginning at 11 AM. To march with #SFLabor, begin lining up at 12:30 PM at Grove Street, between Larkin and Polk. Look for the SF Labor Council banner — and bring your union banners and wear your union swag!

This year’s theme is Together We Rise! March to show our votes matter, our voices matter, and our presence matters. March to call out injustice and to fight for equality and dignity for all. We look forward to having a robust Labor showing.
Start Time: 11:00
Date: 2020-01-18

NUHW Kaiser Strike

Tuesday, December 10th, 2019

Title: NUHW Kaiser Strike
Location: Kaiser SF Medical Center ~ 2425 Geary Blvd.
Link out: Click here
Description:  NUHW represents nearly 4,000 psychologists, social workers, therapists and addiction medicine specialists who have decided to hold a 5-day strike the week of December 16th. These employees are urging Kaiser to increase staffing to improve care for Kaiser mental health patients. You can also download this FLIER for more information and to spread the word. Please put this in your calendar. Thank you so much for your support!
Start Time: 12:00
Date: 2019-12-16

New Year’s COPE Breakfast

Thursday, December 5th, 2019

Title: New Year’s COPE Breakfast
Location: Holiday Inn Golden Gateway ~ 1500 Van Ness Ave, SF
Link out: Click here
Description: Kick off the New Year at the SF Labor Council’s COPE Breakfast. This year the breakfast will feature newly elected supervisor in District 5, Dean Preston, and newly elected DA, Chesa Boudin. Download the invitation for more details. To reserve online, go here.
Start Time: 08:00
Date: 2020-01-06

Labor & Community MLK Breakfast

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019

Title: Labor & Community MLK Breakfast
Location: Marriott Marquis ~ 780 Mission Street, SF
Link out: Click here
Start Time: 08:00
Date: 2020-01-20
End Time: 10:00

Turning perceptions around: How California’s unions changed Californians’ minds about unions

Monday, December 2nd, 2019

by Mark Gruenberg

Unions have a public perception problem.

Though opinion polls show the strongest favorability ratings for unions in years, those ratings – at least among those polled – have bounced up and down for decades.

Worse, more than 60 years of millions of dollars spent on corporate propaganda, plus union-bashing, hysterical linkages to radicals, rampant Red-baiting, mainstream media bias and outright lies have cemented notions in people’s heads of what unions are all about.

That is, if respondents know anything about unions and workers at all. Since only 10.7% of U.S. workers are union members, most of the U.S. doesn’t even know what unions are, what they do, or how they protect and fight for you and me, and not just for their members.

Those truisms hold even in progressive, “blue” states. Case in point: California.

So several years ago, the California state AFL-CIO and its member unions set out to change the mindset. On Nov. 14, Communications Directors Steve Smith of the state fed and Rebecca Band of Electrical Workers Local 1245 told union communicators how they did it.

“Ten years ago,” when Smith returned to his native California from working in the AFL-CIO’s communications department in D.C., “Californians were 40% positive and 45% negative about unions,” he told the International Labor Communications Association convention in Silver Spring, Md.

Their first step was to find out what people really thought, in words and images, not just percentages, about unions and union workers. Focus groups and interviews provided the answers – and the negative verbiage was chilling.

“Our truth is that we’re about fairness, about being good neighbors, about worker power, about getting better pay” and benefits “and about being champions of inclusion,” Band said. That wasn’t what respondents were telling them, though. “Protectors of slackers, overpaid, socialist,” were among the adjectives.

“How did we have this ‘unions just suck’ perception?” she asked.

And the negatives weren’t just among workers, she noted. They were also among other progressive individuals and groups, even though union members and their families provide most of the “people power” for those movements.

After the focus groups reported, the brainstorming began. And the key point was to change the language – and to get away from the details of policy and politics which unions, their leaders and their members often immerse themselves in, Smith noted.

Sure, he said, still talk issues, but talk about them in a way that hits home personally. And have rank-and-file workers, telling their stories, do it.

It was particularly tough in the Golden State, Smith noted. As governor, Republican Ronald Reagan assembled a “kitchen cabinet,” led by notorious right-wing brewery mogul Joe Coors, to “put together a 40-year plan to shrink union membership, reduce the influence of unions and reduce the size of government.”

That plan almost perfectly coincided with a national effort led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, starting in 1971, though Smith did not mention it.

Activated by a malevolent memo by conservative lawyer Lewis Powell – just before GOP President Richard Nixon nominated Powell to the U.S. Supreme Court – the chamber and its corporate clients launched an all-out coordinated decades-long attack against unions, academics, students, progressives, people of color and anyone else perceived as threats to corporate hegemony.

