Category Archives: trade unions

The Return of the Strike

The picketing GM workers and impending Chicago Teachers Union action suggest a dramatic revival of striking as a tactic.

By Sarah Jaffe
The Progressive

Oct 8, 2019 – Friday night on the picket line at the General Motors facility in Langhorne, Pennsylvania involved pizza reheated over a firepit, supporters dropping by with beers and snacks, and a dance party to Carly Rae Jepsen.

It was the eighteenth day of the strike, which shows no signs of ending as of this writing. Spirits were surprisingly high despite the cold. Strikers in their UAW shirts and supporters were cutting up pallets for firewood, and planning a potluck for the following weekend. “Maybe it’ll be a victory celebration!”

The strike at GM, now at twenty-three days the longest in decades at an American auto manufacturer, came as a surprise even to longtime labor observers like me. Certainly, the workers have ample reasons for anger. GM’s CEO made $21.87 million last year while the workforce is splintered into tiers (new hires who do the same work get paid less than longtime employees) and dotted with permatemps. But because the action of the strike has been all but dead in U.S. manufacturing for decades, a massive strike at one of the Big Three car companies has seemed like a pipe dream.

Yet now, the workers are dug in, holding picket lines twenty-four hours a day and determined to see the end of the tiered system and the use of temps, and a revived though still small left is determined to show solidarity.

Of course, we’re still nowhere near the strike frequency levels seen before Ronald Reagan’s crushing of the air traffic controllers’ union in 1981. Acts of rebellion in recent years have been more likely to be occupations, uprisings, the kinds of dispersed mass protests that spread virally from city to city, as in the Occupy movement and the Movement for Black Lives. The Trump era brought back the mass march, alongside more disruptive actions like the airport protests in response to the Muslim ban. But the strike, long considered gone, is creeping back into favor.

Chicago Teachers Took the Lead

It was the Chicago Teachers Union in 2012 that revived the strike in dramatic fashion, defeating state and city officials determined to make teachers’ strikes a thing of the past. In the process, it provided a template for a reshaping of public sector unions that have allowed those unions to survive the 2018 Janus decision, which ruled that union fees in the public sector are unconstitutional. The teachers struck “for the schools Chicago students deserve,” and rallied the community to their side. They reminded us all what it looks like when city streets are filled with workers making demands. Continue reading The Return of the Strike

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SEIU President Rallies Workers in Pittsburgh on Labor Day

By Marylynne Pitz

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union for nearly 10 years, organized health care employees during the late 1990s at a major Catholic hospital system in California.

Before Pittsburgh’s Labor Day Parade began, Ms. Henry urged local union members during a rally at Freedom Corner in the Hill District to continue fighting, despite the legal odds.

“The right to organize doesn’t exist any longer in the U.S. We have an 80-year-old law that is broken,” Ms. Henry on Monday told a large crowd that included boilermakers, carpenters, journalists, postal carriers, shipbuilders and steamfitters.

“UPMC workers have been trying to form a union since 2012. Ten thousand hospital workers have been trying to get to a bargaining table,” Ms. Henry said.

UPMC has announced that its hourly workers will earn $15 an hour in 2021.

The SEIU’s plan, called Unions for All, envisions workers organizing and bargaining across industries instead of the workplace-by-workplace system currently used in the U.S.

“Bargaining by industry, where workers from multiple companies sit across a table from the largest employers in their industry to negotiate nationwide for wages and benefits, is standard practice in almost every developed country in the world,” Ms. Henry said.

The SEIU also wants to ensure that every public dollar creates union jobs and that every federal worker and contractor earns at least $15 an hour and has the chance to join a union.

One of the UPMC employees who marched in the parade was Nila Payton of East Hills, who belongs to Hospital Workers Rising.

A UPMC receptionist for 13½ years, Ms. Payton said a union survey found that at least 5,000 UPMC employees are in debt to their employer for medical care.

“They steer us to Medicaid. Some of us make too much to get Medicaid. Some people are actually scared of going to the doctor for fear of going into medical debt,” Ms. Payton said.

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Mt. Lebanon, said federal labor law is “in urgent need of an update” because employers can play “lots of tricks” to delay bargaining.

“We need to level the playing field, ” Mr. Lamb said.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the former mayor of Braddock, served as the parade’s grand marshal. Other politicians attending included Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.

Marchers walked down Grant Street, past the historic marker for Henry Clay Frick, just outside the building named for the industrialist.

Many trade unionists remember Frick for provoking violence by hiring 300 Pinkerton agents armed with Winchester Rifles during the bloody Homestead steel strike of 1892.

On the Boulevard of the Allies, where the parade ended, marchers passed the Red Door, where volunteers at St. Mary’s Parish were giving sandwiches to the homeless.

