Is Fight for 15 for Real?

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I organized a roundtable discussion on the Fight for 15 fast food strikers campaign with Chicago Whole Foods worker Trish Kahle, former SEIU staffer and author Jane McAlevey, and International Longshore and Warehouse Union organizing director Peter Olney. In it, the panelists discuss some of recent criticisms of the campaign as top-down and PR-driven. You can read it here

After Fighting Rahm Emanuel on Layoffs, Airport Janitors Demand New Union

After a yearlong battle with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose administration’s choice of a nonunion contractor for janitorial services at O’Hare Airport led to almost 300 layoffs of unionized janitors there, the new nonunion janitors demanded union recognition from their employer this week. I wrote about it yesterday for Working In These Times.

Two pieces on Chicago fast food and retail strikes

Photo by Bob Simpson.

Photo by Bob Simpson.

I think I’m still recovering from chasing around Chicago fast food and retail strikers since 4:30 AM on Wednesday. I wrote two pieces about them: one a general piece about the strikes for The Nation that came out the day of the action; read that one here. The other is a kind of post-strike analysis for Dissent–read that one here.

On the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare

I attended the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare’s conference in Chicago to cover it for The Nation a few weeks back. The article is up now–read it here. Of particular interest is the successful campaign for single payer in Vermont, and how other states are beginning to take lessons from it.

Paint Black Friday Red

First published in Jacobin.

(UFCW International Union / flickr)

The holiday season is upon us, and if you’re a Jacobin reader, you probably don’t have firm plans for Black Friday, the largest, most soul-crushing shopping day of the year. Maybe, if you’re still with your family, you’ll strike up the annual argument with your libertarian uncle.

Or maybe you’ll catch some news footage of stampeding hordes of predawn shoppers all but foaming at the mouth for a sale and pause to reflect on the madness of American consumerism.

But while hunkering down far from the frenzied masses might seem best for your mental and spiritual health, dare I suggest that you seek them out. Not for sweet bargains on a plasma television, but to join one of the nearly 1,000 daylong strikes against the largest private employer in the world.

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Strike Supporters Shut Down Illinois Walmart Warehouse

First posted at Labor Notes.

Six hundred supporters of striking Walmart warehouse workers in Elwood, Illinois, ratcheted up the pressure Monday with a huge march and civil disobedience that shut down the most important node in the company’s American distribution network. Workers estimate the shutdown cost the company several million dollars.

The goal was to shine light on an enormous but hidden workforce of warehouse employees toiling to move Walmart’s famously cheap products throughout the country. Community and labor supporters from the Chicago area joined the 30 strikers, who walked off the job in an unfair labor practice strike September 15.They are members of the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee.

Seventeen religious, labor, and community leaders were arrested at the warehouse entrance—closed for the day in anticipation of the action.

Coming on the heels of California warehouse workers’ return to work after a two-week strike, things seem to be heating up among workers in Walmart’s supply chain.

Miles of Warehouses

Driving southwest from Chicago on I-55 to Elwood, the scenery shifts quickly from dense cityscape to massive, nondescript, windowless warehouses. Unorganized convoys of semi-trucks make up the lion’s share of traffic in both directions. At an exit, a backup of big rigs waiting to enter the highway can be seen for more than two miles.

The existence of these massive distribution centers for multinational retailers subcontracted through multiple layers is usually unknown to consumers and even to the residents near the warehouse—and workers say companies want it that way.

“They hide behind the people they have subcontracted,” says Mike Compton, who is out on strike. “They get to pass blame when they have problems.”

Workers and supporters rallied at a park near the warehouse, with a wide swath of unions and community groups present, including the Chicago Teachers Union, Steelworkers, Service Employees, Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Workers United, Action Now, Arise Chicago, Latino Union, Stand Up! Chicago, Jobs with Justice, and others.

At the rally—surely the largest in Elwood history—workers told of backbreaking work for little pay, temperatures that oscillate between sweltering heat and bitter cold, management retaliation, and gender discrimination.

Yolanda Dickerson, who had worked in a warehouse for two years, says she “was sexually harassed on a regular basis,” recounting an incident of being locked in a trailer by male co-workers. After Dickerson reported the incident, she says management did nothing. WWJ says such reports are common.

Compton says “there’s no such thing as a raise in there,” and describes the turnover rate as “unreal,” a result of the brutality of the work and the callousness of managers.

“[Management] has no regard for our lives outside the warehouse,” he says.

Daniel Meadows, a striker who had been at the warehouse since January and in the industry for six years, felt similarly. As the crowd marched toward the warehouse gates, he explained the work’s effects.

