Ultimate Resource On Unions
Employees of Google and parent company Alphabet Inc. announced the creation of a union on Monday, escalating years of confrontation between workers and management of the internet giant. Ultimate Resource On Unions
The Alphabet Workers Union will collect dues, pay organizing staff and have an elected board of directors. It will be open to all employees and contractors in North America, regardless of their role or classification, and plans to take on issues including compensation and ethical concerns such as the kinds of work Google engages in. More than 200 workers have signed up to join so far, the group said.
“A lot of us employees are feeling disempowered, like we don’t have a say in the direction the company is taking anymore,” said Google software engineer Kimberly Wilber, an activist with the new group. “A union is of our way of building power so executives can’t ignore us.”
Google has clashed with some employees in recent years over contracts with the military, a plan for a censored search engine in China, the different treatment of contract workers and a rich exit package for an executive ousted for alleged sexual harassment.
“We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace,” Kara Silverstein, director of people operations at Google, said in a statement. “Of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”
The new union drew support Monday from U.S. lawmakers including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts who wrote, “I’m in this fight with you all the way.”
The effort, a rare campaign within a major U.S. technology company, is supported by the Communications Workers of America, which has been pursuing tech-focused organizing through an initiative known as CODE-CWA.
Googlers who join the Alphabet Workers Union will also be members of CWA Local 1400. Members will pay 1% of their total compensation in union dues, which will help fund organizing staff.
CWA said the new organization isn’t currently focused on securing formal recognition by Alphabet or collective bargaining with the company, a process that has been aggressively resisted by U.S. corporations.
“We might need to see some substantial changes in labor law before that’s a realistic goal,” CWA communications director Beth Allen said. If the union can eventually sign up a majority of Alphabet’s workforce, that would be a “powerful statement,” but the group could effect change even without it, she added.
CWA’s membership includes some workers, such as public university employees in Tennessee, who engage in collective action while lacking legal collective bargaining rights.
U.S. law grants unionization rights to employees but not to independent contractors, and also makes it more difficult for sub-contracted workers employed by staffing agencies to gain the ability to negotiate directly with a company like Alphabet.
Such “temps, vendors and contractors,” known as TVCs, outnumbered Alphabet’s direct employees in 2018 for the first time, Bloomberg reported.
Union leaders said on Monday it was crucial that these TVC workers be part of the union as well. “We’re not going to make our growth and collective action dependent on labor law,” said Google software engineer Chewy Shaw, who was recently elected vice chair of the new union.
An Alphabet union could limit executives’ authority, while inspiring similar efforts across the industry, which has mostly avoided unionization so far. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union filed paperwork in November to represent frontline workers at an Amazon.com Inc. facility in Alabama.
The company’s U.S. warehouse workers currently aren’t unionized. A vote among the more than 5,000 workers at the site is expected in coming weeks.
Google worker protests in 2018 forced the company to let a Pentagon artificial intelligence contract lapse. Employee uprisings including a walkout by thousands of workers also led the company to limit the use of forced arbitration that same year.
Workers involved in the new union said they saw it as an extension of such efforts, one that could provide a more permanent structure to keep pressure on management, hold the company accountable for promised changes and respond to retaliation against activists.
The organization plans to deploy a mix of protests and legislative, regulatory and legal tactics, and to weigh in on issues like antitrust scrutiny of Google. CWA in 2018 joined a coalition urging the Federal Trade Commission to break up Facebook.
CWA has been working with Google activists since late 2019, and filed a complaint then with the National Labor Relations Board alleging workers were fired for taking collective action.
In December, the agency’s general counsel took up some of those allegations, accusing Google of illegally firing, interrogating and surveilling activist employees. Google has denied wrongdoing, saying it supports workers’ rights and that the employees in question were punished for “serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility.”
Googlers of the World, Unite! Oh, Wait …
Some of the planet’s best-paid workers are forming a union to promote social causes. The solidarity part will be tricky.
As big tech companies have become more entrenched in our lives, the rise of remote work has made their employees more disposable. So it’s no surprise that the pandemic has catalyzed new efforts to unionize tech workers. Last week, a group of Google employees announced the formation of an Alphabet Workers Union in partnership with the Communications Workers of America. 1
But instead of mobilizing as most unions do for better pay, more benefits and better job security, this labor union hopes to seize the means of managerial decision-making. Unlike previous petitions and protests, the union at Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, will require a tangible commitment in the form of hefty membership dues. That’s a sacrifice it’s far from clear that many of the organizers’ colleagues are willing to pay.
“Why do we demand democracy from our government, then cede our individual power in our workplaces?” asks Raksha Muthukumar, a Google software engineer and union member.
OK, fair enough, but every time I read about Google employees staging a walkout over workplace grievances, I can’t help but wonder how such a privileged group of people became so convinced of their victimhood. Google frequently ranks near the top of Glassdoor’s annual list of best places to work (although it fell from #8 to #11 last year), with a hiring process even more exclusive than that of Ivy League admissions (over 99% of job applicants are rejected).
Sure, there are plenty of reasons one might disagree with the company’s business practices, but there’s an easy solution to that problem — go work somewhere else. Google employees have a lot more career mobility than the steelworkers and coal miners who organized unions during the industrial era.
That said, unions do have a long record of improving wages and conditions for the working class. And there is a tech worker contingent that suffers legitimate injustice with limited recourse: Contract workers. Google employs more than 130,000 temps, vendors, and contractors, a workforce that outnumbers the company’s 123,000 full-time employees.
Many temp workers put in the same hours as full-time employees, but with none of the insurance, benefits or worker protections. Efforts to unionize temp workers in the tech industry were underway even before the pandemic. The Teamsters union already represents shuttle drivers for tech companies like Facebook, Apple and Google. In 2019, a group of Google contractors voted to join the United Steelworkers. 2
Full-time employees may also have a financial interest in organizing to secure their own positions. As tech companies extend remote-work policies into late 2021, the coordination and knowledge-sharing benefits of on-site employment become irrelevant. Alphabet union members may be motivated by concerns about managerial ethics, but they also have reason to worry about losing their jobs to cheap contractor labor.
While temp workers are invited to join the newly formed union, its website admits that membership is overwhelmingly comprised of full-time employees.
Social justice activism tends to be a divisive basis for organizing a union. In its mission statement, the Alphabet Workers Union promises, “We will ensure Alphabet acts ethically.” The group lists past triumphs, including a campaign that pressured the company to withdraw from Department of Defense contracts, protests to stop providing infrastructure for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and, most recently, a petition to stop selling technology to police departments.
It’s not clear that these goals are a top priority for Google’s entire workforce. It’s one thing for employees to join a one-day walkout while the servers are running automated processes; it’s a whole different matter when workers are expected to pay 1% of their total compensation towards union dues. The fact that the Alphabet Workers Union only has a few hundred members to date may be a hint that activism isn’t as popular as it sometimes appears.
Furthermore, corporations aren’t democracies. Alphabet’s executive team has a fiduciary duty to the company’s shareholders and might have a difficult time explaining why the company chose to forgo all these contracts. Tech employees who want to participate in workplace democracy may be better off working at a co-op.
They may also find opportunities at the fledgling tech companies trying to provide ethical alternatives to Google’s products. Google’s brilliant workforce is its greatest asset, and the company pays gaudy salaries to keep tech talent from joining the competition. If these disgruntled employees had been willing to take their talents elsewhere, maybe Google wouldn’t have ended up in its current monopoly position.
* The Communications Workers of America may prove to be an asset. In 2019, CWA launched a campaign supporting two major bills to prevent corporate off-shoring of U.S. jobs.
* Unionizing is a risky move. One of Google’s contracting companies was recently accused of shipping jobs offshore in retaliation for unionization efforts.
Amazon Seeks To Postpone Alabama Unionization Vote
Tech company pushes for in-person union ballot in place of mail-in option allowed due to pandemic.
Amazon.com Inc. is seeking to postpone a unionization vote at a warehouse in Alabama and is asking federal labor authorities to reconsider a decision to allow mail-in voting due to the pandemic.
The company Thursday filed an appeal to a decision by the National Labor Relations Board, which is allowing a mail-in process due to Covid-19 risks instead of the in-person elections that are typical in such unionization votes.
The ballots are set to be mailed to about 6,000 workers associated with its Bessemer, Ala. facility on Feb. 8. In its petition, Amazon said the board’s decision was flawed in part because it had not adequately defined an outbreak, among other objections.
Workers are seeking representation from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. A majority of ballots cast would have to choose unionization to gain representation. Hourly Amazon workers have never previously formed or joined a union in the U.S.
A spokeswoman for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union declined to comment. Amazon declined to comment on its appeal but has said it believes the best approach to an election would be conducting it in person, saying it “provided the NLRB with a safe, confidential and convenient proposal for associates to vote on-site, which is in the best interest of all parties—associate convenience, vote fidelity and timeliness of vote count.”
Amazon’s appeal is one of a number of steps the company is taking to challenge the election. Amazon also launched a website called DoItWithoutDues.com. On the site, the company asks workers why they would pay a union for benefits such as high wages and health care that the company says it already provides.
Organizers say they are fighting for better working conditions. They have said a union would give workers more leverage in any disputes with the company and allow them to collectively bargain over safety standards, training, breaks, pay and other benefits.
Workers at the warehouse in December received approval to hold the union vote, making it the first such election since 2014 at Amazon. Bessemer workers in November filed a notice with the NLRB to hold a union election.
The union vote is emerging as one of a number of labor battles for Amazon, the nation’s second-largest employer with more than 800,000 employees in the U.S., the majority of whom work at warehouse and delivery facilities. While none of its hourly U.S. employees have union representation, it is common for the company across Europe.
Last year, as Amazon struggled to meet a surge in orders due to pandemic lockdowns and a widespread shift to online shopping, some workers complained about health protocols and safety.
Organizing efforts gained momentum. Workers at several warehouses have held walkouts or other protests in response to what they said were inadequate safety practices. Amazon in October said more than 19,000 of its workers had tested positive for the coronavirus. Some employees have also alleged they were wrongfully terminated.
New York City last spring opened an investigation into Amazon for their firing of an employee at its Staten Island facility who had spoken out about worker safety. In December, California sued to force Amazon to comply with subpoenas related to an investigation by the state into the company’s coronavirus safety protocols at its warehouses.
Amazon has said it made hundreds of adjustments to make its work environment safer at warehouses, including regularly testing workers for Covid-19, providing temperature screenings and implementing social distancing practices.
Amazon Ratchets Up Anti-Union Pressure on Workers In Alabama
Employees are being pulled into ‘propaganda’ sessions and exhorted to vote against joining a retail union.
Amazon.com Inc. has unleashed a public-relations campaign at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, hoping to persuade more than 5,800 workers to reject the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Employees have been ordered to attend meetings where managers sow doubts about the unionization drive, according to two workers who attended. The meetings typically last about half an hour and target about 15 employees at a time, one said, frustrating workers because they fall behind in their duties during the sessions and have to catch up later.
“They present anti-union propaganda thinly veiled as factual information,” said the worker, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. Both workers said questions about potentially positive aspects of union membership are brushed off. One recalled asking why “Amazon is beating us over the head with these ‘facts’ in such a one-sided way,” and said the manager responded: “Amazon is very clear with our stance with unions.”
With voting due to start next month and run through late March, the stakes are high for both sides.
A defeat for the union would dent the reputation of the labor movement, which has failed time and again to organize workers at America’s second-largest private employer after Walmart. A union victory, on the other hand, would provide a tactical roadmap for the hundreds of thousands of people toiling in Amazon facilities.
That, in turn, could force the company to ease the sometimes frantic pace of work and even bring wages more in line with the warehousing and transportation industry, where union jobs on average pay 34% more than non-union ones, according to federal data.
“I think that this is the most significant union election that has been held in many years,” said Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU’s president. “Because we’re not just talking about another company, we’re talking about Amazon.”
In an emailed statement, Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox said the company doesn’t believe the union represents the majority of its workers’ views. “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”
Confirming that the company is holding information sessions with workers in Bessemer, Knox said: “We will help employees understand the facts of joining a union.
If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site and it’s important associates understand what that means for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon.”
Amazon, which employs more than 800,000 people in the U.S., has long trained managers to spot and snuff out nascent labor activism. In a 45-minute video created several years ago, cartoon avatars wearing safety vests told managers to avoid threatening employees and instead to express as a personal opinion the company’s aversion to a unionized workplace.
“Opinions can be mild, like ‘I’d rather work with associates directly,’ or strong, ‘The unions are lying, cheating rats.’ The law protects both,” the avatar said. “Amazon prefers a mild opinion, expressed strongly.”
Managers have been known to invent negative stories about unions, despite being counseled to go easy on the rhetoric. During an attempt to organize a Middletown, Delaware, warehouse in 2016, a manager told hundreds of workers that when his father died, a union had abandoned the family. The story turned out to be fabricated, the New York Times reported at the time, but it resonated all the same.
Amazon says it no longer uses the training video. Yet its essential message remains the same: Unions may be appropriate at other companies, but at Amazon, they risk imperiling a business that prioritizes speed, innovation and the customer above all else.
Despite being criticized over the years for its treatment of workers, the company has had little trouble keeping unions out of its U.S. operations. Amazon offers a higher starting wage than most of the retail industry, and turnover is so high that employees rarely stick around long enough to become passionate about improving working conditions.
When activism has taken root, Amazon has responded by shuttering facilities, shifting operations elsewhere and firing up its public-relations machine.
Then came the pandemic. Besides fueling record sales with shoppers hunkered down at home, the outbreak ignited employee activism of unprecedented intensity.
Workers in several warehouses and Whole Foods stores walked off the job to demand better protections from the ravages of Covid-19. Amazon fired some employees who led or participated in the wildcat strikes. The workers say they were punished for their activism. Amazon says it respects workers’ rights and was reacting to policy violations.
The Bessemer warehouse opened in March, just as Covid-19 infections began appearing in Amazon’s U.S. workforce. Two months later, protests erupted over law enforcement’s treatment of Black Americans, amplifying calls for racial equity that spread from the street to the workplace. The rallies resonated in Bessemer, where most residents—and many of Amazon’s employees—are Black.
Workers there contacted a RWDSU organizer in the summer, frustrated by Amazon’s productivity quotas, The New York Times reported last week, an account confirmed by the union. Organizers began collecting signed cards proposing a vote in August.
The union registered a domain name in September for a website to make its case, and the following month union organizers, including local poultry plant workers, began showing up outside the warehouse before dawn to hand out fliers.
“We see it as much of a civil-rights battle as a labor battle,” Appelbaum said. “The overwhelming majority, perhaps, greater than 85% of the workers at this facility are African American. And their major concern seems to be that they’re not treated with respect.”
Amazon, for its part, initially stayed quiet, responding to news reports with a brief statement but eschewing the corporate blogs or Twitter posts from executives it often rolls out in response to critiques about working conditions.
Around Christmas, the company set up a website featuring upbeat Amazon employees smiling from behind masks (among them, the facility’s manager), criticizing union dues and suggesting a hashtag, #doitwithoutdues for like-minded workers.
So far, the hashtag has been hijacked on social media by union supporters. Now, workers are receiving texts from Amazon, and the facility is peppered with signs making the case the company is a benevolent employer. As the vote nears, workers expect Amazon to ratchet up its messaging campaign.
The drama unfolding in Bessemer has attracted considerable attention. The National Football League Players Association has thrown in with the workers, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has tweeted his support, and The Onion posted a satirical story about a drone masquerading as a worker and infiltrating a warehouse.
“Our total compensation package rules!” the drone exclaimed. “I just want to keep hovering, I mean, walking, around the warehouse floor without fear of retaliation from management. Plus, who wants to pay union dues?”
It’s hard to predict which way the vote will go, in part because Amazon’s health benefits and $15 starting wage go farther in Bessemer than in bigger cities previously targeted by unions. Bessemer has struggled economically since the decline of the area’s steelmaking and railcar manufacturing in the 1980s and 1990s.
Moreover, Amazon has demonstrated before how persuasive it can be.
Back in 2014, Andy Powell, then an organizer for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, thought he had enough support to organize a few dozen technicians at the Amazon warehouse in Middleton, Delaware. Almost all signed cards in favor of holding a vote, he recalled in an interview.
But just days before an election to formalize union representation, some workers balked. Powell said Amazon’s internal PR campaign had convinced two technicians—both former union members set to receive retirement benefits from their past work—to tell their peers that unions weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
The vote, seven years ago this month, was 21 no, 6 yes. “They beat us up pretty hard,” Powell said.
Amazon Warehouse Workers Set To Vote On Unionizing: What We Know
Alabama employees will vote on whether to form first union for hourly Amazon workers.
Thousands of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama are set to begin voting in a union election that could alter the relationship between the nation’s second-largest employer and its hourly workers.
Amazon warehouse employees at the company’s Bessemer, Ala., fulfillment center are set to decide whether they will become the first group of U.S. Amazon employees to unionize. Pro-union workers have sought help from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, a frequent Amazon opponent that would represent the workers if they vote in favor of unionizing.
Organizers have said forming a union would allow workers to collectively bargain over safety standards, training, breaks, pay and other benefits. Those topics have been at the center of disputes between Amazon and its workforce sprawled across hundreds of facilities. Some employees have complained about what they say is a grueling workload and how the company monitors employees through an internal tracking system and cameras.
Amazon, which is on pace—based on recent hiring trends—to overtake Walmart Inc. within the next few years, has said that it offers some of the best pay and benefits available for comparable jobs in similar industries, and that the company provides a competitive compensation package that includes 401(k) and health-care coverage.
Here Is What You Need To Know About The Coming Vote:
Why Are Workers Organizing Now, And Why Does It Matter?
RWDSU leaders have said they believe the coronavirus pandemic, together with the past year’s civil-rights movements in America and tense political climate, has encouraged people to act. The union has touched on themes related to racial empowerment, as many of the employees at the Amazon warehouse are Black and have been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Labor experts say unionizing in Bessemer could lead to similar efforts at other Amazon facilities. The company employs more than 800,000 people in the U.S., most at its warehouses across the country.
How Could The Election Play Out?
Ballots are set to be mailed to roughly 6,000 workers on Feb. 8. Employees have until the end of March to return their votes. The majority of voters would have to support unionizing in order to join the union. Amazon and the union have been battling for votes through varying employee outreach. Even if workers vote to unionize, it could take years of bargaining to reach a first contract between Amazon and the union. Either side could also contest the results of the election.
Would A Union Change Amazon?
Initially, not much. The company would have to start working toward a contract with Bessemer workers and worry about similar efforts popping up at other facilities. Eventually, it could push the company to offer improved benefits or tweak its workplace policies.
Amazon helped boost pay for low-wage workers in 2018 when it raised its hourly rate to $15 an hour, though it simultaneously did away with certain incentive pay and stock compensation. The company the next year committed to retraining one-third of its workforce, in part to help its employees move into more advanced jobs inside the company or find new careers outside of it.
Amazon is in a favorable position to handle threats to its business. The company last year made record earnings and further entrenched itself as the most dominant online retailer. Roughly 40% of online sales are made on Amazon, according to market research firm eMarketer. The company’s recent success has come up among some workers, who point to its profits and growth as a sign that Amazon could make changes to improve conditions.
Why Has Amazon Opposed Unionization?
Many companies don’t favor unions because it can limit flexibility and force them to negotiate on workplace issues that executives might want to set on their own terms. Although Amazon has dealt with labor unions among its employees in Europe for years, the company has opposed unionization attempts in the U.S. in the past.
An effort backed by the RWDSU in 2018 to organize employees at Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market fizzled. About four years earlier, a small number of maintenance and repair technicians voted down a unionization attempt at a Middletown, Del., facility. During the Whole Foods campaign, Amazon used a training video to coach Whole Foods staff on how to spot organizing efforts. The company has said this video is no longer in use.
And last year, Amazon posted, and later removed, job listings for analysts that included descriptions on monitoring labor-organizing threats. Amazon has said the postings weren’t an accurate description of the roles and were made in error.
How Has Each Side Campaigned In The Vote?
Organizers have set up a presence outside the 855,000-square-foot warehouse on an almost daily basis, talking to workers and handing them leaflets. The union in late January received employee contact information, making it easier to connect with workers. It also launched an information website and has sought to garner support by rallying employees through family members and union members who work in other industries.
Meanwhile, Amazon created a website—DoItWithoutDues.com—to encourage workers to vote against unionizing. Signs were posted around the facility, and managers have held frequent meetings there with workers. A central focus of the company’s message revolves around the cost of union dues, and Amazon has argued that a union is unnecessary because its workers receive better pay and benefits from the company than they would in other comparable jobs.
Biden Backs Amazon Workers’ Push To Unionize In Alabama
President expresses support for thousands of workers at Amazon warehouse in Alabama who are voting in union election.
President Biden expressed support for thousands of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama who are voting in a union election, calling it a “vitally important choice.”
Mr. Biden, in a video posted to the White House’s YouTube account Sunday night, didn’t mention Amazon by name but said, “Workers in Alabama, and all across America, are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace” and pointed to his longtime support for union organizing and the right to collectively bargain.
“Let me be really clear: It’s not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union. But let me be even more clear: It’s not up to an employer to decide that either,” Mr. Biden said. “The choice to join a union is up to the workers—full stop, full stop.”
Amazon declined to comment.
The video marked the first time Mr. Biden has weighed in on an internal corporate dispute as president. During his campaign, Mr. Biden frequently said large corporations such as Amazon should pay higher taxes.
Mr. Biden’s predecessor, former President Donald Trump, frequently issued tweets and statements urging changes in corporate behavior, including to auto makers such as Ford and General Motors, pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and large tech companies such as Amazon and Apple.
Mr. Biden, a longtime ally of labor unions, held his first 2020 presidential campaign event at a union hall in Pittsburgh. He has supported passage of legislation sought by labor organizations to increase union membership and bolster employee protections.
But his support comes as some union voters have drifted away from the Democratic Party and as union membership has declined in recent decades, falling to nearly 11% of the nation’s workforce in 2020, according to the Labor Department, compared with its recorded peak of about 20% in 1983, when the department started reporting the data.
In the video, Mr. Biden warned that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no antiunion propaganda. No supervisor should confront employees about their union preferences.”
The warehouse employees at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., fulfillment center are set to decide whether they will become the first group of U.S. Amazon employees to unionize. Workers backing the unionization have sought help from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, an Amazon critic that would represent the workers if they vote in favor of unionization.
Organizers have said forming a union would let workers collectively bargain over safety standards, training, breaks, pay and other benefits. Those issues have been central to disputes between Amazon and its workforce, with some employees complaining about their workload and how the company monitors employees through an internal tracking system and cameras.
“As President Biden points out, the best way for working people to protect themselves and their families is by organizing into unions,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, in a statement.
The RWDSU led an unsuccessful effort in 2018 to organize employees at Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market. About four years earlier, a small number of maintenance and repair technicians voted down a unionization attempt at a Middletown, Del., facility.
Labor experts say a successful union push in Bessemer could lead to similar efforts at other Amazon facilities. Amazon is the nation’s second-largest employer, with more than 800,000 employees in the U.S.
If employees do vote in favor of a union, it could still take years of bargaining to reach a first contract between Amazon and the union. Either side could also contest the results of the election.
Amazon set up a website—DoItWithoutDues.com—to encourage workers to vote against unionizing and held frequent meetings inside the Bessemer facility. It also sent employees mail with similar messaging and posted signs around the facility.
Amazon has said it offers some of the best pay and benefits available for comparable jobs in similar industries, and that the company provides a competitive compensation package that includes 401(k) and healthcare coverage.
Ballots were mailed out to roughly 6,000 workers in early February, and employees have until the end of March to return their votes. The majority of voters would have to support unionizing to join the union.
Amazon Union Vote Hit By Conspiracy Theories, False Bezos Sighting
Channeling Trump’s bogus electoral claims, some workers say they’re suspicious of mail-in union balloting in Alabama.
A U.S. representative from Yonkers stood outside Amazon.com Inc.’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, on Friday blasting Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos for hiding inside the sprawling facility while he and other politicians waited outside.
“He has members of Congress out here right now, at his plant where he is physically located,” Jamaal Bowman said on a video shared on Twitter, suggesting the world’s wealthiest man was avoiding a conversation about pay and working conditions. A day later, the video had been shared more than 400 times and garnered more than 1,800 likes.
There was just one problem. Bezos wasn’t in the building. He wasn’t even in Alabama, according to people familiar with his whereabouts. Instead, Bezos was 2,000 miles (3,200 km) away touring a rocket-building company in Southern California. (A Bowman spokeswoman declined to say why the representative thought Bezos was in the building.)
The post-truth age has landed with a thud in Bessemer, where Amazon employees are deciding if they want union representation amid a cascade of conflicting claims, conspiracy theories and fake news. The contest between the world’s largest e-commerce company and the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union is one of the most consequential in a generation, and a union victory could upend Amazon’s U.S. operations.
As such, it has all the ingredients of a high-stakes election. A glaring media spotlight. Cameos from out-of-town celebrities. Airwaves clogged with advertisements, and mailboxes stuffed with pamphlets.
Amid the glare and noise, Amazon workers are struggling to sort fact from fiction—a reflection in part of a nation that spent recent years inhaling the serial fabrications of former President Donald Trump. Whether they’re for the union, against it or undecided, several employees interviewed by Bloomberg say they’re exhausted and confused by the onslaught of information—be it from Amazon, the union or outsiders keen to influence the election’s outcome.
A new mailbox installed outside the Bessemer warehouse—along with texts from Amazon encouraging workers to use it to vote—fueled a conspiracy theory that the company was looking to snatch up ballots before the count. Some pro-union workers say they deliberately mailed ballots from home or took them directly to the post office themselves.
Amazon says it’s simply trying to make it convenient for employees to participate. But the location also lets the company keep an eye on who is using the mailbox and what they’re putting in it, providing grist for critics who point to reports that Amazon has long monitored organized labor.
When Amazon requested the timing on the traffic light outside the warehouse be modified, it was interpreted as a move to prevent union organizers camped outside from having an opportunity to engage workers. Amazon requested the change to prevent traffic jams in its parking lot during shift changes, according to the Alabama news website AL.com, which quoted Jefferson County officials.
Nothing perhaps has sowed more suspicion than the election’s mail-in voting process, with some workers channeling Trump’s insistence that electoral fraud robbed him of a second term—a bogus claim that has taken root in the minds of millions of Americans.
As in last year’s presidential election, the National Labor Relations Board opted for mail ballots in Bessemer to avoid creating a super-spreader event during a pandemic.
Amazon appealed the decision and, echoing some of the arguments made by Republican officials last year, said mail balloting raised the risk of fraud and coercion. The company also said the process would depress turnout, arguing that as many as 29% of the more than 5,800 employees eligible to vote wouldn’t do so or would return incorrectly completed ballots.
Amazon lost the appeal, but the action almost certainly amplified doubts among workers—pro- and anti-union—in the balloting process.
One employee who is voting against joining the RWDSU wonders if Amazon will get a fair shake in the election. She has been suspicious ever since a union representative knocked on her door the very day she received a ballot in the mail and asked if she needed any help filling it out or if she wanted him to drop it off for her.
The worker, who requested anonymity to speak freely, says she believes the presidential election was rigged and worries that the same thing will happen in Bessemer. “I just don’t want to see the union do the same thing and Amazon get screwed over,” she says.
Another worker, who is also against the union, began to fret when his roommate received a ballot in the mail and he didn’t. The worker says he contacted the NLRB and was able to secure one.
Still, he says, “Everyone’s on edge to make sure the people on their side get a ballot.”
For Amazon Workers, Winning Union Vote Would Be Just A First Step
The company has many ways to thwart negotiations at its warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., including contesting the results or even closing the facility.
It’s impossible to predict the outcome of the union vote under way at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. As Bloomberg recently reported, workers are sharply divided about the benefits of organizing in a town where Amazon’s $15-an-hour starting wage goes a long way. But one thing is almost certain: Even if the union emerges victorious, Amazon’s own campaign is far from over.
Winning recognition of a union “is sort of like a sports team getting to the playoffs,” says John Budd, who tracks labor issues at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “It’s important, but it really isn’t the end goal.”
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which is running the organizing campaign, says its goal is a contract with Amazon.com Inc.
But Amazon has fought hard to keep unions out of its U.S. operations and will have a menu of options if the vote doesn’t go its way, such as contesting the result, dragging out talks with the union, or closing the 855,000-square-foot warehouse entirely, a prospect already on the minds of some Bessemer workers and politicians.
An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on its plans should its workers vote to unionize. The company has defended its working conditions and says it doesn’t believe the RWDSU represents the views of most of its employees. RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum has said that even getting to a vote is a victory for labor because it sets an example for other unions.
Labor organizing in the U.S. is refereed by the National Labor Relations Board, the New Deal-era creation whose staff will tally ballots from the warehouse’s 5,800 eligible workers beginning on March 30. If a majority of votes favor the union, Amazon and the RWDSU will be required to enter bargaining talks.
But Amazon could postpone talks by filing charges with the NLRB of unfair conduct by the union during the vote. “You can get six months to a year out of that sometimes, if you’re really good,” says Sally Klingel, who teaches labor-management relations at Cornell’s ILR School.
Talks between union and company negotiators often wind up at an impasse, fueling additional rounds of NLRB rulings.
Unions have long criticized the NLRB’s enforcement of the bargaining process as weak. It’s usually not labor law but solidarity and public pressure that make collective bargaining work, says Kate Andrias, a law professor at the University of Michigan.
“First contracts are won not because of an effective legal regime but because of workers’ decision to stick together and demand improvements in their workplace, combined with public and political pressure on employers to behave responsibly,” she says.
That kind of pressure is already building on Amazon. The union drive has drawn wide support from labor groups, including the union representing NFL players, and Democratic politicians all the way up to President Biden. The frenzy has made the vote a flashpoint in debates about the beleaguered U.S. labor movement and the power of one of the world’s most valuable companies.
Amazon executives tend to brush off outside critiques as misunderstandings of its values and intentions. But the company has bowed to public pressure in the past, as it did in 2018 when it raised its starting wage to $15 an hour or in 2019 when it retreated from a planned corporate campus in New York amid local opposition.
Companies have been successful in waiting things out. A 2009 study found that one year after voting to unionize, in 52% of cases workers hadn’t yet won a collective bargaining agreement. That’s significant because if there is no contract a year after the NLRB certifies a union, workers can call a vote to decertify it.
Amazon could also pull the plug on the facility entirely, something that happened after 15% of successful union drives, according to the study, which analyzed elections from 1999 to 2003. The company has a pattern of steering work away from labor hot spots.
It closed a Seattle call center in 2001 after workers began a union drive, built warehouses in Poland after being challenged by powerful German labor groups in 2013, and earlier this year closed a small Chicago depot that had been a locus of worker organizing. In each case, Amazon cited factors other than worker organizing in explaining the decisions.
Labor law protects employees from dismissal for advocating changes to their working conditions, and workers can allege that such closures were motivated by retaliation against the union. But even winning those cases doesn’t mean victory.
When Walmart Inc. shut down a store in Quebec and all its meat-cutting departments in the U.S. after successful union drives, it sparked legal action that dragged on for years. By the time it was resolved, workers had moved on or settled with the company, and unions were still on the outside looking in. “It’s often too late, the deed is done,” Cornell’s Klingel says of challenges to closure decisions. “It’s very hard to win those.”
Unions Notch Win With House Passage Of Bill Opposed By Uber, Lyft
Labor groups looking to President Biden to deliver legislative victories following campaign.
The House late Tuesday passed legislation that would represent the most significant change to labor law in decades, advancing a priority for unions that are pressuring President Biden and Democrats to deliver legislative victories.
The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, was approved by the House 225-206, with the support of nearly all Democrats and five Republicans. Backers say the legislation would be a major advancement in employee rights following recent setbacks for organized labor and diminished union membership.
Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the App-Based Work Alliance, which includes Uber Technologies Inc., Lyft Inc. and DoorDash Inc., assailed the bill, saying it would trample on state laws and endanger the flexibility that ride-share and delivery drivers enjoy.
Mr. Biden called on Congress to send the legislation for his signature, but it faces a steep challenge in the evenly divided Senate. Progressive Democrats want Mr. Biden to endorse eliminating the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for most legislation, a change he and some centrists in his party oppose. There is also no guarantee all 50 Democratic senators would support the union bill.
Labor groups are looking to Mr. Biden to push for the bill as the latest sign he is delivering on his campaign promise to boost unions. The president has fired officials at the National Labor Relations Board seen by unions as hostile to their goals, sided with Amazon.com Inc. workers’ unionization drive in Alabama, picked a union ally to run the Labor Department and backed increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, though that effort is currently stalled.
The PRO Act would establish penalties up to $50,000 for employers who violate the National Labor Relations Act and set a 10-day timeline for union-employer negotiations to commence; currently there is no enforceable timeline.
The bill also makes it easier for gig workers—including independent contractors and online platform workers—to unionize unless their employer meets certain requirements. It would codify into law a decision made by the National Labor Relations Board under former President Barack Obama and reversed under former President Donald Trump that could have paved the way for contractors and workers at franchised businesses to form unions.
“The PRO Act is our litmus test and if progress is delayed or denied yet again, the suffering of the past year will only get worse,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic. “But if our leaders step up to the plate and deliver generational change—the change we voted for—we will emerge from this crisis stronger than ever before.”
Companies such as Uber and Lyft won a victory against labor groups last year in California, after spending $200 million in support of a ballot measure allowing them to bypass a state law intended to provide employee-like protections for drivers. Now, despite low Senate prospects, the industry is working to defeat the federal legislation.
The App-Based Work Alliance, the industry group, on Tuesday said the House “voted to put at risk the flexibility that millions of app-based workers rely on by including the same overly narrow definition of independent work” as the California law. The Chamber of Commerce said that the bill would upend right-to-work laws passed in 27 states and that the group would run TV ads in opposition.
Many Republicans say the House bill will stifle business and empower union leaders, and some key moderate Democrats haven’t yet weighed in. The legislation could draw more attention to the brewing fight over the Senate filibuster, the requirement that most legislation have 60 votes to pass, because Democrats only have 51 votes if they stick together.
Mr. Biden is already facing some criticism from progressive Democrats and some in organized labor who say he should have fought harder to include the minimum wage increase in his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package. The White House and centrist Democrats disagreed with calls from the left to overrule a Senate parliamentarian ruling that the wage increase is outside of the scope of the budget maneuver Democrats used to pass the relief bill without GOP support.
“The administration talked a good game about $15, but they failed to deliver,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive group Our Revolution, which held a rally outside the Capitol on Tuesday in support of the PRO Act. “The president can do much more.”
Mr. Biden opened his 2020 campaign at a union hall in Pittsburgh and, near the end of the run, pledged to be the most pro-labor president. The message was in part aimed at rank-and-file union members who have shifted support to Republicans, particularly Mr. Trump, even as union leadership supports Democrats. The candidates battled for the union vote across several Midwestern states crucial to Mr. Trump’s 2016 win.
In the 2020 cycle, some union members knocked doors in support of Democratic candidates even while many of the campaigns were still focused on virtual campaigning because of the pandemic. Democratic candidates in the election received more than 88% of the $79 million donated by labor PACs and union-affiliated individuals, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Union membership fell to 10.8% of the overall workforce in 2020, down from its recorded peak of 20.1% in 1983, according to the Labor Department, due to factors including corporate resistance and a shift from manufacturing. Some public opinion polls, though, show rising support for unions since the 2009 recession.
Labor leaders were disappointed by a lack of major victories under Mr. Obama. And some of Mr. Biden’s moves as president have drawn complaints, such as derailing the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which unions said would create 10,000 jobs, though many would have been temporary. His support for reducing fracking and other energy policies could also put him at odds with unions. The White House says Mr. Biden’s push for clean-energy projects will spur longer lasting job growth.
Mr. Biden’s push to open schools in the pandemic also has put him in the middle of a conflict between some parents and officials who want to quickly return to in-person learning and teachers’ unions, some of which want members vaccinated or other steps in place before fully reopening.
The White House says Mr. Biden is committed to working with lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, pass the PRO Act and move another economic package, which is expected to include infrastructure spending that could benefit union workers. During his campaign, Mr. Biden proposed requiring companies receiving government contracts to commit to paying at least $15 an hour and guarantee a choice to join a union and bargain collectively.
Democrats are discussing using reconciliation—the budget maneuver they used to pass the $1.9 trillion Covid measure with no Republican votes—for the second economic package. But Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), one of his party’s most prominent centrists, has expressed concern about another party line legislative push.
Marco Rubio Backs Amazon Workers’ Union Push, Citing ‘Culture War Against Working-Class Values’
Republican senator adds rare GOP support to an organized-labor effort.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) voiced his support for a union-organizing drive at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Alabama, accusing the e-commerce giant of waging a culture war that hurts its workers and the economy.
In an op-ed article in USA Today on Friday, Mr. Rubio said that adversarial relations between workers and companies could harm the country’s competitiveness. But he said he would support employees “when the conflict is between working Americans and a company whose leadership has decided to wage culture war against working-class values.”
“The days of conservatives being taken for granted by the business community are over,” Mr. Rubio wrote, citing what he called Amazon’s anticompetitive strategies against smaller companies and the removal of conservative content from its site as among the reasons he was backing the workers’ effort to unionize.
Mr. Rubio was one of a group of senators who wrote to Amazon earlier this month about its decision to remove from its site and its Kindle and Audible platforms the book “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment,” written by the conservative scholar Ryan T. Anderson.
Amazon later told the senators that it had decided not to sell books that frame transgender and other sexual identities as mental illnesses.
Amazon rejected Mr. Rubio’s criticism from his op-ed on Friday.
“When Sen. Rubio says Amazon is ‘waging war on working class values,’ does he mean our $15 starting wage, comprehensive benefits, or the paid parental leave we provide for hourly workers?” said Amazon spokeswoman Jodi Seth. “If he stands with American workers like he says he does, he should endorse Sen. [Bernie] Sanders’ minimum wage bill today,” referring to the Vermont senator’s push to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Mr. Rubio earlier this month voted against Mr. Sanders’s measure to raise the wage floor.
Mr. Rubio’s backing of the unionization drive of Amazon warehouse employees in Bessemer, Ala., marks a rare instance of GOP support for organized labor. In the past, even Republicans like former Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and former Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who had themselves once been union members, later came to oppose unions as harmful to business.
President Biden, a longtime ally of unions, has voiced support for the Alabama workers, who are set to decide whether to become the first group of U.S. Amazon employees to unionize. Mail-in votes by the more than 5,800 warehouse employees are due to the National Labor Relations Board by March 29.
In a statement Friday, an Amazon representative said the company doesn’t believe the union organizers represent a majority of its employees’ views: “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”
The warehouse opened in March of last year.
Amazon launched a website to persuade the warehouse workers to vote against the creation of a union and unsuccessfully sought to delay the process.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is conducting the unionization drive. The group’s president, Stuart Appelbaum, welcomed Mr. Rubio’s support, adding that it “demonstrates that the best way for working people to achieve dignity and respect in the workplace is through unionization. This should not be a partisan issue.”
Organizers have said forming a union would let the workers collectively bargain over safety standards, training, breaks, pay and other benefits.
Mr. Rubio’s backing for the organizational activity follows years of thought on the subject. The son of a casino bartender, he has written that one of his earliest political memories was of joining his father in a Culinary Workers Union strike in Las Vegas.
“Any discussion of the dignity of work should mention unions,” Mr. Rubio wrote in a 2018 article in the Atlantic. “No other American organizations occupy the same unique space as labor unions, which straddle the line between jobs and community. At their local levels, unions have historically served as an integrating force for the dignity of work.”
In Friday’s op-ed, Mr. Rubio also called for “a more productive relationship” between labor and businesses. He said that union-supported legislation like the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which passed the Democratic-led House on Tuesday, “would essentially mandate adversarial relations between labor and management.”
Those comments drew criticism from supporters of the PRO Act, who say the labor legislation would be a major advancement in employee rights.
“Positive words for workers organizing at Amazon are welcome, but positive actions for workers organizing everywhere distinguish true champions from political pandering,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement on Friday. “If you oppose the PRO Act, then you’re not pro-worker and you’re not pro-union.”