Continue reading SEIU President Rallies Workers in Pittsburgh on Labor Day

Bernie Sanders endorsed by Pittsburgh-based United Electrical Workers

By Christina Suttles
Beaver County Times

Aug 26, 2019 – Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders nabbed a presidential endorsement from the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America on Monday, following a speech at the union’s convention.

PITTSBURGH — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders nabbed a presidential endorsement from the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America on Monday, following a speech at the union’s convention.

Sanders is the second 2020 Democratic candidate publicly supported by a national labor union; the International Association of Fire Fighters endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden earlier this year.

During his speech at downtown Pittsburgh’s Wyndham Grand Hotel, Sanders told hundreds of local workers his plans to protect middle-class families and tackle corporate greed.

“We can have a nation where all of our people live with security and dignity,” he said. “We can have a nation which does not have a huge gap between the very rich and everybody else, where income and wealth inequality is growing …”

Union leadership said Sanders has been a longtime supporter of workplace actions, including a nine-day strike in Erie earlier this year involving 1,700 locomotive plant workers.

“Bernie understands the need for workers to have a democratic, independent union movement that is unafraid to challenge corporate America’s stranglehold on our economy,” said UE General President Peter Knowlton a statement. The union also supports Sanders’ plans to expand organized labor, end right-to-work laws and implement “Medicare for All.”

The UE represents about 35,000 workers across a variety of sectors, including Beaver County residents working throughout the state, a spokesperson for UE said. Other unions with ties to the region have yet to endorse a candidate. Continue reading Bernie Sanders endorsed by Pittsburgh-based United Electrical Workers

Court rules in favor of Beaver County power plant workers in FirstEnergy dispute

The Bruce Mansfield plant owned by FirstEnergy Corp. in Shippingport, Beaver County.

By Luke Torrance
Pittsburgh Business Times

Jul 8, 2019 – A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of about 230 union power plant workers in Beaver County, supporting the union’s claim for $5.5 million in back wages.

In a decision filed last week in Cincinnati, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit said that FirstEnergy Solutions Corp. had committed an unfair labor practice when it imposed a contract on the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 272 workers at the Bruce Mansfield coal-fired plant, located in Shippingport.

The contract between FirstEnergy and the union expired in 2014; after a year of negotiations, the company declared an impasse in October 2015. FirstEnergy implemented a contract that contained some previously discussed provisions, such as the elimination of retiree health subsidies for all in-the-box retirees by the end of the year. But provisions that the union had fought for, such as a wage increase, were not implemented, resulting in the union filing an unfair practice charge. Continue reading Court rules in favor of Beaver County power plant workers in FirstEnergy dispute

The Road Not Taken

The shuttering of the GM works in Lordstown will also bury a lost chapter in the fight for workers’ control.

By Sarah Jaffe
The New Republic

June 24, 2019 – Illustration by Nicolas Ortega Chuckie Denison took the podium at the United Steelworkers hall in Canton, Ohio, in his ever-present blue Good Jobs Nation T-shirt, flanked by people holding protest signs. One handmade sign read “Promises Made, Promises Broken”; it featured a likeness of President Trump, who’d flown into Ohio that day for a big-money fund-raiser at a nearby country club. Another sign pointed out that Lordstown, home of the iconic General Motors auto plant, was only 49.4 miles away. Still another read, “We will lose 43,000 jobs because of Lordstown closing.”

Denison leaned into the microphone and told the assembled crowd his story, introducing himself as a third-generation GM autoworker. “I started in Dayton, Ohio. I watched that plant close. I went to Shreveport, Louisiana. I watched that plant close. I come here to Lordstown, Ohio, happy to be back in my home state. I’d never have thought that Lordstown would close.”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Denison said, Trump came to northeast Ohio and promised better days. “He looked the people in the eyes and told them, ‘Do not sell your homes. The jobs are coming back.’”

The jobs never came back. When GM announced, last November, that the Lordstown plant would be closed as part of a restructuring plan, the community held out hope that the company would decide to retool the plant, and rehire some of the laid-off workers. But the last Chevrolet Cruze rolled off the Lordstown assembly line on March 6—a no-frills white model that workers draped in an American flag and posed behind for a last photo.

Variations of this scene have played out in countless shuttered plants and deindustrializing communities over the past four decades. But with the closure of Lordstown, workers are losing more than paychecks, retirement plans, and long-term job security; they’re also burying a lost chapter in union organizing—the moment in the early 1970s when the militant leaders of United Auto Workers Local 1112 at the Lordstown facility briefly revived the demand for greater control in the workplace. With the specter of Trump, the self-advertised mogul-savior of the manufacturing sector, lurking offstage, the last days of Lordstown feel like a parable about what becomes of workers in a political economy that hinges on their systematic disenfranchisement—on the factory floor and in the public sphere alike.