“You literally can’t do anything after a shift,” he said, describing his work unloading 270-pound grills from trucks alone, by hand. “You’re so exhausted. In the summer, you’re soaked in sweat. In the winter, you’re freezing. You constantly have bruised shins,” from heavy carts with no brakes slamming into workers’ legs.

Meadows came to the warehouse through a temp agency. Warehouse Workers for Walmart, which began organizing in the area in 2009, estimates that 70 percent of Chicago-area warehouse workers are temps, amounting to a “perma-temp system” where workers can work for years without ever being hired full-time; be paid at, near, or sometimes below the minimum wage; and can be fired whenever bosses want.

“[Management] is constantly threatening to replace you. They want to send a message to you: that you’re totally expendable. We want to show that you can stand up to management and keep your job,” Meadows said.

When the march arrived at the locked warehouse gates—usually the site of a constant stream of semis entering and leaving—community leaders and pastors in clerical collars and stoles sat down in the street in front of the silent warehouse. Two dozen police, clad in full riot gear from head to toe, preparing to move in to make the arrests.

Even more jarring, a black Humvee was idling behind them, equipped with what appeared to be a Long-Range Acoustic Device, a sonic weapon for crowd control. Military-grade policing equipment and cops who appeared prepared for hand-to-hand streetfighting were being used to clear the street of pastors and community leaders softly singing “We Shall Overcome.”

As police prepared to make the arrests, strikers pointed at riot officers’ legs and started a chant referencing the common warehouse problem of constantly bruised shins. “You’ve got shinguards! We want shinguards!” they chanted.

One by one, the 17 were handcuffed and taken away. They were released several hours later with misdemeanor citations.

Justice Sought

Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), a United Electrical Workers union (UE) affiliate, says brutal working conditions, wage theft, and management retaliation against organizing workers are rampant—and the big-box companies like Walmart who are supplied by these warehouses use the complicated layers of subcontracting to avoid responsibility for working conditions.

“Walmart needs to take responsibility for the pattern of egregious abuses in its supply chain,” says WWJ organizer Leah Fried.

Fried says Walmart has five major distribution centers throughout the U.S. Those centers then distribute goods to smaller warehouses, which then distribute to Walmart stores. The Elwood location is the largest warehouse by far, according to Fried: 70 percent of all imported products that the company sells in the U.S. come through that warehouse alone.

Workers estimated that around $8 million was lost as a result of yesterday’s shutdown. While shopping in a nearby town, one striker’s wife overheard a Walmart manager complaining that he could not fully stock his store’s shelves because of the Elwood action. Fried says management shut down the warehouse today because “they’re afraid that workers who aren’t on strike would see the community support.”

There are 38 workers on strike out of a workforce of 120 at the temp supplier Roadlink and 400 workers overall in the warehouse. Their web site, warehouseworker.org, has a petition supporters can sign and a strike fund for donations.

California Strike Ends

In Southern California, three dozen non-union temporary workers at a Walmart warehouse ended their 15-day strike and returned to their jobs last Thursday.

The workers, whose direct employer is Walmart contractor NFI, marched with supporters 50 miles to downtown Los Angeles September 13-18, calling on Walmart to take responsibility for appalling safety conditions in its warehouses. Like the Illinois workers, they had suffered retaliation for their organizing efforts, and their strike was an unfair labor practices strike (NFI was thus legally obligated to permit them to return). They are connected to the Warehouse Workers United worker center, an affiliate of the Change to Win federation.

Back on the job, workers report that supervisors are no longer requiring them to work with broken ramps, which had forced workers to manually lift 500 lbs.

A Walmart spokesperson emailed the Huffington Post about the workers’ grievances—unusual, given the company’s habitual stonewalling. Calling their working conditions “fairly standard” and “consistent with the conditions in our own warehouses,” he nevertheless said Walmart is “conducting contract reviews with our service providers with an eye towards implementing specific health and safety requirements.”

Of course, Walmart already has “Standards for Suppliers,” and getting the company to enforce them has been a main goal of both warehouse worker groups.

The California workers gathered 120,000 signatures on a national petition calling on Walmart to meet with them.

Walmart retail workers from 11 stores in the L.A. area were set to rally in Pico Rivera, California, Thursday with community supporters, also to protest retaliation for organizing. They are part of the OUR Walmart organization, backed by the UFCW, which has protested the low pay of Walmart’s 1.4 million retail employees.