Union membership has been falling for years in the U.S., a reflection of the declining power of organized labor and slower employment growth in traditionally more unionized industries, such as manufacturing, transportation and utilities.
But workers at tech companies have demonstrated an increased appetite for organizing of late, with Google employees forming a union in January that since has quadrupled its membership to at least 800 workers.
Unions Are Back In Favor. They Need To Seize The Moment
A revived labor movement is needed to reverse decades of income inequality.
Labor is having a moment the likes of which it hasn’t experienced in decades.
In Joe Biden, the labor movement has the first full-throated, pro-union president since Harry Truman. A drive to unionize Amazon.com Inc. warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, is being watched closely as a possible harbinger of a broader effort to unionize nonmanufacturing industries.
And earlier this month, the House passed the most sweeping pro-union piece of legislation in nearly a century, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which seeks to strip away some of the advantages companies have long had in successfully fighting off organizing drives.
There is no doubt that the U.S. needs a revived labor movement. According to one important study, between 1973 and 2007, labor’s decline accounted for 30% of the rise in income inequality among men and 20% for women.
If the country hopes to rebuild the middle class and reduce income inequality, it simply has to do more to push the percentage of private sector workers who belong to unions, which stands at 6.3%, closer to the public sector rate, which is five times greater and lifts the overall number to 10.8%. What is less clear is whether this moment turns into anything more than, well, a moment.
A surprising fact: By statute, the federal government is pro-union. In 1935, two years into Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (also called the Wagner Act).
1. Its stated purpose was “to protect the rights of employees and employers, to encourage collective bargaining, and to curtail certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the U.S. economy.” (Emphasis mine.)
After decades of labor battles, many of them violent, the Wagner Act established rules designed to put workers on a more equal footing with management when trying to organize and bargain.
For instance, the law says that companies can’t refuse to negotiate with workers who have chosen to unionize, and it created the National Labor Relations Board to adjudicate organizing drives and make sure everyone plays fair. John L. Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, called it labor’s Magna Carta.
Within two years, the United Auto Workers conquered General Motors Co. and Chrysler Corp. In 1941, Henry Ford grudgingly succumbed and Ford Motor Co. became a union shop as well. As Timothy Noah points out in his book “The Great Divergence,”
2. by 1950 the UAW had won not only middle-class wages for its workers but cost-of-living adjustments, health insurance and pensions — benefits that would soon spread far beyond the auto industry. By 1954, “union density” — the percentage of the workforce that was unionized — stood at 28%, up from 7% in 1933.
Most people mark the decline of unions with Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire striking air-traffic controllers in 1981. But that’s not quite right. In fact, union density never topped that 1954 mark and declined gradually in the 1960s and 1970s. Why? Because of the Taft-Hartley Act, which a Republican-dominated Congress passed over Truman’s veto in 1947.
Taft-Hartley didn’t overturn the Wagner Act, but it crafted new rules that returned the advantages to management. In vetoing the bill, Truman denounced it as “deliberately designed to weaken labor unions.” He was right.
Taft-Hartley, wrote the labor lawyer and writer Thomas Geoghegan in his 1991 book “Which Side Are You On”:
3 * [E]ncouraged employers to threaten workers who want to organize. Employers could hold “captive meetings,” bringing workers into the office and chew them out for thinking about the union. And Taft-Hartley led to the “union busting” that started in the late 1960s and continues today.
Reagan’s firing of the air-traffic controllers turned a slow decline into a rout as corporate executives — and the anti-union law firms that sprang up to advise them — realized that in addition to taking advantage of Taft-Hartley, they could simply ignore the Wagner Act because the penalties were minimal and the government wasn’t going to stop them anyway.
Other factors were at play as well, of course. Globalization made it easy to shift manufacturing to countries such as Mexico and China, where workers were paid a fraction of a union member’s wage. Advances in logistics made international supply chains — once nearly impossible to pull off — routine.
When foreign automakers began building assembly plants in the U.S. in the 1980s, they chose right-to-work states in the South that were fiercely anti-union — indeed, the UAW has consistently failed to unionize those plants.
4. In 1979, the UAW had 1.5 million members; as of 2019, that number had fallen below 400,000.
As good-paying manufacturing jobs dwindled, they were replaced by low-paying service jobs. U.S. law makes industrywide union drives extremely difficult, so union efforts are invariably restricted to individual workplaces. Were employees at a McDonald’s restaurant ever going to have the wherewithal to form a union? Of course not.
Meanwhile, the largest private employer in the country, Walmart Inc., with 1.5 million U.S. employees, used every trick in the Taft-Hartley book whenever a union threat arose in one of its stores. Noah recounts the one successful union drive in the company’s history, in 2000, when 10 meat cutters at a Supercenter in Jacksonville, Texas, voted 7-to-3 to join a union:
* Within days of the vote Walmart announced that it was phasing out meat cutting at all its Supercenters, starting with the 180 stores that just happened to include the one in Jacksonville. … “This decision was in no way related to the Jacksonville situation,” a Walmart spokeswoman explained, presumably with a straight face.
There’s another factor I need to mention: Many of the people who had traditionally supported unions stopped caring. By which I mean liberals, particularly the liberal establishment, which became disconnected from the union movement as it became more technocratic and elitist. Bill Clinton, after all, was the president who signed Nafta into law and then spent the rest of his presidency ignoring the harm it did to manufacturing workers.
During the 2008 financial crisis, many of Barack Obama’s aides were willing to let Chrysler go under — until Ron Bloom, the one aide who had actually worked with unions, argued vehemently that the government couldn’t abandon all the people who would lose their jobs. “There wasn’t one guy in that room who’d spent any serious time having beers with real workers,” Bloom later told the journalist Ron Suskind.
5. By the 1970s, Kurt Andersen writes in his 2020 book “Evil Geniuses,”
6. “The basic college-educated-liberal attitude towards unions was evolving from solidarity to indifference to suspicion.” He does not exempt himself. As he made his way in New York as a prominent writer and editor, he looked down his nose at “boring” unions.
It took him the better part of a lifetime to realize that the indifference to unions by liberals like him had allowed them to ignore growing income inequality and the pain it was inflicting on so many working-class Americans.
Andersen’s mea culpa hit me hard because that’s my story, too. My parents, both public school teachers, were staunch union members who had spent time on picket lines. Yet once I began focusing my journalism on business, I started to see things through the same prism as the rest of the liberal establishment.
Sure, globalization hurt workers in Detroit or Akron, Ohio. But it kept prices low, right? And all the economists said that there were more winners than losers. Maybe out-of-work Detroit residents should move to Texas. Or join a retraining program. The liberal mindset — my mindset — decried Walmart’s poverty-level wages but never connected those wages to the fact that Walmart had successfully shut out unions.
In another of his books, “Only One Thing Can Save Us,”
7. Geoghegan writes that the House passed labor reform bills three times during his life only to have them die in the Senate. Geoghegan is only a few years older than me. When I read that sentence, I realized, with some embarrassment, that I had no memory of any of those efforts.
I read Noah’s book, “The Great Divergence,” a decade ago when it was first published. The book is about the causes of income inequality; there are chapters on maximizing shareholder value, on the effect of globalization, on the widening advantage for people with college degrees and so on. These solidified the impression I already had about the factors that contribute to growing income inequality.
But when I read the chapter on unions, it was as if the lightbulb went on. Of course labor’s decline was an important reason the rich were getting richer at the expense of everyone else. But like many liberals of my generation, I had overlooked it.
Unions didn’t just raise wages for its members; nonunion shops in similar industries often had to raise wages to keep pace. And the lack of unions meant that companies faced no pressure to pay a decent wage.
Noah told me recently that by the time he was writing his book in 2011, the connection between labor’s decline and income inequality was well established in the academic literature. But the same was not true among the general population.
“When I went around hawking my book in 2012,” he told me in an email:
* There was a curious resistance to my chapter on unions, among both liberals and conservatives. They just didn’t want to hear that solving the inequality problem might require handing power back to workers.
He Continued: “I found myself telling audiences that if they cared about inequality and didn’t want to discuss reviving unions, then they should take up chess because they were wasting their time.”
During his eight years as vice president, Biden didn’t talk much about unions — nor, of course, did Obama — but as a candidate in 2020 and now as president, he has made strengthening unions a core plank in his plan to create millions of middle-class jobs. A few weeks ago, he took the unprecedented step of inserting himself in the fight between Amazon and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in Alabama.
In a short video released by the White House, Biden didn’t mention Amazon by name, but there was no mistaking what he was referring to. “Unions built the middle class,” he began. He continued:
* Today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. … There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda. No supervisor should control employees about their union preferences.
Biden concluded: “Make your voice heard.”
Of course, intimidation, coercion, threats and anti-union propaganda are exactly what Taft-Hartley legalized in 1947. And while Amazon is hardly the only offender, it is nonetheless going to great lengths to persuade its employees to vote no.
According to the Washington Post, workers get four or five anti-union emails a day from the company, and anti-union signs have even been posted in the bathroom stalls. The New York Times reported that “at certain training sessions, company representatives have pointed out the cost of union dues.” The union even says that Amazon had the county change the timing of a traffic light where union organizers handed out flyers.
(Amazon says that it asked for the light change because of traffic issues. As for the larger issues, a spokeswoman told the Times, “It’s important that employees understand the facts of joining a union. We will provide education about that and the election process so they can make an informed decision.”)
The voting by employees is taking place now and won’t end until the end of March. The issues are less about pay — the company pays its warehouse workers a minimum of $15 an hour — than working conditions. (The union drive appears to have been prompted by cases of Covid-19 among Amazon workers.)
The stakes are high not just for Amazon and its employees but for the nation. The company employs 1.3 million people, and should the union win, one could easily see union drives at other Amazon warehouses — which, in turn, could spur other service workers to attempt to unionize, especially knowing that the president will be shining a light on their efforts.
Still, the odds are against the Amazon workers, given the company’s built-in advantages. Democrats are trying to change that with the recent passage of the PRO Act. Among other things, the bill would allow for certain kinds of picketing and strikes that Taft-Hartley outlawed, prevent employers from permanently eliminating striking workers and add penalties and remedies that would inflict real pain on employers that violate labor laws.
In the House, only five Republicans voted for the bill. In the Senate, at least as things currently stand, it would need 10 Republican votes to pass. Like virtually all progressive legislation, the PRO Act won’t become law anytime soon unless the filibuster is eliminated.
Even so, there is reason for optimism. Celine McNicholas, the director of government affairs at the Economic Policy Institute, a worker-focused policy group, pointed to a recent Gallup poll showing that 65% of Americans approved of labor unions, up from 48% in 2009. According to McNicholas, the number of young people who are pro-union is even higher. “Younger workers have none of the outdated hang-ups,” she told me.
Geoghegan noted that several of Biden’s top aides, including his chief of staff, Ron Klain, and Jared Bernstein, a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, are fiercely pro-union. Andrew Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union, was also encouraged by Biden’s pro-union stance, but he also said that the unions have to be willing to spend money on organizing drives — even if some of them fail — to take full advantage of the moment.
“They have to invest money and time and talent if they are going to grow again,” he said.
There’s another cause for optimism: The liberal intelligentsia is embracing unions again. The connection between unions and inequality has become too glaring to ignore anymore.
For instance, when Toys “R” Us Inc. went out of business — and the private equity firms that had sucked it dry didn’t even offer to pay a dime in severance to workers — it offended the conscience. Would a union have made a difference to those workers?
“It’s a really important moment,” Stern told me. “The Amazon fight is shedding light on the lengths one of the most successful corporations in the world will go using traditional anti-union tactics. The president has decided that unions are his partners and workers deserve a fair chance to have a union. The contextual atmosphere is really strong.”
But workers won’t get representation without a fight. Unions need to take advantage of this moment to start organizing drives, and they need everyone’s support. Otherwise we might as well just play chess.
Amazon Workers Consider Unionizing At Several More U.S. Sites
The efforts may falter, but labor experts say they could presage a multi-front campaign to improve working conditions at the company.
Inspired by the high-profile campaign to unionize an Amazon.com Inc. fulfillment center in Alabama, workers in Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver and Southern California have begun exploring ways to form unions at their own Amazon facilities. The Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is leading the drive in Bessemer, Alabama, says it has heard from 1,000 Amazon workers around the country.
These efforts are nascent and may fade, but labor experts say they could presage a multi-front campaign to improve working conditions at the world’s largest e-commerce company even if the RWDSU loses in Bessemer, where the vote to unionize ends March 29.
“There are strikes and elections that become historical pivot points,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University. “This is one of them.”
As the RWDSU focuses on Alabama, the Teamsters are taking the battle beyond Amazon’s warehouses and into its delivery operations, where drivers earn about half as much as some of their unionized counterparts. Even the construction unions, which help build Amazon facilities and have an uneasy truce with the company, are starting to find common cause with warehouse workers over workplace safety.
Union leaders also point to a favorable political climate. President Joe Biden recently backed the Alabama workers’ right to unionize, and on Wednesday a Bessemer worker activist testified before a Senate hearing on wealth inequality that Jeff Bezos—chief executive officer and the world’s wealthiest man—declined to attend.
On the other hand, Amazon has spent the last quarter-century stamping out labor activism before it could spread and constrain the company’s ability to deliver packages quickly and cheaply. Amazon is waging a fierce information war against the RWDSU in Bessemer and can be expected to do the same at other facilities if the activism takes root.
In interviews, workers who support at least talking with the unions acknowledge that they fear retribution and are struggling to persuade those colleagues who believe the wages and benefits are fair.
An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment on the potential spread of labor activism to other facilities.
During the pandemic, working conditions became Topic A in internet chat rooms where Amazon employees around the U.S. congregate. More recently the conversation has turned to the union drive in Bessemer.
A warehouse worker in Portland, Oregon, last month argued with a colleague online about the pros and cons of joining a union. The conversation began when a worker posted a screenshot of a manager’s text challenging a team to a race. The fastest worker would win a $25 gift card.
To many workers on the thread, the text was a reminder of how managers pit them against each other with the chance of a small reward rather than investing in better wages to motivate the entire team. Shortly after debating another colleague about pay, the Portland worker received a private message encouraging him to “channel his discontent” into forming a union, along with contact information for a labor organizer. He followed up and has been discussing the idea with a small group of colleagues.
“I feel as though helping create a union at Amazon is something I could be meant for,” says the worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering his managers. “Without collective bargaining, nobody on this planet wins except for billionaires with lobbyists.”
A warehouse worker in Baltimore says he was inspired by the Bessemer campaign and began scrawling pro-union messages on an employee bulletin board. But the worker says he has received little support from colleagues, has yet to hear back from the RWDSU and is thinking about contacting a different union.
A 28-year-old New Orleans warehouse worker drove five hours to Bessemer last month to support a pro-union rally and says the workers there are creating a blueprint that their colleagues around the country can follow.
“If the most powerful company in the world can be unionized in an anti-union state like Alabama, it gives hope to people in Louisiana, in Mississippi, in West Virginia who are trying to do the same thing,” he says. “We just have to support the fight wherever it’s at because the fight is going to come to us.”
Another worker in Denver created an online chat room where workers could discuss organizing that facility but admits to being too scared to do anything further.
Workers say retaliation for organizing is a real threat. An employee in Nashville was fired in retaliation for discussing workplace conditions, and another in Illinois was pulled off of a shift “to discourage employees from engaging” in activism, according to complaints filed in February with the National Labor Relations Board.
The Amazon spokeswoman declined to address the allegations that the company retaliated against the two workers.
Also in February, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit alleging Amazon had fired and disciplined two warehouse workers in Staten Island after they voiced safety concerns during the pandemic, violating state whistleblower protections and anti-retaliation laws. Amazon disputed the findings of James’s investigation and called its safety response to the outbreak “industry-leading.”
So far the labor activism is limited for a company of Amazon’s size. A Nevada warehouse worker has been following news about the union drive but says there hasn’t been any breakroom chatter about the vote.
A worker in Pennsylvania says colleagues have discussed the extent to which race could be playing a role in Alabama, where most Amazon workers are Black. But she says her fellow employees haven’t considered a similar effort.
“People are just trying to work and go home,” she says. “Amazon makes you very tired, drained both physically and mentally, but benefits are good.”The unions, which have targeted Amazon for years, are stepping up the pressure by trying to persuade employees they can in fact do better.
The Teamsters are recruiting Amazon delivery drivers around the country but acknowledge the company’s health benefits and a $15-an-hour starting wage make their pitch difficult. It doesn’t help that Amazon contrasts its employment package with part-time retail jobs rather than union warehouse and trucking jobs that pay much more.
The Teamsters are trying to change the conversation by talking about how Amazon is eroding wages and benefits for what have long been middle-class careers.
“The message we’re hoping will resonate is, ‘You can’t treat people like this in this industry,’” says Randy Korgan, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 1932 in San Bernardino where the union has been busy doing outreach with Amazon workers.
“If Amazon was paying such a good wage, people wouldn’t be moving on and going to the next job. They’re just burning through the workforce and they’re going to continue to burn through the workforce.”
The Teamsters are also trying to drive a wedge between Amazon and the construction unions, which have joined political forces with the company in the past—supporting the aborted plan to build a second headquarters in New York and helping defeat a proposed payroll tax designed to combat Seattle’s homelessness problem.
Now construction unions are getting noisier when Amazon’s developers use non-union contractors on construction projects, which union members say creates safety concerns. A group of iron workers in Southern California walked off an Amazon construction site in February to protest the use of non-union crews.
The Merrimack Valley Building Trades Council, which represents 20,000 union workers north of Boston, has raised similar concerns about a proposed Amazon warehouse in Andover. (The Amazon spokeswoman said the company uses an open-bid process and works with union and non-union contractors.)
The Teamsters have been pushing the Merrimack Valley labor council to think beyond its own members and show solidarity with warehouse workers and delivery drivers to demand good wages and a safe workplace, says Chris Brennan, president of the council. Unions in different industries recognize they have to unite on common issues such as safety and wages to have a stronger voice against a powerful foe, he says.
“Taking on a behemoth like Amazon is going to take an army,” Brennan says.
The unions have one thing in common. They’re all losing members even as Amazon’s workforce balloons. The company employed 1.3 million people globally at the end of 2020, up 63% from a year earlier, and is now the second biggest private employer in the U.S. behind Walmart Inc.
Labor activists are hoping that the country’s increasing focus on wealth inequality will help revive a movement that has had few victories at top non-union employers in recent decades.
“People understand this is about something much bigger than Alabama and even much bigger than Amazon,” says Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU. “It’s really about the future of work and how workers are going to be treated.” He says that even if his union loses the vote in Bessemer, “this campaign will result in an explosion in organizing around the country.”
Amazon Faces Growing Worker Pressure In Shadow of Alabama Union Vote
Employees organize in U.S. and Europe, signaling e-commerce giant’s labor battles will continue.
Amazon.com Inc. warehouse workers in Alabama are voting on whether to unionize this month. Whatever the result, the e-commerce giant faces pressure from staff world-wide to make changes to its working conditions.
So far those actions stop short of a formal unionization push, but each one involves hundreds of employees and shows how work conditions at Amazon warehouses are increasingly in the spotlight. President Biden and other high-profile figures have weighed in on the Bessemer, Ala., vote among warehouse employees.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a frequent Amazon critic, is scheduled to travel to Alabama Friday to meet with Amazon workers, a spokesman said. Thousands of votes have already been submitted in the mail-in election, which concludes March 29.
None of Amazon’s 800,000 U.S. employees are unionized. A vote to form a union in Alabama would give workers more power to negotiate with the company on matters such as pay and benefits.
Elsewhere, hourly Amazon employees are gathering petition signatures, discussing potential strikes and consulting with unions about possible demands.
The groups are seeking to alter company policies on the rate at which they must prepare packages as well as break time and shift schedules—all factors that can make Amazon a physically demanding place to work, workers say. Such issues have risen to the fore for many employees amid Amazon’s expansion and push to speed up delivery times.
“It would be a victory for us, and it would bring momentum for others,” Jennifer Bates, a worker-organizer in Bessemer, said in an interview. “It would be a fire starter.”
An Amazon spokeswoman said the company “already offers what unions are requesting for employees: industry-leading pay, comprehensive benefits and opportunities for career growth.”
Employee activism appears to be on the rise at several large tech companies. Organized actions among technology employees in the U.S. almost tripled from 2018 to 2019 to more than 100, according to public policy consultant Access Partnership Ltd. The activity continued into 2020 and, in Amazon’s case, grew as the pandemic drew attention to the working conditions of essential employees.
A group of Google employees formed a union in January to speak out about the company without facing career repercussions, members said. Some employees at Twitter Inc. the same month collectively pushed for the social media platform to suspend the account of then-President Donald Trump, while at Uber Technologies Inc., many drivers throughout the country have long sought employee status and benefits.
Amazon, unlike many other big tech firms, employs hundreds of thousands of hourly workers whose day-to-day jobs differ significantly from those of its white-collar engineers, finance and logistics professionals. The company, which made $386.1 billion in sales last year and saw its share price rise about 76%, hired more than 500,000 workers throughout the year to meet growing demand due to the pandemic.
Amid that growth, Amazon employees have pushed for improved working conditions during the pandemic, and some held walkouts in cities such as New York and Detroit. Amazon moved quickly to improve conditions and reduce worker absences that made on-time deliveries of essential goods more difficult.
The company beefed up supplies of protective equipment and cleaning at facilities and tested employees for Covid-19. It also temporarily raised pay and implemented social-distancing measures in warehouses. Amazon disclosed late last year that more than 19,000 of its workers had tested positive for the coronavirus.
The company also granted vacation pay to all part-time workers—something warehouse employees across the country, including in Chicago, had been asking for since 2019.
Previously, outside pressure has also led Amazon to change its policies. The company in 2018 raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour after criticism from political figures over its hourly pay.
“Workers will continue to make demands of Amazon,” said Rebecca Givan, a labor professor at Rutgers University. “Some will be union organizing drives, and some will take other forms.”
Alongside the Alabama vote, formal efforts to organize are gathering steam. In Europe, where union representation is more common, Amazon warehouse and delivery employees held a strike in Italy Monday to protest working conditions.
In Iowa, roughly 400 to 500 current and former Amazon workers connected to two of the company’s warehouses there have been in contact with representatives from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, according to Randy Korgan, director for Amazon at the Teamsters.
Since the start of the pandemic, workers have communicated with the union more frequently and sought guidance about ways to organize, including with strikes, according to union officials. Workers are evaluating a number of possible campaigns, seeking changes related to the pace of work and productivity expectations, union officials said. Amazon warehouse employees typically have to fulfill hundreds of items per working hour while the company monitors them closely.
“Workers organizing in a general sense can take many forms,” Iain Gold, the Teamsters director of strategic research and campaigns, said.
Outside Chicago, a group of warehouse employees at a delivery center southwest of the city, began a petition after Amazon told employees in January that it was closing the site. Workers were told they could choose jobs at other facilities in the area, but the only roles available were 10-hour overnight shifts known as a “megacycle,” according to Ted Miin, a worker-organizer with the group, which calls itself Amazonians United Chicagoland.
The petition seeks accommodations for workers who can work only part of the shift, such as caretakers, and it has garnered hundreds of worker signatures, Mr. Miin said. The group hasn’t sought union representation because it has previously changed conditions at its workplace without third-party intervention, he added.
“Everything about us is 100% worker-led,” Mr. Miin said.
The Amazon spokeswoman said the company is giving the Chicago employees more than one shift option, “and we are working with each associate directly on the option that best supports them.”
Bessemer workers began organizing last summer, seeking to change policies at the facility related to breaks and Amazon’s monitoring of workers, among other measures.
Some workers have said they don’t believe union representation would substantially improve their conditions. Others see a victory as something that could reach far beyond Alabama by motivating workers throughout the country to take action and more broadly alter Amazon’s workplace policies.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which would represent Amazon workers in Bessemer if they elect to unionize, has heard from more than 1,000 Amazon workers nationwide on organizing efforts and has begun conversations with them, according to union spokeswoman Chelsea Connor.
The Alabama union vote has drawn interest almost akin to a high-profile political race, with politicians and celebrities weighing in. Last month, Mr. Biden called the election a “vitally important choice” in a video posted to the White House’s YouTube account. And Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has also publicly expressed support for the workers.
The vote has attracted support from Democratic leaders such as Stacey Abrams, National Football League players and actors Tina Fey and Danny Glover, who visited Bessemer in February. A Democratic congressional delegation met this month with workers and organizers associated with the union election.
Amazon declined to respond to Mr. Biden’s comments. A spokeswoman responded to Mr. Rubio’s comments by pointing out the company’s $15 starting wage and other benefits.
Amazon Apologizes For Tweet, Vows To Improve Driver Conditions
Amazon.com Inc. apologized for a tweet denying workers urinate in bottles, a rare instance of contrition from the world’s largest e-commerce company.
Amazon had earlier responded to a tweet from Representative Mark Pocan accusing the company of working its people so hard that they couldn’t access bathrooms. Addressing Pocan directly, consumer chief Dave Clark tweeted: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?”
After enduring several days of criticism, the company issued a blog post Friday apologizing and saying Amazon had been referring specifically to its warehouse workers, not contract drivers who often struggle to find washrooms while delivering packages.
“This was an own-goal, we’re unhappy about it, and we owe an apology to Representative Pocan,” Amazon said in the blog. “First, the tweet was incorrect. It did not contemplate our large driver population and instead wrongly focused only on our fulfillment centers.”
The company said delivery drivers at many companies struggle to find restrooms and that the problem had worsened during the pandemic.
“Regardless of the fact that this is industry-wide, we would like to solve it,” Amazon said in the blog. “We don’t yet know how, but will look for solutions.”
Tesla Appeals Labor Agency Ruling It Bullied Union Activists
Tesla Inc. is appealing a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that it repeatedly violated U.S. labor law, including by firing a union activist, and an order by the agency that Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk delete a threatening tweet from his account.
The electric-car maker filed a request Friday with the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals to overturn a decision issued by the regulator on March 25.
“Because the board’s decision and order is contrary to law, petitioner respectfully requests that the court grant the petition, review the board’s decision and order, set it aside, and grant petitioner any further relief which the court deems just and equitable,” Tesla said in its petition.
The ruling, issued by two Republican and one Democratic member of the agency, stated that the company must offer to reinstate the fired employee. The board members also ruled that Tesla broke the law by retaliating against another union activist, “coercively interrogating” union supporters and restricting employees from talking to reporters.
Tesla has denied wrongdoing and has argued that Musk’s tweet was protected by the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
What Amazon’s Alabama Union Vote Means For The Company And Workers
Bessemer employees would be the only unionized Amazon workers in a nation where memberships have dwindled.
If workers at an Amazon.com facility in Bessemer, Ala., vote to unionize, it would boost the number of workers who have opted to join a union in a state that has membership rates below the U.S. average.
But the vote, the counting of which began March 30, is also being closely watched for other reasons—among them Amazon’s position as the second-largest U.S. employer, and the prospect that a “yes” vote would buck a general trend toward dwindling private-sector union membership rates seen since the ’60s.
Amazon, which has operations in all 50 states, has roughly 950,000 employees in the U.S., none currently unionized. The company is the second-biggest U.S. employer after Walmart Inc., which it is expected to overtake in the next few years.
Amazon says it has created more than 9,000 jobs in Alabama, where it has two delivery stations and five Whole Foods Market supermarkets in addition to its fulfillment and sorting center in Bessemer.
Alabama’s unionization rate, currently below 10%, is lower than in the U.S. broadly. But the state’s trend has followed a similar general downward line in recent decades.
There are 5,805 Amazon workers in Bessemer. If they were all to unionize, they would be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which had 18,000 members in the state as of 2020; the new workers would represent an increase of about 32%. Alabama is a right-to-work state, so workers wouldn’t be required to join the union.
The union’s estimates indicate that most of the workers at the Bessemer site are Black; nationally, about 27% of Amazon’s employees are Black. While unionization rates have fallen across racial groups in the U.S. since 2000, Black workers are most likely to be represented by a union, and organizers at the Amazon warehouse have raised themes of racial empowerment during their campaign.
Meanwhile, public support for labor unions in the U.S. has risen in recent years. Last year, it reached its highest point since 2003, according to Gallup data, rising from a low point seen during the 2008-09 financial crisis.
Amazon Is Helping To Resurrect The Labor Movement
Employees of the massive online retailer may be the new archetype of the American working class — and a rallying point for union organizing.
The U.S. labor movement has been moribund for decades, but a high-profile unionization drive at Amazon.com Inc. may be just what it needs to revive its fortunes. That’s because Amazon workers embody a new working class that may start to develop the kind of solidarity that existed among factory workers last century.
The last 40 years haven’t been good to unions in America. Since 1983, union membership has fallen by almost half, to the point barely one worker in 10 is organized:
State of Torpor
Unions have been declining for decades in the U.S.
There have been some rumblings of discontent with this trend in recent years. Economists, dismayed at rising inequality, have slowly become more favorable toward the once-maligned mid-20th-century labor movement. Some legislators have been trying to make it easier to unionize, and policymakers and thinkers have begun to consider changing the U.S. labor system in ways that would expand the reach of collective bargaining.
And there was a small wave of strikes in 2018, which might hint at a labor movement that’s rising from its long torpor.
The pandemic of 2020 put a damper on that newfound enthusiasm, as workers struggled just to retain their incomes. But it might make a strong comeback in 2021. Amazon warehouse and delivery workers, frustrated by the company’s grueling work conditions, have been attempting to organize — starting with a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. President Joe Biden has endorsed the Bessemer union drive, and Amazon workers around the country are now considering getting organized as well.
There’s reason to think the Amazon unionization drive might be the start of a more general U.S. labor revival. Over the past decade and a half, as its warehousing and delivery operations have expanded, Amazon has gone from being a fairly insignificant employer to the country’s second-largest after Walmart Inc.
About one out of every 110 American workers are now employed by Amazon.
That could affect the labor movement in a number of ways. First of all, it gives pro-union sentiment a single high-profile opponent. As my colleagues Nir Kaissar and Tim O’Brien documented, Amazon’s public campaign against the unionization drive was particularly ham-handed. The company unleashed various proxies on Twitter to scoff at reports that Amazon workers have to resort to peeing in bottles and defecating in bags because of their grueling schedules.
Muckraking journalists at The Intercept and elsewhere quickly obtained leaks from inside the company demonstrating that the practice is widespread. Meanwhile, Amazon executives’ claim that the company has great working conditions, but as Kaissar and O’Brien note, it has been fined repeatedly by the government for unsafe practices.
The sheer cartoonishness of Amazon’s anti-union public relations campaign could clarify moral perceptions around the issue — workers forced to pee in bottles going up against a megacorporation where executives make hundreds of millions of dollars a year and anti-union consultants are paid $10,000 a day.
Amazon also happens to be a big technology company in an era where big-tech companies are increasingly targets of popular ire. In 2021, 45% of Gallup respondents reported a negative view of companies such as Amazon, Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, compared to only 34% who held a positive view; this marks a sharp reversal from 2019.
Most big technology companies don’t employ a lot of working-class people; Amazon, thanks to its warehousing and delivery businesses, is the big exception.
Amazon’s sheer size might help breed a sense of solidarity among the U.S. working class that has arguably been fading in the modern age. In the heyday of the U.S. labor movement, mass employment in manufacturing was the norm; “working class” could include domestic servants and agricultural laborers, but for a very large segment of the populace it meant someone who worked in a factory on an assembly line. Those workers were largely unionized.
As the U.S. transitioned out of manufacturing and into services, however, job types fragmented and proliferated. A substitute teacher, a Walmart cashier, a server in a burrito restaurant, a janitor at a contracting firm, a construction worker, a trucker and a telemarketer may all have similar income, but the work they do is so different that it might be hard to think of them as a single “working class.”
Now, however, an Amazon warehouse worker or driver might become the new archetype of the American working class — the mental image of someone who endures grueling days of labor while their employer lives high on the hog.
This is all fairly speculative at this point, of course. The Bessemer warehouse’s unionization drive might fail, or other shops around the country might not join in. Or if Amazon does unionize, it might turn out to be the exception rather than the rule. The key factor might be federal policy.
In the near term, the most important thing Biden can do if he actually wants to resuscitate the U.S. labor movement is to appoint strongly pro-union people to the National Labor Relations Board and other government bodies. As Ronald Reagan’s appointment of anti-union people demonstrated, the attitudes of bureaucratic personnel can have a big and lasting effect.
In an age when even many Republican voters are warming to the idea of unions, Biden could have a once-in-a-generation chance to breathe life into the dying embers of American labor power. If that happens, we might one day look back and see the Amazon fight as a turning point.
Amazon Vote Deals Blow To Expanding Labor Union Membership
Unionization rates are trending down in the private sector, despite increased focus in Washington.
Workers’ rejection of a union at Amazon.com Inc.’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., is a setback to organized labor’s efforts to reverse a decadeslong decline in private-sector membership nationally.
The Alabama result underscores unions’ challenges in increasing membership in the U.S. private sector, where they represent just 6.3% of workers, down from 24.2% in 1973, according to data from Georgia State University.
Hiring at Amazon—the second-largest private employer in the U.S.—and other e-commerce warehouses increased last year even as the country shed millions of jobs, including more than 300,000 union positions, during the pandemic. For unions, the time appeared ripe to organize workers in an expanding sector and an environment where labor unions traditionally have operated: a large blue-collar site where many employees do similar jobs.
The effort failed despite President Biden’s endorsement, his stated goal of creating more union jobs and a renewed embrace of labor by many congressional Democrats.
Last year, more union members worked for the government than for private-sector employers, according to the Labor Department, showing the public sector is now the stronghold of organized labor. Teacher strikes and protests in 2018 and 2019 won pay increases and other concessions in Arizona, West Virginia, Los Angeles and other states and cities, and more recently, educator unions influenced plans to reopen schools during the pandemic in Chicago and elsewhere.
The Amazon vote bodes poorly for organized labor trying to increase the share of workers who are union members and revive organized labor as a formidable voice in American workplaces, said Jonathan Spitz, co-leader of the labor relations practice at Jackson Lewis, a management-side law firm. Union members accounted for 10.8% of the total U.S. workforce last year, down from 24% in 1973, according to Georgia State’s data.
Organizing workers at major employers such as Amazon or Walmart Inc. has long been a “holy grail” for unions, he said, but many big companies have the power and the capital to pay competitively, survey employees about their experiences and respond to dissatisfaction before it grows.
“Employers control the economic issues, they decide what pay and benefits look like and if they want to pre-empt organizing based on economic issues, they can do it,” he said.
Amazon told its workers in Alabama that unionizing wasn’t necessary, highlighting that it starts workers at $15 an hour—more than double the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum—and the healthcare benefits it offers employees. The median pay in the U.S. for warehouse and storage workers was $17.77 an hour last year, according to the Labor Department.
The organizing union—the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union—sought to bargain over work rules and better pay, frequently citing the wealth of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Workers at the Bessemer warehouse overwhelmingly rejected unionization, with 71% casting ballots not to join the union, according to the National Labor Relations Board.
The failure at Amazon comes after other unsuccessful attempts to organize large companies. United Food and Commercial Workers had sought to unionize Walmart stores and labor unions backed the Fight for $15 protests against McDonald’s Corp. and other chains. While those protests influenced state and local minimum-wage changes, it failed to secure new union members.
“One of the concerns here for people who’d like to see something change is they spent a lot of money and energy on it and it didn’t work, so there’s some reluctance to try it again with other retail giants,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist and chair of the labor studies department at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.
The Amazon effort also took place as employee activism is growing at technology and media firms. A few months ago, around 200 employees of Google parent company Alphabet Inc. formed a union affiliated with the Communications Workers of America.
The group, called the Alphabet Workers Union, hasn’t sought collective-bargaining rights, and it didn’t go through an election process like the one at Amazon’s Bessemer facility. Instead, its leaders have said it aims to speak out about problems its members see at Google, including pay discrepancies and retaliatory firings.
The organizing difficulties faced by private-sector unions stand in contrast to those in the public sector. More than 40% of local-government workers, including teachers, firefighters and police, are union members.
In some cases, those unions receive widespread public support and are often more aligned with their management.
“We saw the teacher strikes…management was often on the side of the workers because they also wanted more funding,” Ms. Milkman said.
Broadly, labor groups have been enjoying a moment in the spotlight, boosted by a presidential administration that is attentive to their concerns. Mr. Biden had expressed support for the Amazon workers’ unionization drive. He also has proposed a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package that would rely on union labor and seeks to increase union jobs in both the private and public sectors, including by weakening right-to-work laws.
A growing federal government could create more union jobs. However, state and local governments cut jobs last year during the pandemic, more than offsetting federal gains. Mr. Biden’s infrastructure plan aims to funnel work to industries in which unions are prevalent, especially construction, and the proposal would likely include incentives to hiring unionized labor for the work.
Public-sector workers, such as teachers, are often already covered by collective bargaining agreements that offer job protections, which may make them more willing to engage in organizing efforts, said Anastasia Christman, director of the Worker Power Program at the National Law Employment Project, a worker advocacy group.
Amazon’s Win Delivers A Stinging Defeat To The U.S. Labor Movement
Unionizing the company’s Bessemer, Ala. warehouse became a rallying cry for worker advocates, but that wasn’t enough.
The union loss against Amazon.com Inc. in Bessemer, Ala. marks a stinging defeat for the U.S. labor movement, one made all the more painful by its familiarity.
In recent decades, top nonunion American companies have been virtually impervious to organizing efforts, particularly those that come down to elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. That trend continued at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, where workers voted 1,798 to 738 against joining the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. While 505 disputed ballots remain unopened, they won’t reverse the outcome, announced Friday.
“Today’s announcement,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum told reporters after the ballots were tallied, “may not be what we wanted, but sadly it is one that many have come to expect.”
The election had signaled a massive shift in Amazon’s labor relations. A few years ago, collective action by Amazon employees was rare, but the safety issues thrown into high relief by the Covid-19 pandemic, in tandem with increased funds and focus from unions, have made strikes and protests at the company’s warehouses more common. The #BlackLivesMatter movement and organizing efforts by Alabama poultry workers also helped RWDSU sign up thousands of Bessemer employees. It wasn’t enough.
Amazon may well spend years battling the union over the legality of the tactics it used to win in Bessemer, but whatever happens there, the election outcome will be cited as vindication for the company’s employment policies for a long time to come.
In a statement, the union accused Amazon of “corrupting” the election through tactics such as pressuring the U.S. Postal Service to install a mailbox on the company’s property and pushing workers to cast their mail-in ballots there.
“Our system is broken, Amazon took full advantage of that, and we will be calling on the labor board to hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and egregious behavior,” Appelbaum said. An Amazon spokesperson said the mailbox was a “simple, secure, and completely optional” way to make voting easier.
The organizing effort may have suffered from some of RWDSU’s strategic choices, such as agreeing to Amazon’s push that they accept votes during the seven-week election from hundreds of additional employees, including temps. But the bigger challenges were the structural disadvantages that face workers trying to organize at any major nonunion company in the U.S.
Companies are allowed to force workers into group meetings and one-on-one discussions that include predictions of dire consequences in the event of unionization. (Employees say Amazon did so in Bessemer; the company says it hosted “information sessions” so employees could “understand the facts.”)
“Being under the watchful eye and control of the employer all day long—and subject to the messages of the employer, for which there’s no equal time for the union—detracts from it really being a fair and free election,” says Wilma Liebman, a former chair of the National Labor Relations Board.
Employers also have incentives to illegally punish or fire activist workers, which labor board prosecutors have accused Amazon of doing at other warehouses. (An Amazon spokesperson says the company has “zero tolerance” for retaliation.) If a company is found to have broken the law in such a manner, it may eventually have to provide workers with back pay and to post signs promising not to repeat the illegal behavior, but it will pay no punitive damages and managers face no personal liability.
On the flip side, employers aren’t legally compelled to complete a union contract in a specified period of time, so about half of workers who win union votes won’t have a union contract a year later. Some companies simply shut down operations that unionize. Several Bessemer workers said this prospect weighed on them during the election.
Given these headwinds, union organizers sometimes eschew standard labor board elections in favor of what they call comprehensive campaigns, a mix of workplace protests and pressure from consumers, politicians, and the media. The idea is to force company executives to agree to more favorable terms for unionization and contract processes.
