I got COVID-19 working at Ralphs. We need a voice in workplace safety

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

After spending seven weeks isolated in my bedroom sick with COVID-19, I stood in front of the Ralphs grocery store where I work, bracing to return. It took me about five minutes to make the decision to cross the threshold and go back to work. I wasn’t sure I could do it.

For 20 years I have been a Ralphs employee, working at different stores throughout Los Angeles. I work the night shift, cleaning, stocking and preparing the store for the next day. I believe I caught COVID-19 at work.

In the days before I got sick, the store was exceptionally crowded. I remember it clearly because it was packed as customers stocked up for the Jewish holiday the next day. My husband is Jewish and we observe all the holidays. That day I started to feel sick. I went home early and slept all day until my youngest daughter woke me at 7 p.m., nine hours after I usually wake up after a night of work. I couldn’t breathe. I was hot. My husband rushed me to the ER. I took a coronavirus test. It was positive…

In Los Angeles, masks have been required since April. But it’s not just the policies that matter. Kroger, which owns both Ralphs and Food 4 Less, has policies to encourage distancing and limit the number of customers in the store. But these policies are unevenly enforced. I have seen carts that are not always sanitized. I have seen check stands go uncleaned. The stores are often crowded. Customers wear masks as “chin straps” all the time.

If customers aren’t wearing masks, managers are supposed to approach them. But managers aren’t always there late at night, leaving workers like me sometimes vulnerable. When a Ralphs coworker and friend, who is a manager, asked two male customers to wear masks, one attacked her with a shopping cart and drew blood. After she defended herself, Kroger suspended her.

More than 1,175 members of my union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, have had confirmed cases of COVID-19. Four have died. Just last week two more workers at my store got infected. From where I stand, Kroger, the largest grocery store chain in the U.S., needs to do more to enforce safety measures.

Read the complete article here.

Kickstarter Employees Vote to Unionize in a Big Step for Tech Workers

From today’s New York Times:

Employees at the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter voted on Tuesday to unionize, the first well-known technology company to take the step toward being represented by organized labor.

The decision, which was formalized by a vote count at the National Labor Relations Board, came down to a narrow margin, with 46 employees voting in favor of the move and 37 opposing it. The debate over a union — and whether such representation was appropriate for highly paid tech workers — had been a source of tension at the company for many months.

“I’m overjoyed by this result,” said Dannel Jurado, a Kickstarter senior software engineer who voted for a union. “There’s a long road ahead of us, but it’s a first step to the sustainable future in tech that I and so many others want to see.”

The pro-union vote is significant for the technology industry, where workers have become increasingly activist in recent years over issues as varied as sexual harassment and climate change. Behemoth companies such as Google and Amazon have struggled to get a handle on their employees, who have staged walkouts and demanded that their companies not work with government entities and others.

But large-scale unionization efforts have faltered. Only a group of contractors at a Google office in Pittsburgh unionized last year, and a small group of Instacart workers managed to do so this month. In the past, most unionization drives have been associated with blue-collar workers and lower-paid white-collar workers rather than white-collar tech workers, who are often paid upward of $150,000 a year.

Veena Dubal, an associate professor of employment law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, called the Kickstarter vote “a hugely important step” that “signals to workers across the tech industry that it is both desirable and possible to build collective structures to influence wages, working conditions and even business decisions.”

Read the complete article here.

Congress passes bill to ease bids by workers to form unions

From today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune:

In a move that supporters said would help working families, the Democratic-controlled House has approved a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions and bargain for higher wages, better benefits and improved working conditions.

The “Protecting the Right to Organize” or PRO Act would allow more workers to conduct organizing campaigns and would add penalties for companies that violate workers’ rights. The act would also weaken “right-to-work” laws that allow employees in more than half the states to avoid participating in or paying dues to unions that represent workers at their places of employment.

In one of its most controversial provisions, the bill would close loopholes that allow what supporters call intentional misclassification of workers as supervisors and independent contractors in order to prevent them from joining a union.

The House approved the bill, 224-194, on Thursday. The measure is unlikely to be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate and faces a veto threat from the White House.

Even so, Democrats touted it as a major victory for worker rights and said it would help reverse a decades-long trend of declining union membership in the U.S. workforce. Less than 11% of American workers belong to a union, a statistic Democrats called disgraceful.

“Without these protections, the playing field will remain heavily stacked against workers,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., called labor unions one of the most powerful tools workers have to improve their standard of living. But under current law, there are “no meaningful penalties for predatory corporations that use unlawful tactics to discourage workers from organizing a union,” said Scott, who chairs the House Education & Labor Committee.

Read the complete article here.

Major union launches campaign to organize video game and tech workers

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

The last two years have witnessed a wave of walkouts, petitions and other workplace actions at video game and tech companies.

But despite this swell in labor activism, employees at no major video game studios and only a handful of tech offices have formally voted to form or join a union.

