As the sun sets over Beckley, West Virginia, on a cold winter evening, the temperature drops a few more degrees, moving toward the low teens as a pair of feet in boots and Yaktrax crunches snow and ice underfoot on the way to the front door. Then a gloved hand reaches up to knock on the frame.
“Who is it?”
The voice inside seems a bit bewildered. The tone implies, “Who is it that is crazy enough to be out there knocking on my door in this weather?” To be fair, it’s a good question. But it would turn out that the weather was not the only reason the woman behind the door was confused at that sound.
“It’s Working America! Fighting for good jobs and to protect West Virginia workers!”
The door opens and the woman behind it introduces herself in the third person as “Ole Sue,” proud of the fact that everyone in the neighborhood knows her by that name. She speaks with our canvasser about just why we are out knocking on doors on a night like this. The state Legislature in Charleston is considering a so-called “right to work” bill that would be an attack on West Virginia workers, union and non-union alike. More importantly, they talk about why it is important that labor remains strong in the Mountain State.
Ole Sue tells our canvasser that her husband and her daughter have both died in the past few years. Her husband died of black lung. Now she lives alone. She says we don’t have to tell her why unions are important. She takes our pen and paper in hand and writes to her state senator, Dan Hall, telling him exactly why he needs to vote no on “right to work.”
Across town at almost the exact same time, another Working America canvasser comes upon a house with a huge sign proclaiming, “My Neighbor and I are HUGE Steeler Fans!” He smiles because he’s a Steelers fan, too. (By the way, this canvasser is me.)
That small connection helps start a warm conversation at the door. But when I tell the woman why I’m really at her door—to fight against “right to work”—the conversation takes a more serious turn. She asks me why I care enough about it to be out there in the snow and the cold.
I tell her about my own father, a West Virginia coal miner much of his life, who now works on the coal barges: “I know what a union means to him and to every miner.”
I tell her the story of when that was really driven home to me. When I was younger, my dad was out of work for a while and decided to go apply at a non-union mine in Kentucky. It was far from home and hard work, but my dad is the hardest worker I’ve ever known. Even today, having just turned 60, he can work circles around me. Even his days off were filled with work—on the house, on the car, in the yard. My point is that he has never, ever shied away from hard work or a tough job.
He came back from that non-union mine in less than a week. “That place is a death trap,” he said to me. “Someone is going to die in there …”
The woman nods, and I finish my father’s sentence: “… or when they get out.”
The woman has to pause for a moment, then says: “I think it’s terrible what they are trying to do. My husband, my father-in-law, and my brother-in-law all died from black lung in the last 10 years. Our miners go through too much to put up with this stuff coming from Charleston now.” She’s clearly been through a lot as well.
Even through all of that loss, she has remained strong and dignified. She knows that this isn’t about a so-called “right to work.” It’s about right and wrong. Stripping away the progress that’s been won through the blood, sweat and tears of West Virginia’s coal miners is just plain wrong. She knows deep down that her state senator needs to know this, too, if he doesn’t already. She knows all this, but she looks at the piece of paper and isn’t sure how to say it.
“That’s why I’m here,” I say. “Just tell him what you told me. They need to be reminded of what really goes on out here. Tell him what you’ve lost and that he needs to vote no so we don’t lose even more.”
She writes a beautiful letter; one of 13 I gather that night, but among the most meaningful I’ve ever brought back. We talk some more about coal miners and Pittsburgh Steelers football. But finally it’s time to move on because I know there are more people like her who know what this is all really about and whose voices need to be heard in Charleston.
Back at Ole Sue’s, another conversation is coming to an end that both sides are a little sad to see. “Do you know who the last person to come to my door was?” she asks our canvasser, as if to make it known why she was skeptical at first. “It was the police. Got a complaint and came pounding on my door. Years ago. No one comes to the door anymore. But I’m glad you did. And thank you for being out there.”
Ole Sue wrote a beautiful letter as well, one that the canvasser will never forget.
Two women. Two beautiful stories that need telling. Two doors that haven’t been knocked on in a very long time. Two letters to a state senator who had better take their meaning to heart.
The latest reports indicate that “right to work” is dead in the West Virginia legislature, but across the country we’re waging a grassroots battle. In Missouri, we’re urging our members to call their legislators and let them know that “right to work” is wrong. In New Mexico, we’re going door to door and informing voters about the union-busting and wage-lowering that Gov. Susana Martinez and her allies are pushing in Santa Fe under the guide of “worker freedom.” And in Illinois, our members are urging their state lawmakers to push back against the agenda of Bruce Rauner, possibly the most dangerously anti-worker governor in the country.
Wherever Working America is, we are lifting up the voices of those whose doors are too often go un-knocked.
The United Steelworkers (USW) have reached a tentative agreement on a new four-year contract with Shell Oil Co., the union announced Thursday. The deal will serve as a pattern agreement for the rest of the industry. USW members at several refineries struck on Feb. 1, and the strike grew to include about 7,000 workers at 15 sites across the country.
We are hopeful that with the settlement of the national pattern agreement, this will push both parties at the local level to reach agreement quicker on their local issues.
Workers are expected to remain on the picket lines until local issues are resolved and the ratification process begins. Overall, some 30,000 USW members work at 65 refineries and hundreds of pipelines, terminals, petrochemical plants and other facilities.
USW President Leo W. Gerard said:
We salute the solidarity exhibited by our membership. There was no way we would have won vast improvements in safety and staffing without it.