RWDSU’s parent, the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, succeeded with such an approach at Smithfield Foods Inc. in 2008. After a campaign that included lobbying Oprah Winfrey to keep Smithfield ham off her show, the UFCW reached a deal with the company that restricted union busting and won a vote to organize about 5,000 North Carolina slaughterhouse employees.
Such victories, however, have been rare. Yearslong union-backed campaigns targeting Walmart and McDonald’s, for example, have helped get workers raises and win better treatment for pregnant employees, but haven’t won unionization. At Amazon, neither labor board elections nor multipronged pressure campaigns have secured any formal union foothold in the U.S.
Amazon abandoned its plan to put a second headquarters in New York after RWDSU started pressuring local politicians to condition development on the company agreeing to curb union busting. The $15 minimum wage, which Amazon credited critics like Senator Bernie Sanders with helping persuade it to embrace, is now a talking point the company’s public relations team uses to rebut the senator’s claim that its workers need a union.
There are also legal limits on just how comprehensive a comprehensive campaign can get. Federal law restricts unions from involving business partners in a dispute with a particular company—such as by picketing Amazon suppliers to demand they cut off the company—and bars states from trying to create local, stronger versions of the National Labor Relations Board.
Unions have failed to reform federal labor laws for most of the past century, stymied repeatedly by fervent Republican opposition, Democratic ambivalence, and the Senate filibuster. Joe Biden campaigned on a sweeping pro-union reform bill, the PRO Act, and the U.S. House passed it in March.
Among other things, the legislation would ban employers from holding mandatory anti-union meetings, let the National Labor Relations Board fine companies that break the law, and employ arbitrators to ensure that unions can secure contracts. But it faces long odds in the Senate, where not all Democrats are sold on the bill or on abolishing the filibuster to pass it.
Some labor advocates say the legal system needs to be overhauled if labor organizing is ever going to rebound, while others argue that only a huge upsurge in labor activism can drive such changes. A surprise win in Bessemer might have proven a rallying cry for reform efforts. Now organizers have to hope their defeat there can serve that role instead.
“The history of the labor movement has been about failing forward,” says Janice Fine, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. “Even when they lose,” she says, “they’ve framed a moral dilemma for the community that they’re organizing in—or for the country.”
Amazon Vote Won’t Deter Union Goals, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh Says
Outcome doesn’t change Biden administration’s desire to increase union jobs in the U.S., cabinet official says.
Amazon. com Inc. and other large companies should expect to see future labor-organizing efforts despite the rejection of a union at the e-commerce firm’s Bessemer, Ala., warehouse, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said.
Mr. Walsh, who took office last month, said the vote doesn’t change President Biden’s goal of increasing union jobs in the U.S.
“I don’t think you can judge the fate of labor on one vote,” Mr. Walsh said Tuesday in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “I think there will be other conversations as we move forward in the country, in other companies as well as Amazon.”
Mr. Walsh noted that the vote in Alabama was the first of its kind. The election marked the first time Amazon warehouse workers who fill customer orders held an election, and the group was the largest number of Amazon employees to vote on unionizing.
The vote in Alabama failed by a wide margin despite support from Mr. Biden and other prominent Democrats and efforts by organizers to link the election to civil-rights causes, including the Black Lives Matter movement.
Speaking of the results, Mr. Walsh said that he respected the right of workers to come to their own conclusions about whether to join a union but that workers “deserve a seat at the table, to be able to discuss workplace conditions and policies.”
“Every worker in every company should have the proper workplace protections,” Mr. Walsh added.
Referring to some workers’ criticisms of Amazon’s workplace conditions, Mr. Walsh said: “The stories coming from the workers right now in the Amazon conversations are disturbing. We’ll see at the end of the day what the way forward is there.”
Asked for comment, an Amazon spokeswoman referred to a company post issued last week to address the vote.
“Our employees are the heart and soul of Amazon, and we’ve always worked hard to listen to them, take their feedback, make continuous improvements, and invest heavily to offer great pay and benefits in a safe and inclusive workplace,” the post said. “We’re not perfect, but we’re proud of our team and what we offer, and will keep working to get better every day.”
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the organizing union for the Amazon site, said it plans to appeal the vote’s outcome.
Mr. Walsh said union organizing could be made easier with passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. The legislation, which passed the House but faces a difficult path in the Senate, seeks to weaken state laws that allow workers to opt out of paying union dues, among other measures.
“I think having an opportunity to have a fair shot at it is really what I want to see happen and the president wants to see happen in pushing the PRO Act,” Mr. Walsh said of workers’ attempts to unionize. Mr. Walsh, a former Boston mayor, was president of Laborers Local 223 and was head of the Boston region’s Building and Construction Trades Council.
Some business advocates say the vote in Alabama is a sign many workers aren’t interested in joining unions. “Rather than continue to harass an employer after losing or pushing for lopsided legislation, union officials might do well to consider the thoughts of the Amazon employees,” Sean Redmond, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s executive director of labor policy, said on the group’s website.
‘I think we have to stick with the $15 an hour minimum wage…where we have to be flexible is how do we achieve that and what’s the timeline.’
— Labor Secretary Marty Walsh
Initially introduced as a separate bill, the PRO Act was also included in Mr. Biden’s $2.3 trillion proposed package of spending on infrastructure and other investments, known by the administration as the American Jobs Plan.
Mr. Walsh, mirroring the president’s flexible posture on certain portions of the infrastructure package, said it was too early to say whether the labor legislation should be removed from it to garner more Republican support. GOP lawmakers have criticized the infrastructure proposal as being too broad.
“If it can’t be done in the Jobs Plan…we will look at other vehicles to get it through,” Mr. Walsh said.
He signaled less flexibility on the Biden administration’s push to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour from $7.25.
Some Senate Republicans have introduced a bill that would lift the minimum wage to $10 an hour. And business groups, including the Chamber and the Business Roundtable, support raising the minimum wage, but have expressed concern that $15 an hour would be too high for some regions and smaller businesses.
Amazon, in pushing back against the organizing drive in Alabama, highlighted that it already starts workers at $15 an hour, more than double the federal minimum wage, to which the state adheres.
Mr. Walsh, citing factors including the economic challenges many families are facing during the Covid-19 pandemic, said it wasn’t time to consider a smaller boost to the pay floor.
“I think we have to stick with the $15 an hour minimum wage,” he said. “And I think where we have to be flexible is how do we achieve that and what’s the timeline.”
California Needs More Affordable Homes. This Union Stands In The Way
Legislative proposals to make it easier to build housing are opposed by ‘the Trades,’ which says it wants to protect construction workers.
California legislators proposed more than a half dozen major bills last year to address the state’s affordable-housing crisis, which researchers say is one of the worst in the nation. None of them passed.
Most died or were withdrawn, according to people involved in the processes, in large part because of campaigns waged against them by the state’s powerful construction-workers union.
California’s State Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 450,000 ironworkers, pipe fitters and other skilled laborers, has blocked numerous bills it says don’t guarantee enough work for its members. It contributes tens of millions of dollars to political candidates and campaigns, engages in aggressive lobbying, and pays for advertisements that portray opponents as lackeys of greedy developers.
Legislative insiders say the success of the union known widely as “the Trades” is one of the main reasons Sacramento politicians have struggled to pass bills streamlining construction approval and easing zoning restrictions. Researchers say those steps are urgently needed to address skyrocketing real-estate prices and rents, as well as homelessness.
“They’re a gatekeeper for any significant legislation moving through Sacramento” on housing, said Ben Metcalf, managing director at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley and former head of the state’s Housing and Community Development agency.
Despite the state’s robust economy, about 7.1 million of California’s 40 million residents live in poverty when factoring in housing costs, according to the California Budget & Policy Center. A 2018 report by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development found California has a shortage of 1.5 million affordable rental homes for low-income families.
At the heart of the dispute is the Trades’ insistence that proposals to incentivize home building require certain numbers of construction workers be graduates of apprenticeship programs that are mostly union-run. Easing restrictions, they argue, makes a developer’s land more valuable and that wealth should be shared through labor protections and higher wages.
They also say that the standards, known as “skilled and trained,” help combat minimum-wage abuses in the construction industry.
“You cannot build affordable housing and address poverty by driving construction workers and their families into poverty,” said Robbie Hunter, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council.
Builders say apprenticeship requirements drive up the already sky-high expense of affordable-housing construction in a state where it can cost as much as $700,000 a unit to build in dense, urban areas such as San Francisco.
They also argue that the union-backed provisions could slow or halt construction of affordable homes in lower-income rural and inland areas where there isn’t enough available union labor.
Housing advocates want the ability to forgo union labor on projects where a developer doesn’t get any bids that fulfill the skilled and trained requirements, or if those bids are significantly higher than the lowest alternative.
In a state dominated by Democrats, deference to organized labor isn’t novel. The California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, wielded immense power in the debate over when to reopen schools during the Covid-19 pandemic. Nurses’ unions hold sway over healthcare legislation. In addition, local governments and neighborhood groups have opposed many housing bills.
The Trades are among Sacramento’s most prolific donors. Since 2015, the State Building Trades and its affiliated local unions have given more than $90 million to state candidates and campaigns, according to an analysis by California Target Book, a nonpartisan state election guide. About $16.6 million came from the main statewide umbrella organization led by Mr. Hunter, who said affiliated locals make their own campaign decisions.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, who clashed with the Trades in 2019 over bills to expand the number of housing projects requiring union wages, has attempted to broker deals between unions and industry in the past. This year he is seeking support from organized labor as he fends off a likely recall election. The Democrat’s office declined to comment.
Last May, days before a key legislative deadline, the Trades objected to about a half dozen housing bills, some of which they had previously said they wouldn’t oppose, according to legislators, staff members and advocates.
They included proposals to make it easier for religious institutions and nonprofit hospitals to build affordable housing on lots they own, loosen restrictions on cities that want to allow more multiunit zoning, and streamline the process of converting vacant hotels and motels into permanent housing for low-income residents.
The latter bill’s author, Susan Talamantes Eggman, said at a hearing that she didn’t know why the union spoke out against the bill. The then-assemblywoman had already included its labor standards, she said, but asked that projects that were 100% affordable be exempted.
“We get to vote on what we think is good public policy even when sometimes that means saying no to our friends,” the Democrat said, her voice breaking. “When I drive my car now with my 11-year-old daughter and I see people laying on the street, do I tell her to turn her head? Do I tell her the State of California can’t help?”
The union said it was opposed because workers on the projects would be “paid barely above the minimum wage to toil on dangerous construction sites.”
The bill passed out of the housing committee but died later in another committee. Ms. Eggman revived it this year after being elected to the state Senate, but included provisions requiring skilled and trained workers for all projects. In a letter expressing its support, the union called the bill “consensus-driven housing policy as it should be.”
Housing advocates say they have unsuccessfully pushed for a compromise with the Trades that would allow legislation to speed construction to pass this year if it includes more union jobs.
“Until we come to a resolution, it’s going to make housing policy very hard in California,” said State Senate Housing Committee Chairman Scott Wiener.
But conflicts have continued in the past few months.
Assemblyman Richard Bloom withdrew a bill last year to allow affordable housing on some commercial lots after the Trades opposed it. After he reintroduced it this year, the union ran a full-page ad in a local newspaper depicting the Democrat as a Godzilla-like figure towering over a city skyline, asserting that he was “in the pocket of developers” and intent on “destroying Santa Monica neighborhoods.”
“It’s clear what the intention is here, and that is, ‘Don’t mess with us,’ ” said Mr. Bloom, a Democrat.
Mr. Hunter said he plans to continue with what he sees as effective advocacy for his members. “We’re lifting the working person from the bottom up and we do have strong opinions,” he said.
Union Appeals Amazon Election In Complaint Claiming Misconduct
Accusing Amazon.com Inc. of misconduct, the retail union that lost a hotly contested election at the company’s Alabama warehouse has asked federal officials to set aside the results.
In a complaint filed late Friday with the National Labor Relations Board, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union alleged that Amazon “prevented a free and uncoerced exercise of choice by the employees,” including threatening employees and retaliating against union supporters. The RWDSU provided a copy of the filing, which was not yet visible on the agency’s docket.
According to the union, Amazon interrogated employees about their views of the RWDSU and issued a series of threats, including that it would shutter the warehouse if they unionized. The union accuses the company of discouraging union supporters from discussing the proposal to join the RWDSU during work hours, while allowing anti-union employees to agitate against the union while on the clock.
Workers who questioned the company’s claims during mandatory anti-union meetings were called up and then kicked out in front of hundreds of co-workers, the union said, while pro-union employees were reassigned to roles where they would be isolated from colleagues while at work.
The union also accused Amazon of firing a union supporter for distributing union cards and punishing an employee for challenging the company’s claims during the mandatory sessions. In the filing, the union didn’t identify specific people fired or punished but pledged to submit evidence to the labor board.
The RWDSU accused the company of pressuring local officials into changing the time of a nearby traffic light so organizers would have less time to talk to employees on their way home. The union also said Amazon defied the labor board’s mail-in ballot directive by pressuring workers to cast their votes in a mailbox the company got installed in a tent on its property, in view of surveillance cameras.
“Rather than accepting these employees’ choice, the union seems determined to continue misrepresenting the facts in order to drive its own agenda,” an Amazon spokesperson said in an email. “We look forward to the next steps in the legal process.”
The RWDSU received 738 “yes” votes in the seven-week mail-in ballot election, while Amazon garnered 1,798 nos on whether to unionize. Contested ballots, most of them disputed by Amazon, according to the union, totaled 505 and weren’t opened.
The labor board has the authority to invalidate election results in response to conduct that could have changed the outcome and prevented employees from making a free choice about whether to unionize. Challenges to election results are considered by regional labor board officials, whose rulings can then be appealed to board members in Washington. The NLRB has five seats, with staggered terms; Republicans are slated to hold a majority of them until August.
A successful appeal by the union would likely lead to a new election. Failing that, the RWDSU would have to wait at least 12 months and also sign up enough employees to again demonstrate substantial support for the proposed bargaining unit.
Employees, lawmakers and the broader public will be watching the appeal closely because the outcome could affect how workers organize elsewhere and inform congressional debate over the labor movement’s push to overhaul federal labor laws.
Biden’s Vision Of Millions Of Well-Paying Jobs In Clean Energy Is Far From Reality
Labor groups say wind and solar developers have deterred unionization, which is holding down wages.
Working as a construction supervisor one winter, Steven Morones would wake up at 4 a.m. and drive two hours to a Wisconsin cornfield. There, he and the rest of the nonunion crew spent their day assembling a sprawling network of steel I-beams for solar panels to be mounted on.
Threading bolts while wearing thick gloves often proved impossible, so when the temperature dropped as low as -13F, his bare hands would stiffen painfully.
While his body battled the elements, Morones’s mind was beset by a constant worry: that his $25 hourly wage just wasn’t enough to pay his bills. “I was always stressed with the day-to-day,” says the 30-year-old father of four. “I just couldn’t focus on the future.”
Campaigning for the U.S. presidency and now, as his administration steers a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan through Congress, Joe Biden has touted the potential for the solar and wind industries to create the types of jobs the U.S. economy has been losing for decades.
“A key plank of our Build Back Better recovery plan is building a modern, resilient climate infrastructure and clean energy future that will create millions of good-paying union jobs,” Biden said in a Jan. 27 speech laying out his energy policy, which targets zero emissions from electricity generation by 2035.
That future is at odds with present-day reality, as Morones and others employed in renewable energy can attest. It’s true, the sector has been minting jobs at a healthy clip: Wind turbine service technicians are No. 1 on a list of the fastest-growing occupations compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and solar installers are in third place.
Yet labor groups say companies have either deterred or actively opposed unionization among workers employed in installation and construction, which in the U.S. represent the lion’s share of jobs in renewables. That’s held down wages while depriving workers of coveted health and retirement benefits.
“The new green economy has been heralded as a win-win for workers and the environment, but that’s a big lie to working men and women when wind and solar developers discourage unionization efforts, which we are seeing on most of the large-scale utility projects,” says Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (Liuna).
Wind and solar employ 222,000 construction and installation workers in the U.S., according to a 2020 report compiled by the National Association of State Energy Officials and research firm Energy Futures Initiative. Overall, 4% of solar photovoltaic workers and 6% of wind workers belong to unions, the report says, lower than in nuclear and coal.
It’s also less than half the 13.4% rate in the private construction industry, according to U.S. government data.
Trade groups dispute those numbers; the Solar Energy Industries Association says 10.3% of the workforce is unionized.
One major deterrent to labor organizing is that developers often rely on recruitment agencies to provide a pipeline of laborers.
According to the North America’s Building Trades Unions (Nabtu), less than a quarter of wind and solar projects that got under way since the start of last year are using unionized workers.
Solar workers who aren’t in a union average $16 to $19 an hour, while their counterparts on wind projects get about $17 to $25 an hour, according to Liuna, which represents half a million construction workers. The union says its members working on solar projects get paid an hourly wage of $28.41, while their counterparts in wind get paid about $27.65 an hour, and all have benefits.
“Green capital is antilabor,” says Joe Uehlein, president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, a climate and worker advocacy group in Maryland. Solar companies often require installers to sign contracts stating they’re independent contractors, making them ineligible to join unions, he says. “They aren’t good actors when it comes to treating their workers.”
American Clean Power (ACP), a lobbying group that includes some of the industry’s biggest players, including Berkshire Hathaway Energy, GE Renewable Energy, and NextEra Energy, pushes back against that characterization. “The clean energy industry is committed to working with unions to ensure that all workers continue to be rewarded for their labor and provided the wage, health, and retirement benefits they deserve,” says John Hensley, ACP’s vice president for research and analytics.
Sabrina Morris’s mind was often on the weather when she started installing rooftop solar panels in California several years ago, a nonunion job that initially paid $15 an hour. A mere drizzle of rain or a gust of wind could make working conditions perilous, but her employers took little note, she says.
“There are contractors out there who just want to get the job done quickly and at low cost, putting people at risk,” says Morris, 37, who now coordinates safety inspections at another solar energy company in the state.
In California, where a mandate that most newly built single-family homes be outfitted with solar panels took effect last year, the state division of the Occupational Safety and Health Agency has inspected 70 solar installation sites in the last five years, prompted by tips from workers about unsafe conditions and accidents.
Morones says he feels more secure since joining a union last November. He now earns about $34 an hour as a third-year apprentice on a solar project in Illinois, more than he did working as a supervisor in Wisconsin. He also has a 401(k) plan and full medical coverage for him and his family. “It’s set me up for the future. I don’t have to struggle financially like I did before,” he says.
Hours after being sworn in, Biden signed an executive order to have the U.S. reenter the Paris Climate Agreement. Framers of the landmark 2015 accord urged governments to ensure a “just transition” by adopting policies that promote the creation of “quality jobs.”
American unions share that goal. “When you look at the transition to green jobs, our concern is: What kind of jobs are they going to be?” says Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest union umbrella group in the country. “If working people start to feel that the transition is really an assault on our way of living or on our standard of living, there’s going to be economic and political pushback.”
A top priority for Trumka and the rest of organized labor in the U.S. is securing passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—PRO Act for short. The legislation guarantees private-sector employees the right to unionize and would bar employers from retaliating against unionization efforts.
It also lowers the bar for contractors to prove they’re employees under federal labor law—a provision that may make it harder for renewable energy companies to rely on contingent workers. The PRO Act narrowly passed in the House in December, but faces a tougher test in the Senate.
Robert Scott, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., says the changes contemplated in the PRO Act, coupled with the surge in demand for labor that Biden’s infrastructure plan would unleash, would benefit workers: “It will give them more leverage and reduce the market power of the employer.” ACP declined to comment when asked about the industry’s position on the legislation.
Organized labor is already making inroads in some parts of the clean energy industry. In November, Orsted, a Danish company that’s the world’s biggest operator of offshore wind parks, became the first developer to team up with a national union, Nabtu, to train workers transitioning into the industry. The agreement covers Orsted’s pipeline of mid-Atlantic offshore wind projects, which will be staffed under collectively bargained prehire labor agreements.
“We believe that developers and unions must work together to ensure that the offshore wind industry becomes and remains an important source of high-quality and well-paying jobs in our communities,” Orsted said in a statement.
ACP, the trade group, is forecasting there may be as many as 280,000 clean energy jobs unionized by 2030, equal to about a quarter of the industry’s projected workforce.
Todd Sorter spent a good part of the lockdown helping erect wind towers in the southwest corner of Minnesota. The bulk of his job involved pouring grout on a large steel ring that helps secure a wind tower’s base to its pedestal.
For that, the 55-year-old father of three was paid about $30 an hour and received vacation pay, a pension, and a full medical plan. The latter came in handy when Sorter contracted the coronavirus in October and spent four days in the hospital. Although he was unable to work for a month, he counts himself lucky: “If it wasn’t for being part of a union, I wouldn’t have had the health coverage.”
Amazon Raising Pay For Hundreds Of Thousands Of Workers
Employees to receive pay increases ranging from 50 cents to $3 an hour.
Amazon.com Inc. is raising wages for its hourly employees after a majority of workers at one of the e-commerce giant’s warehouses voted not to unionize.
The company said Wednesday that more than 500,000 of its employees would see pay increases of between 50 cents and $3 an hour. Amazon, which offers a starting wage of $15 an hour and employs roughly 950,000 people in the U.S., said the raises represented an investment of more than $1 billion.
The pay increase covers a variety of workers and schedules, but averaged over the total number of employees Amazon said would be affected, it would amount to about $40 a week per worker.
Amazon said its starting wage is still $15 an hour. The company declined to say what the average raise will be for workers and said that depends on factors such as how long an employee has been at the company.
A company spokeswoman said Amazon decided to pull forward its pay review from the fall to increase wages now. She declined to say if the raises were tied to the union election in Bessemer, Ala., but said they are related to hiring and maintaining competitiveness for workers. Amazon said it is now hiring for tens of thousands of jobs across the U.S.
Amazon announced the pay increase a day before reporting first-quarter financial results and as it prepares for a federal hearing over challenges to its victory in the union election earlier this month.
The National Labor Relations Board has scheduled a hearing to review legal challenges by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which accused Amazon of unlawfully intimidating workers at the Alabama warehouse. The NLRB is expected to hear evidence and testimony starting May 7 before deciding whether to certify the election results from April 9. Amazon has denied any wrongdoing.
Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos said after the union vote that the company aims to improve relations with its hourly workers. Mr. Bezos said Amazon was working on creating innovative solutions to reduce the amount of injuries at its hundreds of warehouses. He also defended the company’s practices against accusations that Amazon treats its workforce unfairly.
Amazon has been one of the most voracious hirers in the U.S.—especially during the coronavirus pandemic—and an economic recovery is likely to put growing pressure on it to compete for labor. It added 500,000 employees world-wide last year, bringing its total to nearly 1.3 million, as demand for its retail and cloud-computing services soared.
The pandemic also gave Amazon the financial firepower to bolster compensation. The roughly $1 billion it said it would spend on the raises announced Wednesday is equal to about 10% of the increase in its net profit last year, which rose 84% to $21.3 billion.
Amazon helped boost pay for low-wage workers in 2018, when it raised its hourly rate to $15, though it simultaneously did away with certain incentive pay and stock compensation.
The company has been among large U.S. corporations to have recently called for a raise to the federal minimum wage, as Congress has debated the topic. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, the same as in Alabama.
Costco Wholesale Corp. is among other companies with starting wages of $15 an hour or more.
Starbucks Corp. said late last year it would raise wages at U.S. stores by 10% for existing workers and 5% for new hires to help with recruiting and retention. The company has pledged to raise pay for all U.S. store workers to at least $15 an hour over the next three years.
Walmart Inc., the nation’s largest employer, in February said it would lift its average hourly pay above $15, while keeping its minimum pay at $11. Chief Executive Doug McMillon has said the company supports raising the federal minimum wage but that there should be room for regional variation and increases should be paced out.
Jay Carney, Amazon’s chief spokesman, has said passing a $15-an-hour minimum wage “would increase incomes for millions of employees and revitalize the national economy.”
Worker complaints at Amazon have ranged from issues such as pay to the rates at which employees must fulfill orders and packages, breaks and benefits. Employees can be expected to package hundreds of items an hour. Some employees have also compared the wealth of Amazon and Mr. Bezos to their compensation and workplace experiences.
Amazon has said employees can take breaks when needed and defended its benefits, which include healthcare and 401(k) options.
Such issues were central to the union battle in Bessemer. Pro-union workers said they wished to negotiate over company policies on pay, the rate at which they prepare packages and shift schedules. Some workers who voted against unionization said they were satisfied with their pay and benefits and questioned whether the union could improve pay or conditions.
Amazon’s victory in Bessemer secured the company’s flexibility in maintaining full control over its warehouse policies.
Still, Mr. Bezos earlier this month said the company needed to build a better vision for its employees after the election. The chief executive said he aimed to make Amazon the best employer and safest place to work, in addition to its record as a customer-focused company.
Wage wars could be brewing in the e-commerce world as the nation’s second-biggest employer sees higher pay as its next chance to dominate, and perhaps reshape, the marketplace.
For the past generation, Amazon.com Inc. has been the centerpiece of a prevailing view that the growth of the internet has had a deflationary impact. Online shopping brought transparency to every aspect of the economy, increasing competition and taking pricing power away from companies that used to have it.
Now Amazon may be leading the marketplace in a new direction with its growing emphasis on employee pay, shifting away from its deflationary role to add some upward pressure on inflation.
The latest data point on this shift came on Wednesday, when Amazon announced it was giving raises of up to $3 an hour to 500,000 of its workers.
Amazon’s been under scrutiny for its labor practices over the past several years as it’s become a larger employer at the same time society became more focused on worker treatment and pay. As Amazon founder and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos noted in his letter to shareholders this month, the company raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour two and a half years ago, and now seeks to become “Earth’s best employer.”
It’s natural to be a little cynical about the new tone. The closely watched recent unionization vote by company employees in Alabama shows there’s a push for workers to have their voices heard. Democrats, now controlling both the White House and Congress, are seeking to increase the national minimum wage and strengthen unions while questioning the power of big technology companies. All of this impacts Amazon, so it makes sense that the company would seek to play nice while it’s in the spotlight.
But there are other strategic reasons for Amazon to suddenly be more employee-centric. Bezos is known for the comment, “Your margin is my opportunity” — implying that Amazon can grow sales and market share by charging less than its peers.
Retailers’ business viability requires charging more for a product than it costs to acquire it. When a competitor like Amazon manages to charge less — either by being more efficient or by simply accepting a lower profit margin — it threatens that business.
The growth of Amazon’s e-commerce business can be seen in two phases. First came expanding its product offerings and growing sales by undercutting its competitors on price. Next, the company invested in logistics, operations and fulfillment; building warehouses, buying trucks and getting orders to customers faster and cheaper than other e-retailers.
Having made huge strides on pricing and logistics, labor could be Amazon’s next target for crushing the competition. Historically, one might argue that Amazon squeezed its own employees by being a demanding employer and paying low wages, taking advantage of the loose labor markets of the 2000s and 2010s.
But over the past few years, and particularly now, there’s been a growing competition for workers needed to process and fill orders, and then speedily deliver them to customers.
By achieving greater efficiency or accepting a lower profit, Amazon could pressure competitors through higher wages rather than low prices. Such an intentional strategy by an employer of more than 1 million people would be a significant break from how large companies have traditionally operated, and would have implications for the economy as a whole.
The national minimum wage remains at $7.25 an hour, and Congress might succeed in raising it to around $11 later in the year if legislators can strike a compromise. But to the extent Amazon, already at $15 an hour, decides to set the pace among large employers, it would establish a sort of private-sector benchmark that other companies would have to keep up with. Walmart Inc.’s minimum wage is now at $11 per hour. If Amazon went to $17, maybe Walmart would have to move to $13 to get the workers it needs.
This might not lead to the kind of inflationary spiral the U.S. experienced in the 1970’s, but it could represent the start of a new trend that bears watching: a game of one-upmanship between large employers raising wages for competitive and political reasons.
Exxon Set To Lock Out Union Employees At Texas Oil Refinery
Exxon Mobil Corp. is poised to lock out union workers at its Beaumont refinery in Texas at 10am Saturday with the oil giant and the United Steelworkers failing to reach an agreement on a new labor contract by late Friday.
The oil giant rejected union counteroffers to its contract proposal made earlier this month. The union continues to work on alternative proposals and wants to keep bargaining and its members working while negotiations continue, a person familiar with the discussions said Friday. In the event of a lockout, the union will picket Exxon with signs declaring the lockout is illegal rather than call a strike.
During a lockout, companies typically bring in temporary workers to operate facilities. Exxon has already advertised for workers to replace union members starting Saturday.
“Our lockout decision is a result of the Union not accepting the company’s contract proposals and the risk of a strike,” plant manager Rozena Dendy said on Exxon’s website Friday afternoon. “It is vital to the safety of our community that we control this timeline to allow our qualified and highly skilled team to assume safe control of our operations.”
United Steelworkers Local 13-243’s six-year work agreement with Exxon expired Feb. 1 without a new collective bargaining agreement in place for the Beaumont refinery and blending and packaging plant. The union contends Exxon’s offer would enact major changes in the existing contract that impact members’ safety, security and seniority.
Exxon told union representatives Thursday that the union’s latest offer “still includes items that significantly increase costs to the company and that we have consistently expressed cannot be accepted over the last 108 days of bargaining. To be clear, a ratified contract would still avoid any work stoppage.”
The USW and Exxon provided 75-day notices to each other Feb. 15 as required before a lockout or a strike. Exxon has already rejected the union’s offer of a one-year extension and said it would lock out workers if they didn’t agree to the company’s current proposal.
Exxon Beaumont union workers have never been locked out. The facility was also not included in a 2015 strike called by the International Union for 12 U.S. refineries and three other plants.
The Beaumont refinery can process 359,000 barrels a day of crude.
Amazon Work Rules Govern Tweets, Body Odor of Contract Drivers
The company’s efforts to bring order to its sprawling delivery operation could risk a legal and regulatory backlash.
The thousands of people driving those ubiquitous Amazon-branded blue vans aren’t employed by the Seattle leviathan. They work for small, independent businesses with contracts to transport packages for Amazon. But that hasn’t stopped the company from dictating the state of their fingernails—and a whole lot more.
“Personal grooming must be maintained at an acceptable level, including but not limited to prevention of unpleasant breath or body odor, modest perfume/cologne, and clean teeth, face/ears, fingernails and hair,” Amazon.com Inc. says in a recent version of its policies governing these small delivery companies, or what the company calls Delivery Service Partners.
The document, reviewed by Bloomberg, also requires that drivers refrain from “obscene” social-media posts, undergo training programs approved by Amazon, follow instructions from Amazon’s delivery app and be drug tested whenever Amazon representatives ask.
The DSPs are required to adhere to Amazon’s policies, which the company can unilaterally change whenever it wants, according to a recent contract also seen by Bloomberg. They also have to provide Amazon physical access to their premises and all sorts of data the retailer wants, such as geo-locations, speed and movement of drivers—information the company says it has the power to use however it wants.
For several years, Amazon has sought to bring order to its farflung delivery operations, which were plagued by accidents, complaints about thrown packages and infamous incidents such as the time a contract driver relieved herself in a customer’s driveway. But in exerting more control over these workers, legal experts say, the company has created legal risks for itself.
Amazon has chosen not to directly employ DSP drivers, an arrangement that shields it from costs and liabilities the work incurs. Amazon’s growing sway over its delivery partners, however, could convince courts and government agencies that the company is actually a “joint employer” or “vicariously liable” party.
“Amazon seems to want to have its cake and eat it too—to have all the control of an employment relationship, without bearing the costs,” said University of Miami law professor Andrew Elmore, who investigated employment cases as a section chief in the New York Attorney General’s Office. “These documents provide an important signal to courts and to government agencies that this is a relationship to look at.”
Amazon is hardly the only company to use such a “fissured” labor model: Franchised, sub-contracted or ostensible contract workers staff most McDonald’s restaurants, have become the majority of Google parent Alphabet’s workforce, are a linchpin of FedEx’s business model and powered Uber’s rise from startup to corporate giant and verb.
But the labor model—and Amazon’s in particular—is expected to get a closer look in President Joe Biden’s Washington. Critics have long argued that the company’s stringent delivery standards exacerbate the risk of accidents that can hurt or kill people.
Under their agreement with Amazon, DSPs are obligated to “defend and indemnify” the company in cases involving acts by their drivers, including those involving “death or injury” to any human being.
David Weil, the Obama administration’s top wage regulator and the author of a landmark book on the dangers of “fissured” work arrangements, is in line to be nominated for his former post at the U.S. Labor Department, Bloomberg Law reported, citing multiple sources familiar with the process.
Amazon’s labor arrangements have already been challenged in court, both by drivers seeking to hold the company responsible for unpaid wages, and by victims of collisions who charge that Amazon is responsible for their injuries. Earlier this year, the company agreed to pay $8.2 million in a class-action settlement to resolve Seattle-area DSP employees’ claims of missed breaks and overtime pay without admitting wrongdoing. Amazon is facing similar complaints in a handful of other states.
In March, California’s Labor Commissioner fined Amazon and Green Messengers Inc., a Southern California DSP, $6.4 million for wage theft. The companies have appealed.
Company spokesperson Rena Lunak said in an email that “the suggestion Amazon is seeking to avoid responsibility for delivery drivers is wrong.” She went on to commend the DSPs for their ability to tap into local communities and hire great drivers while taking advantage of Amazon’s logistics experience, technology and support services.
“We’re proud that our program has empowered thousands of small businesses to create tens of thousands of jobs with competitive wages of at least $15 an hour and comprehensive benefits,” Lunak said.
Amazon became the world’s largest online retailer, in part, by promising shoppers quick delivery, handing off items stored at warehouses to United Parcel Service Inc. and the U.S. Postal Service for the trip to customer doorsteps.
The company about a decade ago started building its own capacity to move goods in an effort to accommodate its frantic growth and reduce its reliance on other companies. Today, Amazon is its own largest mailman, delivering more than half of its own shipments.
To meet the task, Amazon turns to two groups of drivers: Amazon Flex workers, who like their Uber or Instacart counterparts are classified as independent contractors exempt from U.S. employment laws; and DSP drivers, who are classified as employees of local logistics companies. Amazon started the DSP program in 2018, pitching it as a way to support small entrepreneurs.
Previously, the company relied on regional logistics providers, who transported packages with their own fleet of mostly generic delivery trucks. As the new, branded DSP program rolled out, the company cut ties with the regional firms in favor of these new startups that worked almost exclusively for Amazon. The company last year said there were more than 1,300 DSPs across North America and Europe, employing 85,000 people.
“This kind of arrangement basically locks in place a low-wage economy, even as Amazon is incredibly profitable,” said Temple University law professor Brishen Rogers.
Lawmakers have repeatedly expressed concern about Amazon’s delivery operation. In 2019, three Democratic U.S. senators unsuccessfully asked Amazon to disclose the names of companies it contracts with, citing Buzzfeed News, ProPublica and New York Times reports suggesting that Amazon’s pressure on DSPs leads to unsafe driving with potential deadly consequences.
In March, more senators contacted Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos voicing concerns about CNBC and The Verge reports on Amazon’s installation of surveillance cameras in vehicles, which they said could “place unsafe pressure on drivers, and infringe on individuals’ privacy rights.” Amazon has said the video cameras improved drivers’ safety performance.
As part of an aggressive social-media response to allegations that the company treats its workers poorly, Amazon’s @amazonnews Twitter account in March denied that workers lacked time for bathroom breaks. “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?” the company said, responding to a tweet from Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat from Wisconsin.
The post brought quick rebuttals from drivers on social media and in news articles, with many describing having to relieve themselves in the back of trucks or clean up after others who did. Amazon later walked back the statement and apologized to Pocan, saying the tweet was incorrect and “did not contemplate our large driver population.”
Amazon’s recent DSP contract, and the policy it requires those companies to follow, includes several provisions shielding the retailer from liability or further embarrassment. DSPs are required to have policies on “employment at-will,” the discretion of management to fire workers for almost any reason or with no stated reason at all.
DSPs can’t issue press releases about their Amazon work without the company’s permission. DSPs must handle any disputes with Amazon through individual arbitration hearings rather than class-action lawsuits and must require their drivers to do the same.
If DSPs get sued, Amazon has a veto over legal settlements and the option to commandeer the companies’ defense. Amazon is specifically indemnified from liability for death or injury. DSPs must make their employees sign non-disclosure agreements and are also obligated to safeguard Amazon’s information. (The DSPs are required to keep the contract itself confidential too.)
The retailer, on the other hand, is contractually guaranteed the data it wants from DSPs and retains the right to physically inspect their premises or make them hand over data—not just while servicing Amazon, but also for another three years after parting ways.
DSPs’ data gets used in part to score their performance on metrics such as employee retention and successful deliveries, which Amazon can use to reward some DSPs with bonuses and terminate underperformers. Amazon can also punish DSPs with cancellation fees that it determines and restricts them from terminating their relationship during its busy months of November or December.
The Obama administration adopted broader interpretations of a “joint employer,” a company with sufficient control over a group of workers to be legally liable for their treatment, despite not signing their paychecks. Obama’s National Labor Relations Board general counsel prosecuted McDonald’s as a joint employer in a years-long case about alleged retaliation against “Fight For $15” activists at franchised stores, which Trump appointees later voted to settle without finding the burger chain itself liable. (McDonald’s denied wrongdoing.)
Trump appointees at both the labor board, which enforces organizing rights, and the U.S. Labor Department, which enforces wage laws, issued regulations taking a more business-friendly view, saying that having authority over workers doesn’t make a company a joint employer unless it meets narrower criteria such as setting their specific pay rates.
Biden’s Labor Department has already started the process of rescinding Trump’s rule—which was also rejected by a federal district court—and by the fall Democrats are slated to have a majority on the labor board, where they could do the same.
Legal experts said the terms in Amazon’s DSP contract and policies would give plaintiffs and prosecutors a strong case for holding the company responsible under laws governing when a company is “vicariously liable” for harms such as auto accidents as well as deeming the retailer a joint employer under state and federal laws—especially if Biden appointees enact tougher rules.
“The degree of control that Amazon is exerting rivals—if it doesn’t exceed—the degree of control that led to the general counsel under the Obama board issuing a complaint against McDonald’s,” said University of California Berkeley law professor Catherine Fisk.
GM Opens Door To Organized Labor At Two New EV Battery Plants
General Motors Co. is bending to pressure from its largest union to allow organized labor into new battery factories as it races to build out capacity for a slew of planned electric-powered models.
The company, which plans two new battery plants in Ohio and Tennessee in a joint venture with a unit of LG Chem Ltd., said Tuesday it would be open to discussions with the United Auto Workers over its demand for collective bargaining rights.
“We believe the UAW, given their historic and constructive relationship in the automotive industry, would be well positioned to represent the workforce,” GM said in an emailed statement. LG Chem had no immediate comment.
The two companies said last month that they would invest $2.3 billion in a Tennessee plant that will hire 1,300 workers when it opens in 2023. They are building another battery factory in Lordstown, Ohio, that’s expected to employ more than 1,000 workers once completed next year. The joint venture, known as Ultium Cells LLC, has yet to begin hiring workers at either plant.
The UAW, which had pressured GM and other automakers to allow it to represent workers at these new facilities, welcomed the announcement. “We in the UAW look forward to starting discussions with General Motors regarding their joint venture to produce batteries in Ohio and Tennessee,” Terry Dittes, the union’s vice president in charge of negotiations with GM, said in a statement.
GM has pledged $27 billion to make 30 plug-in models using its Ultium battery pack by 2025 as part of its goal to become an all-electric carmaker by 2035. LG Energy Solution, which currently operates a non-unionized EV battery plant in Holland, Michigan, said in March that it will invest $4.5 billion in the U.S. by 2025 and hire 10,000 workers to expand battery capacity.
President Joe Biden has repeatedly called for new energy employment to be “good-paying union jobs,” as he did during a visit to a Ford Motor Co. factory in Dearborn, Michigan, last week that is building the electric F-150 Lightning pickup.
“I’m a union guy,” Biden said May 18 at Ford’s Rouge electric vehicle factory. “I think jobs when I think climate change — good-paying union jobs. I think about the UAW workers here today.”