A new campaign launched Tuesday by one of the nation’s largest labor unions — and spearheaded by one of the leading video game industry activists in Southern California — aims to change that.

The Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE for short) is a new project of the Communications Workers of America aimed specifically at unionizing video game and tech companies.

It grew out of conversations between the CWA and Game Workers Unite, a grass-roots organization that sprang up in 2018 to push for wall-to-wall unionization of the $43-billion video game industry, alongside conversations with organizers across the larger tech industry.

Separate from the new initiative, the Toronto chapter of GWU has also signed a formal partnership agreement with CWA to work on organizing in the area. (CWA is also the parent union of the NewsGuild, which represents workers at the L.A. Times and most major newspapers in the country.)

Read the complete article here.

After 30 days on strike, GM-UAW talks suddenly face a deadline

From today’s Detroit Free Press:

The clock is ticking for General Motors executives to reach a proposed tentative agreement with the UAW, people close to the talks said Tuesday.

The union’s move to summon its National GM Council to Detroit for a meeting Thursday morning was a pressure tactic to prompt GM leaders to reach a deal acceptable to the UAW, said three people familiar with the talks.

Talks continued Tuesday, with GM CEO Mary Barra and President Mark Reuss joining UAW President Gary Jones at the “main table” with the UAW’s lead negotiator in the talks, Terry Dittes.

That was widely seen as moving the talks toward their final phase, but no agreement had been reached Tuesday afternoon. Also present were the bargaining committee members for both sides. A person close to the talks said Barra and Reuss did not stay for discussions through the afternoon.

“Mary’s got two days to come up with a contract, then the National Council meets to decide what to do next,” said a person briefed on the negotiations late Tuesday.

For such heavyweights to show up to the main table indicates a proposed deal is likely close at hand, likely to happen late Wednesday or in the early morning hours Thursday prior to the National Council’s meeting, said one person who had been briefed on the talks.

“If they don’t have a deal, they will give us an update and let us know what the protocol is at that point,” said a UAW local leader who asked to not be named. “Product allocation is an issue GM has come late to the table on.” 

Read the complete article here.

State of the Unions: What happened to America’s labor movement?

From today’s New Yorker Magazine:

Do you have rights at work? Franklin Delano Roosevelt thought you did. In 1936, while trying to haul America’s economy out of the bog that the free market had driven it into, Roosevelt argued that workers needed to have a say, declaring it unjust that

a small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor—other people’s lives. For too many of us throughout the land, life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.

For Roosevelt, a system in which bosses could unilaterally decide “the hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor” amounted to “dictatorship.” He hoped that the New Deal would bring workers and managers together in a new form of workplace governance.

New Dealers drew on an idea known as industrial democracy, developed, in the late nineteenth century, by English socialist thinkers who saw workplace rights as analogous to civil rights such as due process and the freedoms of speech and assembly. Senator Robert Wagner, who wrote the National Labor Relations Act of 1935—also known as the Wagner Act—made the point explicitly: “Democracy in industry means fair participation by those who work in the decisions vitally affecting their lives and livelihood.” In their efforts to civilize the workplace, however, Roosevelt and his allies didn’t set up a new institution for workers to speak through. They relied on an existing one: the union.

Whenever the rate of unionization in America has risen in the past hundred years, the top one per cent’s portion of the national income has tended to shrink. After Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act and other pro-union legislation, a generation of workers shared deeply in the nation’s prosperity. Real wages doubled in the two decades following the Second World War, and, by 1959, Vice-President Richard Nixon was able to boast to Nikita Khrushchev that “the United States comes closest to the ideal of prosperity for all in a classless society.”

America’s unions and workers haven’t been faring quite as well lately. Where labor is concerned, recent decades strongly resemble the run-up to the Great Depression. Both periods were marked by extreme concentrations of personal wealth and corporate power. In both, the value created by workers decoupled from the pay they received: during the nineteen-twenties, productivity grew forty-three per cent while wages stagnated; between 1973 and 2016, productivity grew six times faster than compensation. And unions were in decline: between 1920 and 1930, the proportion of union members in the labor force dropped from 12.2 per cent to 7.5 per cent, and, between 1954 and 2018, it fell from thirty-five per cent to 10.5 per cent. In “Beaten Down, Worked Up” (Knopf), a compact, pointed new account of unions in America, Steven Greenhouse, a longtime labor reporter for the Times, writes that “the share of national income going to business profits has climbed to its highest level since World War II, while workers’ share of income (employee compensation, including benefits) has slid to its lowest level since the 1940s.”

Read the complete article here.

Yes, America Is Rigged Against Workers

From today’s New York Times:

The United States is the only advanced industrial nation that doesn’t have national laws guaranteeing paid maternity leave. It is also the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee workers any vacation, paid or unpaid, and the only highly developedcountry (other than South Korea) that doesn’t guarantee paid sick days. In contrast, the European Union’s 28 nations guarantee workers at least four weeks’ paid vacation.