And as a twenty-first–century parable of the workplace, it naturally involved Donald Trump spouting off on Twitter. Nearly two weeks after the last car left the plant, Trump fired off a couple of tweets telling David Green, president of UAW Local 1112, to “get his act together and produce.” That outburst, combined with the news that Trump was heading to Ohio but skipping the plant, led to the press conference where Denison had laid into GM and Trump.

At the same event, Ohio Democratic Representative Tim Ryan—who’s mounting a 2020 run at the presidency—spoke about how plant closures destabilize the entire community. “You hear from a football booster, ‘So-and-so had to transfer. He was treasurer of the football boosters. So-and-so had to transfer. They ran this Boy Scout group,’” he said. “That’s what workers are…. They put their time in. You do everything right and then when you get home, you go coach Little League.” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten joined him in calling for GM to reopen the plant. “If parents lose their jobs, it devastates the community,” she told me afterward. “Teachers understand that; they are in some ways the first responders.”

Alyssa Brookbank is one of those teachers and the president of the Lordstown Teachers Association. She’s seen the effects of the shutdown up close. “Students know they are going to have to leave some of their family and close friends behind,” she said. “They don’t know how to handle it, and it is not their fault. It is a lot to put on the shoulders of young kids. This is much bigger than just GM. It is going to affect other businesses in ways we don’t even realize yet. It is going to have a ripple effect.”

Denison has the words “Union Thug” tattooed across his forearm in sweeping script. Higher up on his arm, he told me, he has a tattoo of the state of Ohio. He returned to Ohio, to work at Lordstown, just in time for the bottom to fall out of the economy in 2008. By that time, he had enough seniority with GM—having hired on right out of high school in 1998—to survive the wave of layoffs that came with GM’s bankruptcy filing in the wake of the crash. “The biggest thing wasn’t the money,” he says now. “It was the fact that I had a pension.” Because of those benefits, he was able to retire this year after 20 years of factory labor. He’s one of the lucky ones. Continue reading The Road Not Taken

GM’s Lordstown Chevy Cruze Plant Closes Amidst Protests

Employees of the General Motors Lordstown Complex were the largest group of workers from a single Ohio employer were displaced by mass layoffs 

It may re-open in the summer. For 1,600 workers, that’s not much comfort at all.

By David Grossman
Mechanics Illustrated

Mar 7, 2019 – General Motors’ Lordstown Assembly plant was in continual operation since 1966 through yesterday, March 6, 2019. The idling of the plant affected 1,600 workers and is the largest of the U.S-based GM four plants that will close this year.

Originally dedicated to iconic cars like the Chevy Impala and Pontiac Firebird, since 2011 the plant built electric Chevy Cruzes. Through the years, the planet built over 16 million cars. However, amidst a restructuring the company decided to discontinue the model in America.

In a press statement, GM said that the Cruze “was a good product and was built with tremendous pride by the Lordstown employees. We know this is an emotional day for our Lordstown team.” Continue reading GM’s Lordstown Chevy Cruze Plant Closes Amidst Protests

Erie, PA: Close To 2,000 Manufacturing Workers Just Went On Strike

After a merger with GE Transportation, the new employer “wants to turn this into an Amazon warehouse,” the union says. ..Bernie Sanders backs strikers

By Dave Jamieson
Huffington Post

Feb 26, 2019 – Nearly 1,700 workers at a GE Transportation plant in Erie, Pennsylvania, went on strike Tuesday, marking the first large-scale work stoppage in the U.S. manufacturing sector in three years.

Union members with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) say the factory’s incoming owner, Pennsylvania-based Wabtec Corp., is trying to impose mandatory overtime, a lower pay scale for new employees, and the use of temporary workers in the facility.

Wabtec just closed an $11 billion deal to merge with GE’s transportation division, which includes the Erie plant where locals have built locomotives for decades.

Workers authorized the union to wage a strike after they failed to secure an interim agreement with Wabtec extending the terms of their contract with GE. As the new employer at the plant, Wabtec is obligated to recognize the union but has the freedom to negotiate its own new contract.

Union members felt they needed to go on strike in order to protect the middle-class wages and high working standards inside the facility, where pay averages around $35 an hour, said Jonathan Kissam, a union spokesman. He added that many workers already volunteer for overtime work but don’t want it to be mandatory, fearing it could ruin weekends with their families.

He also said introducing lower pay for new hires would create a two-tier system inside the plant, causing rifts between different generations of employees.

“This is a multi-generational plant. Some of them, their grandparents worked there,” Kissam said. “So they’re unwilling to sell out their own children.” Continue reading Erie, PA: Close To 2,000 Manufacturing Workers Just Went On Strike