GM’s crosstown rival also plans to make batteries with a South Korean partner. Ford has joined forces with SK Innovation Co. to build two electric-vehicle battery plants in the U.S. by mid-decade, the companies announced May 20. At the announcement, Ford’s North American Chief Operating Officer Lisa Drake would not commit to unionizing the plants.
“We don’t have our labor strategy defined yet,” Drake said.
The UAW said Ford had a “moral obligation” to ensure the battery making jobs are “good-paying union jobs.”
Supreme Court Rules Against Union Organizers’ Access To California Farms
The decision erases a crowning achievement of César Chavez’s farmworker movement.
The Supreme Court struck down a regulation giving union organizers the right to visit farmworkers on agricultural fields, ruling Wednesday that the 1975 California measure providing such access violated growers’ private property rights.
The decision, by a 6-3 vote along the court’s conservative-liberal divide, erases a major victory that César Chavez’s farmworker movement achieved in the 1970s, when it argued that the seasonal and isolated nature of agricultural labor made access to the fields essential if workers were to exercise their organizing rights.
The ruling reinforces the high court’s commitment to private property rights, which conservative justices have viewed as under threat from overreaching regulations intended to protect environmental, recreational and, in this case, labor interests over the objection of property owners.
“The regulation appropriates for the enjoyment of third parties the owners’ right to exclude,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
“Government-authorized invasions of property—whether by plane, boat, cable, or beachcomber—are physical takings requiring just compensation,” he wrote.
“The regulation does not appropriate anything,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in dissent. “It gives union organizers the right temporarily to invade a portion of the property owners’ land. It thereby limits the landowners’ right to exclude certain others.
The regulation regulates (but does not appropriate) the owners’ right to exclude,” he wrote, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
California adopted the access regulation in 1975 to implement the state Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which granted collective-bargaining rights to farmworkers excluded from union-organizing protection that other employees enjoy under the National Labor Relations Act. The California Legislature declared its objective as ensuring “peace in the agricultural fields by guaranteeing justice for all agricultural workers and stability in labor relations.”
The regulation allows, in general, one organizer for every 15 workers to enter growers’ property to meet with laborers for one hour before work, one hour after and during the lunch hour, for up to four 30-day periods annually. Organizers must serve notice on the employer and inform the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board before taking access.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the regulation amounted to a taking of the growers’ property without just compensation, as the Fifth Amendment requires. “The Founders recognized that the protection of private property is indispensable to the promotion of individual freedom,” he wrote.
The chief justice distinguished the access regulation from other government actions that can burden private property rights, such as police investigations or health and safety inspections of licensed businesses.
“Unlike a law enforcement search, no traditional background principle of property law requires the growers to admit union organizers. And unlike standard health and safety inspections, the access regulation is not germane to any benefit provided to agricultural employers or any risk posed to the public,” he wrote.
“Today’s ruling is a huge victory for property rights,” said Joshua Thompson, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation who represented the growers, Cedar Point Nursery and Fowler Packing Co. The opinion “affirms that one of the most fundamental aspects of property is the right to decide who can and can’t access your property.”
Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for the United Farm Workers union that Mr. Chavez once led, said: “This Supreme Court ruling makes a racist and broken farm labor system even more unequal.”
Victoria Hassid, chairwoman of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, said: “Despite today’s ruling, California will continue to champion [organizing] rights for some of our most essential workers.”
“We are committed to developing a process that meets the requirements of the high court’s ruling and continues to protect farmworker rights in light of agriculture’s unique circumstances,” she added.
Property-law scholar Eduardo Peñalver, the incoming president of Seattle University, said the court’s opinion revived a conservative approach to takings cases that began to develop in the 1980s.
“This is a much broader reading as it relates to the right to exclude than the prior cases allowed,” Mr. Peñalver said. Normally in takings cases, property’s value, for compensation purposes, is the market price. Here, he said, “there’s no market for the kinds of intrusions” permitted by the access regulations; “this is just the property owner not wanting this kind of person on their property.” He said that suggested the ruling’s impact would be more to frustrate government policies than to obtain compensation for owners.
Farmworker organizing has stalled since the 1970s and, as a practical matter, the access regulation has proved of limited benefit to the labor movement. California has some 16,000 agricultural employers, but the state says only a few dozen access notices are filed with the labor board each year.
The dissenting justices argued that the ruling “threatens to make many ordinary forms of regulation unusually complex or impractical” by raising the possibility that they could be classified as takings.
Justice Breyer said the access regulation had few hallmarks of a property ownership, since it didn’t append to specific properties and couldn’t be sold or transferred.
Most important, he contended, the regulation conveyed a temporary burden on growers rather than permanently depriving their property of value. In contrast to a 1987 precedent where the court found a taking when regulators required an owner to provide an easement for public access to the beach, the agricultural rule impinged only occasionally on growers.
Here ”we have a right that does not allow access at any time. It allows access only from ‘time to time.’ And that makes all the difference,” he wrote.
Under the NLRA, in some circumstances when they otherwise are cut off from workers, organizers can obtain orders allowing them limited entry to employer property. The California Agricultural Labor Relations Board’s regulation grants similar access to farm property for union organizers, but rather than operating case-by-case the state regulation provides organizers with blanket authorization for limited periods to meet with workers on employer property during nonwork hours.
The agricultural labor board reasoned that such access would generally be required in order to educate farmworkers about their rights, since field hands, who frequently relocate to follow the seasons of various crops, often are poor, lack basic education and can’t be reached through methods typical in other industries, such as standing outside factory gates or in front of office buildings.
While Mr. Chavez and the UFW viewed the 1975 access regulation as essential for organizing, growers immediately challenged it as violating their property rights. The California Supreme Court upheld the regulation, however, and in 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take an appeal.
Uber, Lyft Drivers Nationwide Stage Strike for Right To Unionize
Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. drivers in major U.S. cities staged a strike on Wednesday demanding better pay and the right to unionize, a sign of the intensifying fight by gig workers for more labor protections.
The demonstrations, organized by Rideshare Drivers United, call for drivers and passengers to turn off Uber and Lyft apps on Wednesday and boycott services to advocate for better pay, working conditions and the ability organize and collectively bargain.
Rallies were scheduled in cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Denver and Baltimore and Austin, Texas. The group didn’t immediately offer an estimate for how many drivers participated.
In New York City, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance is hosting an online seminar about proposed federal legislation called Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO Act, in support of the strike. Worker-owned rideshare company The Drivers Cooperative “stands in solidarity” with fellow drivers, said co-founder Erik Forman.
Rideshare Drivers United, which has 30,000 members nationally, is also urging lawmakers to pass the PRO Act, which would overhaul labor laws by strengthening workers’ ability to unionize, establish protections from retribution or firing, forbid employer interference and influence in union elections and substantially increase the penalties companies face for violating worker rights. The legislation has been approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and faces a vote in the Senate.
The protest is the latest move by gig workers who have pushed for an expansion of labor rights and reclassification to gain hourly minimum wages, overtime, paid sick days, unemployment and worker’s compensation benefits.
Proponents of making app-based rideshare and delivery drivers employees were dealt a setback in California with the passage of Proposition 22 in November, which deemed gig workers contractors while providing a limited set of alternative benefits.
“We will continue to fight for the PRO Act and a voice on the job until app-based drivers have the pay, benefits and respect they deserve,” said Brian Dolber, an associate professor at California State University at San Marcos who serves as an organizer for Rideshare Drivers United.
In a statement, Lyft said drivers in top markets, including California, are making more than $30 an hour. An Uber spokeswoman said the company “will continue to work collaboratively with Congress and our diverse community of earners on meaningful solutions to improve the quality and security of independent work.”
The strikes also comes as Uber and Lyft are trying to recruit drivers to meet the explosion in demand for ride-hailing as cities reopen.
Many have been slow to get back behind the wheel after finding other work or resorting to government stimulus benefits during the pandemic. The nationwide supply crunch has led to longer wait times and higher fares for passengers, which cost 53% more in June than before the pandemic, according to Rakuten Intelligence.
Possible Second Union Vote At Alabama Amazon Site Faces Uncertain Path
Amazon is expected to challenge labor official’s recommendation for a new vote.
A recommendation by a National Labor Relations Board official has opened the door for a redo of a unionization vote at an Amazon. com Inc. facility in Alabama, renewing the possibility for a breakthrough victory for organized labor.
But the union leading the organizing effort is likely to face an arduous process and stiff opposition as it seeks to hold a new election, former labor officials and labor attorneys said. The outcome of any new vote also may not change from when workers voted against organizing in April, they added.
The first step toward a potential new vote will start at the NLRB’s regional level, where a director will review the recommendation for a fresh election issued Monday by agency hearing officer Kerstin Meyers.
Amazon said it plans to contest Ms. Meyer’s recommendation with the regional director, who could issue a decision in the next several weeks.
“Our employees had a chance to be heard during a noisy time when all types of voices were weighing into the national debate,” the company said on Monday. “Their voice should be heard above all else.”
Mark Gaston Pearce, who served as chairman of the NLRB during the Obama administration, said he would expect the regional director to agree that a new election should be held and for Amazon to in turn appeal for the case to be reviewed and decided by the NLRB’s governing board in Washington.
In all, the process to determine whether a new election will be held could stretch over several months, Mr. Pearce said.
“Amazon is going to utilize whatever legal options they have to pursue this,” he said.
Ms. Meyers, in a 61-page report, issued her recommendation and detailed the findings of a review of objections raised by the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union about Amazon’s conduct during the campaign. The union ran the unionization effort in Bessemer, Ala.
‘Amazon is going to utilize whatever legal options they have to pursue this.’
— Mark Gaston Pearce, former NLRB chairman
Ms. Meyers’ recommendation hinged primarily on Amazon’s installation of a U.S. Postal Service collection box next to its Bessemer facility, where ballots on the union vote could be sent in by workers.
In her recommendation, Ms. Meyers’ wrote that the mailbox “interfered with the laboratory conditions necessary to conduct a fair election.” The NLRB released the decision on Tuesday.
She said the move usurped the NLRB’s exclusive role in administering union elections and suggested it could have given employees the impression Amazon played a role in collecting and counting the ballots. No evidence was presented that Amazon had access to any ballots submitted through the mailbox, Ms. Meyers wrote.
In addition, she also said employees could have perceived the company was tracking their vote through “vote no” pins and tags the company handed out because Amazon managers could see which employees took the pins.
The call for a new vote at the Bessemer site comes as the makeup of the five-person governing board at the NLRB is shifting. Democrats will later this month hold a majority on the board, after the Senate last month confirmed two members appointed by President Biden.
“The board is likely to be much less pro-management than during the Trump years,” said Ruth Milkman, professor of sociology at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York.
The prospects for a second vote could also breathe new life into a push by labor groups to reverse a decadeslong decline in union membership, after the unionization effort’s failure in Bessemer dealt a blow earlier this year.
“The reality is that Alabama is among those states that probably see lower incidences of unionization, and because of that unions have put a lot of attention in this part of the country, hoping they can turn the tide,” said Steve Bernstein, a regional managing partner at the law firm Fisher Phillips, which typically represents management.
Still, if the union reaches another election, it faces a tough path to victory. Workers in the April election overwhelmingly rejected the union, with 71% of employees who cast a vote opting against unionizing. Some employees said they were wary of the cost of union dues and weren’t persuaded that the union would be able to add significantly to their pay or improve benefits.
Amazon pays a starting wage of $15 an hour, double the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and offers 401(k) and healthcare benefits. Some workers have said the compensation package Amazon offers is significant in a working-class town.
Those who were in favor of the union said they wished to bargain with Amazon on matters such as breaks and the rate at which they worked. Amazon workers are expected to package or sort through hundreds of items an hour in what can be 10-hour shifts with an hour total in breaks.
Amazon would also be able to deploy similar tactics it used in the April election, such as hosting meetings with employees to discourage them from voting “yes” and sending them antiunion messages through the mail or phone.
Ms. Milkman said proposed legislation such as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which seeks to make it easier for workers to organize, would make it more likely for unions to prevail during representation elections. The legislation faces opposition from business groups and many Republicans, making it difficult to win enough votes to pass in the narrowly divided Senate.
“Without significant legal reform, which seems highly unlikely…it’s not clear that it’s going to make that much difference,” Ms. Milkman said of a potential second vote at the Bessemer site.
Turnover at Amazon facilities can also be high and play a critical role in Amazon’s path to victory. The union previously estimated that about 1,000 of the roughly 6,000 eligible voters in the April vote left throughout the election process.
Mr. Pearce, the former NLRB chairman, said the union could potentially be more effective in its organizing should a second vote be held, building on lessons learned from the first vote.
Still, he said it is an open question whether workers would change their stance on unionization or buy into any messaging that Amazon conducted itself improperly during the initial election, given the company’s relatively competitive wages and benefits.
“It’s impossible to say at this point. There are competing factors,” he said.
Amazon Funding Spurs Union Exodus From Consumer Group Board
Three major unions have quit the board of the nation’s oldest consumer advocacy organization, claiming funding from Amazon.com Inc. has compromised the group’s progressive mission.
In separate letters last month, the presidents of the United Food & Commercial Workers, the Communications Workers of America and the United Auto Workers wrote that their groups were resigning immediately from their roles on the board of the National Consumers League, citing the Seattle-based e-commerce giant’s involvement with the group.
“Unfortunately, it has become increasingly clear over the last several months that NCL leadership now prioritizes donations from anti-worker companies like Amazon ahead of its historic pro-labor and pro-consumer mission,” the presidents of the CWA and UFCW wrote. The auto workers’ president said in the union’s letter that the consumer group’s “decisions around partnering with Amazon and the subsequent board discussions” had left it with no other choice., but to resign.
NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg declined to comment, saying in an email that it was “an internal board matter.” Founded in 1899, NCL says on its website that the group’s official mission is “to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.”
The board chair is a representative of the Service Employees International Union and one of the vice chairs comes from the AFL-CIO. Spokespeople for Amazon, SEIU, and the AFL-CIO didn’t immediately respond Friday to requests for comment.
Amazon’s rapid growth, its expansion into sectors like grocery stores and parcel delivery, and its aggressive and successful efforts to defeat unionization efforts among its workers have made it a primary target and antagonist of the U.S. labor movement and progressive politicians allied with it.
NCL’s donors last year included tech, finance, aviation, and pharmaceutical companies as well as unions and law firms, according to its 2020 annual report, which noted it had “supported union organizing and minimum wage increases in states across the country.”
In March, the nonprofit organization issued a measured statement regarding the unionization election then-under way among Amazon warehouse employees in Bessemer, Alabama. NCL said at the time that it supported workers’ right to unionize, that employees were “seeking a stronger voice” on issues such as productivity expectations and that it hoped the company would honor the choice its workers made.
“We have partnered with Amazon on issues of great import to consumers, including fighting fraud and supporting financial literacy for teens and appreciate the company’s dedication to those concerns and its pledge to support a $15 an hour minimum wage nationally,” NCL said in the same statement.
Amazon employees voted against unionization, but a National Labor Relations Board hearing officer has said that result should be thrown out due to misconduct by the company. Amazon has denied wrongdoing.
Foreign Automakers Criticize White House Embrace of Union Plants
Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and other foreign automakers are voicing their unease with signs the Biden administration wants to give their unionized Detroit rivals a leg up in the race to win over electric vehicle buyers.
The White House invited executives from General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NV, which owns the Jeep and Ram brands, and the United Auto Workers labor union to a ceremony last week after calling on the industry to boost EVs to half of all sales by 2030.
Congress has been considering legislation to increase incentives for EV buyers, including a proposed bill from a key Democratic lawmaker that would provide greater subsidies for vehicles made in the U.S. at plants requiring collective bargaining.
That type of provision — which may not be passed into law — would put foreign automakers with U.S. factories as well as EV market leader Tesla Inc. at a disadvantage because their vehicle assembly plants don’t use union workers.
“We believe inclusive policies will accelerate the shared goal of achieving carbon neutrality and electrification of the auto industry,” Stephen Ciccone, group vice president of government affairs at Toyota, said Friday in a statement. “This policy would unfairly discriminate against American autoworkers based on their choice of whether to unionize.”
Honda and Volkswagen AG likewise oppose providing extra incentives to car buyers who buy EVs made with union labor. The German automaker said policies that favor certain automakers could blunt the pace of EV adoption, while Honda said it could result in fewer choices.
The three traditional Detroit automakers have seen their market share slip in recent years to less than half of the U.S. market. They accounted for about 39% of all new car sales in the U.S. in the first half, according to data from Cox Automotive. Toyota’s 15.5% share topped both Ford and Stellantis, and ranked second behind market leader GM’s 15.9%.
Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow has steered a proposal through the Senate Finance Committee that would provide additional financial incentives to battery-powered cars and trucks made in the U.S. with union labor. All told, such subsidies could total up to $12,500 per vehicle in tax credits, which would make EVs more competitively priced with gasoline-only models.
Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk and the trade group for foreign automakers both expressed displeasure at not being invited to Biden’s White House address.
Jennifer Safavian, president of the foreign automaker lobbying group Autos Drive America, said it would be unfair to prioritize the interests of carmakers that use union labor over those that don’t.
“It is baffling that Congress is pushing electric vehicle incentives that only benefit union workers in certain states,” she said in a statement. “Congress needs to keep full incentives for all-electric vehicles and not play favorites.”
Unionizing Could Be Next In The Return-to-Office Power Struggle
As companies keep shifting remote work policies, white-collar office workers want a formal seat at the table.
When a group of workers at the National Women’s Law Center broke the news to their boss that they’d agreed to unionize in February 2020, they did it in the form of a greeting card: “Congratulations on your baby girl union!”
After a tense few months of deliberation, management told the group they’d voluntarily recognize the 50-plus member bargaining unit, now one of nearly a dozen workplaces that have unionized with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union this year.
While the two sides have yet to reach a first contract, the timing of the unionization drive—a month before the pandemic hit—was prescient. By April 2021, as vaccines became available and bosses started dreaming of fully inhabited offices, the NWLC union was able to negotiate the terms of a potential return to work.
Together with management, the employees established a “memorandum of understanding” surrounding Covid-19 policies. This meant that no matter when the organization asked employees back to the office, they would be guaranteed eight weeks’ notice.
“Since we unionized, management has involved the union in every major decision regarding unit staff, which has had positive spillover effects for non-unit staff too,” said NWLC union member Elizabeth Tang.
As companies hash out—and keep changing—whether and how their workforces will have to permanently return to the office, employees increasingly want a voice. Wall Street firms like JPMorgan Chase & Co and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. have made it clear that most of its employees will need to show up in person, while companies like American Express Co. and Starbucks Corp are hedging with a hybrid setup.
So far, the most successful instances of corporate employees pushing back against new policies have been at major tech companies, including Amazon.com Inc. But most of the mandates that have softened in recent weeks have less to do with the will of its workers than with the delta variant.
Typically, return-to-office mandates are determined by a company’s executive team and its human resources department. For corporate workers wondering if unionization might give them more leverage with those decision-makers, Harvard labor law professor Benjamin Sachs says a contract that protects them can be particularly useful when directives keep shifting.
“Collective bargaining is supple, flexible and responsive,” he said, explaining that before employers make major policy changes in a unionized workplace, they are required to negotiate over how it will impact members of the staff bargaining unit.
Meanwhile, the laws that govern non-unionized work, Sachs says, are “a blunt instrument.” Parents worried about endangering unvaccinated children, for example, lack an obvious path to raise concerns, other than having one-off conversations with their managers.
U.S. workplaces, including offices, are mostly non-union, which some business leaders say helps them stay nimble and efficient and avoid rigidity that can come with collective bargaining. With only 6.3% of the private sector unionized, most examples of successful return-to-work union-led pushback remain in the public and nonprofit spheres.
Nonprofit Professional Employees Union president Katie Barrows says several unionized nonprofits are working on similar agreements to the NWLC’s. The Connecticut state employees’ union pushed Governor Ned Lamont to reverse a return-to-work order and open up the possibility of long-term hybrid work. The trend has even impacted unions themselves: The AFL-CIO’s employees are accusing the union federation of failing to negotiate in good faith over a policy compelling them to work in-person.
While there has been a small movement of corporate workforce unionizations in recent years, the issue of RTO has not yet prompted a groundswell of new organizing. The closest thing to it was a May strike at Washingtonian magazine, after CEO Cathy Merrill published an op-ed suggesting that staff who wanted to work remotely could be reclassified as contractors. By late last week, Washingtonian staff unionized.
“There had been talk about forming a union for years, but I’m not going to lie, it really gained steam after that op-ed,” said Washingtonian Guild member Jessica Sidman. “It was a very public example of us feeling like we needed to have more of a voice at the company where we work.”
Return-to-office edicts have made non-unionized workers more aware of their limited power. Alphabet Workers’ Union, an unrecognized group that launched publicly in January, has said it isn’t seeking to win recognition or to collectively bargain with Alphabet Inc’s Google, in part because its membership is open to contract workers who don’t have any legal right to negotiate with the company.
Instead, it uses tactics like petitions to try to force changes, but that approach has its limits. Mayuri Raja, a member of AWU, said the group has been organizing around return policies but that “it’s quite hard to tell when things have an impact.”
For example, says Raja, employees are frustrated with a Google policy that would cut people’s pay if they permanently shift to remote work from a less-expensive location. While the policy predates the pandemic, it’s become newly visible as more employees want to keep working from home.
AWU members have discussed the policy at company town halls and have created spreadsheets where employees can compare their new salaries. But Raja wonders if a formal bargaining process would’ve forced Google to maintain employees’ pay. “It’s not as though our labor changes depending on where we work,” says Raja. (“We always pay at the top of the local market based on where an employee works from,” said a Google spokesperson.)
Marshall Babson, a management-side attorney at Seyfarth Shaw LLP and former member of the National Labor Relations Board, says he thinks this chaotic moment will breed an uptick in unionizations, which can take anywhere from a few months to years to formalize.
“There have been a number of employers who have [seen] increased organizing precisely because the employees have not been satisfied” with how their company rolled out return plans, he said. “Unions are going to say, ‘We can do for you what you can’t do for yourself.’”
Hollywood Labor Strife Raises Threat of Crippling New Shutdown
One of Hollywood’s most powerful unions, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, is set to begin a strike-authorization vote, a step toward a walkout that could cripple movie and TV studios still trying to come back from Covid-19 shutdowns.
Labor leaders are seeking shorter work hours as part of a new contract. Production schedules have been particularly grueling since the industry began reopening from pandemic-related shutdowns.
An estimated 60,000 IATSE members, mostly based in Los Angeles, could walk off the job if the union decides to take such action. Three of the union’s locals are actually national in scope, meaning a strike by those groups would halt work across the country, affecting almost 1 million jobs directly tied to film and TV production.
Even before filming resumed, production had surged with the popularity of streaming and heavy spending by both incumbent Hollywood studios and newer players like Netflix Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Apple Inc. A 7% drop in production last year, caused by Covid-19 shutdowns, was the first in more than a decade.
Netflix and Walt Disney Co. have both cited the challenges of getting new content on their services as contributing to weaker-than-expected sign-ups for their streaming services.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, representing major studios including Netflix and Amazon, has said it “put forth a deal-closing, comprehensive proposal that meaningfully addresses the IATSE’s key bargaining issues.”
The union doesn’t see it that way.
‘Refused To Reply’
“As you may be aware, negotiations with the major producers have reached a standstill,” Loeb said in a Sept. 23 note to members. “They refused to reply to our last proposal.”
The key issues, the union says, are rest and meal breaks, and a higher wage for the lowest-paid workers, some of whom earn roughly $15 an hour. Members are also seeking more revenue from streaming services, as some of the new media jobs don’t pay the same wages or contribute to pensions like traditional film and TV work.
IATSE has never gone on strike, and a vote doesn’t guarantee it will.
Didi Creates Union, Setting Precedent For Xi’s Worker Agenda
Didi Global Inc. is helping workers establish their first union, a groundbreaking decision its fellow tech giants may soon follow as China imposes rules to curb excessive work and protect millions of blue-collar workers from exploitation.
The Beijing-based ride-hailing giant announced the creation of the union on an internal forum last week without specifics, according to people familiar with the matter. Didi drivers — mostly part-time and lacking full employee benefits — will likely be invited to join, one of the people said, requesting anonymity discussing private information.
Peers including food delivery leader Meituan are also studying the feasibility of internal labor rights organizations, another person said. Employees from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. have posted calls for the formation of a union on their own company forum, a third person said.
Billionaire Richard Liu’s e-commerce empire JD.com Inc. also established a union this week, the Workers’ Daily, the official newspaper of China’s umbrella union organization, reported late Wednesday.
Tech giants like Didi are responding to regulators’ demands that sharing-economy behemoths improve the welfare of millions of low-wage workers they depend on to power growth.
That stems from Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity” campaign to get the private sector to share the enormous wealth accumulated during a decade-long internet boom, while reining in their growing influence. In Didi’s case, the move may curry favor with Beijng at a time it’s said to be fighting to ensure its survival after forging ahead with a $4.4 billion IPO over regulators’ objections.
While embryonic — and a reversal of the usual bottom-up process of change — support for effective unions marks a significant step for China’s hard-charging tech industry.
The mobile boom has minted an unprecedented amount of tech billionaires from Alibaba’s Jack Ma to Didi’s Cheng Wei and Wang Xing of Meituan, many of whom are now keen to show they’re giving back. Didi’s shares surged 12% in New York, leading a rally in Chinese tech stocks.
Gig-economy workers from Silicon Valley to India have in recent years become increasingly vocal in protesting their rights, gaining the attention of politicians. In China, the issue came to the fore more recently, following years of breakneck expansion by the likes of Meituan, Alibaba, Full Truck Alliance Co. and Pinduoduo Inc. into fledgling arenas from community commerce to meals and grocery delivery.
Didi and Alibaba didn’t respond to written inquiries seeking comment. A Meituan representative didn’t comment on unions but said in an emailed statement it’s focused on listening to and helping out its delivery riders.
Didi, now under investigation over data privacy violations, made its internal announcement just after China’s top court and labor ministry published a lengthy essay outlining 10 cases — including but not limited to the tech industry — in which employees were forced to work extra hours or put in harm’s way, using real and richly detailed court disputes to demonstrate how to fight against labor rights violations.
The essay was viewed as a fresh warning toward tech’s heavyweights, many of which are known for punishing demands and unreasonable overtime. It adds to the challenges for an industry already weathering heightened scrutiny over everything from their troves to data to endemic issues such as forced drinking during official functions.
China’s tech workers face immense pressure to log long hours to meet exacting deadlines while often lacking clear legal recourse — in contrast with Silicon Valley, where icons including Apple Inc., Google and Intel Corp. have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by workers.
Alibaba’s Ele.me and Meituan have weathered criticism about harsh treatment of gig-economy workers, after several deliverymen were killed or injured trying to meet strict deadlines.
The history of unions in China dates back to 1921, when a then-fledgling Communist Party converted workers into Marxist followers. Today, they’re mostly offshoots of the government-backed All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which has lost much of its effectiveness, according to Aidan Chau, a researcher at the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin.
Robust unions have been virtually non-existent among China’s internet companies, partly because of a government abhorrence toward self-organized citizens’ groups that could undermine the Party’s power. The lack of collective bargaining power has made it challenging for many to get heard. In one widely debated case, a delivery driver for Alibaba’s Ele.me set himself on fire to protest unpaid wages.
Xi has since 2013 called on the ACFTU to reform and take a more active role in achieving his “China Dream,” Chau said, a precursor to his current “Common Prosperity” mantra.
A guidance document jointly issued recently by the federation and seven other agencies hinted at changes on the horizon. Unions could serve as a bridge between gig workers and so-called platform companies, helping facilitate negotiations on commissions, they said.
Beijing hopes unions can play a key role in closing a policy loophole in labor protections across the booming sharing economy, particularly as Beijing enacts strict new regulations. Among other things, the government intends to impose a cap on the commissions that ride-hailing or meal delivery providers charge their drivers or merchant partners.
“Establishing new unions in major tech companies can be seen as a continuing push in that direction,” Chau said in an email. “We have seen unions being set up in food delivery companies, courier companies and now internet companies. But from past experience, these unions do not organize workers, so that workers become a class conscious subject and form a combatant organization.”
Activision Blizzard’s Labor Woes Grow On Union Complaint To NLRB
A union has filed a federal labor board complaint against Activision Blizzard Inc., opening a new front in the legal battle over workplace rights at the video game maker.
The U.S. National Labor Relations Board complaint, filed by the Communications Workers of America, accuses Activision of violating federal labor law through coercive rules, actions and statements.
“The employer has threatened employees that they cannot talk about or communicate about wages, hours and working conditions,” according to a copy of the complaint obtained through a public information request.
The document also accuses Activision of illegally telling staff they can’t discuss ongoing investigations; threatening or disciplining employees because of their activism; deploying surveillance and interrogations targeting legally protected activism; and maintaining a social media policy that infringes on workers’ rights.
The agency’s docket shows that CWA’s complaint was filed Sept. 10. Activision didn’t reply to requests for comment Tuesday.
Activision Blizzard, which creates games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, is embroiled in controversy over its treatment of employees. California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Activision in July, alleging the company fostered a “frat boy” culture in which female employees were subjected to sexual harassment, pay inequality and retaliation.
Days later, an employee walkout drew hundreds of demonstrators to the sidewalks of the company’s corporate campus in Southern California.
In a July email to employees, Activision’s chief compliance officer, who served as Homeland Security Advisor to President George W. Bush, called the California agency’s claims “factually incorrect, old and out of context.”
Activision has also said that the picture painted in the lawsuit “is not the Blizzard workplace of today” and that the company values diversity and strives to “foster a workplace that offers inclusivity for everyone.”
Complaints filed with the labor board are investigated by regional offices and, if found to have merit and not settled, can be prosecuted by the agency’s general counsel and heard by administrative law judges. The rulings can be appealed to NLRB members in Washington, D.C., and from there to federal court.
The agency can require remedies such as posting of notices and reversals of policies or punishments, but has no authority to impose punitive damages.
CWA, which has increasingly focused in recent years on organizing non-union video game and tech workers, said in an emailed statement that it was “very inspired by the bravery” of Activision employees and that it filed with the labor board to ensure that violations by the company “will not go unanswered.”
Amazon Confronts Battle With Teamsters In Labor-Friendly Canada
After beating back its highest-profile challenge to date from organized labor in the U.S., Amazon.com Inc. is now confronting a concerted union campaign in Canada, where labor laws are much friendlier to unions.
Affiliates of the Teamsters union are attempting to organize employees in at least nine of the company’s facilities in Canada, Reuters reported on Friday, citing interviews with local union officials working in provinces from British Columbia to Ontario.
The Teamsters earlier this week said they’d filed paperwork with Alberta’s provincial labor regulator to hold a union election at a warehouse in a suburb of Edmonton. The international union in June approved a resolution declaring the world’s largest online retailer an “existential threat” and deeming organizing there a “top priority” for the organization.
Labor lawyers say Canadian laws are more effective at protecting workers’ right to make an uncoerced choice about unionization than those in the U.S., where organizers contend the system is dysfunctional and slanted in favor of employers.
After representatives of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union filed paperwork late last year to hold a union election at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse, the company mounted a campaign to convince workers to vote no.
Amazon brought in staffers from around the country, as well as consultants who specialize in fending off unions, and held hundreds of mandatory meetings with workers to share management’s views. Voting began roughly three months after the union sought to have the election, giving Amazon plenty of time to campaign against it.
The company won’t have the same advantages in Canada, should the current union drives make it far enough to hold elections. Union votes are typically held within weeks. And Canadian labor boards are more likely to deem mandatory anti-union meetings illegally coercive, or to order Amazon to recognize the union without holding an election if the company is found to have engaged in sufficiently severe misconduct.
“Amazon will confront a number of legal obstacles that will restrict its ability to wage an extended ‘vote no’ campaign similar to that which it conducted in Alabama,” David Doorey, an associate professor at York University in Toronto, said in an email earlier this week after the Edmonton organizing effort became public.
Christopher Monette, a spokesperson for Teamsters Canada, didn’t return messages seeking comment on the broader union drive. Amazon reiterated comments from spokesperson David Bauer earlier this week, touting the company’s pay and benefits and saying “we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees.”
Amazon workers in Bessemer rejected joining the RWDSU by a more than 2-to-1 margin, though the union has won a preliminary recommendation from a labor board official that the vote be rerun after organizers complained about Amazon’s conduct during the election. (Amazon has denied violating election rules.)
Airbus Union Warns of More Germany Strike Action
Airbus SE union IG Metall said it could call for further industrial action in a dispute over the planemaker’s plans to restructure German parts operations.
The labor group held a day of strikes and rallies Friday to protest plans to overhaul subsidiaries that make wing and fuselage sections. The move, first announced in April, would involve the creation of new companies built around the Stelia Aerospace and Premium Aerotec divisions, while a detailed-parts unit would be hived off.
“We want a new date for negotiations, if not we will strike again,” said IG Metall district manager Daniel Friedrich. “We don’t want to but we are prepared for both outcomes.”
Airbus is striving to focus resources on areas that will be key for developing future technology such as hydrogen jets, including wings and fuselage. But union opposition and finding a willing investor for the parts business remain hurdles to the plan.
An Airbus spokesman said the action Friday had a “limited impact on production,” adding that the company also wants to reopen discussions with employees. The areas of the business affected by the restructuring employ around 13,000 people, of whom 2,600 are in Premium Aerotec’s detailed parts business, a spokesman said.
British Airways Scraps Gatwick Plan, Escalating Union Standoff
British Airways dropped plans to set up a new, lower-cost unit at London Gatwick airport, setting up a high-stakes showdown with its pilots union, which balked at new contract terms.
The airline has insisted on setting up a separate division for the short-haul business even though it would remain branded as BA, the flagship of the IAG SA carrier group. The new unit, announced in August, was set to bring back operations terminated at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but the airline said it would only move forward with less expensive contracts.
“After many years of losing money on European flights from the airport, we were clear that coming out of the pandemic, we needed a plan to make Gatwick profitable and competitive,” BA said in a statement Thursday. The company said it would find alternative uses for its takeoff and landing slots.
BA’s stance puts pressure on the union while leaving room for compromise ahead of the Sept. 30 end of the U.K.’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which has helped pay for furloughed staff. The Balpa pilots union said it remains open to negotiations, suggesting a deal was still possible.
“Balpa was unable to reach an agreement with British Airways on revised terms and conditions for London Gatwick short-haul that was acceptable to our members,” Martin Chalk, the union’s acting secretary, said in an email.
For now, BA said it will suspend most of its short-haul operations from Gatwick, and offer only a handful of domestic flights that feed longer journeys from the hub. Since the start of the pandemic, the carrier has been focused on its main base at London Heathrow, while it also offers regional flights from London City.
Proceeding with a plan to pull out of Gatwick would cause a major shakeup at the airport. BA had the second-largest presence behind discounter EasyJet Plc, and its exit would leave the hub with no flights to Algiers, Cologne/Bonn in Germany, Genoa in Italy, and Manchester, according to Cirium data.
Rival low-cost carrier Wizz Air Holdings Plc has been eager to snap up Gatwick slots, and made a recent proposal to merge with EasyJet that was rejected, Bloomberg reported this month.
Starbucks Faces Rare Union Challenge In Upstate New York
Workers in some Buffalo cafes cite concerns about pay and staffing; Starbucks says it is boosting wages and benefits and a union isn’t needed.
Starbucks Corp. is pushing back against an employee unionization drive as workers at some Buffalo, N.Y., stores attempt to become the first company-owned cafes in the U.S. to organize.
Workers representing about 70 employees at three of the coffee company’s area stores have submitted petitions with the National Labor Relations Board. The organizers, aiming to represent shift supervisors, assistant store managers and other workers, are seeking a vote on unionization soon, they said.
They are seeking company attention to a range of issues, with workers saying they need higher staffing levels, more training and better compensation.
If successful, the workers would form the first union at Starbucks-owned stores in the U.S., and one of just a handful in other markets. Baristas seeking to form the union, calling themselves Starbucks Workers United, aim to join Workers United Upstate New York, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.
Workers said the tight U.S. labor market gives them more leverage to organize now. “We were very much expendable before, and we don’t feel quite as expendable now,” said Alexis Rizzo, a Starbucks shift supervisor in a Buffalo store who helped organize the union drive.
Starbucks said it respects the rights of its employees to organize, but has issued letters to employees arguing that a union isn’t necessary. It has dispatched top executives to Buffalo to assess workers’ problems. Howard Schultz, chairman emeritus and former chief executive, and Starbucks’s current North America president, Rossann Williams, are among those who have traveled to upstate New York in recent weeks.
“We’ve heard and seen firsthand the challenges you’ve faced in your stores. It’s not okay, and you deserve better,” said Allyson Peck, Starbucks’s regional vice president for its Northeast region, in a letter to workers last week. Starbucks said it is adding recruiters in Buffalo to help improve staffing, plans to offer more training for new baristas and will repair store problems faster.
The NLRB this week heard testimony from both sides as to whether all 20 Buffalo market stores need to participate in the vote for it to count, as Starbucks argues, or just a handful. Attorneys are also debating how the vote will take place. Officials haven’t set a union vote date.
Lower-wage workers are in a stronger position during the Covid-19 pandemic. Employers struggled to find enough staff as the economy rebounded this year, making hiring bonuses commonplace in manufacturing, food service and other industries—along with signs asking customers to be patient with slow service.
Unions in recent weeks have successfully pushed other food companies for expanded pay and benefits, including Mondelez International Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. U.S. workers at two factories for meal-kit maker HelloFresh SE petitioned this month for labor union Unite Here to represent them.
Amazon.com Inc. faced a union drive this year at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., which raised hopes among organized labor groups across the country and drew the support of President Biden. The warehouse’s workers overwhelmingly rejected unionization.
Starbucks, which owns nearly 9,000 cafes in the U.S. and licenses almost 6,500 others, has talked about being an employer that listens to workers and provides better benefits compared with restaurant-industry peers. It grants employees company stock, pays for parental and sick leave, and provides mental-health benefits.
The company has faced unionization efforts before. In 2004, workers at a New York City Starbucks cafe sought to organize under the Industrial Workers of the World labor union. Starbucks challenged that effort with the NLRB, and no union was formed.
During the early days of the pandemic, Starbucks paid workers to stay home and gradually started to bring more employees back by the middle of last year. Workers since then have complained about stressful working environments, including supply shortages, thin staffing and more sales shifting to fast-paced mobile and drive-through orders.
Employees said they are expected to complete drive-through orders in about 40 seconds, though many include a large number of complicated drinks.
In recent interviews with The Wall Street Journal, several Starbucks workers nationwide who quit in the past 18 months described a hectic work environment during the pandemic and said they weren’t adequately compensated.
“I basically had to either get an extra job to make ends meet, or find a better paying job. I chose the latter,” said Isak Wilson, a former Starbucks shift supervisor in Nashville, Tenn., and Dayton, Ohio. Mr. Wilson said he left Starbucks in early 2020 after five years and now works in software services.
Starbucks said it would boost hourly store wages by at least 10% beginning last December, which it called one of the biggest wage investments in the company’s history. The company said it is listening to workers’ concerns to improve their experience.
Some Buffalo-area Starbucks workers said they had talked with union organizers off and on for years, but grew more frustrated recently.
Starbucks has acknowledged staffing challenges during the crisis. The company told investors in July that about 70% of its U.S. store workers were hired after the pandemic began. Starbucks said that it was investing in more training and that it would further increase hourly pay for workers by at least 5% next month.
“Starbucks isn’t perfect, but we have a strong history of working together,” the company this week said in a message to Buffalo employees.
Amazon To Defend Firing Of Workers Following Complaint
Local Washington state union filed the complaint against the retail giant with the National Labor Relations Board last year.
An administrative law judge is set to hear a case starting Tuesday brought against Amazon.com Inc. by a workers’ union claiming that two of the company’s employees were wrongly fired.
The complaint, which was filed with the National Labor Relations Board about a year ago by a local branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers union in Washington state, claims Amazon violated the National Labor Relations Act and fired the two employees for “their support for fellow Amazon employees’ working conditions.”
It says the two workers were fired in response to their Section 7 activities, referring to the part of the act that gives employees the right to self-organize and bargain collectively through representatives they choose.