That attack included creation of think tanks, PR firms and the right-wing media echo chamber. It included recruiting conservative ideologues to produce position papers espousing right-wing – including anti-union – ideology and a campaign to influence elections through mountains of money funneled to corporate candidates, committees and causes.

Reagan’s and Powell’s plans have succeeded spectacularly, and that’s what Smith, Band and California’s unions found themselves up against. “They understood message discipline,” Band said of the right-wingers. “But anybody can do message discipline.” Including unions. Including workers.

So the state federation and its allies started testing phrases and words that would either substitute – and replace in people’s minds – the right-wing mantras, or that would highlight the positive benefits and aspects of unions not just for members, but for all. Some examples from the Californians’ “Words to Lose, Words to Use” fact sheet:

Instead of talking about corporations “keeping us from joining unions,” substitute corporations “take away our freedom to stand together.” Instead of generalized attacks on “business,” make the criticisms specific against “corporate lobbyists, special interests, CEOs and the wealthy elite.”

Instead of “collective bargaining,” talk about “a seat at the table to negotiate fair wages  and benefits.” And instead of “protect our right to a union,” talk about “workers deserve the freedom to stand together and have a voice on the job.”

And talk about “power in numbers,” not “political spending.” As for corporate attacks on how “union bosses” take dues money from workers’ pockets, the substitute: “When we stand together, we have power. That’s what we’re all contributing to.”

Current conditions also help, Smith admitted. While unemployment is low, millions of people are working two or three jobs to make ends meet, health care coverage is declining, and guaranteed pensions upon retirement are a mist in the past.

“The stagnating wages, all the income going to the 1%, and no retirement security” give us the opportunity to rebrand ourselves as fighting to change that picture, he explained.  After all, conditions are so bad “that a University of California at Berkeley study calculates that 50% pf workers now employed will retire in poverty.”

“So workers,” especially younger workers, “are looking for something to let them flip the script. Our opening is to make unions that ‘thing.’”

CEOs are one big target. Poll respondents often complain unions protect “wasteful” or “lazy” workers. “Where’s the real waste?” Smith asked. “It’s the CEOs and Trump.’

Make that point, they said. The California federation urges workers to cite CEOs who really make the decisions that run companies, families, factories, cities, villages and the entire economy – plus the environment – into the ground. And they feeding out of our trough, too.

“Why is Walmart getting my tax dollars?” to open warehouses where its workers toil for substandard wages. “And you can ask ‘Did you know Amazon pays no taxes?”

But how about Trumpites who yearn for “Make America Great Again” days like the 1950s sitcom ideal of a two-parent family with Dad working and Mom taking care of the kids in the suburban house.

That’s where Band jumped in with one very salient fact: “The ‘good old days’ were when union membership was high” – one-third of all private sector workers – “and we were creating and building the middle class brick by brick.”

“These messages transcend partisan divisions, even among people who have bought into the” right-wing “Heritage Foundation stuff,” Band said.

The effort has apparently worked, at least in California. Combined with non-partisan – not politically skewed – redistricting and strong labor organizing and political campaigning, the Golden State, the nation’s most-populous, is now arguably its bluest, and most pro-worker.

The legislature has a pro-worker supermajority, workers have a mostly, though not totally, favorable governor in Gavin Newsom, and both U.S. senators and 44 of the state’s 53 U.S. representatives are pro-worker Democrats. The result, at least on the state and local level, is union wins in both organizing and legislation.

The entire presentation, including power-points, is available from Steve Smith at the California AFL-CIO:

Crosspost from People’s World 50Posted in Blog: Labor Edge

Airline Worker Protest

Monday, November 25th, 2019

Title: Airline Worker Protest
Location: SFO ~ Terminal 2
Link out: Click here
Start Time: 16:00
Date: 2019-11-26
End Time: 18:00

Milk-Moscone Vigil

Monday, November 25th, 2019

Title: Milk-Moscone Vigil
Location: Harvey Milk Plaza ~ 2401 Market Street, SF
Link out: Click here
Start Time: 19:00
Date: 2019-11-27

Fully Fund CCSF! Speak Out for Education Justice

Monday, November 25th, 2019

Title: Fully Fund CCSF! Speak Out for Education Justice
Location: City College of SF Campuses
Link out: Click here
Start Time: 12:00
Date: 2019-11-26
End Time: 12:30

Union Night at the Ballpark

Thursday, November 21st, 2019

Title: Union Night at the Ballpark
Location: Oracle Park
Start Time: 17:00
Date: 2020-06-01

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