A May Day of Momentum
Not even Joe Manchin can kill this holiday
Welcome to a big Sunday evening edition of Progress Report!
It was a beautiful sunny day here in New York City, the kind of May 1st that only an empty bottle of Claritin or eviction notice could have conspired to ruin. Sunday was also a special holiday for activists, organizers, and working-class Americans, which offers a perfect opportunity for us to assess the most important trend to emerge over the first quarter of the year. Keep reading below!
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In many parts of the world, folks are celebrating May Day, otherwise known as International Workers Day. It’s a holiday began here in the United States, established in 1886 as a commemoration of the workers that were killed in Chicago while striking for a shorter workday during what became known as the Haymarket Affair. It’s become a day of solidarity for workers in countries around the world, though May Day has never been formally recognized in the US. Shocking, I know.
Instead, the working class that undergirds our economy and society is ostensibly recognized on Labor Day. Unfortunately, that celebration — like everything else in this country — has become co-opted by big sales events at our remaining malls and retailers, which in turn — like everything else in this country — has only put further stress on low-wage workers to serve everyone else.
Labor unions have long celebrated May Day anyway, and this year, a re-energized and resurgent labor movement is giving new light to both the holiday and its history. Parades and rallies are being held in cities nationwide today, centering organizing workers at big corporations such as Amazon and Starbucks as well as the immigrants that continue to perform our economy’s most punishing and thankless jobs.
At the same time that I began writing today’s newsletter, a May Day rally was being held downtown in Washington Square Park. Progressive state legislators and members of Congress attended and spoke to the crowd, but it was the workers and organizers behind the Amazon Labor Union that served as the true focal point of the event. For the vast majority of New Yorkers that have no feasible way of getting to a heavily guarded warehouse in Staten Island, it was an opportunity to show support for the unionizing workers.
The scrappy, zealous organizers with the Amazon Labor Union finished their second NLRB election on Friday, and should all go according to plan, they’re likely to get the results on Monday evening. I’ve been covering the union campaign for months and months now over at More Perfect Union, and I’ll be at the NLRB office in Brooklyn tomorrow to cover the count.
The union’s victory last month sent shockwaves around the world, but it hardly shook the foundations of Jeff Bezos’s anti-worker fortress. As we discovered in a piece I produced last week for More Perfect Union, Amazon only intensified its assault on organizing workers during the lead-up to this second election:
Should workers prevail yet again tomorrow, it will be just as gargantuan an accomplishment and provide further evidence of the profound reversal in the power dynamics and class politics that have long dictated government policy and the broader culture.
Over the past week alone, workers at more than a dozen Starbucks locations have won their NLRB elections, bringing the total number of unionized stores to 44. The pace of new store filings and election victories continue to pick up velocity, so much so that I can hardly keep track of them despite spending much of my workday reporting on the union effort.
It will take months and months for the number of organized stores to be more than a small fraction of the company’s locations, but the seemingly unstoppable momentum of the effort, the public enthusiasm it has engendered, and the specter of losing full autocratic control of their vast retail coffee empire has spooked Starbucks executives into an increasingly desperate union-busting campaign. Without a significant investment in acting lessons for managers up and down the chain of command, however, their efforts are going to engender more mockery than fear.
Returning Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz isn’t used to losing to union organizers or bowing to his own workers, and it’s become apparent just how personally offended he is by Starbucks Workers United’s ongoing success. I’ve ascribed the militancy demonstrated by Starbucks’ workers to a generational disaffection and technological fluency, and I stand by that assessment, but it’s not the entire story.
On Saturday, The Intercept published parts of a conversation that took place between frazzled union-busting lawyers and consultants. In the leaked audio, Ken Hurley, the VP for labor relations at Kellogg’s, marveled at the unexpected resilience of the nearly 1000 workers that picketed outside four of the company’s production facilities last fall.
“In my view,” Hurley confessed, “the union leadership at the bargaining table were behaving more like terrorists than partners.”
It’s a pretty funny characterization — the 10-week strike, which I covered extensively at More Perfect Union, was driven almost entirely by workers in their 40s and 50s that spent their spare hours warming up at the union hall and posting solidarity messages on Facebook; one guy streamed live from the parking lot around 5 pm every day as management went home for the day, but always without incident (and, most of the time, viewers). These workers weren’t ideologues, just folks that were sick and tired of accepting contracts that contained more concessions than benefits.