None of Amazon’s workers in the U.S. are unionized. However, anyone aware of a potential violation can file a complaint with the NLRB, said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.
There have been efforts to organize in some places. Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala., voted against unionizing this year.
The complaint also alleges that Amazon fired the employees “based on a discriminatory enforcement of policies or work rules, including its non-solicitation and communication policies.” It alleges, too, that Amazon “has maintained overly broad and unduly vague policies or work rules that chill and restrain employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights and activities.”
The complaint was later amended to say that at the start of the pandemic, two employees engaged in activities with someone else to support Amazon’s U.S. warehouse employees and their efforts to push Amazon to provide more Covid-19 safety precautions in the warehouses.
The amendment to the complaint also alleges that Amazon’s “highest leadership” made racist remarks about a warehouse employee leading the efforts.
The NLRB complaint could ultimately be dismissed or the board could find that Amazon did commit unfair labor practice and order them to remedy it. Either party can appeal the decision.
“We support every employee’s rights to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies,” said an Amazon spokesperson in an emailed statement. “We terminated these employees not for speaking about working conditions or safety, but for repeatedly violating internal policies.”
The company reported a surge in sales during the early part of the Covid-19 pandemic as more people stayed at home and shopped online. This month, the company said it plans to add 125,000 employees in the U.S. and lift its average starting wage as it expands its warehouse operations.
Amazon Settles Labor Dispute With Fired Climate Activists
Amazon.com Inc. has settled with two web designers who the U.S. labor board alleged were fired for workplace activism.
The private settlement between Amazon and terminated employees Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa was revealed Wednesday in a National Labor Relations Board hearing. Terms weren’t immediately available. Amazon denied wrongdoing in the case. A spokesman said the company welcomed “the resolution of this matter” and declined further comment.
Costa and Cunningham released a joint statement saying the settlement requires Amazon to pay them back wages and notify all employees that it “can’t fire workers for organizing and exercising their rights.”
“Workers at every company need to be standing up for each other and the world, together,” they said.
Amazon and the fired workers reached what is called a “private non-board agreement,” which means it still must be approved by a regional director of the labor board but won’t be released to the public.
Labor board prosecutors in April said they’d filed a complaint accusing Amazon of unfair labor practices because the 2020 terminations violated legal protections for employees who advocate for changes to their workplace. Cunningham and Costa were among the leaders of an employee group that pushed Amazon to do more to combat climate change.
As Covid-19 spread last year, the pair broadened their activism to highlight the demands of Amazon warehouse workers who had expressed concerns that the company was not doing enough to ensure their safety. The pair say they were fired shortly after inviting coworkers to attend a virtual event connecting warehouse and tech employees.
The charges are among dozens of complaints filed against Amazon with the labor regulator since the pandemic began. The NLRB encourages companies to settle disputes with workers, and when that doesn’t happen, brings charges before administrative law judges. Their rulings can then be appealed to the NLRB’s presidentially appointed members in Washington and from there to federal court.
Tech industry workers in recent years have become more vocal about their employers’ positions on such issues as immigration and climate change. In September, Google-parent Alphabet Inc. settled a dispute with a software engineer the labor board alleged was fired for workplace activism.
Museum Workers, Jolted by Pandemic Job Losses, Turn To Unions
The Covid-19 pandemic undercut feelings of job security at cultural institutions. Now there’s an uptick in efforts to organize.
Workers at museums, zoos and other cultural institutions are stepping up efforts to unionize after suffering waves of job losses during the Covid-19 pandemic, with workforces at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia Zoo and Museum of Contemporary Art among those that are pushing for more protection.
Workers at unionized cultural institutions experienced 28% fewer job cuts on average than those at non-unionized workplaces during the pandemic, according to a report by Cultural Workers United, a program run by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the leading unions representing public-service workers.
Part-time and minority workers were disproportionately affected by job cuts during the pandemic, according to other recent surveys of cultural institutions.
Cultural Workers United released its findings today as part of a study that analyzed worker retention at 228 cultural institutions across the U.S. that received one or more Paycheck Protection Program loans of more than $1 million from the U.S. Small Business Association. About one in six of the institutions in the group’s analysis is unionized or partially unionized.
The labor organizers said that although some groups of workers were exploring unionization already, the pandemic hastened the process. Local AFSCME chapters have organized six institutions so far this year and three last year, compared with just two over the previous three years.
In recent months, workers at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Walters Art Museum in Baltimore have gone public with their campaigns, according to AFSCME. At the Minnesota Historical Society, workers filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. Workers also voted to form a union at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia and EcoTarium in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Museums, historical sites and similar institutions say the pandemic, with its mandated closures, delivered a significant hit to revenues that made layoffs and furloughs unavoidable, and several contacted laid-off workers when they were able to rehire.
According to a survey by the American Alliance of Museums, 98% of U.S. museums closed during the pandemic. In May 2020, a few months into the pandemic, cultural institution employment hit a 10-year low of 121,300 workers, compared with 174,600 in February 2020, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Tens of thousands of workers still haven’t returned: By June 2021, there were 138,700 workers employed.
Workforce reductions were a last resort, according to Norman Keyes, a spokesman at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The institution’s efforts were intended to help retain staff and protect workers on the lower end of the pay scale.
Workers making $30,000 or less received full pay and benefits for three months after the museum closed; those making more received partial pay, with more highly paid workers receiving lower percentages of their usual compensation.
Later, the museum offered voluntary separation packages, according to Keyes, who added that those on leave or furloughed were offered medical and financial relief.
However, workers said the institution could have done more, and the AFSCME study helped flesh out those potential benefits. The union group concluded that workers at 35 fully or partially unionized institutions not only experienced fewer layoffs, but were also often able to tap protections such as hazard pay, telework policies and access to personal protective equipment.
Before the current wave of actions, unionization at cultural institutions like museums and zoos was rare, according to Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian and professor at University of California, Santa Barbara. That’s in part because the work appealed to privileged individuals, he said.
Museums emerged from a 19th-century tradition of noblesse oblige — an inferred responsibility of the privileged to be generous to those less so — and attracted a well-educated and generally upper-class staff, he said.
At least some sense of job security at these institutions has persisted; several of the workers who are involved in unionizing now say they had expected to stay in their jobs for decades.
The pandemic exacerbated many concerns of cultural workers, including a lack of communication, low pay and job security, according to local union organizers who work with AFSCME. Organizers of the current efforts are attempting to unionize workers who do a wide range of jobs — from sanitation and gift shop workers to those in more specialized positions including public education and curation.
Several of the efforts also include part-time workers, who were hit particularly hard by job cuts. According to the American Alliance of Museums, 53% of museums had laid off or furloughed staff, according to an October 2020 survey of 850 institutions across the U.S. Twenty-seven percent of the museums furloughed part-time staff and 26% said they had to lay off part-time staff.
By comparison, 21% of institutions said they laid off or furloughed full-time staff. In another survey, taken in March, the group found that 43% of workers lost income during the pandemic, with an average reduction of about $21,000 per worker.
Among those who lost work, the museum alliance said, the most affected were those who had been on the front line with visitors, in areas such as guest services, admissions, retail sales, education and maintenance.
“It was heartbreakingly hard to lose so many colleagues,” said Adam Rizzo, an educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or PMA. “Folks who were laid off were the lowest paid, the ones with the least amount of financial security.”
Rizzo, a local president of an AFSCME chapter in Philadelphia, is currently working on finalizing the non-economic aspects of a union contract with the museum. His unit includes workers in non-supervisory roles across various departments at the museum, with the exception of contractors and workers who belong to their own unions, such as carpenters.
The workers at PMA began their efforts to unionize after they got a look at a crowdsourced spreadsheet listing the salaries of 3,000 workers from various cultural institutions in the U.S. and abroad. The anonymous entries detailed a job title, department, starting salary and current salary at an institution, in many cases described by size and location. The disclosures ushered in a new expectation of transparency in the industry.
“Many were already aware of long-existing inequities in the museum world,” Rizzo said. “The spreadsheet was a real turning point.”
PMA laid off 85 workers on August 4, 2020, two days before the final union vote was counted. Many of those laid off were in the bargaining unit, said Rizzo. Two months later, the museum furloughed all front-line staff workers whose jobs weren’t compatible with working from home.
Keyes, the PMA spokesman, said the reductions were “completely unrelated” to unionization and the vote. “The voting had begun via mail on July 9 and was concluded on July 30 and was counted on August 6 and staff who had been laid off were eligible to vote,” he said in an email.
“The museum offered a voluntary separation package in the hope that it could avoid layoffs. Unfortunately, not enough staff accepted the package and the museum then — and with great reluctance — did lay off some staff.”
The layoffs hit Black, Indigenous and other people of color particularly hard, Rizzo said. More broadly, members of the BIPOC community were disproportionately impacted but the furloughs and layoffs of front-line workers, according to a 2020 survey by the Ithaka S+R, which provides research and guidance to academic and cultural institutions.
Facing The Public
At the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, the part-time workers are leading the contract negotiations, said Ace Ubas, a retail administrator at the museum.
“They are the ones that have to deal with and interact with the public directly, but those same employees are also the ones who don’t have a say in what goes on at the museum,” he said.
Shortly after the workers at MOCA announced their intent to unionize in December 2019, the institution voluntarily recognized the union.
However, when the bargaining was scheduled to begin at the beginning of 2020, part-time workers were laid off. The layoffs weren’t well communicated and caught a lot of people by surprise, creating the urgency to get the contract finalized, Ubas said.
Eva Seta, a MOCA spokeswoman, said that the museum kept in touch with laid-off employees, via emails, Zoom and monthly updates, after the museum’s forced closure in spring 2020. MOCA has since invited most affected part-time staffers to return, she said.
“As soon as it became clear that layoffs were necessary, MOCA engaged in negotiations with the union and reached a mutual agreement which provided severance and recall rights for all bargaining unit members,” Seta said in an email. In a followup email, she added that the layoffs, effective March 24, 2020, were communicated as temporary and as the direct result of the pandemic and government mandated closures.
It is not uncommon for institutions to voluntarily recognize a union to appear sympathetic, said Lichtenstein. However, a lot of what actually makes it into the contract depends on a union’s ability to bargain and navigate union-busting tactics, he added.
Layoffs at the Philadelphia Zoo, which has been unionized since the 1960s, largely impacted non-union, part-time workers, said Toni Flowers, a lead keeper in the zoo’s Bird Department who is on leave to serve as a shop steward at her local AFSME chapter. (The zoo didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)
While Flowers says the contract ensures she, a Black woman, is paid equally to her white and male counterparts, similar protections don’t extend to part-time workers, who’ve become a new priority for organizers. “We watched them come in one day and watched them all walk out with their letter in hand,” Flowers said.
Most South African Workers Ignore Strike Call, Employers Say
A call by South Africa’s biggest labor group for workers to stage a one-day national strike on Thursday against budget cuts went largely unheeded, an employers’ group said.
More than 83% of staff reported for duty, ignoring an appeal by the Congress of South African Trade Unions to stay away, a survey of 191 firms conducted by the National Employers Association of South Africa showed.
“I envisaged this Cosatu strike was going to be a major failure,” and no noticeable business disruptions were reported, Gerhard Papenfus, the association’s chief executive officer, said by phone.
Cosatu said budget cuts had led to an unacceptable wage freeze for civil servants and retrenchments by state companies, and it accused private firms of embarking on an “investment strike,” with many of them hoarding cash or taking it out the country. The federation’s demands included that the government reverse spending curbs, do more to create jobs, support the unemployed and accelerate the roll-out of coronavirus vaccines.
Cosatu made it clear to its members that it didn’t want them to gather in groups of more than 500 in line with rules aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19, and was happy with the strike turnout, according to its spokesman Sizwe Pamla. Further strikes will be staged unless the federation’s demands are met, he said.
A separate steelworkers strike, which was called by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, continued for a third day on Thursday, with workers downing tools in five of the nine provinces. That labor action has affected some mining, construction, engineering and metallurgical businesses and will eventually hit automakers if they can’t secure steel supplies.
Teachers Union Urges TikTok, Facebook, Other Big Tech to Stop Spread of Viral Challenges
In a letter Friday, National Education Association asks tech companies ‘to put public safety over profits’
The nation’s largest teachers union is urging TikTok, Facebook Inc., Instagram and Twitter Inc. to take steps to halt the dissemination and spread of dangerous viral challenges and misinformation that it says pose a threat to educators and students.
In a letter sent Friday and shared with The Wall Street Journal, National Education Association President Becky Pringle asked tech leaders to make a public pledge to better regulate their platforms “to put public safety over profits.”
The letter points to challenges and threats faced by educators, students and families at the start of the current academic year, when many students are returning to the classroom for the first time in more than a year and a half.
A viral TikTok challenge last month involved students vandalizing or stealing from school bathrooms. Educators now warn of a potential new challenge that dares students to slap teachers.
Simultaneously, opposition over safety protocols such as mask-wearing and Covid-19 vaccine mandates and over critical race theory have sometimes spurred vitriol against school leaders, prompting a group representing school boards to seek federal assistance in managing an influx of harassment and acts of intimidation toward board members, educators and students.
“Online ‘trends’ and false information that have spread like wildfire throughout social media platforms–from stealing school property and hitting school staff, to conspiracy theories on curriculum and coronavirus protocols–have helped create a culture of fear and violence with educators as targets,” Ms. Pringle wrote, according to a copy of the letter.
“Educators are still working through a pandemic after two years,” she said in the letter. “We’re all exhausted, stressed and stretched so thin it feels like we’ll crumble — and now we’re facing growing violence fueled by corporations with no oversight and no accountability to the communities they harm.”
Representatives for TikTok, Facebook and Instagram didn’t respond to a request for comment on the NEA’s letter. A Twitter representative said the company received the letter and plans to respond.
The letter follows public scrutiny in recent weeks on how Facebook handles its platforms. A set of internal documents, which formed the foundation of The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series, exposed research showing how harmful its social media platforms can be, particularly for teenagers.
Facebook has faced a questions from the public, lawmakers from both parties, and others over how its platforms operate and what effects they have on users and society at large.
Educators say the viral challenges and level of anger they face over Covid-19 mandates have been compounded by the difficulties of a third pandemic school year. Many of the nation’s more than 13,000 school districts that were closed for in-person learning for most of the past year have now reopened.
Some educators say the return to routine has been a challenge for students, some of whom are catching up on schoolwork or emotionally impacted by the pandemic.
Recently, teachers unions and school officials sought to get ahead of a rumored “Slap a Teacher challenge,” as well as other alleged viral dares that could cause harm or damage to educators or schools. The origin of the “Slap a Teacher challenge” rumors isn’t known.
“The rumored ‘slap a teacher’ dare is an insult to educators everywhere,” TikTok wrote in a Twitter post. “And while this is not a trend on TikTok, if at any point it shows up, content will be removed.”
The effort follows a viral challenge last month called “devious licks,” where students stole items or vandalized school bathrooms. That challenge had gained popularity on TikTok, and, in mid-September, the company said it had removed the content and any related hashtags or search results.
Police in Covington, La., said Thursday they arrested an 18-year-old high school student after she allegedly punched a 64-year-old teacher who is disabled. The Covington Police Department said the incident, which was recorded on video, may have been influenced by the rumored viral challenge.
Earlier this month, Lancaster County School District in South Carolina said an elementary school student hit a teacher in the back of the head. The district suggested in a note to parents published on its Facebook page that the incident might have been related to the challenge.
Teachers unions in Connecticut, California, South Carolina and Florida have recently warned about the harm and consequences of the potential challenges. Many of the unions say they are unaware of incidents involving students striking their teachers but hoped to get ahead of any potential violence.
The National Education Association letter also said misinformation shared on social media platforms has informed “a small but violent group of radicalized adults who falsely believe that graduate level courses about racism are being taught in K-12 public schools,” referencing the academic concept critical race theory.
The letter also cited recent harassment and acts of intimidation toward educators across the country over Covid-19 safety protocols.
Earlier this week, in response to the request from the school boards group, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to work with law enforcement to address the uptick in threats.
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said he met with TikTok representatives this week after he sent a letter to the company urging them to identify ways to prevent dangerous challenges from occurring on the platform.
A TikTok spokesperson declined to comment on the letter and wasn’t immediately available to comment on the meeting.
In an interview, Mr. Tong said vandalism at a Connecticut high school inspired by the “devious licks” challenge led to more widespread chaos that prompted officials to temporarily close the school last month.
He called social media a common thread in the extreme behavior or actions seen in schools or elsewhere in communities.
“The ‘devious licks’ challenge was bad enough and it is not a big leap to say there are probably more out there or coming,” Mr. Tong said.
Hollywood Union Sets Oct. 18 Strike Date, Pressuring Studios
One of Hollywood’s most powerful unions set an Oct. 18 strike date, threatening a nationwide shutdown of film and TV production in a fight with studios over work conditions and pay.
Workers will walk out at 12:01 a.m. Pacific time on that date unless a deal is reached, said the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents thousands of art directors, camera operators and editors.
A strike would cripple the film and TV industry while it’s still struggling to rebound from Covid-related shutdowns and health restrictions over the past year and a half. Both Netflix Inc. and Walt Disney Co. have blamed weaker-than-expected growth in online subscriptions to the challenges of getting new programming.
Talks will continue this week, the union said.
“However, the pace of bargaining doesn’t reflect any sense of urgency,” IATSE President Matthew Loeb said in a statement. “Without an end date, we could keep talking forever. Our members deserve to have their basic needs addressed now.”
IATSE has never gone on strike in its 128 years. But many workers, who are seeking shorter hours in a new contract, have faced grueling production schedules amid the post-shutdown reopenings. A key issue for the union: rest and meal breaks, and higher wages for the lowest-paid workers (some have earned about $15 an hour).
Members are also seeking to bring compensation negotiated with streaming services in line with pay offered by traditional media companies.
The union has been negotiating with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents major studios including Netflix, Disney and Amazon.com Inc.
“There are five whole days left to reach a deal,” the AMPTP said in an emailed statement. “The studios will continue to negotiate in good faith in an effort to reach an agreement for a new contract that will keep the industry working.”
There are about 60,000 IATSE members, mostly based in Los Angeles, who fill many behind-the-scenes roles. Three of the union’s chapters are national in scope, so a strike would stop work across the country, potentially affecting almost 1 million jobs directly tied to television and film production.
The head of the AFL-CIO, which includes IATSE, spoke earlier Wednesday at the National Press Club.
“This will be one of the largest work stoppages that most of the country will take notice on,” President Liz Shuler said. “These people are working overtime, they’re answering the call, and yet the companies now who are making some pretty tidy profits suddenly can’t pay overtime and suddenly you can’t have a meal break.”
A crippling writers strike 13 years ago dragged on for 100 days. It cost the industry $2 billion, according to the Milken Institute, and was felt beyond Hollywood by a range of businesses, from restaurants to tailors, that rely on production for business.
U.S. Labor Unions Are Having A Moment
Workers are finding they suddenly have the upper hand—or at least, more solid footing—when it comes to negotiating wages and benefits.
U.S. organized labor is having a moment after decades of erosion in both influence and power, giving workers their best chance in recent memory to claw back lost ground.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, unions are finding they suddenly have the upper hand—or at least, more solid footing—when it comes to negotiating wages and benefits, spurring a flurry of new picket lines. Nearly 40 workplaces across the nation have gone on strike since Aug. 1, according to Bloomberg Law’s database of work stoppages, almost double the number during the same period last year.
From Deere & Co.’s factories and Kellogg Co.’s U.S. cereal plants to nurses in Massachusetts and distillery workers in Kentucky, tens of thousands of union workers across a vast swath of industries are either on strike or close to it, leading some to dub this month “Strike-tober.”
One of Hollywood’s most powerful unions settled over the weekend to avoid a strike — the first in its 128-year history — that had been set to begin Monday.
“Workers are right to think the ball is in their court,” said Adam Seth Litwin, a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. “They need to take a really big bite of the apple right now, because whatever they get they’re going to have it in their mouth for a long time.”
The newfound forcefulness of labor unions is in stark contrast to the direction of the last several decades. Private-sector unionization has plummeted for generations as some industries decamped to the largely ununionized American South and a slack labor market made it easier to replace striking workers. Only 10.8% of the U.S. workforce belonged to unions last year, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.
That’s down from a peak of 34.8% in 1954, according to Pew Research Center. Amid threats of automation or offshoring, and companies taking full advantage of the leeway afforded to them by the courts, those dwindling unionized workers made significant concessions in past contract fights, unsure they had a better alternative.
But now employees, trying to reclaim what they gave up before, have been emboldened by a series of related events: soaring company profits, a renewed respect for essential workers and rekindled political will in Washington.
Plus there’s the hard truth of today’s labor market: Companies in many industries are finding employees downright impossible to replace. Here are several key factors at play:
Essential Workers Feel Essential
Working through the pandemic has been a transformative experience for many laborers, who garnered public support as “essential workers.” At the same time, many felt the companies they worked for didn’t do what was necessary to keep them safe or reward their sacrifices.
“Essential workers are tired of being thanked one day and then treated as expendable the next day,” Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a speech Wednesday in Washington. “The headline isn’t that there’s a shortage of people willing to return to work. Instead, it’s a scarcity story. We have a shortage of safe, good-paying, sustainable jobs.”
That’s the feeling at Deere, where assembly employees were categorized as front-line workers to continue operations, creating a sense that the company owes them. Kellogg workers, too, feel like they put themselves at risk in order to keep America’s pantries full during lockdowns.
“When it comes to the contract, that raises the bar for what they’d like to see and what they think they deserve,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
Above all, the pandemic made a lot of workers rethink their values and priorities, and that’s coming to a head in collective bargaining.
“Covid put the rat race in perspective,” said Amy Thurlow, a Los Angeles-based script coordinator represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union. Thurlow, 33, said it isn’t uncommon for her to work 80-hour weeks and on weekends. Now it’s, “Oh wait, getting to see your family is very important.”
Company Profits Are Soaring
Also at play are rising profits. Deere has already posted a record $4.7 billion profit this year, creating a perception among some workers that the manufacturer is holding out on wages and benefits. “My message is they have a righteous strike and they have a right to demand higher wages,’’ President Joe Biden said on Friday, of the Deere workers.
There’s a similar feeling at Kellogg. Before the pandemic, cereal was almost an albatross around the company’s neck, as consumers found more exciting breakfast options. But that changed as everyone got locked up at home—U.S. consumption of Kellogg’s cereal was up almost 16% year-on-year at the start of the pandemic.
Kellogg Chief Executive Officer Steven Cahillane was awarded a compensation package valued at $11.67 million for 2020, creating a ratio of 279 to 1 when compared with the median total compensation for the rest of the company’s employees, filings show. Nationally, CEO pay in 2020 grew 19% over the previous year, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
“Workers are producing food that’s increased in demand and increased profits during the pandemic,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University. “And now they’re being required to work extremely long hours and not getting any share of those increased profits.”
Tight Labor Market
A shortage of workers is also giving unions more confidence they can walk off the job without being replaced. The latest jobs report from the Labor Department showed the U.S. added just 194,000 people to payrolls in September, the smallest gain this year. The slower pace of hiring in part reflected employers’ struggle to recruit and retain qualified workers.
“In this period of labor shortages, candidly, you’re going to have to step up as an employer,” said Chris Thornberg, founding partner of independent research firm Beacon Economics LLC. “You’re going to have offer more: better training, better quality of life.”
Job openings in the U.S. currently sit near a record 11 million, while the quits rate was at 2.9% in August, the highest since 2000. “Workers feel it,” Thornberg said. “They know it’s a seller’s market.”
Groundswell of Support
For the first time in awhile, unions feel like Washington is on their side, given the Biden administration’s union bent and left-wing politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez amplifying their voices.
“Not only the economic power, but the political power, is on their side,” Cornell’s Litwin said. “Employers are going to cave because they know they have to.”
Each successful union win is also galvanizing for those still in the throes of collective bargaining. “Strikes are contagious in that every time a worker sees a successful strike, they can see what they can win by going on strike,” said Givan, the Rutgers professor.
The Kellogg cereal workers are members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union—the same ones that represented the Nabisco workers in their strike this summer, which brought increased wages and more flexible work schedules.
“It’s become more of a movement than ever before,” said Dan Osborn, local president of the Omaha chapter of the BCTGM. “The more we win, the more we’re going to continue to win.”
Chicago Mayor, Police Union Take Vaccine Fight To Court
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the local Fraternal Order of Police are at odds over city requirement to report vaccination status.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the local Fraternal Order of Police on Friday said they had filed competing motions for injunctions against each other, escalating a fight over Chicago’s vaccination policy.
A Cook County Judge on Friday evening ordered the union president to stop publicly telling members not to comply with a city policy requiring them to inform the city of their vaccination status until Oct. 25, when she scheduled a hearing on broader matters in the case.
In a filing made public early Friday, the city alleged that John Catanzara, president of the police union, was encouraging an illegal work stoppage or strike by telling members not to let the city know their vaccination status.
The union later asked a court to stop the city from enforcing its vaccination-notification requirement, saying it amounted to an unnegotiated change in the labor contract. Instead, it asked for arbitration on the matter.
The city said in August that all city workers must be vaccinated by Friday, or seek an exemption for medical or religious reasons. Those who don’t get vaccinated must do regular self-testing, and workers who don’t report their status will be put on unpaid leave until they do, according to the city.
Mr. Catanzara has encouraged officers not to comply with the reporting requirement and said that as many as 50% would take unpaid leave rather than report their status.
The union denied it was engaging in a strike on its Twitter feed, saying, “President John Catanzara has never engaged in, supported, or encouraged a work stoppage. @LoriLightfoot is the only one who has said she will send our dedicated Officers home without pay if they choose to reject her unlawful orders.”
The mayor says that Mr. Catanzara’s effort to prevent workers from reporting their vaccine status amounts to a work stoppage or strike and that police officers aren’t allowed to strike under state laws and their own contract.
“As Chicago’s mayor, I cannot and will not stand idly by while the rhetoric of conspiracy theorists threatens the health and safety of Chicago’s residents and first responders,” Ms. Lightfoot said. “Catanzara is encouraging an unlawful strike and work stoppage which carries the potential to undermine public safety and expose our residents to irreparable harm, particularly during an ongoing pandemic.”
Mr. Catanzara said Friday morning on Fox News that about 50% of officers were vaccinated but that most object to reporting their status to the city.
“In a city that has over 185 expressway shootings this year alone and over 280 kids shot this year alone, she acts like there’s nothing else going on but this Covid,” he said.
In a video posted to the union Facebook page Thursday night, Mr. Catanzara encouraged officers not to comply with orders to go onto the city portal and report their status, encouraging them to record any interactions with superiors giving what he called illegal orders.
Earlier in the week, he threatened legal action against the city over the policy. In Friday’s filing, the union alleged the city had failed to negotiate what the union called “a unilateral change that imposes new terms and conditions of employment.”
The city said in its lawsuit that Covid-19 was the leading cause of death among police officers in the U.S. in 2020 and 2021. Earlier this week, former Chicago FOP President Dean Angelo Sr. died of pneumonia as a result of Covid-19, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner.
Hollywood’s Powerful IATSE Union Says Long Hours Must Stop
Josh Hancher left the set of the Kevin Hart comedy “Night School” after 4 a.m. on a Saturday and headed straight to one of his son’s Boy Scout events.
It wasn’t the first time the Atlanta-area camera crew member had been forced to choose between sleep and his duties as a dad after a late-night shoot.
“Thankfully, I haven’t hurt myself,” said Hancher, 46. “But it’s not healthy and not safe at all.”
Which is why Hancher is ready to potentially join thousands of art directors, camera operators and editors on a strike beginning at 12:01 a.m. Pacific time Monday in a fight with Hollywood studios over work conditions and pay.
With the deadline looming, the two sides are still negotiating to avert what would be the first nationwide strike in the 128-year history of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The parties are close to an agreement, Variety reported Saturday, citing unidentified industry sources.
A work stoppage would mark the second crippling shutdown of film and TV production in the past year and a half. Hollywood is still recovering from Covid-related halts and health restrictions: In fact many of today’s gripes over work conditions — like nonexistent breaks and long production shifts — are the result of wearying schedules imposed on workers by studios trying catch up after last year’s delays.
The studios — represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers or AMPTP — are trying to add thousands of hours of new content as they compete for streaming subscribers. And the country is facing major labor shortages.
On Oct. 13, the AMPTP said it “will continue to negotiate in good faith in an effort to reach an agreement for a new contract that will keep the industry working.” The group represents major studios including Walt Disney Co., Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.
The contract tensions are part of a broader trend of stressed employees voicing their concerns through work stoppages involving businesses from Deere & Co. tractors to Kellogg Co.’s breakfast cereals.
“There’s a seller’s market in labor,” said Chris Thornberg, founding partner of independent research and consulting firm Beacon Economics LLC. “Every employer better get used to this. People are demanding more.”
Many IATSE workers have faced grueling schedules like Hancher’s that have kept them working late into the night or over weekends. In the current round of contract talks, the union has sought higher pay and changes to work rules, including guaranteed break times and more revenue from streaming services that were allowed to pay lower wages and benefits under the old deal. Most of the 60,000 IATSE members are based in Los Angeles and fill behind-the-scenes roles.
The number of Los Angeles shoot days soared in the second quarter to 9,791 from 7,011 in the prior three months, according to FilmLA, which helps facilitate production in the area. That represents half the total from all of 2020, a year gripped by Covid-associated lockdowns. The streets of Los Angeles are abuzz these days with TV shoots from stalwarts like “NCIS,” on CBS, to a new spinoff of the Amazon.com Inc. detective hit “Bosch.”
With the increase in streaming services, there are more miniseries and made-for-TV movies getting made. And that can mean fewer long-running shows, such as a “Seinfeld” or “ER,” that gave workers stability and opportunities for advancement.
“That connectivity of coming back to the same crew and then moving up has been kind of lost,” said Amy Thurlow, a 33-year-old script coordinator and writers’ assistant in Los Angeles. “On top of that, our wages are really low and the work on a first-season show especially is really high.”
Thurlow said it’s not uncommon to clock 80-hour work weeks — and then encounter employers who challenge some of the overtime that she requested. Hancher, meanwhile, often works more than 60 hours a week.
“I know I can choose not to work those hours,” said Hancher, who was speaking while driving to a set in Savannah, Georgia. “Typically, you take the jobs you’re given because you don’t know when the next one will come in.”
It doesn’t have to be that way, Hancher said, pointing to his experience on “Irresistible,” a movie directed by Jon Stewart.
“We worked 10 to 11 hour days and got proper rest,” he said. “You remember when you have those jobs that you love what you do.”
Hollywood Workers Reach Agreement With Studios, Averting Strike
Film and television industry avoids shutdown of production after union reaches last-minute deal with studios and streaming services
The film and television industry avoided a shutdown of production on Saturday evening after the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees reached a last-minute, tentative agreement with studios and streaming services over worker demands.
IATSE leaders had been in talks for weeks with the organization representing studios and streaming services, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. IATSE leaders had set a strike deadline of 12:01 a.m. PT on Monday.
The agreement reached Saturday covers some 40,000 film and television workers who are members of 13 local IATSE unions on the West Coast. Under the new contract, which must still be ratified by workers, IATSE members would see boosted pay on streaming-service productions and a reduction in the amount of time members work without a break, among other changes.
“This is a Hollywood ending,” said IATSE International President Matthew Loeb. “We went toe to toe with some of the richest and most powerful entertainment and tech companies in the world.”
A spokesperson for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers confirmed the agreement.
Some studio workers employed at companies including Netflix Inc. and Apple Inc. said they were paid less than their fair share.
Others cited long hours that are considered part of the job and few bathroom breaks allowed during long days on the set. Earlier this month an overwhelming majority of members voted to give leaders strike-authorization powers.
Studios and streaming services are stepping up production after more than 18 months of delays and cancellations brought on by Covid-19.
The deal avoids what would have been a shutdown of productions around the world involving thousands of editors, prop artists and other crew workers.
A-list actors and other Hollywood unions voiced their support for IATSE members in recent weeks. In Los Angeles, cars could be spotted with IATSE slogans written on their windows. An Instagram account took off with submitted stories of long hours, few breaks and what they saw as disproportionate compensation.
Still, on the same account, some workers are voicing concerns about the deal terms union leaders reached and are openly questioning whether they will vote to ratify the new contracts. Union leaders said more information will be available to workers as contracts are drafted.
IATSE members have called attention to the unglamorous aspects of working in Hollywood and put a spotlight on the streaming services whose success has fueled a surge in production. The crew workers joined employees in other industries who have emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic with demands from employers on pay and working conditions.
Deere & Co. workers earlier this month went on strike for the first time in 35 years, joining thousands of workers currently on strike or returning to work after a strike at such companies as Kellogg Co. and Mondelez International Inc.
Rust Set Didn’t Have A Union Prop Master Working On Day Of Alec Baldwin Incident, Says Union
New details are emerging following the incident that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of Alec Baldwin’s Western Rust.
On Thursday night, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 44 Chapter, a union that represents crew workers in Hollywood, sent an email — obtained by Deadline — to members stating there was no union prop master on set the night Hutchins was killed by a prop gun fired by Baldwin.
The email, written by IATSE 44 Secretary-Treasurer Anthony Pawluc, informed its members that “there were no Local 44 members on the call sheet” on Thursday night.
Pawluc did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.
“As many of us have already heard, there was an accidental weapons discharge on a production titled Rust being filmed in New Mexico. A live single round was accidentally fired on set by the principal actor, hitting both the Director of Photography, Local 600 member Halyna Hutchins and Director Joel Souza,” Pawluc wrote. “Both were rushed to the hospital. Unfortunately, we lost Sister Hutchins who passed from the wound.”
Pawluc continued, “Local 44 has confirmed that the Props, Set Decoration, Special Effects and Construction Departments were staffed by New Mexico crew members. There were no Local 44 members on the call sheet.”
“On behalf of Local 44’s Officers, Executive Board and Staff, our thoughts and prayers go out to Halyna and her family,” he concluded. “We also send good thoughts to Joel and his family for a full recovery.”
Authorities have not confirmed if there was a live round in the prop gun. So far, no charges have been filed and an investigation remains ongoing.
On Thursday, Baldwin, 63, accidentally misfired a prop gun at the Bonanza Creek Ranch set of the Western film Rust in New Mexico. Upon further investigation, the local sheriff’s department learned that Hutchins and director Joel Souza were “shot when a prop firearm was discharged” by Baldwin.
Hutchins, 42, was airlifted to the University of New Mexico Hospital, where she died from her injuries, according to the sheriff’s department. Souza, 48, was hospitalized but his reps told Deadline he has since been released.
Baldwin first spoke out regarding the incident on Friday morning, issuing a two-part statement on Twitter.
“There are no words to convey my shock and sadness regarding the tragic accident that took the life of Halyna Hutchins, a wife, mother and deeply admired colleague of ours,” the actor began.
“I’m fully cooperating with the police investigation to address how this tragedy occurred and I am in touch with her husband, offering my support to him and his family,” he continued. “My heart is broken for her husband, their son, and all who knew and loved Halyna.”
While speaking to Daily Mail, Hutchins’ husband Matthew confirmed that he has been in touch with Baldwin.
“I have spoken with Alec Baldwin and he is being very supportive,” said Matthew, 38, who has an 8-year-old son he shared with the late cinematographer.
The Rust film set has been shut down following Hutchins’ death, with production indefinitely paused, according to the production company, Rust Movie Productions LLC.
“The entire cast and crew has been absolutely devastated by today’s tragedy, and we send our deepest condolences to Halyna’s family and loved ones,” the company said in a statement Thursday. “We have halted production on the film for an undetermined period of time and are fully cooperating with the Santa Fe Police Department’s investigation. We will be providing counseling services to everyone connected to the film as we work to process this awful event.”
Worker In Charge Of Alec Baldwin’s Prop Gun Was Replacement Hire Amid On-Set Chaos, Safety Concerns
The prop master who handled the gun that killed the cinematographer on Alec Baldwin’s film “Rust” was “just brought in” amid a protest over conditions on the set, The Post has learned.
The unidentified employee was hired to replace someone else amid chaos on the set, according to a source involved with the movie.
Another source briefed on the situation told The Post that a crew of workers had walked off the film’s set at the Bonanza Creek Ranch near Santa Fe, NM, Thursday morning over what they alleged were poor safety protocols, before Baldwin, 63, fired the gun later that day.
The union for the workers who walked off the set claimed the prop gun had a live round in it when it discharged and killed director of photography Halyna Hutchins, 42, and injured director Joel Souza, 48.
The prop gun also misfired twice on Saturday and once during the previous week, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing a knowledgeable crew member who told the paper that “there was a serious lack of safety meetings on this set.”
On a 911 recording obtained by TMZ, a woman who identifies herself as the movie’s script supervisor is heard blaming the accident on someone whose name is apparently bleeped out.
“OK, this f- -king [bleep] that yelled at me at lunch asking about revisions, this motherf- -ker,” she says, apparently to someone nearby.
“Did you see him lean over my desk and yell at me? He’s supposed to check the guns. He’s responsible for what happened.”
An unidentified crew member told the LA Times that Hutchins had been advocating for safer working conditions for her team.
The newspaper reported that a half-dozen camera crew workers went on strike Thursday to protest their working conditions.
The crew reportedly showed up as scheduled at 6:30 a.m. but began gathering up their gear and personal possessions to leave.
A settlement was apparently reached because the Times reported that the workers — members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — later spent about an hour setting up their gear.
But several nonunion workers reportedly showed up to replace them, and a member of the production staff ordered the disgruntled crew to leave.
The production staffer threatened to call in security to remove the workers if they didn’t go voluntarily, according to the Times.
Thursday’s fatal shooting took place about six hours after they left, according to the Times.
“Corners were being cut — and they brought in nonunion people so they could continue shooting,” the knowledgeable crew member told the paper.
The camera crew’s complaints reportedly included long hours and wage issues.
In addition, the Times said various crews on the low-budget Western were promised lodging in Santa Fe but were told shortly after filming began on Oct. 6 to stay overnight in Albuquerque, about 50 miles away.
On Tuesday, Hutchins posted a photo of the movie’s cast and crew to Instagram, along with a shoutout to her union.
“Standing in #IAsolidarity with our @IATSE crew here in New Mexico on RUST,” she wrote.
Los Angeles lawyer Louis Shapiro predicted Thursday’s shooting would lead to a wrongful-death suit and potentially a criminal case.
“The question is: Who is the one who is exercising negligence here?” he told The Post.
“Where is the duty of care to make sure that that gun is properly loaded and properly used? That duty doesn’t lie with the actor. The actor was just handed something. The duty of care lies with the prop person.”
A spokesman for the IATSE — which also represents prop masters — said on Friday that the union had no further comment beyond a statement it issued earlier in the day.
The statement called Hutchins’ death an “unspeakable loss” and urged IATSE members to contact the union if they “feel unsafe on set for any reason.”
“Creating a culture of safety requires relentless vigilance from every one of us, day in and day out. Please, if you see something, say something,” the union said.
The film’s production firm, Rust Movie Productions, didn’t immediately return a request for comment from The Post.
States Mostly Defer To Union Guidance For On-set Gun Safety
Safety standards developed by film studios and labor unions are the primary protection for actors and film crews when a scene calls for using prop guns. The industry-wide guidance is clear: “Blanks can kill. Treat all firearms as if they are loaded.”
Shootings nevertheless have killed and injured people while cameras rolled, including the cinematographer who died and the director who was wounded this week when no one realized a prop gun fired by actor Alec Baldwin during the filming of “Rust” carried live rounds that are far more dangerous than blanks.
Despite some industry reforms following previous tragedies, the federal workplace safety agency in the U.S. is silent on the issue of on-set gun safety. And some of the preferred states for film and TV productions take a largely hands-off approach.
Georgia and Louisiana, where the film industry has expanded rapidly, regulate pyrotechnics on movie sets but have no specific rules around gun use.
“We don’t have anything to do with firearms. We only regulate the special effects explosion-type stuff,” said Capt. Nick Manale, a state police spokesperson in Louisiana, where the film industry was credited with creating more than 9.600 jobs last year and generating nearly $800 million for local businesses. “I’m not sure who does that, or if anybody does.”