Between the two strikes in key places in the Walmart supply chain and the renewed public scrutiny the company is receiving, Compton, one of the strikers, feels confident that warehouse subcontractors and Walmart itself are worried.

“They just took a humongous financial hit. They’re definitely shaken up,” he said.

Advanced Placement

Originally posted at The American Prospect. 

Advanced Placement

The Chicago Teachers Union is poised to lead in the next school-reform fights.

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Chicago Public School teachers and students were back in classrooms Wednesday morning after union delegates voted Tuesday to end their seven-day strike. The union won a number of significant victories—including a provision that student test scores will count for no more than 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation and another that will give teachers more pay for longer school days and years. The proposed contract should be finalized and approved in the coming weeks. By almost all accounts, though, in its fight with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the union is emerging as the clear winner.

One of the sticking points in negotiations was over teacher evaluations and the role students’ test scores play in them. Emanuel is one of a number of national reformers who see unions as a roadblock to improving student performance and who subscribe to the philosophy that what poor, underperforming school districts need most are better teachers. Chicago teachers have emphasized throughout this fight that they want to weigh in on the education-reform debate and that their mission to do so extends far beyond an individual contract.

With a newly mobilized membership, widespread relationships with community groups, and much of the public’s trust, the Chicago Teachers Union has positioned itself to play a leading role in the debate in their city, which has an education system highly stratified between well-funded public magnet and private schools and crumbling, neighborhood-based schools—where more than 91 percent of public-school students are children of color, more than 90 percent attend hyper-segregated schools, and 82 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. Their efforts could lead the way for teachers in other cities to organize in the same way.

As union delegates streamed out of their meeting Tuesday evening, many said they were elated to return to work. Teachers embraced one another in the parking lot, and supporters chanted while holding signs reading “We’re Proud of You, CTU.” Teachers also immediately began talking about how to translate the momentum from the contract victory into a broader movement. These teachers want to refocus an education-reform debate that has centered on teacher performance to one that addresses structural barriers to student achievement, including the vastly unequal resources allocated to poor students and students of color in public schools throughout the country. Education reformers have cast teachers’ unions as a problem for urban public-school students; the Chicago union wants to present itself as a solution.

Parents had been on the teachers’ side in large numbers during the fight. They formed a support organization, Parents 4 Teachers, in early 2012 to back the teachers’ contract goals and show that they did not view teachers and their union as enemies. An active Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign mobilized community members who weren’t parents to support the union. Community groups like the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and the Grassroots Collaborative took key roles in organizing marches and town-hall meetings.

These relationships were not hastily thrown together to give a veneer of neighborhood-based union support. They were based on long-term relationships developed since the Congress of Rank and File Educators (CORE) took control of the union’s leadership in 2010 and emphasized in their platform opposition to school closures and encroaching privatization through the opening of new charter schools—reforms pushed for years under Mayor Richard M. Daley and former Chicago Public Schools CEO (now Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan—and strong relationships with community and parent organizations. While the teachers are legally limited to striking over economic issues, Karen Lewis and the rest of the union’s leaders insisted from the beginning of the contract negotiations that their fight extended past what could be won in a contract.

“That contract only governs a portion of what we’re fighting for. We’re fighting for public education itself,” says Eric Skalinder, a delegate and music teacher at Kelly High School in Brighton Park, a poor, mostly Mexican neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Skalinder is looking to the union’s allies for direction in the union’s next fights. “These community partners and parent alliances are new,” he says. “We’ve never been more mobilized or unified. We have to focus that energy on fighting privatization, advocating for neighborhood schools, all of it.”

It’s school closures, in particular, that union delegates and community organizations are concerned about. Mayor Emanuel has proposed closing 80 to 120 public schools and opening 60 charter schools in their stead, seen by many as a not-so-subtle scheme to weaken teachers unions and push privatization. Outside the union hall in an industrial district of Chinatown where delegates met, Kirstie Shanley, an occupational therapist at Walt Disney Magnet School, says the end of contract negotiations should lead to a quick shift in the mobilization to fight those closures.

“The community, clinicians, parents, teachers—they all need to be there when there’s a closing,” Shanley says. “Rahm and [Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude] Brizard have to be aware that every time they announce a school closing to turn it into a charter, we’re ready to mobilize and fight back.” She says there is also significant movement on a referendum calling for an end to what she calls the “abuses” of the city’s unelected school board.

Whatever their next battle, the 26,000 teachers seem ready, as a text alert circulating among them late Tuesday night suggested: “CTU ALERT: Wear red Wednesday. Meet in your parking lot before swiping in. Everyone walks in TOGETHER. This is the beginning.”