The striking workers were loud and defiant, with very clear terms from the start. They refused to give in to Kellogg’s plan to further reduce benefits and starting pay for new workers, and in what I suppose feels like radicalism to corporate negotiators these days, voted to reject several contracts frameworks that had been recommended by their international negotiators.
(As a side note, Hurley singled out the work we did to cover the strike at MPU, calling us a “worthy adversary” and “very sophisticated” outfit. Thank you, Ken!)
Given the long-term erosion of union membership and labor’s bargaining power, it’s not exactly surprising that individual executives and billionaires, long insulated from the indignities of the real world, have been taken aback by the recent tenacity of organized workers. There should be little mistake about what comes next, though, as union election filings soar and major new battlefronts loom ahead.
Later this year, the Teamsters will begin negotiations on a new contract with UPS ahead of the July 2023 expiration of what many in the union consider a deeply unsatisfying five-year agreement. The circumstances have dramatically changed since former Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. struck the existing deal.
UPS drivers I’ve spoken to have said that the explosion of online shopping during the pandemic doubled or tripled the number of packages they have to handle every single day, while the company’s pay, staffing headcount, and benefit structure largely remained the same. Injuries have spiked, and UPS is famous for underreporting injuries, denying care, and torturing and then firing injured workers (before being forced to hire them back). It all points to what could be a major slugfest, which would be a fight very much welcomed by the self-described “militant” new Teamsters president, Sean O’Brien.
The face of a reform slate seeking a more activist, connected, and pugilist leadership, O’Brien has also promised to take on Amazon with a massive campaign to organize its drivers and logistics workers. He’s already met with Chris Smalls of the Amazon Labor Union and offered his support, which also served to indicate that the major labor groups would recognize and maybe even embrace the upstart, independent ALU.
Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, also met with Smalls in the wake of the win at Amazon. She’s become one of the modern faces of the labor movement, providing energy and candidness that few leaders in the union space have been willing or able to offer. Nelson again appeared with Smalls at a pre-election rally for the ALU last Sunday, drumming up some excitement for the push at the second warehouse and by proxy hyping up the AFA’s own new campaign.
The union’s focus now turns to Delta, the only major airline without a unionized flight attendant staff. The travel sector has been thrown into chaos over the past few years, and airlines continue to cancel flights to save money, but the workers’ ability to make life hell for the airline during the busy summer months has already scared Delta into making a major concession.
Going forward, flight attendants for the airline will be paid during the boarding period, a preemptive change that has the benefit of both providing more money to workers and educating the public about just how poorly they’re treated. Delta flight attendants are now primed to make an extra $4,000 per year before they even sign union cards, and already, Alaska Airlines flight attendants are seeking to win the same kind of raise.
The Politics of It All
Democratic Party politicians have long counted on organized labor’s boots on the ground to power their get-out-the-vote efforts. It’s been a largely one-way relationship over the past decade or two, and once again, Democrats are poised to disappoint unions by breaking most of their big 2020 campaign promises.
There are plenty of crummy Democrats to blame for this state of affairs, but even if they fell in line, the party still has to contend with its most infuriating and corrupt member of all. Behold this new ad cut by West Virginia’s favorite coal baron, Sen. Joe Manchin:
It’s exasperating at this point to watch the White House and Congressional leaders try to get anything out of Manchin, but I’ve been heartened to see that they finally be shifting their sights to executive orders and populist rhetoric.
Biden is now talking about canceling some student debt, a tantalizing prospect that seemed impossible just a few months ago. I’ll reserve my judgment about the rumors swirling around the amount he may cancel and the people that would benefit until there’ more concrete information available, but seeing the White House being forced into pursuing any broad policy that would specifically provide relief for working families is a shocking shift in direction.
The potential student debt cancelation is attributable to activism that mirrors the work being done by young union organizers, some of whom may wind up visiting President Biden later this week. The list of union leaders being invited to the White House will likely include organizers from Starbucks and Amazon, reaffirming the seismic impact they’ve had on American politics over the past year.
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