New Mexico, where court records show an assistant director handed Baldwin a loaded weapon and told him it was “cold,” or safe to use, during the Thursday filming of “Rust,” has no specific safety laws for the film industry. Much of the legislative debate over the industry, as in other states, has focused on tax credits and incentives to lure the lucrative entertainment business, not what happens on sets.
That approach has worked well for New Mexico. In addition to attracting some large film productions, the state is home to major production hubs for Netflix and NBCUniversal. It had a record $623 million in direct spending on productions between July 2020 through June of this year.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat and an ardent film industry supporter, touted the industry’s pandemic precautions over the summer, saying it had put safety first and cleared the way for work to resume.
Workplace safety is paramount in every industry in New Mexico, including film and television, the governor’s spokeswoman, Nora Meyers Sackett, said Friday.
“State and federal workplace safety regulations apply to the industry just as they do to all other workplaces, and the state Occupational Health and Safety Bureau is investigating,” Sackett said of the tragedy that unfolded on a movie ranch near Santa Fe. “This is an ongoing investigation, and we’re awaiting additional facts in order to understand how something so terrible and heartbreaking could have happened.”
A search warrant made public Friday said an assistant director on the set handed Baldwin a loaded weapon and indicated it was safe to use, unaware it was loaded with live rounds. The shot killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who was struck in the chest, and wounded director Joel Souza, who was standing behind Hutchins.
New Mexico workplace safety officials confirmed they would be looking at whether the crew followed industry standards. The agency does not routinely conduct safety inspections of sets and studios unless they receive complaints.
Instead of regulating firearm use on film and TV sets, some states leave it to the industry to follow its own guidelines. Those recommendations, issued by the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee, call for limited use of live ammunition and detailed requirements for the handling and use of firearms of all types. Safety meetings are to be held, actors are to keep their fingers off the triggers until they’re ready to shoot, and guns should never be unattended, the guidelines state.
Without specific state or federal regulations, it’s primarily up to the people working in productions to ensure guns are used safely. Brook Yeaton, vice president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union that represents workers in Louisiana and parts of Mississippi and Alabama, said his approach is to act like all weapons are real and to never allow live rounds on a set.
“They shouldn’t be in the truck. They shouldn’t be in the same car,” said Yeaton, a prop master for more than 30 years. “You really have to make sure your inventory is totally separate from the real world and everything you bring on set is safe.”
In one of the world’s premier film centers, New York City, productions are required to adhere to a code of conduct that spells out rules for parking, notifying neighbors and other details, including specifying that the sound of gunshots should not ring outdoors between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m.
For use of a weapon or prop firearm, the city also requires authorization from the police department and an officer to be on set.
The website of the Texas Film Commission states that productions using prop weapons — which can be replicas or real guns that fire blanks rather than live ammunition — must have safety policies, expert weapon handlers and proof of insurance. The Texas governor’s office, which oversees the commission, did not return calls from The Associated Press asking about how those rules are enforced.
California, still the capital of the film industry, requires an entertainment firearms permit, though it’s not clear how permit requirements are enforced.
Hutchins’ fatal shooting near Santa Fe followed previous gun-related deaths and injuries on movie sets.
Actor Brandon Lee died in March 1993 after he was shot in the abdomen while filming a scene of “The Crow.” Lee was killed by a makeshift bullet that remained in a gun from a previous scene. The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration fined the production $84,000 for violations after the actor’s death, but the fine was later reduced to $55,000.
In 2005, OSHA fined Greystone Television and Films $650 after a crewmember was shot in the thigh, elbow and hand. It turned out that balloon-breaking birdshot rounds were in the same box as the blanks that were supposed to be used in rifles.
New Mexico state lawmaker Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an Albuquerque lawyer and champion of his state’s film incentives, questioned whether any safety legislation could have prevented the fatal shooting on the set of “Rust.”
“How can you disincentivize an involuntary act?” he asked.
Maestas said production companies might think about using post-production effects to mimic the sights and sounds they now rely on prop guns to create.
“That’s the only way to really ensure this never happens again,” he said.
Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Montoya Bryan from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Landrum from Los Angeles. Also contributing to this article were Associated Press writers Jeff Amy in Atlanta; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Anthony McCartney in Los Angeles; and Amy Taxin in Orange County, California.
Crew Member Who Gave Alec Baldwin Prop Gun Was Subject of Prior Complaint
Albuquerque, N.M. (AP) — A crew member says she has raised safety concerns in the past about the assistant director who authorities say unwittingly handed actor Alec Baldwin the prop gun that killed a cinematographer on a film set.
Maggie Goll, a prop maker and licensed pyrotechnician, said in a statement that she filed an internal complaint with the executive producers of Hulu’s “Into the Dark” series in 2019 over concerns about assistant director Dave Halls’ behavior on set. Goll said in a phone interview Sunday that Halls disregarded safety protocols for weapons and pyrotechnics and tried to continue filming after the supervising pyrotechnician lost consciousness on set.
Halls has not returned phone calls and email messages seeking comment.
This week’s fatal shooting and some of her previous experiences point to larger safety issues that need to be addressed, Goll said, adding that crew member safety and wellbeing are top issues in ongoing contract negotiations between a union that represents film and TV workers and a major producers’ group.
“This situation is not about Dave Halls. … It’s in no way one person’s fault,” she said. “It’s a bigger conversation about safety on set and what we are trying to achieve with that culture.”
Baldwin fired a prop gun on the New Mexico set of the film “Rust” Thursday, killing 42-year-old Halyna Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza, who was standing behind her.
The gun Baldwin used was one of three that a firearms specialist, or “armorer,” had set on a cart outside the building where a scene was being rehearsed, according to court records. Halls grabbed a gun off a cart and handed it to Baldwin, indicating that the weapon was safe by yelling “cold gun,” court papers say. But it was loaded with live rounds, according to the records.
Baldwin, 63, who is known for his roles in “30 Rock” and “The Hunt for Red October” and his impression of former President Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live,” has described the killing as a “tragic accident.”
Goll said it should not have happened because there are “so many steps that you have to go through … that the possibility of it even getting there should be impossible.”
Actor Ray Liotta agreed that the checks on firearms are usually extensive.
“They always — that I know of — they check it so you can see,” Liotta said in an interview Sunday at the Newport Beach Film Festival. “They give it to the person you’re pointing the gun at, they do it to the producer, they show whoever is there that it doesn’t work.”
Rust Movie Productions has not answered repeated emails seeking comment.
Baldwin, who is a producer on “Rust,” met with Hutchins’ husband and 9-year-old son Saturday at a hotel in Santa Fe where the actor had been staying during filming. Baldwin and Hutchins’ husband can be seen embracing in a photo published by the New York Post.
A vigil for Hutchins was held Sunday in Southern California, where attendees exchanged tearful hugs and speakers called for heightened safety standards on film sets.
Goll said in her email that during work on “Into the Dark,” Halls didn’t hold safety meetings and consistently failed to announce the presence of a firearm on set to the crew, as is protocol. The assistant prop master admonished Halls several times for dismissing the actors before they had returned weapons to the props table, she said.
She became most concerned, however, when the supervising pyrotechnician, who is diabetic, was found unconscious in a chair, she said. Halls wanted to resume filming after the man was removed from the set even though Goll, the remaining pyrotechnician on site, didn’t have the qualifications to supervise the complicated series of pyrotechnic effects that were planned.
“One of the things that stuck out to me most about that day is the fact that he called out on radio over channel one, ‘Hey, Maggie says we can keep going!’ and I basically held the button down so he couldn’t transmit to anyone else on that channel while I yelled out, ‘No, Dave, that’s not what I said. We’re not doing that,’” she recalled in a phone interview.
She filed an internal complaint with the executive producers of Blumhouse Productions about that day, she said.
“To my knowledge nothing was done after my complaints,” she said in an email.
“I am gutted at not pushing harder for greater accountability and safety,” she wrote. “Many of us have messaged each other wondering the same thing: is there something we could have done then that would have prevented the tragedy?”
Flaccus reported from Portland, Oregon. Associated Press writers Jake Coyle and Jocelyn Noveck in New York; Ryan Pearson in Los Angeles; Walter Berry in Phoenix; and Michelle Eaton in Newport Beach, California, contributed to this report.
The Man Behind The Latest Push To Unionize Amazon
An Amazon employee group formed by warehouse workers in Staten Island filed Monday to hold a vote on unionization. We speak with Chris Smalls, the president of the group, about why he’s trying to establish the first union in the U.S. for Amazon employees.
This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Kate Linebaugh: Yesterday about two dozen people gathered outside of an office building in downtown Brooklyn.
Speaker 2: What do we want?
Speaker 3: Union.
Speaker 2: When do we want it?
Speaker 3: Now.
Kate Linebaugh: Some wore red t-shirts with images of fists coming out of a cardboard box and three letters, ALU, Amazon Labor Union. The union was there to bring more than 2000 employee signatures to the National Labor Relations Board, a key step to bringing a union vote at four Amazon facilities on Staten Island. Chris Smalls, the union’s president, said they were sending a message to the company.
Chris Smalls: They didn’t think that we would get here and now, look, we put them in a position today where by serving them that they have to respond to us. So, now it’s game on. We know that the fight starts today.
Kate Linebaugh: Smalls and his union face an uphill battle. Every previous attempt to unionize Amazon in the US has failed. But Smalls says they’ve learned from the past, and they think this time will be different. Welcome to The Journal, our show about money, business, and power.
I’m Kate Linebaugh. It’s Tuesday, October 26th. Coming up on the show, an interview with a man who’s trying to unionize Amazon. Chris Smalls is 33 years old. He lives in New Jersey and he’s been working in warehouses for years. He joined Amazon in 2015, when the company was opening a warehouse near him. Why did you think Amazon might be a good place to work?
Chris Smalls: Well, the name itself, one of the most successful retailers in modern day history. And my former employer didn’t do well by its employees and I couldn’t put up with it anymore. So I looked at Amazon and I said, “Hey, this is a fresh start, technology driven innovated warehouse.” And when I first started working there, I was amazed.
Kate Linebaugh: Chris was hired as a picker. He would pick items off the shelves and send them off to the packing department.
Chris Smalls: So I had to pick 250 or more customer items from these robots, a hour, for 10 hours a day.
Kate Linebaugh: And did you like the job?
Chris Smalls: I did. I’m a very hands on worker. That was always my thing. Ever since I started becoming an adult, I always worked at sort of like warehouses where I had my hands on. So for me it was actually pretty easy.
Kate Linebaugh: Eventually Chris transferred to a warehouse in Connecticut. He had a dispute with management there and got fired, but he appealed the decision, and got his job back. By early last year, he was working at a different warehouse on Staten Island. And when COVID hit, Chris got concerned about working conditions.
Chris Smalls: Late February, it was pretty airy. Nobody knew any thing about this virus at the time. We’re just watching it on TVs in the break room. And every day they were just talking about this virus, virus, virus. And at the time we’re all sitting in the cafeteria full of 300, 400, people and I’m looking around and, hey, something’s not right.
Kate Linebaugh: Then one day at work, Chris saw one of his workers was sick.
Chris Smalls: She was physically sick. She had her own personal mask on. Her eyes were just bloodshot. And she was walking around sluggish that day. So I told her, as a friend, I said, “You should go home until you feel better.” And she happened to tell me that she actually have to get tested.
And at that time, New York was the epicenter and you couldn’t get a test unless you were severely sick. So that’s when I said, “Wow, that’s a red flag because you’re allowed to come back to work, waiting on pending results.” And that’s when I said, “Something’s really wrong here.”
Kate Linebaugh: Amazon placed Chris on a 14 day quarantine because he’d had contact with a coworker with COVID. Around that time, Chris started taking action. He reached out to media and politicians to raise the alarm that COVID could be spreading at the warehouse. And he says he went to HR, but that that didn’t yield much. Then on March 30th, Chris organized a walkout.
Chris Smalls: It was a nice sunny day, spring-like day. And we’d been organizing all weekend. I started a group chat with the workers that I was organizing in the break room with, and they were passing out the signs in the bathrooms. We kind of had like a secret Mission Impossible thing going on. We wrote secret notes to each other. We talked on social media and private messages, and everybody knew that at 12:30 to walk out of the building at lunchtime.
Speaker 5: Workers in an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York are going on strike this hour after an employee there tested positive for the coronavirus.
Kate Linebaugh: And how did it feel for you?
Chris Smalls: Honestly, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was not an activist or organizer. I sent out emails to all the media that I can think of. And when they showed up, I was definitely heart pounding, nervous, because I’d never done anything like this before and I knew that it was going to be some type of repercussions, but I didn’t know what it would be.
Kate Linebaugh: The day of the walkout Chris was fired. And what was the reason that was given?
Chris Smalls: Ironically, they said that I was the one violating social distancing, and I violated a quarantine policy that nobody ever seen and nobody heard of. And I had to be the sacrificial lamb and I’m fine with that. If it happened again, I would do it again. I wouldn’t change anything.
Kate Linebaugh: Did you try to appeal your termination?
Chris Smalls: No. At that time, when they called me over the phone, it was somebody that I knew personally for four years. I didn’t even allow them to offer me to appeal. I hung up the phone. And they did it the same day I protested, so that just didn’t make any sense.
Kate Linebaugh: An Amazon spokeswoman said Chris was fired for putting the health and safety of his colleagues at risk and for violating his quarantine. The company said Chris had received multiple warnings. Three days later, VICE News published a story based on leaked notes from a meeting at Amazon.
Executives had gathered to discuss the company’s COVID response and Chris came up. Amazon’s general counsel, David Zapolsky wrote that Chris is quote, “not smart or articulate,” and proposed a PR strategy to make Chris the face of the entire union movement. In response, Zapolsky told VICE News that he’d let his emotions get the better of him.
Chris Smalls: The icing on the cake was the smear campaign, ironically, to make me of the whole unionizing efforts. And ironically them saying that they’ll be in a better PR position to smear Chris Smalls, to make him the face of this whole thing and the whole unionizing efforts against Amazon, then rather answer questions about health and safety concerns, about their workers, which is it’s like, what the hell is that? So from that moment forward, I said, “I’m going to take the fight to them.”
Kate Linebaugh: So Chris got going. He began protesting against Amazon around the country. And then earlier this year, he went down to Alabama. Amazon workers there were campaigning to unionize and there was a big vote to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. It would’ve been Amazon’s first union. And Chris wanted to see how the campaign was going.
Chris Smalls: I actually drove down there, me and some of the Amazon workers that I organize with, we drove 16 hours down there to see what they were doing on the ground and see how they were doing it. And we saw a lot of good things and we also saw a lot of missed opportunities. And I told the organizers, I said, “Hey, we need to do a rally.” Worker-led rally, not political, because you saw them bring Bernie Sanders, all these politicians down, Corey Bush, Jamaal Bowman, so on and so forth, thinking that that will resonate with workers.
These workers don’t know who those people are. I spoke to several of them when I was down there in Alabama. “Have you heard about what happened in New York? The walkout?” “No.” “Well, my name is Chris Smalls and I’m the one who led this walk out. I’m an Amazon worker. I’m here to stand in solidarity. I drove down here.” And that conversation was powerful. That resonated more than a politician, and they didn’t get that.
Kate Linebaugh: Amazon also made its case, lobbying employees to vote no on the union. Ultimately, most workers cited with Amazon, with 71% voting against the union. The results of that vote are under dispute. But from his trip to Alabama, Chris saw potential.
Chris Smalls: The iron was hot and they lost and we felt that we can pick up where they left off. We can try here. And that’s what we did. We just said, “You know what? We’re going to try. What’s there to lose?”
Kate Linebaugh: In April, Chris kicked off his effort to create a union, at a bus stop across the street from one of Amazon’s Staten Island warehouses.
Chris Smalls: It looks just like that, a blue tent, two tables, and some information on a pamphlet. That’s how we started. First things first, we have to educate people. We started handing out pamphlets and articles. We didn’t really start signing people up until a couple of days in.
Kate Linebaugh: Why do you think there should be a union?
Chris Smalls: Job security. That’s just the number one thing. Decent living wages, more paid time options, better medical leave options. They took away being a shareholder. They took away our monthly bonuses. I know at least two of my organizers are living out of their cars. These things are real stories that people don’t hear.
Kate Linebaugh: Last week, an Amazon spokeswoman said the company doesn’t believe unions are the best answer for employees. She said that the company empowers employees to find ways to improve their jobs and the company can make those changes quickly, and that that would be harder to do with a union in the middle. She also said the company has made progress in recent years in pay and safety, and quote, “There are plenty of things that we can keep doing better and that’s our focus, to keep getting better every day.”
Chris’ unionizing efforts in Staten Island have had a similar start to the attempt in Alabama. He’s been gathering signatures of Amazon employees who want to join the union. When he has signed up 30% of the eligible employees, the NLRB would authorize a vote. But one thing Chris did differently from the Alabama attempt, he decided not to join up with an existing union. Instead, he created his own.
Chris Smalls: I’ve seen what established unions done in the past and I see how they organize. It’s very traditional, but we’re in a new time. We have to play like Amazon. We have to fight fire with fire. We have to use all our resources and it doesn’t have to be money and power. It’s really people power and showing them that when people come together, great things can happen. And I think that the way we’re organizing, the fact that we are actual Amazon workers, whether you’re current or former, I think we are at an advantage.
Kate Linebaugh: Amazon has said that it provides benefits, that it provide good pay, and that it prefers to negotiate directly with workers. How do you respond to that?
Chris Smalls: Their statements, it falls on deaf ears. Yes, they pay well, compared to their competitors, and they always mention that. “Compared to our competitors, compared to our competitors, compared to Walmart, compared to this.” When you’re talking about Amazon and it competitors, yes, Amazon is the cream of the crop.
And I could tell you, I worked for every one of Amazon’s competitors. I worked at FedEx. I worked at Target. I worked at Walmart. I worked at Home Depot. I worked at all these different places, but that is it, it’s just better than those jobs. Doesn’t mean that it’s a good job. Just means that it’s better than its competitors.
Kate Linebaugh: It feels like you had a contentious career at Amazon, that you were terminated once, you had to appeal. It could look like you have a grudge against the company. How do you respond to that?
Chris Smalls: Absolutely not. The reason why I’m able to organize, the reason why people reach out to me, because they see the passion in what I’m doing, and if I have a grudge against them, so be it. And I know if I stop what I’m doing, who else is going to do it?
Kate Linebaugh: So there was a lot of momentum, a lot of talk, about that organizing effort in Alabama, and it failed. Amazon historically has been very against unionization. Why do you even have faith to try this?
Chris Smalls: Because it’s never been done before, to create an independent worker-led union, grassroots, from scratch, and to see it grow within six months in front of my eyes, signing up over 2000 workers. That’s a victory by itself. These workers are organizing themselves now. Yeah, I’m out there as a volunteer. I’m out there as the now elected president. We didn’t know what we were doing. We just started with a small blue tent and now we have a whole army.
Kate Linebaugh: Well, Chris, thank you so much for joining us today.
Chris Smalls: Absolutely. Anytime. Thank you for having me.
Kate Linebaugh: On Monday, Chris and his fellow union organizers officially delivered the employee signatures to the NLRB. An Amazon spokeswoman said the company is skeptical that there will be enough legitimate signatures to qualify for a vote. That’s all for today, Tuesday, October 26th. The Journal is a co-production of Gimlet and The Wall Street Journal. Additional reporting in today’s episode from Sebastian Herrera and Annie Minoff. Thanks for listening. See you tomorrow.
Hollywood Union Reaches Deal With Studios For Remaining Workers
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees negotiated a new labor agreement with Hollywood studios covering 20,000 more workers, allowing for a vote by members on new contracts and averting a strike.
The three-year agreement covers film and television workers across the country, IATSE said in a statement Tuesday. The deal comes less than two weeks after the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents studios including Walt Disney Co. and Netflix Inc., agreed to similar terms for 40,000 members on the West Coast. The deals averted a potentially crippling strike in an industry that’s still bouncing back from the Covid-related shutdowns.
The proposed contracts still need to be approved by IATSE members. The votes on the agreements will be held simultaneously, though the date has not been set.
The union, which represents stagehands, camera operators, and other behind-the-scenes entertainment trades, has been fighting for higher pay and better working hours, such as breaks over weekends.
Workers Press For Power In Rare Advance For U.S. Labor Movement
Along with the Great Resignation and #Striketober, jobless Americans are fighting for unemployment reform that could translate into lasting leverage.
As protest symbols go, the marchers could have done worse than sarcastic desserts. On the occasion of the Georgia labor commissioner’s birthday this summer, a few dozen unemployment activists arrived outside his office building in downtown Atlanta carrying, among other things, a fudge pie meant to resemble the one from The Help that was memorably made of poop.
The chocolate held together reasonably well in the July heat, its symbolism straightforward. “We worked hard, we did what they told us to do,” said unemployed flooring salesperson Lauren Crace, who was protesting in a floral blouse and ripped jorts. “And then we got shit on.”
Crace moved to Florida in 2019 to be closer to elderly in-laws, but because she made most of her income that year back in Georgia, that’s where she had to go to seek unemployment benefits after her son’s day care closed and her company laid her off. To figure that out, she spent a month on the phone with Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, including one day when she waited on hold for 10 hours. Then she spent another month wrangling with both states before she received support.
Others fared worse, as she saw in a Facebook group she created that quickly swelled with Georgians in search of help. More than 9 million Americans lost their jobs to the coronavirus and got no help from Washington, according to a recent Bloomberg Businessweek review of federal and state data. “Everybody kind of got forgot about,” Crace says now.
American workers—the ones involuntarily benched during the pandemic and the ones who labored through it at great risk so others could stay fed or entertained or alive—are now doing their best to be impossible to ignore. Private-sector union members are authorizing strikes at a rate rarely seen in modern America, with more than 100,000 workers recently threatening or mounting work stoppages in health care, higher education, telecommunications, transportation, television, mining, manufacturing, music, metals, oil, carpentry, whiskey, and cereal. The internet dubbed October #Striketober.
Nonunion workers are voting with their feet as well, fueling a labor market reckoning that’s become known as the Great Resignation. On Oct. 12 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that an unprecedented 2.9% of the entire workforce, some 4.3 million people, quit their jobs in the month of August, even as the government was confirming it would nuke extra jobless benefits in hopes of forcing people to work.
And all of this is happening as the federal government wrangles over President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill. The legislation could transform the supply of child-care jobs and the penalties for union busting and, if Crace and her comrades get their way, make the biggest permanent changes to the country’s troubled unemployment system in decades.
It’s a moment with the flavor of 1945, the beginning of a period of massive strikes by what we now call “essential workers.” They unleashed grievances they’d bottled up while getting the country through World War II. Partly through a series of strikes that included 1 in 10 American workers, they ushered in a rare period where employees’ median pay rose hand in hand with their productivity. To recapture that sort of leverage, U.S. labor will need a movement that mobilizes enough people to force reforms.
Unemployment benefits are controversial because, even as stingy and unreliable as they are in the U.S., they give workers a little more leverage against bosses by making them a little less desperate to accept a mediocre offer. They also help people feed themselves while out of a job and help the economy avoid a downward spiral where no one’s getting hired because no money’s getting spent because everyone’s out of work.
Last year the immediacy and magnitude of the pandemic were compelling enough for both parties in Congress to get on board with emergency supplemental benefits of first $600 a week, then $300.
That sense of urgency didn’t extend, however, to actually getting the money to millions of qualifying Americans who needed it, and this year, as spring turned to summer, 26 states announced they would end the extra benefits earlier than the federal government’s Labor Day cutoff. Protests among the unemployed have emerged throughout the country, too, in such places as the Las Vegas Strip, downtown New Orleans, and the U.S. Capitol.
At the time of the Atlanta demonstration, Georgia had already cut off supplemental benefits and nixed social distancing rules, but the local Labor Department office remained fenced off and closed to the public, as it has been since the beginning of the pandemic.
Crace and the other protesters marched with signs saying “Let us in,” answered only by banners urging job seekers to check out the postings on the agency’s website. “This system has failed us,” said Crace.
Over the summer, activists failed to persuade lawmakers that extending the emergency benefits would help the recovery more than employers claimed this sort of alternative minimum wage would hurt it. (The data tend to support the activists.) But a funny thing happened over the past couple of months: The protests continued. They’ve been buoyed by Unemployed Action, an advocacy campaign that’s working, with little modern precedent in the U.S., to mobilize the lobbying power of the jobless.
Crace’s 17,000-member Facebook group for Georgians who struggled to get unemployment insurance during the pandemic is one of many grassroots efforts that have linked up with Unemployed Action. The national campaign is backed by the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive advocacy group with funding from unions and the foundations of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and billionaire George Soros.
Like #Striketober and the Great Resignation, their work is attracting notice in Congress, says Judy Conti, the director of government affairs at the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for workers. “Some members of Congress are absolutely paying attention, and they understand that there’s a different level of worker engagement than ever before,” she says.
Proposals for less temporary fixes to the unemployment system were introduced this fall by powerful advocates in both houses, including Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, representative of New York, and Ron Wyden, the senator from Oregon.
Workers haven’t won much yet, and the millions in crisis can’t just protest forever, but the pandemic has served as a magnifying glass for all sorts of American deficiencies and pathologies.
Now, whether on Kellogg’s picket lines or at sailboat protests near West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s yacht, workers are wrestling with Covid’s long-term legacy for U.S. labor. If the emerging jobless lobby can win a stronger benefits system, Unemployed Action will have played a significant part.
Without Covid supplements, U.S. unemployment insurance is meager compared with benefits in peer countries, delivering beneficiaries roughly 40% of their prior income on average—too little to stave off a crisis for those most in need.
It also excludes millions of people, including many temps, part-timers, gig workers classified as contractors, undocumented immigrants, and people who quit their jobs because of domestic violence or child-care needs. Also the present system doesn’t require employers to tell workers such a benefit exists.
Part of the problem is that unemployment insurance is a patchwork. Each state funds and regulates its own UI system, meaning state officials have incentives to reduce aid to their unemployed constituents as a means of lowering the tax burden on employers who lay off workers.
Some states max out at less than $300 a week for as few as 12 weeks and make it difficult to claim benefits. (In one extreme example, in Atlanta, laid-off mortgage processor Camille Taylor had to make 160 phone calls to reach a human being and waited five months for her paperwork to be approved.)
This tends to decrease labor costs by limiting workers’ ability to hold out for better offers. One big missing piece of leverage among the jobless has usually been collective action, says political scientist Frances Fox Piven, who co-authored the book Poor People’s Movements. “Unemployed people have been severed from their relationship with each other,” she says. “They’ve also been severed from their relationship with their primary antagonist, their employer.”
Organizing jobless Americans is hard. People don’t identify as unemployed the way they do as teachers or coal miners. Some blame themselves for being out of work, or worry that others will, or fear that becoming a poster child for unemployment will hurt their career prospects.
For others, the isolation of unemployment, especially during the pandemic, has hardened pessimism into hopelessness. Yet the desperation of the pandemic helped catalyze the emergence of Unemployed Action.
In the early days of the lockdowns, Rachel Deutsch, then the director of worker justice campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), called a bunch of her employer’s 54 affiliated advocacy groups around the country. She wanted to develop strategies to lobby for paid sick leave and other longtime worker priorities.
But affiliates reported back that they were overwhelmed with pleas for help from members who’d just been laid off, so Deutsch and her colleagues at CPD and its sibling political group switched gears.
They created Unemployed Action in June 2020, using Facebook, phone banking, word-of-mouth, and ground-level recruits such as Crace to ask jobless workers to attend protests or share their stories. They also created a fund to assist members in need.
“What you heard a lot was people from all different experiences going through this unifying experience of needing the government to be there for them and often finding that it was not,” says Deutsch, who now consults for CPD while caring for her own mom and kids. “There was this opportunity to build solidarity and a shared vision for what our economy should be like and how we should care for one another.”
Affiliate groups soon began to organize protests, such as a sleepout on the sidewalk outside the Georgia Labor Department headquarters. Things got tense when state employees confiscated the protesters’ rented port-a-potties, but they released the toilets after police arrived. (The agency says the protesters didn’t have the necessary permit.)
Chenon Hussey, who’d set up her own bustling Facebook group in Wisconsin, says she fielded several emails from Deutsch before deciding to team up. Hussey had been on a family vacation in Aruba when the lockdowns swept across the U.S., emptying Chicago’s O’Hare airport for their return trip.
The $100,000 a year she made from public speaking and consulting as a mental health expert vanished almost instantly, but as a freelancer, she was excluded from normal unemployment insurance.
The out-of-pocket costs for in-home care for her teenage daughter with special needs quickly became unaffordable. She and her husband made the agonizing choice to send her to a group home, where she remained for a few months until the family could get help from a temporary jobless-assistance program Congress created for contractors.
“It was a pretty big blow—it disrupted her life, and it’s hard as a parent, those decisions—to realize you can’t provide for your kid,” says Hussey, who’s organized sleepouts at the homes of Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, and Robin Vos, its Republican Assembly speaker.
“We had this emergency system set up to jump in, almost like a generator for the country, and that generator wasn’t clicking,” Hussey says. “All these people that thought there was a light that was going to come on, they weren’t getting it. All they had was a broken bulb.”
Today, Unemployed Action’s sprawling network is still working to lobby lawmakers around the country and push its way into the mainstream. Besides in-person protests, the broader organization swarms lawmakers on social media, trains members in skills such as “bird-dogging”—trying to create popular videos by putting politicians on the spot—consults on think tanks’ policy proposals, and coordinates events through its 16,000-member national Facebook group, moderated by volunteers.
By design, Unemployed Action brings together some people for whom economic instability is old news and others who were living comfortably pre-Covid. This can lead to friction, but the group’s day-to-day challenges are more basic.
One laid-off worker who planned to join July’s protest in Atlanta decided to stay home rather than use up gas driving her SUV 80 miles round-trip. Another volunteer abruptly moved to Missouri. She’d found a job there after months of searching.
The Biden infrastructure package is Unemployed Action’s biggest test so far. Wyden and Ocasio-Cortez have put forward measures for the final bill that would require states to offer 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, add eligibility for workers looking for part-time jobs, and demand that employers tell departing workers how to apply for the benefits.
Lawmakers plan to use the reconciliation process to ease passage of the massive infrastructure bill. But that will still require the votes of every Senate Democrat, including Manchin and others who’ve been pushing to shrink the bill’s price tag.
Last month, Hussey logged in to a virtual town hall Unemployed Action held with Wyden, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. She asked him to spell out his strategy for ensuring that unemployment reform does end up in the final bill.
“I’m going to come in as chairman of the committee, and I’m going to fight like hell,” Wyden said. But even winning the incremental changes he’s pushing, he added, is going to be a challenge. “As you’ve seen, not many people back here are talking about this anymore.”
The Biden administration has been sending mixed and sometimes muddled messages. In an open letter to Congress two months ago, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called “long-term UI reform” a “critical issue” that Congress should take up via reconciliation, while also saying it was “appropriate” for the crisis-inspired benefit boost, which “was always intended to be temporary,” to expire on Labor Day as scheduled.
In lieu of that support, they suggested, states could use unspent funds from this year’s American Rescue Plan to help jobless workers wherever the delta variant was posing “short-term challenges” to the labor market.
In an interview with Businessweek a couple of hours after the publication of the open letter, Walsh put it a little differently. “If Florida has to shut down—let’s say the [Covid] numbers continue to climb in the next week or two, and it gets to the point where people are just afraid to go outside their front door,” he said, “then there’s going to have to be a safety net there for the families that can’t go to work because their industry shut down.”
So far, zero states have announced plans to take the White House up on its suggestion they deploy Rescue Plan funds for that purpose.
Some of the jobless lobby’s staunchest advocacy partners have entered the government this year, including Michele Evermore, now a senior adviser on unemployment insurance at the Labor Department. That hasn’t stopped the administration from disappointing advocates, as when the White House chose not to resist red states’ cutting off extended benefits early.
In late August, Evermore joined Unemployed Action’s weekly Zoom call to talk up the Labor Department’s efforts to help state systems improve. At the end of a question-and-answer session, Deutsch told her the group would like “a little bit more public leadership” from Walsh on the need to extend benefits and overhaul UI. “We would just really urge him to use his bully pulpit,” Deutsch said. “Thanks,” Evermore replied.
Asked about her former comrades’ frustration with her current colleagues, Evermore says the department lacks authority to do some things advocates want, including stopping states from cutting off benefits early. “UI reform is urgently needed yesterday, but it didn’t happen yesterday, so maybe it can happen tomorrow,” she says. “If unemployment goes back down and people stop paying attention to unemployment insurance, then we lose our window to do anything.”
To get some of Wyden’s platform into the final legislation, Unemployed Action plans to keep up the pressure, with members calling their lawmakers and recording personal video messages to spread on Twitter and maybe project onto the walls of senators’ offices. “Stop dancing, do something,” jobless New York retail worker Nicole Marie Polec says in a video message to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“The challenge that we have been facing has been trying to jump at a political moment of opportunity that is urgent and also very, very crowded,” Deutsch says. “The thing with UI is that the urge to look away is so strong, and so how do you create more situations where you can’t look away?” Whatever Unemployed Action achieves this time, she says, there’ll be more work left to do. The group is counting on the bonds created over months of Zoom huddles to keep people engaged even after they find work.
Even without factoring in Covid, the U.S. is only ever a decade or so away from the next recession, when the unemployment insurance system will let people down again if it isn’t reformed first. As with so many other problems magnified by the pandemic, the first step is just that.
In between the rallying, interstate driving, and caretaking for her mother-in-law, who has cancer, Crace in Florida applied unsuccessfully to more than 150 positions—in health care, call centers, and property management, among other fields—before finally landing another flooring job, managing a store a half-hour’s drive from home.
Although she’s relieved to have a steady income again, she plans to remain part of Unemployed Action’s fight. “I’m a whole new person, I think,” she says. “The pandemic opened my eyes.”
Striking Deere Workers Are Set To Vote Tuesday On New Contract Offer
Proposed agreement offers bigger raises, bonuses than a deal the United Auto Workers union rejected Oct. 10
Striking workers for Deere & Co. are scheduled to vote Tuesday on a contract proposal offering bigger raises and bonuses, as the farm-equipment maker tries to end its first strike in 35 years.
Deere announced a tentative deal on Saturday for a six-year contract that bumps up the raises and bonus levels from a proposal that members of the United Auto Workers union rejected three weeks ago. Workers said the earlier offer of raises and other benefits was inadequate at the same time inflation is at its highest in over a decade. More than 10,000 workers at 14 plants went on strike.
The new proposal would provide 10% raises for this year, vs. the 5% to 6% increase for the first year included in the previous offer, according to a summary of the offer distributed by the union.
The briefing from the union said workers would receive 5% raises in 2023 and 2025, up from 3% increases in the previous offer. Workers would receive lump-sum bonuses amounting to 3% of their pay for 2022, 2024 and 2026, compared with 2% bonuses in the offer voted down. Employees also would receive an $8,500 bonus if the deal is ratified Tuesday.
The company and union both declined to comment on the proposal.
Strikes in the heavy-equipment industry have become infrequent in the past decade, and Deere in particular has had a long run of contract negotiations without a walkout. The strike at Deere and other companies came amid widespread labor shortages that have helped push up wages for existing employees.
Workers said the raises in the proposal they turned down, particularly in the later years of the proposal, weren’t high enough to keep up with inflation. The federal government’s consumer price index is up more than 5% this year, the biggest increase since 2008.
Deere employees said they considered the contract negotiations as their best opportunity in years to secure higher pay and better benefits than provided in the last pair of six-year contracts that were negotiated when the U.S. economy or the farm-equipment market was weak.
Deere’s Labor Dispute Resurrects Talk of Inflation Adjustments
Cost-of-living protections were reinstated to the contract amid workers’ concerns that wage increases wouldn’t cover higher living expenses.
Striking Deere & Co. employees this week are expected to vote on a contract with more protections against rising inflation that resurfaced as an issue in negotiations for the first time in years.
Workers at the farm- and construction-equipment manufacturer are expected to vote Tuesday on a tentative contract that provides them with bigger wage increases than union workers rejected three weeks ago before walking off their jobs Oct. 14. The proposal also would reinstate cost-of-living adjustments to wages for inflation that were stricken from Deere’s last contract in 2015 with the United Auto Workers union, which represents more than 10,000 employees at 14 plants.
Union members have demanded that their wages and other compensation account for inflation running at its highest rate in more than decade at the same time when Deere’s sales are booming.
The new proposal, which was unveiled Saturday, would provide 10% raises for this year and 5% raises in 2023 and 2025, according to a UAW summary provided to workers. Workers would receive lump-sum bonuses amounting to 3% of their pay for the other three years of the six-year contract. Workers also would receive an $8,500 bonus if the deal is ratified Tuesday.
Moline, Ill.-based Deere declined to comment Sunday on the latest proposal.
Tom Johnson, a worker at the company’s harvester plant in East Moline, Ill., said he expects a close vote on the latest proposal. He said workers he has spoken with are concerned about near-term inflation eroding the raises being offered.
“People want more of the money up front,” he said. “The cost of living is high, and it’s going to get higher.”
Companies like Deere are prone to yearslong sales slumps that industry analysts say make executives wary about committing to large wage increases over a long period. Deere said it is had to contend with higher costs for transportation, steel, semiconductor chips and other materials that have added $1.5 billion in expenses this year.
“Inflation hasn’t really entered the wage discussion for many years, and now it has to,” said Peter Orazem, a professor of economics at Iowa State University. “Inflation expectations are starting to work their way into what people expect to be paid.”
The proposal’s cost-of-living adjustments, commonly known as a COLA, would occur every three months. The adjustments in labor contracts are typically tied to changes in the consumer-price index, which in September increased more than 5% above last year, the fastest pace in more than decade.
Union members said they wanted the COLA reinstated in the new contract after going without it during the last contract.
“Our proposal includes cost-of-living adjustments that not only reflect the current level of inflation, but would help protect workers from inflation in the years to come,” the company said in a statement Friday.
Deere’s wages and benefits are near the top of the equipment industry, according to analysts. The company’s labor costs, though, have been largely held in check in recent years. Labor accounts for about 15% of the company’s costs for goods sold, said investment adviser Jefferies Research Services LLC.
The firm estimates that a 10% increase in the company’s costs for the workers on strike would reduce the company’s operating margin by 0.2 percentage point.
COLAs were widely featured in collective-bargaining agreements during the 1970s and 1980s when inflation was high. But observers of collective-bargaining agreements say the adjustments fell out of favor during the 1990s when inflation was tame and workers rarely received cost-of-living wage increases.
Deere workers say they have been more willing to resist the company’s offers this year than in previous negotiations because business at Deere is strong. Rising prices for farm commodities are being propelled by elevated demand from overseas buyers.
Deere’s sales through three quarters increased 27% from last year, and net income more than doubled to $4.7 billion. For the full year, Deere expects to earn about $5.8 billion.
The auto workers’ last strike at Deere started in August 1986, when workers at three plants went on strike after unsuccessful negotiations. Workers at other Deere sites remained on the job, but were later locked out of their plants by the company, a move the union described at the time as retaliation for the strikes at other plants.
The strike and lockout, which lasted 163 days into early 1987, occurred at a time the farm economy was collapsing under the weight of farm foreclosures and low commodity prices. The crisis ushered in a reordering of the farm-machinery industry. Several of Deere’s struggling competitors closed plants and merged with other machinery makers.
In the aftermath, Deere and the UAW managed to maintain a relatively peaceful relationship until recently.
Deere is one of several large U.S. companies dealing with strikes this year. Employees at cereal maker Kellogg Co. walked out Oct. 5 over what they say are the company’s attempts to scale back benefits and maintain pay disparities between newer and veteran workers.
Striking workers at food company Mondelez International Inc. approved a new contract in September, and workers for commercial truck maker Volvo settled a strike in July by approving a six-year contract.
Harry Katz, professor of collective bargaining at Cornell University, said, “As the economy has been recovering from the pandemic and labor is tight, that certainly strengthens labor’s position at the bargaining table.”
Deere Union Workers Reject Labor Agreement, Extending Strike
Members of the United Auto Workers union rejected a deal with Deere & Co., extending a nearly three-week-long strike and illustrating the growing willingness of U.S. workers to hold out for better terms.