Among the three dozen industrial countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has the lowest minimum wage as a percentage of the median wage — just 34 percent of the typical wage, compared with 62 percent in France and 54 percent in Britain. It also has the second-highest percentage of low-wage workers among that group, exceeded only by Latvia.

All this means the United States suffers from what I call “anti-worker exceptionalism.”

Academics debate why American workers are in many ways worse off than their counterparts elsewhere, but there is overriding agreement on one reason: Labor unions are weaker in the United States than in other industrial nations. Just one in 16 private-sector American workers is in a union, largely because corporations are so adept and aggressive at beating back unionization. In no other industrial nation do corporations fight so hard to keep out unions.

The consequences are enormous, not only for wages and income inequality, but also for our politics and policymaking and for the many Americans who are mistreated at work.

Read the complete article here.

Trump won key union workers in 2016. Will Scalia as labor secretary change that for 2020?

From PBS Newshour Online:

To critics, the nomination of a labor secretary who built his career fighting unions underscores a President Donald Trump’s attacks against organized labor.

But for Trump, it seems appointing Eugene Scalia is a way to continue taking on unions through deregulation and business-centric policies without alienating rank and file union members in key states he’ll need to win reelection in 2020.

The president’s pick, which he announced on Twitter but has not officially submitted to the Senate, also shows Trump’s willingness to push the boundaries on who makes a suitable labor nominee, compared to past Republican administrations.

In the past, “Republicans tended to choose businessmen” to lead the Department of Labor, said Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University. “Often they were businessmen who had dealings with unions. But [they] were not anti-union.”

Scalia, the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, appears to be a departure from that norm.

Scalia is a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Gibson Dunn, where he focuses on labor and employment issues. As an attorney, he has worked on behalf of Walmart, Ford, UPS and a host of other companies in lawsuits fighting against workers’ rights claims. He also served a brief stint as the Labor Department’s solicitor in 2002.

Some union leaders argued Scalia is also more extreme than Trump’s past appointments for the cabinet position. Scalia is Trump’s third pick for labor secretary. Businessman Andrew Puzder withdrew from consideration after it was reported that he had hired an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper. Former prosecutor Alex Acosta served as labor secretary for two years before resigning earlier this month after coming under scrutiny for his role in a 2008 plea deal for financier Jeffrey Epstein, who is facing charges of sex trafficking.

Read the complete article here.

Can Courts Strike Down Right-to-Work?

From The American Prospect:

Last week, in a move that’s as likely to baffle union activists as it is to encourage them, a West Virginia judge struck down key portions of the state’s “right-to-work” law.

The Kenawha County judge’s ruling may amount to no more than a temporary hiccup in West Virginia Republicans’ war to destroy unions. But it’s another example of how hotly provisions of the 1947 federal Taft-Hartley Act are being contested in the courts as it becomes clearer that the anti-union impact of the law has contributed to an era of massive inequality that threatens our democracy.

West Virginia’s “right to work” law was rammed through on a party-line vote prior to 2016’s presidential election and the recent statewide teachers strikes. It had survived a Democratic gubernatorial veto and a previous injunction based in part on its ridiculously sloppy drafting. Last week, however, siding with a coalition of unions that included the building trades, Teamsters and Mineworkers, Judge Jennifer Bailey ruled the law  “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally imposes an excessive burden on Plaintiffs’ associational rights,” and that the goal of letting workers opt out of union membership “can be, and have been, fully accomplished without taking the additional steps of prohibiting agency fees, and giving free riders something for nothing.”

Anne Marie Lofaso, a professor of law at West Virginia University, describes Bailey’s ruling as “an extremely well-done decision that holds together and reflects some excellent lawyering for the union plaintiffs.”

In many respects, the West Virginia decision is a replay of a briefly encouraging moment in April of 2016 when a Dane County judge struck down Wisconsin’s recently enacted “right-to-work” law. That decision was predictably reversed by a Republican-dominated higher state court one year later.

Read the complete article here.

In victory for unions, judge overturns key parts of Trump executive orders

From today’s Washington Post:

A federal judge late Friday dealt a victory to federal employees and the unions that represent them, invalidating overnight key provisions of a series of Trump administration executive orders aimed at making it easier to fire employees and weaken the unions.

The overnight ruling by U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in Washington was a setback to the White House’s efforts to rein in the power of federal unions. Though federal employees’ pay is set by Congress, their unions have retained significant power even as private-sector unions have been in decline.

The three executive orders, issued just before Memorial Day, had sought to severely restrict the use of “official time” — on-duty time that union officials can spend representing their members in grievances and on other issues. The rules also limited issues that could be bargained over in union negotiations. And it rolled back the rights of workers deemed to be poor performers to appeal disciplinary action against them.

Read the complete article here.