The second rejected deal offered substantial improvements over one that workers turned down before going on strike, and included larger wage increases, no new tiers to retirement benefits and a signing bonus of $8,500. Shares of Moline, Illinois-based Deere were down 5% at 1:16 p.m. in New York on Tuesday.
The wage increase offered at 14 Deere facilities was larger than nearly a dozen other collective bargaining agreements the UAW has negotiated since 2018, according to Bloomberg Law’s database of labor contracts.
“Thirty five years ago, workers at Deere lost a lockout and took a deal that froze and reduced wages,” said University of Chicago historian Gabriel Winant. “Today they rejected an offer that starts with a 10% raise. It’s the biggest downward shift in the economic balance of power in my lifetime.”
Some 10,000 Deere employees — about 14% of its global workforce — went on strike on Oct. 14 for the first time since 1986, having rejected a prior deal that called for a 5% to 6% wage increase for the first year. The world’s biggest farm equipment maker has kept its factories running, using salaried employees.
The company said the focus has been operating parts depots and its parts distribution center to ensure farmers can complete their harvest season.
The strike comes as supply chain snags for semiconductors and other parts are already causing turmoil at a time of peak demand for tractors during the U.S. harvest. The consensus of analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg shows the company will report $10.6 billion in net sales from equipment operations when it reports fiscal fourth-quarter earnings Nov. 24.
“By a vote of 45% yes to 55% no, UAW John Deere members voted down the agreement this evening,” the union said in a statement late Tuesday. “The strike against John Deere and Company will continue as we discuss next steps with the company.”
Production and maintenance employees at 12 plants rejected the agreement, while workers at parts facilities in Denver and Atlanta approved a separate agreement with identical economic terms, the company said in a statement.
“Through the agreements reached with the UAW, John Deere would have invested an additional $3.5 billion in our employees,” Deere said. “With the rejection of the agreement covering our Midwest facilities, we will execute the next phase of our Customer Service Continuation Plan.”
The six-year contract that was rejected also included wage hikes of 5% in the third and fifth years, as well as lump-sum bonuses amounting to 3% of workers pay for the other three of the six-year contract. It also offered a $35,000 retirement bonus for workers with 10 to 24 years on the job and a $50,000 bonus for workers with at least 25 years.
The company’s existing “two-tier” compensation system, in which workers hired since 1997 receive less generous benefits than those who started working there earlier, has been a sticking point for many employees, and would not have been abolished by the tentative agreement.
Deere’s much-improved contract offer, and its employees’ choice to reject it, reflect workers’ increased leverage and heightened expectations at a moment of tight labor markets and heightened political focus on “essential workers.”
“The Deere strikers and others may be gaining a new awareness of their leverage in the current labor market, and that the time to act is now,” said Chris Rhomberg, a sociology professor at Fordham University. “The stakes are high, but a victory for the union in this strike can help re-shape the terms of the post-pandemic economy.”
The number of U.S. workers on strike could grow substantially in the coming weeks if some of the tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers who’ve authorized work stoppages walk off the job, or if film and TV workers follow their Deere counterparts’ lead in rejecting tentative deals negotiated by union leaders.
While the current labor market has strengthened workers’ hand and weakened the threat of permanently replacing striking workers across the board, employees have particular leverage in those sectors where strikes can seriously disrupt or halt production.
That includes the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) members slated to vote in the coming weeks on tentative deals reached with film and TV producers days before a planned strike, and the West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union members whose contracts expire next summer, as well as the Deere workers.
The Deere strikers’ leverage rests “on the times, but also on their ability to shut down production,” former Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen, who now chairs the advocacy group Our Revolution, said Sunday. “You can’t do that everywhere – it’s harder at a Kellogg’s where they are importing stuff.”
Housekeepers, Hotel Owners Square Off Over Daily Service
Pandemic led to reduced room cleaning, but costs, staffing shortages now also drive hotels’ desires to make changes permanent.
Housekeepers are battling hotel owners’ efforts to eliminate daily room cleaning, a longtime staple of the American hospitality experience.
Many hotels, after suspending housekeeping at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, now clean only when guests request it. The practice began over infection concerns, and some guests still prefer not to have staff in their rooms during stays. The cutbacks also reflect staffing shortages, lower occupancies and hotel owners’ desire to reduce expenses, hotel analysts say.
Housekeepers generally oppose the reduced cleaning schedules. They worry that the move will eliminate jobs and make the already physically demanding work even tougher for those who remain.
Unite Here, a union representing hotel workers in the U.S. and Canada, has negotiated agreements with hotels in New York City, Boston and other cities that require owners to maintain daily cleanings.
“This is just a new iteration of reducing services and lowering customer expectations,” said D. Taylor, international president of Unite Here. “It has nothing to do with Covid.”
Legislators in San Francisco, Nevada and New Jersey have passed laws requiring automatic daily cleaning of hotel rooms. The new provisions outline stringent sanitation measures and add protections for workers.
Hotel owners say they are in a bind. Industry revenue started to recover in the spring but remains well below pre-pandemic levels. Many properties are having a hard time finding enough housekeepers to clean rooms daily.
Hotel employment is still down, with 17% fewer hotel and motel workers on the job nationwide last July than two years ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Gregory Miller, a lodging-stock analyst for Truist Securities, said the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing labor issues in the hotel industry. Now, wages are rising along with demand. While corporate travel hasn’t fully recovered, pleasure travelers are booking rooms and willing to pay high rates, so leisure hotels are increasing wages to attract workers.
“It’s a very challenging environment, if you’re a hotel manager or owner, to figure out how to staff your hotel,” Mr. Miller said.
Industry challenges vary widely depending on location. In New York City, where business travelers and international tourists have been slow to return, many hotels remain closed and workers unemployed. Rich Maroko, president of the Hotel Trades Council union, said about 15,000 hotel workers—half his membership—are waiting to be called back to work.
The HTC negotiated coronavirus-safety protocols at the beginning of the pandemic that included explicit provisions requiring daily room cleaning, but some hotel operators still switched to cleaning rooms only when guests check out, Mr. Maroko said.
The union fought against the changes and successfully reinstated daily room cleaning at about a dozen New York City hotels, according to the HTC.
Operators in bustling resort destinations, by contrast, are understaffed and raising wages to attract workers. Jason Kern, general manager of the oceanfront Embassy Suites by Hilton in St. Augustine, Fla., said he wanted rooms cleaned daily to prevent trash from piling up and stains from setting.
But the hotel has had a hard time keeping housekeepers during the pandemic and is only lightly cleaning rooms during stays if guests request it.
Mr. Kern said he had raised wages twice this year—housekeepers now make $13 an hour—but he is still 15% understaffed in the department compared with 2019. Three-quarters of guests staying three nights or longer are now requesting room cleanings, he said, up from 20% last year. Less than half of guests staying two nights or fewer request cleaning.
Housekeeping frequency can also depend on price point. Luxury hotels continue to offer daily service, said Michael Bellisario, senior research analyst covering hotels at Baird Equity Research. “It would be kind of weird if I’m staying at a Four Seasons and no one comes and cleans my room,” he said.
With some of its brands, Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. adopted a policy during the pandemic that requires rooms to be deep-cleaned in between guests and on the fifth day of extended stays, a company representative said. Guests can request more frequent cleanings, and Hilton’s luxury brands will continue to receive automatic daily housekeeping.
Choice Hotels International Inc. began a housekeeping-by-request pilot program in the summer of 2020, and surveys found that a majority of guests didn’t miss daily housekeeping, according to the company. Choice-branded hotels are now providing housekeeping when requested for shorter stays, and after every third night for longer stays. The company said it is looking to continue the approach.
In Seattle, housekeeper Brenda Holland said she and her co-workers at the DoubleTree by Hilton Seattle Airport only clean after guests check out. Ms. Holland, 27 years old, worked full time before the pandemic but said her hotel now calls her in only once or twice a week.
Ms. Holland cleans 13 rooms over a shift, often changing sheets on 26 beds, and said she was now taking prescription medication for shoulder pain. She makes $18.64 an hour and no longer qualifies for health insurance because of her reduced hours.
“It’s backbreaking work,” Ms. Holland said. “Before we were tired, but not like this.”
The hotel didn’t return requests for comment. A spokesperson for Hilton, which owns the DoubleTree brand, said staffing levels at its properties are best assessed by individual hotels.
Deere Takes Hard Line After Workers Reject Second Offer
Deere & Co. said the new contract it provided to striking union employees is the company’s best and final offer, and they aren’t returning to the bargaining table.
The world’s largest maker of farm equipment said it remains in contact with the United Auto Workers union that represents workers, but that it has nothing else to bargain about. The comments come a day after workers voted down a second tentative agreement, extending the strike by some 10,000 workers into a third week.
“The agreement that we provided is frankly our best and final offer,” Marc Howze, chief administrative officer for Deere, said in an interview. “In order for us to be competitive we have gone as far as we’re gonna go.”
The rejected deal offered larger wage increases, no new tiers to retirement benefits and a signing bonus of $8,500. The wage increase affecting 14 of Deere’s facilities was larger than nearly a dozen other collective bargaining agreements the UAW has negotiated since 2018, according to Bloomberg Law’s database of labor contracts.
The company’s existing “two-tier” compensation system, in which workers hired since 1997 receive less generous benefits than those who started working there earlier, has been a sticking point for many employees, and would not have been abolished by the tentative agreement.
“We are still on strike,” UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said in a statement, adding that the parties are still discussing next steps.
While the current labor market has strengthened workers’ leverage and weakened threats of permanently replacing those on strike, employees have the most power in sectors where strikes can seriously disrupt or halt production. In the case of Deere, a pause in operations could affect the harvest and ripple through to the food sector.
Deere is enjoying record profits, with projections for its full-year earnings between $5.7 billion and $5.9 billion.
The Moline, Illinois-based company said Tuesday it would move into a new phase of its customer service continuation plan. Howze, though, would not give details, other than to say that the company is focused on meeting customer demand, especially for its parts business.
The parts business is crucial at this time of year, because farmers are harvesting and need their equipment running at full capacity.
Currently, Deere is keeping its business going by staffing facilities with salaried employees. Howze wouldn’t say how many striking workers the company was able to replace. Howze said that while the company is in touch with the union, they’re not going back to the bargaining table because “there’s nothing else to bargain about.”
“The stakes are high, but a victory for the union in this strike could help reshape the terms of the post-pandemic economy,” said Chris Rhomberg, a sociology professor at Fordham University.
American Women Gain Clout In Unions After Pandemic Sacrifices
The unprecedented exodus of women from the workplace during the pandemic is empowering those who remain, helping spur a resurgence in labor organizing as industries such as health care, education and retail confront an acute shortage of jobseekers.
As unions and advocates gain more clout than they’ve had in years amid an increased appreciation for so-called essential workers, female-led professions like teaching and nursing are leading the way. Women are becoming a bigger share of the unionized workforce, and have played key roles in some of the 45 strikes since August tracked by Bloomberg Law.
More action could be on the way. Teachers in Scranton, Pennsylvania, plan to walk off the job today. Flight attendants at a regional carrier for American Airlines authorized a strike last month, and nurses are on the brink of striking at the Kaiser Permanente healthcare system in California. Workers at McDonald’s Corp. restaurants in 12 cities walked out Oct. 26 to draw attention to accusations of sexual harassment.
And while strikes among manufacturing workers at tractor maker Deere & Co. and cereal company Kellogg Co. are the most high-profile disputes of late, labor experts say industries with a higher percentage of women are poised to set the agenda for worker rights in the years to come.
“The most dynamic leaders in the labor movement, both on the national and the local level, are women,” said Brishen Rogers, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center who focuses on labor and employment law. “Class and gender are completely intertwined here.”
Majority Female Industries Are More Likely To Be Unionized
Rogers is pointing to people like Liz Shuler, recently named the first female president of the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. union federation; Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants; and Mary Kay Henry, the leader of the Service Employees International Union.
They’ve emphasized the need to prioritize not only pay and benefits, but also issues that are traditionally less prominent — like paid sick time, minimum staffing levels, schedule flexibility, mental health and workplace safety.
These topics rose to the fore in the past 18 months during the pandemic, when keeping nurses and teachers on the frontlines was a top priority. Workers made sacrifices to maintain the status quo even as many saw their own child-care responsibilities grow. Now, they’re seeking changes in the form of better contracts and a bigger voice in U.S. unions.
“The public image of a union is still in manufacturing,” said Kate Andrias, a professor at Columbia University Law School. “But a lot of the most innovative and effective organizing in recent years has occurred in female-dominated service-sector jobs.”
Women were at the vanguard of the wave of teacher strikes that started in 2018, according to Andrias. In Illinois and West Virginia, statewide walkouts took place even when the law didn’t protect them. And rather than being exclusively focused on higher pay or benefits, teachers also highlighted the challenges low-income students faced.
“The reason women take dramatic action is actually less so for themselves, but is actually more for their families or the people they care for,” said Henry, the international president of the SEIU.
Female-dominated unions are gaining ground partly because of how hard it’s been to keep workers in industries like education and health care.
Employees in the care economy and service industries have experienced a high rate of burnout, with the burden falling disproportionately on women who also faced greater demands for child care at home.
About 18% of health-care workers have left their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic according to a survey by the research firm Morning Consult. And almost one in four teachers said they were likely to quit by the end of the school year, up from one in six before the pandemic, according to a survey conducted by Rand Corporation, a nonprofit and policy think tank.
In California, 21,000 health-care workers have threatened to strike at Kaiser Permanente, one of the state’s largest private medical networks.
Workers at U.S. Starbucks Corp.’s cafes won a victory last week in their fight to unionize stores, and journalists at Politico are petitioning the U.S. government for a vote on unionizing.
Dorothy Sue Cobble, professor emerita of history and labor studies at Rutgers University, expects women to account for a larger portion of the unionized workforce in years to come. She says women have the most to gain from joining the movement given issues of pay inequity, with female workers — and female workers of color especially — earning the least.
The labor crunch is bumping up pay in the U.S., but data show union membership can help narrow wage inequity. A recent report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research said that unionized women earn 87 cents for every dollar that men make, whereas non-unionized women earn 82 cents.
Unionization is far below its 1950s peak. Yet as membership declined in recent years, men left at a faster pace, boosting the percentage of women among the unionized workforce. Women now make up a record 47%, up from 37% three decades ago.
Kathy Kelly, a nurse at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York, has been on strike since Oct. 1, asking for higher staffing levels among other demands, saying the hospital has struggled to adequately treat patients. She says the pandemic has taken a toll on colleagues unlike any she’s seen during her 38 years as a registered nurse.
There’s rampant burnout and attrition, which has led the workers that remain to hit a breaking point. The hospital is coping with the strike by hiring contract workers.
“No one wants to walk away from the bedside,” Kelly said. “We had to say: Enough is enough. You can’t keep treating us like this.”
Highly Paid Union Workers Give UPS A Surprise Win In Delivery Wars
FedEx’s less costly contractor drivers were supposed to give it an edge. But labor shortages are hobbling services.
Dave Helminski will drop off his last package for United Parcel Service Inc. on Christmas Eve 2022 and retire after four decades as a driver in Chicago. He joined UPS after four years in the Marine Corps and a yearlong stint installing carpet. He put in a few years loading trucks, then became a driver and was set for life.
After Helminski drops off that last package, he’ll have pensions that provide almost the same $100,000 a year he makes now. “I came out of the lower middle class, and I’m living the dream,” Helminski says, wearing a face covering with the Marines emblem as he heads home from his shift at a large UPS facility in the northern suburb of Palatine.
Helminski’s dream industry has lately become more of a nightmare scenario at rival FedEx Corp. The massive labor shortage that’s rocked the U.S. since the pandemic and disrupted long-established employment relationships hasn’t had much impact on UPS, which pays its unionized drivers the highest wages in the industry. That’s helped it maintain a stable workforce and rising profits throughout the current disruptions.
Meanwhile, lower-paying, nonunionized FedEx racked up $450 million in extra costs because of labor shortages. And while UPS easily beat earnings expectations and predicted a rising profit margin in the U.S. for the fourth quarter, FedEx signaled that its profit margin will fall further. The lack of workers is taking a toll on its reliability, too.
FedEx’s recent on-time performance for express and ground packages has sunk to 85%, while UPS has met deadlines on 95% of those packages, according to data collected by ShipMatrix Inc.
With strong package demand and delivery prices jumping more than 10%, FedEx’s struggles have left investors puzzled, says Amit Mehrotra, an analyst at Deutsche Bank. The company’s travails have laid bare some structural inefficiencies in its business model, too.
Unlike UPS, FedEx operates two distinct delivery networks: one for its overnight air delivery business, which is handled by FedEx employees, and another for its ground parcel service, which uses independent contractors to make final-mile deliveries employing their own nonunion drivers.
Refined by FedEx founder Fred Smith, the model was supposed to benefit the company by pushing variable labor costs and the expense of vehicles to the contractors that operate local routes. And it worked well in a market dominated by commercial packages, Mehrotra says. But the ground parcel business has expanded rapidly with the growth of e-commerce in the past decade, resulting in far more residential deliveries.
Such home service requires the contractors handling those deliveries for FedEx to drive more miles between stops and leave fewer packages at each location, boosting costs. When the pandemic hit, residential deliveries exploded, forcing contractors to hire more drivers and FedEx to add more package handlers. “There’s definitely been a loss of confidence in this business” among FedEx investors, Mehrotra says. “There’s something wrong.”
FedEx defended its contractor model as innovative, highly flexible, and scalable, said spokesman Perry Colosimo in an e-mailed statement. The model “has been instrumental in helping us navigate a difficult environment and will continue to play an essential role in positioning our business for long-term success,” the statement said.
Investors have long pushed FedEx to combine its express and ground networks. Smith agreed to acquire the ground network at an opportune time in 1997, less than two months after a 15-day union strike ended at UPS. His use of contractors allowed FedEx to expand the business quickly without the expense of buying vehicles or managing drivers. FedEx Ground became the growth engine for the company and posted profit margins in the midteens.
But the pandemic led many U.S. workers to question whether jobs with low wages and challenging work conditions were worth returning to. FedEx, Amazon.com Inc., and other companies that pay their operational employees wages and benefits lower than those received by many unionized workers are struggling to hire people even though they’re now raising salaries. FedEx Ground has seen average wages for workers in its sorting facilities jump 16% from a year earlier.
FedEx has warned that its labor problems will persist into this quarter, and analysts predict the ground unit’s operating margin will sink to 6.8%, from 7.5% a year earlier. Analysts expect UPS’s fourth-quarter profit margin for its U.S. domestic business will rise to 9.9%, from 8.8% a year earlier.
The difference in performance predates the worker shortage. Even while paying union workers almost twice what FedEx Ground drivers make, UPS earns a return on invested capital that’s more than double its rival’s. In the last full year, UPS and FedEx each had sales of about $84 billion; UPS banked $7.7 billion of operating income, while FedEx earned $5.9 billion. Investors have taken note: UPS shares have risen 27% this year; FedEx’s have dropped 9%.
Smith defends operating the two networks despite inefficiencies, including when FedEx Express drivers on company payroll take an overnight package to the same location where a ground parcel is dropped off by contractor drivers. Yet, while Smith has been able to hold union organizers at bay by relying on contractors, FedEx Ground’s savings on labor lately hasn’t filtered down to the bottom line.
That’s because its 5,600 contractors are mom and pop outfits, many with fewer than 10 employees. They face the same elevated costs inherent to small businesses. They pay full price for vehicles, tires, oil, parts, maintenance, and other items that UPS buys at scale. Each contractor has the same back-office work and often farms it out to third parties, adding to expenses.
FedEx Ground keeps contractors small by design to avoid becoming too dependent on one company in a service area. That lowers the risk when contractors fail, which isn’t uncommon. FedEx Ground can call on other contractors to plug the hole in service, paying them extra per package to entice them to send teams to the area.
Contractors spend a lot of their time recruiting drivers—turnover ranges from 30% to 60% of the workforce each year. In some cases, they poach drivers from other FedEx contractors.
UPS’s richer pay package makes it easier for the company to hire part-time workers at the sorting hubs, where it also offers the incentive of moving into a delivery driver job that can eventually pay, as in Helminski’s case, almost $100,000 a year, with overtime. This creates a stable workforce at the hub and a steady pool of driver candidates whose work habits are already known to the company.
FedEx’s sorting hub in Portland, Ore., is operating with only 65% of the staff needed. That forces the company to reroute packages to other facilities, incurring costs for the extra transportation and reducing the efficiency of the network, officials said on a September conference call with analysts. In total, FedEx says the ground unit is rerouting 600,000 packages a day because of labor issues.
UPS does have to worry about strikes during labor contract negotiations every five years. The current contract expires in 2023. For now, UPS and its workers are doing well, says Helminski. “We’re making a good living,” he says. “We’re the gold standard.”
VW CEO Makes EV Pledge As Labor Leaders Criticize Pace of Transition
CEO Herbert Diess and labor leaders also clash over chip crisis.
Volkswagen AG Chief Executive Herbert Diess pledged to build a future electric vehicle at the company’s flagship German plant in a bid to head off an escalating conflict with VW’s powerful labor leaders that has thrust the firm’s future into uncertainty.
Europe’s largest car maker and one of Germany’s biggest employers is in the midst of an accelerated transition to electric mobility. But the rapid pace of the changes and frustration at recent production stops due to a shortage of chips have caused a backlash among workers.
In response, Mr. Diess abruptly canceled a planned trip to the U.S. this week so that he could address thousands of workers at a labor-organized assembly at the company’s Wolfsburg plant on Thursday.
Mr. Diess told the workers that he understood their anger but said VW overall was faring better in the chip crisis than many competitors and VW workers on furlough were earning nearly their full wages.
“Some are getting hit harder like Ford, GM and the French,” he said. “Others like Tesla and BMW are faring better in the crisis because they have worked closely with chip producers longer.”
Mr. Diess told the workers that as part of VW’s next five-year investment plan, management was discussing building a second electric vehicle in Wolfsburg. VW is already planning to build its future Trinity model, an electric car with advanced software and self-driving technology, in Wolfsburg.
The standoff is a particularly stark example of the difficulties traditional car makers are facing as they transition from the combustion engine to electric mobility, the biggest and most expensive transformation the industry has undergone in over a century.
At VW, where employees hold board seats and the local government controls 20% of voting rights, tension is running particularly high because of fears among employees that jobs could be lost and careers upended in the process. Labor leaders have criticized the pace of Mr. Diess’s EV plans, questioned his management of the chip shortage that has left some production lines idled, and accused him of not consulting enough with them.
Stephan Weil, prime minister of the state of Lower Saxony, who could tip any board vote in favor of labor, told the workers that the state “stands on the side of Volkswagen, we stand on the side of Wolfsburg, and we stand on the side of its workers.”
Some of the criticism is about style. Mr. Diess’s frequent praise of Tesla Inc., which isn’t unionized and produces only a fraction of the cars that VW makes each year, has alienated senior labor representatives.
Analysts said the recurrent conflict and the uncertainty it creates make it harder for the CEO to do his job and is spooking investors by creating doubt as to whether Mr. Diess really has the support of VW’s main shareholders and its nonexecutive directors.
Mr. Diess, a former BMW executive who has often grated against VW’s tradition of management-labor consensus, fired back at his critics Thursday, again pointing at Tesla and its new plant near Berlin as a challenge that VW must face whether it wants to or not.
“Even if I never speak about [Tesla founder and CEO] Elon Musk again he will still be there and continue to revolutionize our industry,” Mr. Diess said. “Today, Tesla is the benchmark and new startups from China are pushing into our market.”
The Tesla plant, which is expected to begin series production by year-end, will churn out 90 cars an hour, Mr. Diess added, meaning that Tesla can build a car from start to finish in 10 hours, compared with 30 hours for VW’s ID.3 electric vehicle. In September, Tesla’s Model 3 was the bestselling car in Europe even though Tesla doesn’t yet manufacture any vehicles on the continent.
The conflict that has brewed within VW for months flared up again in late October when Mr. Diess told the supervisory board that VW had to accelerate its transformation or could lose up to 30,000 jobs in Wolfsburg—which employee representatives took as a threat, according to people familiar with the meeting.
A few days later, just before Mr. Diess was set to fly to the U.S. to visit the company’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., and meet politicians, investors and Silicon Valley tech leaders, German labor leaders called the CEO callous for courting Wall Street instead of addressing a scheduled meeting with workers in Wolfsburg.
Seeking to defuse the conflict, Mr. Diess canceled the trip and agreed with the supervisory board to work out a new plan by the next board meeting on Dec. 9 for securing production and jobs in Wolfsburg.
Labor leaders have said that Mr. Diess has failed to get control of the chip shortage, which has caused VW to repeatedly furlough workers throughout the year. Production of VW-brand vehicles has fallen 27% so far this year, because of a shortage of components, Mr. Diess said in his speech at the plant. In China, VW production is down 30%.
At Thursday’s meeting, Daniela Cavallo, head of the VW works council, said Mr. Diess should stop posting travel photos online and instead come up with a plan to get enough chips to put Wolfsburg factory workers back on the job.
“The truth is that the management board, for which you are responsible, Dr. Diess, has failed to assure that our plant works at full capacity. So, stop with the speculation about job cuts and work with us to come up with a plan,” she said, adding that the works council wasn’t willing to negotiate a single job cut.
Unions Are On The Rise, But So Are The Robots
The labor crunch is giving workers more negotiating power but also boosting automation investments. Earnings season was generally fine. Plus the deals of the.
U.S. manufacturers hired 60,000 people in October, double economists’ estimates and the most since June of last year. It was a robust showing, led by automakers. But payrolls in the sector are still down by almost 300,000 since the end of 2019, even as many large industrial companies are reporting sales above pre-pandemic levels.
Last month’s recruitment success will only make a modest dent in the nearly 900,000 open manufacturing positions as of the end of August. The tight labor market has created a moment for unions: Deere & Co. workers this week felt so confident in their value to the company that they voted down a revised contract proposal that included substantial wage increases and enhanced retirement benefits. It’s also creating a moment for robots.
There were a record 310,700 industrial robots operating in the U.S. last year, up 6% from 2019, according to a report from the International Federation of Robotics released late last week. 1 New robot installations actually declined in the U.S. last year as the financial strains of the pandemic weighed on corporate spending, but manufacturing headcount also fell, boosting the ratio of robots to humans.
There were 255 industrial robots operating for every 10,000 manufacturing employees last year, compared with 229 in 2019, IFR data show. That growth boosted the U.S. two spots on IFR’s country-by-country comparison of robot density, and the country now sits in seventh place globally.
But the real growth is just getting started. The IFR projects that North American robot installations will grow 17% in 2021 and that a “post-crisis boom” will continue to fuel low double-digit growth rates in 2022 and beyond.
The companies most likely to invest in automation are those that have been considering it for a while but just hadn’t taken the final step, Dr. Susanne Bieller, general secretary of the IFR, said in an interview. The pandemic and the resulting disruptions to supply chains and labor availability appear to have been the push that many needed to justify the investment.
Manufacturers have swung quickly from not having enough demand to keep their factories busy to having more orders than they have materials, freight capacity and — perhaps most importantly — people. “If we’re looking at the U.S. market, it’s really the skilled labor issues that’s a problem,” Bieller said.
There are myriad reasons companies might be struggling to staff manufacturing plants, from high quit rates to Covid absenteeism to demands for increased wages and a dearth of workers with the required skills. But the result is the same: “I have to get my work done, so I have to consider an alternative. And the robot is the alternative,” Bieller said.
What’s interesting is that the demand for automation equipment appears to be fairly broad-based. Semiconductor and electric-vehicle manufacturers have been announcing multibillion-dollar plans for new factories in the U.S. at a rapid clip.
You would expect those facilities to be highly automated: These are emerging technologies, and plants built from scratch are likely to be more modern. The capital spending in those industries is helping boost orders at companies such as Rockwell Automation Inc., which this week reported a record $2.2 billion in bookings for the fiscal fourth quarter.
But Rockwell also highlighted a $5 million combined deal with sustainable packaging manufacturer Ardagh Group for its Fiix maintenance management software and factory automation equipment.
It’s seeing robust demand from companies that make the chemicals that go into all the cardboard boxes showing up on doorsteps across America; from food and beverage manufacturers whose goods don’t keep as well if they get stranded in a port logjam; and even from some of the mining companies that harvest materials for batteries, Rockwell Chief Executive Officer Blake Moret said in an interview.
Indeed, the recently concluded earnings and fall conference season was littered with comments about automation investments. Garbage-hauler Waste Management Inc. found upgrading and rebuilding its single-stream recycling plants can reduce the labor needed to operate them by 35%-plus. The company has accelerated this overhaul and now expects to revamp 90% of this volume by 2023 or 2024.
“Certain jobs simply don’t attract the interest they previously did,” CEO James Fish said. In the biopharma sector, “we can get to the point where we’re automating a lot of the small-scale assembly and a lot of the inspection processes,” Rich Tobin, CEO of pump-maker Dover Corp., said at an investor conference in September.
“Our ability to expand capacity in colder products on the biopharma side has not required the traditional amount of labor that [it would have] if we had done this project four or five years ago.” Air-conditioner maker Carrier Global Corp. has increased its investments in automation by 50% this year and expects those systems to have churned out 6 million hours of manufacturing work by the end of 2026, CEO Dave Gitlin said.
Toolmaker Stanley Black & Decker Inc., which has committed to moving big chunks of its China-based supply chain to the U.S., highlighted automation projects underway at a facility in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Robots are unlikely to replace human workers entirely on the factory floor anytime soon. In many ways, automation makes manufacturing work safer and more productive for the remaining employees and is necessary to make the U.S. competitive globally. South Korea is the worldwide leader in the proliferation of industrial robots, with 932 for every 10,000 manufacturing employees last year, according to IFR data.
The U.S. has a long way to go before it catches up. But all this talk about robots indicates that the current robust demand in the manufacturing sector most likely isn’t going to translate into a commensurate boom in job creation.
“When labor didn’t have a lot of power, I think that managerial threats to automate weren’t serious. Companies looked at the investment and said ‘It’s just not worth it’ — particularly in lower-wage industries,” Adam Seth Litwin, a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University, said in an interview.
“The issue is this isn’t transitory. Once companies sink an investment into automation, that fixed cost is spent. It’s done. Even if labor were to become cheaper again, it doesn’t make sense to uninstall technology.” That is “something for workers to be concerned about,” he added.
Deere Strike Sows Worry In Farm Country
Farmers, dealers fear delayed deliveries, higher prices as strike at tractor maker stretches beyond three weeks; ‘it’s a chain reaction’
A weekslong strike at Deere DE 0.80% & Co. has dealers bracing for delayed deliveries of new equipment, and farmers fearing higher prices ahead.
Supplies of new tractors and combines across the Farm Belt have been stretched for months as manufacturers struggle with shortages of raw materials, components and semiconductor chips. Now, farmers and dealers worry that shipments from Deere, the largest seller of farm equipment in North America, will be further undermined after more than 10,000 union workers walked off their jobs Oct. 14.
Members of the United Auto Workers union this past week rejected a second proposed contract, deepening uncertainty during the fall harvest season about when regular production may resume.
Farmer Dale Reimers, who grows corn, soybeans and other crops across 25,000 acres in eastern North Dakota, said he ordered three new Deere tractors and two crop sprayers before the strike. Delivery for some equipment already has been delayed for months, and it is unclear when the rest of his order will even be built, he said, adding that he worries the strike could further complicate things.
Late delivery of his sprayers could cut into his crop production next year, Mr. Reimers said, because his older equipment can’t apply weed-killing chemicals to fields with the same precision as the new machines he ordered.
“That’s going to have a big impact on profitability and production results on the dirt level,” said Mr. Reimers, who relies exclusively on the company’s equipment.
Moline, Ill.-based Deere declined to comment on equipment inventories and deliveries. Deere has said it would continue operating its U.S. plants with supervisors and other nonunion employees, and that the company is considering sourcing replacement parts and machinery from its overseas plants.
Dealers said they have been getting some equipment from Deere factories as nonunion workers put the finishing touches on machinery that had been parked at assembly plants waiting for parts to arrive.
U.S. farmers are riding a rebound in the agricultural economy this year, fueled by a rally in prices for major agricultural commodities such as corn and soybeans. That is pushing up incomes for farmers and boosting markets for land and equipment, though rising production expenses are cutting into profits, farmers say.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture in September projected net farm income would surge 20% this year to $113 billion, the highest since 2013. It said farm production expenses would increase by more than 7%.
The reinvigorated farm economy is driving demand for new equipment. Over the first three quarters of Deere’s current fiscal year, its sales climbed 27% over the prior year, and net income more than doubled to $4.7 billion. Deere expects to earn about $5.8 billion for the full year. Deere’s shares Friday closed up 1.2% at $355.20.
Union members have said that the raises and expanded benefits Deere has offered aren’t sufficient when sales are booming and other companies are boosting wages and offering new perks to draw workers. Deere this past week said the contract rejected Nov. 2 would have represented a $3.5 billion investment in its employees over six years, and was the company’s best and final offer.
Deere dealers said they have already this year managed through shortages of replacement parts and equipment caused by disrupted supply chains that have slowed production and deliveries.
Farmers’ demand for equipment has remained strong in 2021, and new equipment shortages have led farmers to shop the used market. Dealers said a prolonged strike will increase prices and demand for used machines.
“It’s a really bullish market for used equipment,” said Tom Sloan, chairman of Sloan Implement Co. in Illinois. “Normally, we have too much.”
Mr. Sloan said some buyers who normally turn over their older equipment to dealers as trade-ins are now keeping their equipment, as the Deere strike adds to uncertainty over the delivery of their new machines.
Farmers often sink profits into new equipment annually because they can deduct those purchases from their federal income taxes as business investments. A lack of equipment kept some farmers from buying this year, said Robert Klemm, who grows corn and soybeans in Illinois and runs an agricultural tax-planning and preparation firm.
“It’s a chain reaction,” said Mr. Klemm. He said having parts available from factories and dealerships is also vital during the fall harvest, when agricultural machinery often breaks down and farmers don’t have 30 to 60 days to wait for supplies to be replenished.
Farmers placing orders through Deere’s early ordering program that started in August typically get their equipment in January or February. Blue Riggan, owner of Legacy Equipment LLC, in Arkansas, expects that delivery times will be extended the longer the strike lasts.
“If they go out for a long time, it would probably push us out until March or April,” said Mr. Riggan, referring to striking workers.
Deere dealers say the strike hasn’t caused their customers to defect to rival brands because competitors remain constrained by their own supply and production problems. CNH Industrial NV, the maker of CaseIH equipment, pared its 2021 sales guidance on Thursday because of ongoing supply-chain problems.
‘It’s just one part of 1,000 problems this year.’
— Brian Herringshaw, who runs his family’s farm in Ohio
Deere has been raising prices on equipment, upping the price tags on early-order equipment for next year by 8%, the company said during its last call with analysts in August. JP Morgan estimated Deere would have to raise prices an additional 1.5% to cover the higher labor costs in the six-year offer Deere workers turned down Tuesday.
Brian Herringshaw, who worked as an engineer at Deere for eight years before leaving in 2016 to run his family’s farm in Ohio, said rising machinery prices will add to farmers’ other escalating costs, which span from fuel to fertilizer this year.
Mr. Herringshaw said high prices for used equipment had already deterred him from purchasing a planter and tractors, and that a run-up in machinery markets or supply disruptions stemming from the strike would compound farmers’ challenges.
“It’s just one part of 1,000 problems this year,” he said.
Union Push At Starbucks Expands With New Request For More Elections
The union organizing at Starbucks Corp.’s Buffalo-area stores is petitioning the U.S. labor board to hold votes at three more locations in addition to the trio whose employees are already slated to be mailed ballots.
“In spite of an intense anti-union campaign, workers are stepping up very courageously to say we want a voice as well,” an organizer for the union Workers United, Richard Bensinger, said in an interview Tuesday.
An acting regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled last month that store-by-store elections should be held at three locations the union petitioned for, boosting organizers’ chance of creating the first union foothold among the company’s thousands of corporate-run U.S. stores. The workers are scheduled to be mailed ballots on Wednesday.
On Monday, Starbucks filed a motion asking the agency to halt the planned elections, reiterating its argument that any vote should include all 20 of its stores in the region, with the union only prevailing if it won a majority of votes from the larger group.
“Today’s announcement that partners in three additional Buffalo stores are filing to vote underscores our position that partners throughout the market should have a voice in this important decision,” Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges said in an email Tuesday. “We remain focused on creating the best Starbucks Experience for all our partners as well as maintaining open, transparent, and direct conversations.”
Starbucks shares declined 0.8% at 2:04 p.m. in New York trading.
In its Monday filings, Starbucks wrote that the Oct. 28 ruling, allowing three store-by-store votes, is contrary to U.S. labor law and would result in “disenfranchisement” by denying employees throughout the region the chance “to vote together on this important issue of union representation.”
LaRue Heutmaker, a pro-union employee at one of the three stores scheduled to start voting this week, said in a text message on Monday that company officials “have done their best to stall since the beginning.”
After its initial August petitions for elections at three locations, the union had filed and withdrawn petitions for two others, including one of the restaurants in Tuesday’s filings. The group said that it withdrew those filings at the time because it was informed by the labor board that they would have caused a delay in scheduling votes at the initial three stores.
Manchin Opposes Bonus EV Tax Credit For Union-Made Cars
Senator Joe Manchin said Thursday that he opposes a provision of President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion social spending and tax plan that would offer $4,500 more in tax credits for the purchase of an electric vehicle made in the U.S. by union labor.
The West Virginia Democrat called the extra credit “wrong” and “not who we are” as a country.
Manchin, made the comments during an appearance at Toyota Motor Corp.’s factory in Buffalo, West Virginia. The plant, like the Japanese automaker’s other factories in the U.S., is non-union.
Opposition by Manchin, a key swing vote in the closely divided Senate, could endanger the labor-friendly provision that Biden has publicly endorsed. The credits are in a draft House bill that is poised to receive a vote as soon as next week, pending an official estimate of the bill’s cost from the Congressional Budget Office.
Toyota has lobbied against labor-friendly provisions of the bill. Manchin, who said he drives a hybrid Toyota Highlander, told reporters at the event that he is opposed to any electric vehicle tax credit that allows some automakers to offer more discounts on electric cars than others.
“To take $4,500 of taxpayers’ money and give it to incentive is wrong in any condition. Anywhere in this country. It’s not who are,” Manchin said, according to a video taken by a Toyota contractor that was earlier reported by Automotive News.
“It’s not how we built this great country,” he said. “We don’t pick winners and losers by using everybody’s tax dollars. You pick winners and losers by the products you put out and the value you put out for those products, and making sure the workers are rewarded properly with good pay, good benefits and a safe working condition. And that’s what I care about.”
Manchin added in the video, however, that his opposition to the union provision might not determine his vote on Biden’s tax-and-spending plan.
“I haven’t made up my mind on any of this,” Manchin said. “We’re still in negotiation stages. But that is very much concerning.”
Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, and other Detroit-area lawmakers have pushed for the provision. She defended the union-specific credit, saying in a statement released on Thursday evening: “There’s nothing more American than supporting the opportunity for workers to collectively bargain for good pay and benefits no matter where they live and what company they work for.”
Manchin’s office had no further comment. The senator was at the factory touting a $240 million investment to add a production line of hybrid transaxles.
The House draft calls for all automakers to be able to offer $7,500 to consumers for EV purchases for the first five years of the law, a win for Tesla Inc. and General Motors Co., which have already exceeded the existing, 200,000-vehicle cap after which their customers no longer get credits.
However, cars made in the U.S. by union-represented workers would be allowed to offer an additional $4,500 in credits according to a draft text of the bill released by the House that is subject to further negotiation.
Tesla and foreign-owned automakers such as Toyota and Honda Motor Co. have argued that would give an unfair advantage to Detroit automakers as the industry races toward an electric future.
Current law limits automakers to 200,000 tax credits for electric vehicles. Two companies, General Motors and Tesla, have been capped out of the $7,500 tax credits since 2018. Toyota is likely to be the next company to hit the limit, according to an analysis by BloombergNEF. The Japanese automaker has sold approximately 161,000 electric cars in the U.S. as of the second quarter of 2021, according to the analysis.
Biden is scheduled to visit a GM plant in Detroit that makes electric vehicles on Wednesday to promote the infrastructure bill that passed Congress last week.
Foreign-owned automakers that oppose the union-specific tax credit hailed Manchin’s comments.
“This provision has been a big deal for half of the U.S. auto industry that is non-unionized – now it’s a big deal in the Senate,” Jennifer Safavian, President and chief executive officer of Autos Drive America, which lobbies for foreign-owned automakers, said in an emailed statement.
Judge Rejects LAPD Union’s Vaccine Mandate Challenge
The union representing Los Angeles Police Department officers failed to win a court order blocking a mandate that all city workers be vaccinated against Covid-19.
California Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff on Wednesday denied the union’s request for a temporary restraining order on the mandate, which sets a Dec. 18 deadline for vaccination.
The judge didn’t give a reason for denying the union’s request for a temporary restraining order. The union will get another shot at blocking the mandate at a Dec. 12 hearing before Beckloff on its request for preliminary injunction. A group of LAPD officers was also previously denied a restraining order in federal court.
The Los Angeles Times reported on Nov. 9 that 78% of the more than 12,100 LAPD employees had received at least one shot of the vaccine. Police unions in Chicago and New York have also challenged vaccine mandates.
Amazon Labor Group Withdraws Union Petition In Staten Island
A new labor group seeking to organize Amazon.com Inc. warehouse workers at facilities on New York’s Staten Island withdrew its petition with the National Labor Relations Board on Friday, saying it needs time to collect more signatures to force an election.
In October, the group collected about 2,000 signatures from workers at the facilities, where Amazon stows products and packages them for shipment to customers. Under federal rules, organizers must win the backing of at least 30% of employees, a threshold the labor board said at the time had been met.
Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, said the group needs more signatures from workers so it pulled its petition and will start again. Smalls declined to say how many signatures the group needs. The Staten Island facilities employ about 5,500 workers. In the days before the withdrawal, Smalls tweeted pictures of literature that he said Amazon posted in the warehouses, which told workers to closely examine documents they may be asked to sign by the union.
“We expected this,” Smalls said in an interview.
Smalls worked at Amazon for more than four years and was fired in 2020 after protesting the company’s Covid-19 policies, a move he said was for his activism. Amazon said Smalls was fired because he violated safety guidelines.
Under the original time frame, a hearing was supposed to be held on Nov. 15 after Amazon filed a statement of position with the NLRB. That was adjourned until Nov. 22, Amazon Labor Union attorney Eric Milner said on Thursday. Milner didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.
“Our focus remains on listening directly to our employees and continuously improving on their behalf,” Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said.
Soaring Inflation Means Tougher Wage Talks, Canadian Unions Warn
Canada’s largest private sector union has a message for the country’s employers: Prepare to share the burden of higher inflation.
Jerry Dias, who runs the 315,000-member-strong Unifor trade union, says the era of sub-2% wage gains that’s prevailed in collective agreements for much of the past decade will no longer do in the face of a sharp increase in consumer prices that is swelling the cost of living.
Workers “expect that their wages are at least going to pick up with the rate of inflation,” Dias said this week in a phone interview. “Things are changing. No question about it.”
It’s the sort of big talk expected from a labor leader, but the threat is beginning to ring increasingly true.
Pay is inching higher with average annual wage gains in collective agreements breaking the 2% threshold in the third quarter for only the second time since 2012, according to government data. Wage increases have averaged 1.6% over the past decade.
Recent deals suggest gains are only accelerating. Casino workers in Belleville, Ontario — a small city between Montreal and Toronto — just negotiated a 13% pay increase over three years.
Increasing strike activity, meanwhile, indicates organized labor is emboldened at a time when staff shortages are a preoccupation for business. There were 44 work stoppages underway in September, the most in one month since 2018.
Only this week, thousands of workers at a Cargill Inc. plant in the western province of Alberta threatened to go on strike just as the price of red meat touches records.
With annual inflation seen hitting 5% in coming months — a three-decade high — any escalation of wage expectations in collective bargaining will be closely monitored by policy makers. Canada has a relatively high unionization rate, at about 30% of employed workers, versus about 10% in the U.S.
As workers seek to make up for lost purchasing power, the fear is the inflation shock will lead to higher salary demands that become entrenched through automatic cost-of-living adjustments, starting a wage-price spiral that will be difficult to tame. It’s a long-term risk that officials at the Bank of Canada are already clambering to mitigate by assuring Canadians they are serious about inflation.
“We are going to keep inflation under control,” Governor Tiff Macklem said in an interview with CTV News last week.
With the central bank projecting consumer price gains will average 3.4% over the next two years, workers are facing one of the biggest drops in real incomes since the high inflation years of the 1970s. By 2023, officials are projecting inflation will be at a more comfortable 2.3%. But that would still be above Macklem’s 2% target.
Curiously enough, high unionization rates may turn out to be a big help for policy makers in the short-term, acting as a buffer in the fight against price pressures. Collective bargaining is, after all, a slow ship to turn.
Most workers are bound to three-to-five year contracts, meaning they have no immediate recourse to offset higher prices. After decades of quiet on the inflation front made it a non-issue for unions, few of the existing agreements have cost-of-living adjustments.
Bargaining teams also have little recent experience with how to handle — or even understand — surging inflation. Often, they are willing to give up some pay gains in return for non-wage benefits.
Workers in the public sector, meanwhile, are negotiating with governments wary of spending more after running record deficits during the pandemic.
All these factors suggest there’s little prospect the current wave of wage agreements will fully compensate workers for any transitory inflation.
Non-union workers are doing better. Their average wages have grown at almost double the pace of unionized workers, posting increases of 9% over the past two years, according to data from Statistics Canada’s monthly labor force survey.
Labor leaders are taking notice.
They say their members are ratcheting up the pressure, bargaining committees across the country are starting to express a renewed interest in negotiating cost-of-living expenses, and union officials are busy coming up with research and strategies.
“Unions are aware we have fallen behind based on the inflation numbers, so we are mindful and our members remind us of it,” said Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, an umbrella group of unions. “Even though they’ve had wage increase they aren’t keeping up with the hydro bill and grocery bill, and that’s a frequent discussion when it comes to making proposals with employers.”
None of this is lost on the Bank of Canada.
Macklem has been on a public-relations offensive to tamp down inflationary expectations, including hints he’s prepared to start raising borrowing costs early next year. But if labor leaders lose confidence in the central bank’s promises, the support unions are currently providing on the inflation front could turn into an albatross.
First Task For The Teamsters’ Next Boss: Take On UPS
The 1.4 million-member union is choosing a new president. The leading contender, Sean O’Brien, can’t wait to slug it out with the shipping giant—and then Amazon.
On an October afternoon sultry enough that it has locals complaining, Sean O’Brien takes up his position outside the employee entrance at a UPS processing facility in Palatine, Ill. A former high school linebacker with a shaved head, O’Brien has still a gridiron hero’s physique, and he looks like someone who won’t be moved without a scuffle.
That’s probably not a bad impression to make on the brown-uniformed UPS drivers and warehouse workers hustling in and out of the plant as shifts change.
O’Brien, 49, is running for general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents these UPS employees, and he has a message for them. The workers on their way in get the abbreviated version: Your ballot will soon be arriving in the mail; don’t throw it away. He implores them to vote for his slate of candidates.
Those wrapping up a day’s work receive the unabridged rendition. With a fist bump or a handshake that makes the muscles on his arm bulge, O’Brien, president of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston, tells them it’s time for a change at what he refers to in his brogue as “the Teamstahs.” The union has been led for 22 years by 80-year-old James Hoffa, son of the legendary Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, whose 1975 disappearance remains a mystery.
Hoffa is stepping down; O’Brien’s primary opponent in the race is Steve Vairma, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 455 in Denver, who has Hoffa’s endorsement. But lot of the time it feels like it’s Hoffa that O’Brien is campaigning against.
O’Brien tells the UPS workers, those who aren’t in a rush to get home, that unlike Hoffa, whom he describes as weak and accommodating, he will face down corporate greed, in particular at UPS and Amazon.com Inc. The Teamsters would very much like to organize Amazon.
O’Brien chides the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, for embarking on what he describes as a scientifically pointless foray into space and then nonchalantly thanking his customers and employees for making it possible. “What kind of arrogant piece of shit does that?” he scoffs.
The Teamsters are one of the nation’s largest private-sector unions, with almost 1.4 million active members in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico. They include public defenders in Minneapolis, beermakers in St. Louis, newspaper employees in Seattle, and zookeepers in Chicago, Cleveland, and San Diego.
But the majority drive trucks or toil in warehouses loading and unloading them. Almost 350,000 work at UPS, and O’Brien has interacted with thousands outside their workplaces. He’s widely considered the front-runner in the race.
Like Sara Nelson, the charismatic president of the Association of Flight Attendants, O’Brien represents a younger breed of labor leaders determined to stake out a more confrontational position with employers. Workers in the U.S. seem discontented and more willing to strike than they have in years, as evidenced by recent walkouts at John Deere, Kellogg, and Nabisco.
The Teamsters haven’t had a national walkout since 1997, when contract negotiations fell apart at UPS. O’Brien sounds like he relishes the idea of changing that. “We’re going to be a more dynamic, more militant organization,” he promised in September during a debate with Vairma in Las Vegas. “We’re going to take on the fights.”
He says that means tackling Amazon, which may sound fanciful after the failure of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to organize workers earlier this year at a company warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. It may be less so if O’Brien can win a more favorable contract for his members at UPS.
The current one doesn’t expire until 2023, but the maneuvering will start as soon as the union choses a new leader. Ballots are due Nov. 15; the winner is expected to be announced by the end of the week.
There’s displeasure among many UPS workers over their current agreement, which permitted the company to establish a new tier of drivers who work weekends at a lower starting wage. It also opened the door for the company to hire drivers who deliver packages using their own cars.
O’Brien wants to say goodbye to all that. “They know the concession stand’s closed if we take over,” he declares. UPS declined to comment on the Teamsters election.
UPS and Amazon won’t be O’Brien’s only challenges. If he wins, he’ll take control of a union that emerged only this February from a 1989 consent decree that settled a federal civil racketeering suit. The government alleged that the union had been dominated by organized crime for decades.
O’Brien will also have to take steps to stop the thinning of the IBT’s ranks. Even last year, when jobs in the parcel delivery industry rose 19%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of U.S. Teamsters fell 9%. One of the main challenges is that the union faces a generation of younger people who didn’t grow up in labor households. Diminishment begets further diminishment, a difficult cycle to break.
Most of all, O’Brien needs to prove that he is indeed a new kind of leader after spending much of his career under the wing of the very person on whom he heaps much of the blame for the union’s problems: James P. Hoffa. “The rank and file wants something different,” says Joe Allen, author of The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service. “The question is, will they get it?”
“I’m a fourth-generation Teamster,” says O’Brien, over a plate of bone-in ham and eggs at the Des Plaines Pancake House in Des Plaines, Ill., on the morning after his appearance at the UPS plant in Palatine. He’s been up for hours, campaigning just now in the parking lot of a freight-forwarding facility run by DHL International, which employs about 6,000 Teamsters in the U.S. So he’s savoring his meal.
As he works his way through his breakfast, taking quick bites and occasionally jabbing the air with his fork, O’Brien talks about how his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all drove trucks and belonged to Local 25 in Boston, now his domain. He recalls being surrounded as a child by brawny Teamsters who talked of union affairs at wakes, funerals, christenings, communions.
He did a semester at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and then joined Local 25 in 1991 at the age of 18, becoming a rigger, meaning he often hauled cranes and other heavy equipment to construction sites on flat-bed trucks. “I loved it,” he says.
“Every once in a while I go back and work a day for free just so I don’t forget where I come from.”
There was something, however, that apparently thrilled O’Brien more: union politics. In 2003, George Cashman, Local 25’s president at the time, pleaded guilty to a list of charges including stealing from an employee benefit program. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
O’Brien was unimpressed by Cashman’s successor. In 2006, he lined up enough support that the incumbent got cold feet about seeking another term, leaving O’Brien to run for the presidency without opposition. He’s run unopposed five times since, most recently in September, when he notched his sixth term as Local 25’s standard-bearer.
In 15 years at Local 25’s helm, O’Brien has expanded its membership by 30%, to 11,600. One of his biggest coups: organizing more than 1,000 local parking lot attendants, many of them East African immigrants, He’s also forged close bonds with local political leaders such as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. There’s a framed picture of her in a tractor-trailer on the wall at Local 25’s red brick headquarters, offering a thumbs-up.
O’Brien’s tenure hasn’t been without blemishes. In 2013 he was suspended for 14 days without pay after being captured on video at a rally, threatening members of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a left-leaning reform group in the IBT, who were challenging the president of Teamsters Local 251 in Rhode Island, an O’Brien ally.
“They’ve got a major problem,” he said, gripping the microphone and jabbing his finger in the air. “They’ll never be our friends. They need to be punished.” He now says he regrets his words.
Matt Taibi, the TDU slate leader O’Brien targeted, won the election and is still principal officer of Local 251. He says O’Brien later visited the local and apologized to its members. “He had the gumption to stand there and talk to people and deal with the repercussions of his words and his actions,” Taibi says. Taibi is now a member of the slate of candidates running with O’Brien in the general election.
O’Brien is sick of talking about the affair, and there’s another topic he doesn’t care to discuss in detail. n 2015, five of his members were indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly attempting to extort jobs from a non-union TV production crew filming the Bravo network series Top Chef in the Boston area.
The indictment accused the five Teamsters of yelling racial and homophobic slurs at crew members, some of whom later returned to their cars to find the tires slashed Four of the Local 25 members were later acquitted; Mark Harrington, the local’s general secretary-treasurer, pleaded guilty to one count of attempted extortion and was sentenced to two years’ probation. O’Brien characterizes the charges against his members as “fiction.”
O’Brien was a loyal Hoffa supporter until suddenly he wasn’t. He was one of the top fund-raisers for the IBT president’s most recent reelection bid, in 2016. The extra funds came in handy: Hoffa was almost defeated by Fred Zuckerman, president of Local 89 in Louisville. Hoffa rewarded O’Brien the following year by putting him in a charge of negotiating of a new five-year contract with UPS.
O’Brien, thinking it didn’t make sense to go into the talks with Teamsters divided over the recent election, made peace with Zuckerman and brought him into the process. Hoffa was displeased. He kicked O’Brien off the negotiating team via email, and O’Brien says they’ve barely spoken since. (Through a spokesman, Hoffa rejected O’Brien’s criticism and said he is proud of his record.)
In August 2018, Hoffa announced that the Teamsters had finalized what he described as “the richest UPS contract in history.” It included a wage increase of $4.50 an hour and a commitment by UPS to create 5,000 new full-time jobs. It also included the aspects that O’Brien now rails against, saying they’re fundamentally unfair to newer hires. “They basically buried the unborn,” he says.
The contract had to be ratified by UPS Teamsters; O’Brien mounted a campaign with Zuckerman to persuade them to reject it. In the end, 54% of the voters repudiated the pact. But fewer than 50% of eligible members had cast ballots, meaning the Vote No camp lacked the two-thirds majority required under IBT’s constitution to jettison it. That allowed Hoffa to impose the agreement on the rank and file in October 2018.
The same year, O’Brien announced that he would run for general president, with Zuckerman as his running mate. They lined up other local Teamsters leaders around the country. In 2020, Hoffa announced he wouldn’t seek another term and instead endorsed Vairma. As any candidate for the job has to, Vairma positions himself as a fighter.
“I’ve been in the trenches,” he says. “I certainly know the challenges we face.” Like O’Brien, he vows to lead an aggressive campaign to organize Amazon. But he’s more conciliatory when it comes to UPS and defends the 2018 contract. “UPS pays a lot of money to our members,” he says. “We have great benefits. We have good working conditions. We can always do better, and we intend to do better in our upcoming contract negotiations.”
O’Brien has tried to paint Vairma as a Hoffa stooge. Vairma has attempted to deflect these attacks by noting that his opponent until quite recently was himself a team Hoffa member. He’s also hammered O’Brien for his 2013 suspension and the Top Chef scandal. “I have never had a bad record, never been under suspension, and certainly, certainly have never been disciplined for any reason whatsoever,” he said, shaking his head with disapproval in a September debate at the National Press Club in Washington.
If that was intended to be a body blow, it didn’t shake O’Brien. “He made a statement earlier that said he’s never been investigated, never been in trouble,” he responded with dismissive shrug. “That’s easy when you’re not doing anything. But when you’re out there, being aggressive and taking calculated risks for the betterment of your many members, of course there’s going to be controversy.”
Will cardholders see it that way? Perhaps. “We’re talking about the Teamsters,” says John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University. “Not the Rotary Club.”
If he defeats Vairma, O’Brien may have to move forward with more finesse. Organizing Amazon will be a war fought on many fronts. He says locals around the country will need to continue working with community activists and elected officials to pressure Amazon, while the union presses Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021, which will make it easier for unions to organize at union-resistant employers such as Amazon.
O’Brien looks forward to some White House assistance. His Boston connections will come in handy here. President Joe Biden’s labor secretary is O’Brien’s friend Marty Walsh, formerly Boston’s mayor. “He’s always been a champion of working people, and I don’t expect anything less,” O’Brien says. “Am I going to ask the impossible of him?
No, absolutely not. But you know, obviously, there are certain things he can be helpful with.” The Department of Labor declined to comment on the IBT election.
O’Brien also hopes for more favorable rulings from the National Labor Relations Board after what he describes as “a four-year reign of terror” under former President Donald Trump. The union wants the NLRB to take a stronger stand against what labor advocates describe as misclassification of workers as independent contractors. “It’s something that’s been going on for years but it is now so widespread,” says Logan, the labor professor. “It particularly affects the kind of workers that the Teamsters are trying to organize.”
O’Brien always returns, however, to the idea that the key to organizing Amazon is extracting a much tougher contract from UPS, one that lures more nonunion employees into the fold. Vairma disagrees—he says O’Brien’s “demonizing” of the current deal could hinder the Teamsters’ efforts at Amazon. Whatever deficiencies the current contract may have, the Teamsters have done well by UPS.
The company has traditionally paid the highest salaries in the delivery business, with drivers earning as much as $90,000 a year. And the number of Teamsters at UPS has more than doubled in the last 14 years.
UPS hasn’t exactly suffered from the relationship, either. It’s had a higher operating margin than rival FedEx Corp., which uses non-union drivers, in nine of the past 10 years. Even so, UPS is under pressure from Amazon, both its largest customer and a delivery competitor, along with a wave of startups, many of which use gig workers compensated by the number of boxes they deliver rather than an hourly wage.
Carol Tomé, the chief executive officer of UPS, is clearly paying attention. In September the company purchased Roadie, a same-day delivery startup with a network of 200,000 gig drivers serving much of the country. At the time, UPS said Roadie would operate separately from the rest of the company and its drivers wouldn’t siphon away package volume from the regular workforce.
O’Brien is naturally skeptical. He sees UPS’s recent move as a scheme to reduce the number of Teamsters on its payroll and says it’s time for the union to draw the line. He promises that this round of negotiations with UPS will be different from the last.
At the union’s convention in June, he championed a successful effort to remove the two-thirds majority requirement from the IBT’s constitution. He also notes that there’s $300 million in the IBT’s strike fund waiting to be spent. “UPS will be the example,” he promises.
But first O’Brien has to win the election. He spent much of September and October on the road, squeezing hands outside UPS facilities, supermarket warehouses that are also Teamster strongholds, and probably a few zoos. “You’ve just got to get out there and talk to people,” he says. “They want to see you.”
On a Sunday morning in mid-October, he’s back in Boston for Local 25’s monthly meeting. Since the pandemic started, the meetings have been held in the parking lot outside the union hall. It’s surrounded by former factories, many of which probably once employed union members.
They’re now being turned into upscale apartment buildings. Coffee urns have been set up, doughnuts put out. Members start arriving at 8 a.m., trustees and business agents in their suits, the rank and file in T-shirts and hoodies. Others rumble up loudly on motorcycles, wearing leather.
At 10, O’Brien, in a dark suit and brown sneaker-like wingtips, takes his place with his officers on the back of a flatbed truck. Much of the meeting consists of routine business—the recitation of retiree names, an update on the local’s finances, the latest on negotiations. Then he steps up to the podium for a closing, and the event takes on the quality of a revival meeting.
He talks about how union members worked through the pandemic, but did their bosses appreciate it? He doesn’t think so, and he says it’s time to change their minds. “We’re going to take this fight to the employers,” O’Brien says, pumping his first. “We are the most valuable resource in this entire nation.” The audience of about 300 gives him a standing ovation.
O’Brien concludes with a football metaphor, one he’s employed during the campaign to differentiate himself from his more measured opponent. “When you screw with the Teamsters Union, it’s a full-contact sport,” he tells his cheering listeners. “Put your helmets on, buckle your chinstraps. The game is on!”
The Hoffa Era Is Over As A New Top Negotiator Is Coming To The Teamsters
One of the nation’s biggest unions is electing a new president this week as workers are increasingly demanding more from their employers.
The Hoffa reign is coming to an end.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is set to elect this week its first new leader in more than two decades. With nearly 1.4 million members, it is one of the largest unions in the country, representing workers from delivery drivers to airline staff to warehouse employees.
The Teamsters’ membership includes about 350,000 United Parcel Service Inc. workers as well as employees from DHL International GmbH, United Airlines Holdings Inc., US Foods Holding Corp. , Sysco Corp. and Anheuser-Busch InBev SA, among other companies. The union also wants to organize Amazon.com Inc. workers.
The election comes when workers are demanding more from their employers amid one of the largest worker shortages in years, rising inflation, sharp wage gains and supply-chain snafus. Workers at Kellogg Co. have gone on strike.
Starbucks Corp. is facing a rare union challenge in upstate New York. And support for unions among Americans is at its highest since 1965, according to a recent Gallup poll.
For the Teamsters, the election marks the end of the reign of James P. Hoffa. The 80-year-old son of former Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa has been general president of the union since 1999. He isn’t running for re-election, meaning his successor stands to instill fresh blood into the top leadership spot.
Erik Loomis, a professor at the University of Rhode Island and labor historian, said the legacy of the name Hoffa is synonymous with the Teamsters.
“A long era’s coming to an end,” he said.
Mr. Hoffa is the union’s second-longest-serving general president since the Teamsters began in the early 1900s. He oversaw the revitalizing of the union’s finances and pushed for the Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act that passed this year, which gives financial aid to pension funds. But the Hoffa name is still often associated with his father, who ran the Teamsters from 1957 to 1971.
Jimmy Hoffa’s tenure at the union—which has captured the imagination of Hollywood over the years, most recently in “The Irishman”—was marked by the senior Mr. Hoffa going to jail for jury tampering, among other charges. President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence. The late Mr. Hoffa disappeared in 1975 and was never found, despite a decadeslong search by law enforcement.
During most of his son’s tenure, the Teamsters remained under a 1989 consent decree that brought strict federal oversight to eliminate corruption and alleged Mafia influence. The decree ended earlier this year.
“In the Teamsters union, my father is a great hero, and I have been very, very proud to carry that name and to carry on the work that he started years ago and we’ve done that,” Mr. Hoffa, the current union leader, said.
The election this week will decide who will take Mr. Hoffa’s place: Steve Vairma or Sean O’Brien.
Mr. Vairma is the secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 455 in Denver and director of the Teamsters’ warehouse division. Mr. O’Brien is the president of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston and former head of the Teamsters’ packages division.
Whoever is elected will begin his five-year term tasked with negotiating national agreements for DHL workers and car haulers, both in the first half of next year. And the next UPS contract is up in the middle of 2023.
Both slates aim to organize Amazon, whose workers aren’t currently unionized but have made inroads to organizing in some places across the U.S.
“We’ve got to find a way to leverage our relationships, leverage our rank-and-file members to help organize Amazon and to negotiate the strongest contracts in similar industries, like UPS and DHL so that…you have a product that you can show to an unorganized Amazon worker,” Mr. O’Brien said.
Ron Herrera, Mr. Vairma’s running mate, also wants the Teamsters to be the union that represents Amazon. But, he added, “Amazon only gets organized through a multiunion task force working together to understand the destruction that Amazon brings.”
An Amazon spokeswoman said the company doesn’t believe unions are the best answer for its employees. “Everyday we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes—quickly. That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle,” she said.
On Friday, a group of Amazon warehouse employees in the New York City borough of Staten Island withdrew their petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election at four company warehouses because of a lack of adequate support. That union push was the biggest challenge to Amazon by organized labor since a failed unionization effort earlier this year in Alabama.
On strikes, Mr. O’Brien said it won’t be the Teamsters’ first priority, but he is “very optimistic that once we restore the strength and pride back in our membership that strikes will happen.” Mr. O’Brien said the union has a $330 million fund for strikes.
“We’ve got to be a more aggressive union,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Basically we have to rebuild this whole organization and take it to a level that it hasn’t seen in decades because it’s been led by complacency.”
Mr. Herrera said there will be more strikes by Teamsters members if necessary. “I think that the projection of the Teamsters has to be that we will seek economic action against any employer that disrespects its workers,” Mr. Herrera said.
Both candidates’ slates—which in total span 24 people, including candidates to serve as regional leaders and trustees—have more women compared with the union’s current leadership, which includes only one woman. The slate from Mr. O’Brien and his running mate, Fred Zuckerman, includes two women, while the slate from Messrs. Vairma and Herrera has five. Women make up more than a third of Teamsters members.
Mr. Hoffa, the current general president, has endorsed Messrs. Vairma and Herrera’s slate.
“We get criticized for being the Hoffa slate,” Mr. Herrera said. He added that he takes pride in that “because I respect Mr. Hoffa so much.”
To Bargain With Their Landlords, Renters Form Tenant Unions
Apartment tenants are forming unions in an effort to gain leverage in landlord negotiations, a response to record-high rents and the recent expiration of eviction bans enacted during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tenant unions, also known as associations, have been around for more than a century. They have been especially active in expensive cities with large renter populations such as San Francisco and New York. Now they are spreading in places like Akron, Ohio; Milwaukee, and the Maryland suburbs.
Hundreds of new tenant unions have been formed during the pandemic, estimated Katie Goldstein, director of housing campaigns for the Center for Popular Democracy. The progressive organization with 50 affiliate groups across the country is one of a handful of activist networks advising tenant unions.
Landlord trade organizations confirm there has been a sharp rise in new unions, though they noted that many of the groups have only a few members.
Tenant unions often start with letters to the landlord, asking for things like building improvements or a meeting to discuss evictions. They can escalate by holding public protests, contacting government officials or going on a rent strike, as did a tenant union organized in Queens, N.Y.
In the corporate world, labor unions are winning some new converts, including at two Starbucks Corp. stores in the Buffalo, N.Y., area, where the coffee chain’s employees have unionized for the first time. At an Amazon.com Inc. fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala., workers will vote next month for the second time on unionizing.
A key difference from labor unions is that tenant associations in the private housing market have almost none of the legal recognition that organized labor does, which means tenant groups have much less bargaining power.
Some lawmakers in San Francisco, responding in part to tenant complaints, said they plan to consider this year a proposal to force city landlords to meet with tenant unions. The proposal would impose temporary rent reductions on landlords that fail to do so.
Some building owners are skeptical of these tenant organizations and laws that would empower them, worried that recognizing a union would give tenants the false impression that they can rewrite rent rules.
“We’re wary that the legislation will bring some misconceptions that things are on the table and up for negotiation that aren’t,” said Charley Goss, manager of government and community affairs at the San Francisco Apartment Association, a landlord trade group.
A number of tenant union calls to forgive all unpaid rent, for example, was “not something that’s productive,” Mr. Goss said.
Alicia Roberts spent years living at the Paradise Apartments in St. Petersburg, Fla. When Paradise sold to a new landlord in April, she expected a new stove. Instead, she missed a rent payment and got an eviction notice.
Not long after she was told to leave, she joined the St. Petersburg Tenants Union. The organization, which works with tenants across the city, pressed the new owner, then a local city councilman, to let Ms. Roberts stay. The group also made its case to local media at a press conference in front of Paradise. As a result of these efforts, Ms. Roberts said she got a new stove, her eviction was dropped, and she signed a one-year lease.
If it wasn’t for the union, Ms. Roberts said, “I’d probably be gone.”
The landlord declined to comment.
Most unions are formed at individual properties, though organizers increasingly focus on uniting renters who live in different buildings and share the same landlord, an approach that they say emulates industrial trade unions.
In Akron, about a year ago, when a new company bought the city’s low-income Wilbeth Arlington Homes, residents said they faced rodent infestations, water damage and mold.
Under the new owner, new problems cropped up, such as a lack of lighting in the parking lot that left some feeling unsafe at night, said LaTanya Tyes, a Wilbeth Arlington tenant who leads the apartment complex’s new tenant union.
Ms. Tyes said she has enlisted about 30% of her neighbors. After local press reported on some of the tenant union’s complaints, the building owner visited the property and presented an improvement plan to the local city council.
Nick Boehm, director of the landlord, Redwood Housing, said he found the union’s input useful.
“The tenant union has helped shed light on the lack of open lines of communication between property management and tenants, which we believe has now been addressed and progress is being made,” he said.
The Tech That Slumlords Hate
Housing activists, officials and researchers are deploying new tools to empower tenants, spotlight negligent property owners and curb evictions in U.S. cities.
The first words on the sign — “VACANT PROPERTY” — posted on the front door of a boarded-up rowhouse in Baltimore’s Upton neighborhood may overstate the obvious: The two-story brick home, its front steps sandwiched between tall weeds and a pile of garbage, clearly hasn’t been inhabited for some time.
But the QR code sitting in the sign’s bottom right corner is a window to a trove of more expansive information about this building.
Scanning the pattern with a smartphone camera directs the user to a city web page linking to databases on property ownership, building permits, pending court cases and more. While this information is all publicly available, not everyone knows how to navigate these assorted city and state data portals.
The QR code signs are being installed by the city on its 17,000-plus properties with vacant building notices. It’s a practical evolution of a project that began as an artistic collaboration:
Back in 2013, Baltimore housing activist Carol Ott and a troupe of street artists launched an effort called Wall Hunters, painting murals on vacant buildings that were accompanied by QR codes that led users to information about the building’s owner on Ott’s blog, Baltimore Slumlord Watch.
Now, under the auspices of the city’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, the same QR-code powered mechanism is helping neighbors learn who owns the eyesores on their block, keep tabs on work in progress (or the lack thereof), and potentially get in touch with the property owners themselves.
“We’re talking about democratizing access to information,” said Brendan Schreiber, president of Schreiber Brothers Development, a firm that focuses on affordable housing in Baltimore. As a developer, he does have some mixed feelings about the signs — he worries that exposing small developers to potential scrutiny may deter them from undertaking projects.
But he appreciates that the program is working as intended by making it a lot easier for members of the public to figure out what’s going on with buildings in their community. “If you aren’t a professional or no one’s told you [about each website], it’s too much work. That’s the genius of the QR code program. It’s simple, it’s easy to understand and it can be effective.”
Several new tools are aiming to confront opaque systems that tend to benefit property owners at neighbors’ and tenants’ expense. Some, like Baltimore’s QR code program, boost transparency and help the public hold property owners and landlords accountable. Others are advocate-led projects that aim to shine a spotlight on serial evictors, ward off the long-dreaded eviction cliff of forced displacement, and help tenants weather the huge spike in rents affecting cities nationwide.
Think of this as the flip-side to the flurry of “proptech” innovation aimed at real estate investors and developers — from privately developed, high-level analytics and commercial databases like CoStar to Ring doorbells and cameras that can monitor tenants. To Erin McElroy of the San Francisco-based Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, which visualizes and tracks renter displacement in several cities, it’s high time that similar tools were widely available for tenants as well as real estate professionals.
“Really, we’re trying to balance the system, so to speak,” McElroy said.
Getting A Handle On Vacancy
An early example of such tech, somewhat clunkily named “blexting” — blight texting — emerged in Detroit in 2013 as a means of dealing with the vast number of vacant and abandoned homes in that city. Local software company Loveland Technologies (recently rebranded as Regrid) began gathering parcel data on vacants across the Motor City, which had just declared bankruptcy.
With entire blocks abandoned and properties left in chronic disrepair, Detroiters ranging from neighbors, to community groups and advocates, to real estate investors sought a tool that simply answered, “Who is the owner of that thing?” said Jerry Paffendorf, the company’s CEO.
They got much more. In 2013, the White House-supported Detroit Blight Elimination Task Force approached Loveland Technologies to help determine exactly how many properties had been abandoned.
The startup turned to the public: Through the Motor City Mapping project, it built a software platform, app and a detailed survey tree — covering various degrees of property condition, occupancy, current use and more — and hired 200 Detroiters to visit the city’s nearly 380,000 properties, take photos and log their conditions.
Redundancies helped to ensure whether a dwelling was or was not vacant, like cross-checking against datasets on active electricity, water or mail service. The Motor City Mapping database lived on a public site, where an entry could be corrected or updated.
“What it really presented was this super granular, genetic code of current land use and occupancy,” Paffendorf said.
It proved influential, and the effort got residents directly involved in what amounted to a reparative property census for a broken city.
The City of Detroit shortly thereafter absorbed Motor City Mapping’s data into its municipal IT functions, and used its findings to obtain resources from the federal Hardest Hit Fund, an Obama-era Treasury program that offers mortgage payment assistance and other aid to underwater homeowners.
Regrid has since undertaken property-surveying projects in high-poverty cities such as Cleveland and Flint, and the approach has been replicated by community groups in places like New Orleans.
Maps That Fight Back
In addition to helping cities gain a grasp of the vacancy problem and begin to hold slumlords accountable with penalties or property seizures, crowdsourced data has also proven useful for helping to address a long-building tax delinquency crisis.
Motor City Mapping created a foundational tool for organizations helping families threatened by eviction under Detroit’s infamous property tax foreclosure process, which seizes homes after two years of tax delinquency. Through its surveys, the project initially identified tens of thousands of homes that were occupied but due to be foreclosed upon and auctioned off, thereby displacing more residents.
Neighbor to Neighbor, a collaboration between Quicken Loans’ Rocket Community Fund, the United Community Housing Coalition and other organizations, now uses Regrid’s and Motor City Mapping’s process to connect with families. The idea is to “preemptively getting out to properties where … someone may lose probably the biggest asset in their life,” Paffendorf said.
A 2020 report summarizing Neighbor to Neighbor’s second full year of work noted canvassers visited nearly 60,000 tax-delinquent properties in Detroit, and were able to inform residents — roughly one-quarter of them tenants — about ways to avoid displacement or even acquire the home they are renting if it’s facing foreclosure auction.
Paffendorf said tech-driven solutions like Motor City Mapping alone are no “silver bullet” in confronting slumlords or inhumane systems. Big data can be held up “like a totem” and be used to produce reports or better inform city government, he said, but to directly protect tenants and neighbors, “you really need to have a motivated resource like housing advocates or counseling organizations that are trying to understand individual cases,” he said.
The grassroots-led Anti-Eviction Mapping Project has built its suite of tools off of that very philosophy. Erin McElroy helped found the cartography-as-advocacy project in San Francisco in 2013.
After the Great Recession, a wave of investment firms bought up rental properties using LLCs and LLPs, and “a central problem that we kept on coming up against was that tenants didn’t know who their landlords were,” McElroy said.
So, McElroy and other research-savvy colleagues decided to put those landlords’ names and evictions out in the open. In the Bay Area, they linked up with dozens of housing advocacy organizations and legal aid groups that fed them information on individual eviction cases and landlords. From the beginning, their team included web developers to build out their website and perform the data analysis needed for their maps.
Scrolling through the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project website today, a user can scan maps of properties owned by specific “Wall Street landlords” — real estate investment trusts such as Invitation Homes and American Homes 4 Rent that have bought thousands of properties in California in recent years — and get tips on how to research them.
The site also has info on serial evictors in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas and New York City who operate under the guise of various LLCs. That’s all due to the connections between project volunteers and housing organizers, tenant communities and attorneys.
The project has also used its network to expand to new cities and roll out other tools. Its latest offering, started in 2019 and still in beta testing by a coalition of Bay Area community partners, lets a user look up an address or the associated LLC or LLP and displays all associated properties and shell companies.
They’ve even come up with an answer for proptech. While real estate industry players today have robust tools at their disposal, data about landlords’ use of those tools is hard to come by.
Landlord Tech Watch attempts to address that by sharing crowdsourced reports from all over the country about landlords who’ve deployed such technologies in their buildings. Its map includes a color-coded key of various technologies, such as facial recognition cameras and phone apps for rent collection, that tenants may view as privacy threats.
It’s a start in sharing information about the growing use of such technologies by landlords, McElroy noted, “because so many tenants don’t know about it” in the first place.
Bringing Data Into The Light
Just as some Baltimoreans may not need QR codes to learn who owns what, plenty of renters can navigate a web of shell companies and business documents to identify who their landlord really is.
“There’s a long history of tenants fighting back against corporate landlords and slumlords and serial evictors through their own research methods,” McElroy said. “We’re just trying to make it easier for tenants to gain access to data that is traditionally hard to piece together.”
Within a specific geography, like San Francisco’s Mission District, doing so can lay the groundwork for organizing renters against property owners using inhumane tactics — particularly during a pandemic, when many landlords managed to skirt local and nationwide eviction bans.
The need for such data-gathering projects — similar examples have popped up in Atlanta, Richmond, New York City and elsewhere — arises from a dearth of centralized statistics on landlords’ eviction practices.
“Evictions, up until some of these recent efforts, were very much one of those problems that was pretty hidden from view,” said Devin Rutan, a graduate researcher at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which developed its own nationwide tracker of evictions from 2000 through 2016 and more recently created a real-time tracker of Covid-era evictions.
While none of this information — the Eviction Lab’s or other projects’ — is uniform or guaranteed to be a complete picture, it has helped to create a sense of scale and urgency, project leaders say.
It can also shape public policy. Rutan noted the Eviction Lab assembled a 2016 ranking of the 10 large cities with the country’s worst eviction rates, with Virginia municipalities taking up half of the list. After two years of scrutiny and calls for reform, in early 2019 the state enacted a handful of laws aiming to reduce the likelihood of eviction for a renter.
As the Supreme Court lifted the federal moratorium for evictions at the end of August, leaving only a dwindling handful of local bans, Rutan said increasing public awareness about the eviction cliff can help draw attention to the cruelties and economic consequences of kicking renters out.
“Because processes like eviction occur in these really dark inaccessible corners of government, it lends landlords a lot of license to get away with things that are clearly outside the bounds of housing codes or landlord-tenant codes,” he said. “A solution to that — a way to start — is by bringing some of the basic numbers to light.”
What Tech Alone Can’t Do
While many of these tools have obvious transparency benefits, some present chances for problematic forces to take advantage. Schreiber, the Baltimore affordable housing developer, noted he’s already been contacted by someone who obtained his contact information from a QR code outside a vacant house he plans to revive in North Baltimore. It turned out to be an out-of-state investor, rather than a curious neighbor.
It’s an example of the absence of a purposeful link between the tech and its intended user, a relationship that Paffendorf, in Detroit, described as “the peanut butter and jelly of good data and good, high-touch humanity.”
Nneka N’namdi, a longtime systems engineer and the founder of the social and economic justice initiative Fight Blight Bmore, sees a chance to fulfill that recipe in Baltimore by going a step further.
The West Baltimore resident is currently developing a Fight Blight Bmore app that she said will place the same information found through the QR code signs — property ownership, permits, past violations, 311 complaints — alongside higher-level analytics like predicted appraisal value and sales of comparable properties.
The app, currently in development and due to be released in January, will collectively provide “a single view of a property,” she said.
N’Namdi supports the city’s QR code sign rollout — albeit with some criticisms, including of the relatively small size of the signs and their use of a manual-entry landing page — saying “it’ll make it easier” for people to learn.
But she says that a more detailed and thoughtfully designed app can do more, providing a similar quality and array of data made available on private real estate databases to community members. Her hope is that a fuller, better-researched picture can empower neighbors to plan to redevelop properties on their own, rather than watching outside developers come in.
“They don’t often have access to the data to support their vision,” she said. The focus of the tech “should be making Baltimore better, designing Baltimore for the people who are here.”
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