Safety issues were central to the negotiations. In the past five years, 27 workers have been killed and hundreds more seriously injured. The proposed agreement calls for the immediate review of staffing and workload assessments, with USW safety personnel involved at every facility. Daily maintenance and repair work in the plants was another critical issue that, too, was addressed.
The tentative contract contains language that addresses worker fatigue, which is tied to accidents, and the use of contractors versus unionized labor. It also safeguards gains made in previous contracts and raises wages.
As more than 8,500 union members and other civil society activists gather at the United Nations in New York for the Commission on the Status of Women meeting, new research shows women have made some gains in the two decades since the landmark global meeting on women in Beijing but continue to suffer from economic insecurity and widespread discrimination and inequality in the workplace.
Fewer women are in the workforce today, according to a report by the International Labor Organization (ILO). In 1995, 52% of women and 80% of men were in the workforce, the ILO report finds. Today the participation rate for women is 50%, compared to 77% for men, reflecting in part the effects of the global recession.
Further, ILO research shows that women continue to be overrepresented in low-wage jobs that offer little security and few, if any, benefits. Women are paid 77 cents for every dollar a man makes—a rate that means women will not achieve pay equity with men before 2086. Women also work many hours without pay, a point made by an interactive, online report produced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Clinton Foundation and Economist Intelligence Unit.
Unions are sponsoring several workshops and events during the CSW meetings, including a March 11 panel discussion, “Women’s Economic Empowerment and Labor Rights: Beijing +20 and Beyond.” Sponsored in part by the Solidarity Center, the panel will discuss how working women are fighting for fair wages and working conditions, equal job opportunities, and freedom from sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence. Panelists include AFL-CIO International Department Director Cathy Feingold, Bangladesh garment worker activist Kalpona Akter and Elizabeth Tang, general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF).
This year’s CSW meeting marks 20 years since the fourth women’s world conference in Beijing, when 189 governments identified and signed an agreement to improve 12 areas key to empowering women, including “the persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women.” During the next two weeks, CSW participants will review progress made in implementing the Beijing recommendations. Some 164 countries conducted national reviews of the status of women, and the CSW will review these reports, along with contributions from civil society.
“Governments acknowledge that women’s labor sustains families and nations,” says Lisa McGowan, Solidarity Center senior specialist for gender equality. “It is time that governments step up and devote the full political commitment and resources needed to sustain women, and ensure their labor and human rights.”
Established in 1946, the CSW is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.
On Monday, the UN approved a political declaration on the status of women and girls. Union activists and women’s and human rights groups say that the negotiations leading up to the adoption of the Political Declaration at UNCSW59 were held in advance, and consultation with civil society was kept to a minimum. As a result, the content of the declaration is not as strong and forward-looking as it could have been.
The change in process has been denounced by nearly 1,000 organizations, including Public Services International (PSI), Education International (EI), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the Canadian Labour Congress. Historically, the CSW has adopted declarations or “agreed conclusions” after a two-week session that includes robust civil society participation.
Other trade union events during the CSW include a discussion on organizing migrant women and decent work for domestic workers, and an event titled “Women and Sustainable Economy from a Human Rights Perspective.” More events here.
Park Hills, Ky., resident and airline pilot Stuart Morrison recently wrote a great op-ed for Cincinnati.com ripping apart the push for “right to work” in his home state by outsiders with an agenda that doesn’t help Kentucky. Take a look.
Next week, Kenton County commissioners intend to vote on a countywide ban on private-sector “agency shop” agreements between unions and employers. Those are labor agreements that require persons who work in organized shops to contribute to the cost of representing them in collective bargaining and contract enforcement. Such clauses are almost uniformly demanded by union members, who resent having to subsidize the representation of employees who choose not to be members….
I appreciate that the commissioner took the time to discuss this matter with me, but I am deeply disturbed that on a significant issue for our citizens, the legal affairs of the county have apparently been outsourced to right-wing advocacy groups. I am equally troubled that the commissioners have not performed any sort of independent investigation on what the economic impact of this new law would be and have not even held hearings on the matter. I recognize that the same anti-union advocacy groups that claim to know Kentucky law better than the state attorney general also produce studies showing the purported benefits to workers of right to work laws, all of which have been discredited. The underlying fact remains that right to work laws are consistently associated with lower family income, lower rates of health insurance coverage and greater dependence on the federal government for assistance.
The Kenton County Commission seems poised to proceed despite the fact that the issue is already the subject of a lawsuit before a federal judge in Louisville following a similar course of action undertaken in Hardin County. I think that before we enact a law it should be accompanied by an independent review of its legality and economic merits by professionals hired by and accountable to those who live here. The fact that this was not done in any meaningful way tells me that the enactment of right to work is not a matter of considered economic or legal policy, but an exercise in raw political payback against constituencies who have chosen not to support the present all-Republican board.
Black History Month is more than just acknowledgement in a newspaper or a special program at your children’s school. It’s an opportunity to reflect on how far black people in the United States have come in their struggle for justice and equal rights, while not forgetting the scores of women and men whose lives have been destroyed by our biased judicial system. The mass criminalization of millions of men and women, mostly people of color who are imprisoned for small infractions, creates a group of second-class citizens who are unable to rebuild a life for themselves even after serving their time.
In 2013, the labor movement passed a resolution recognizing that mass incarceration has become a big business whose product is low wages and ruined lives, and we decided that it’s time for labor to join forces with our allies in the criminal justice community and fight back. Together we are working toward achieving a reformed criminal justice system that offers formerly imprisoned people an economic path forward and restores voting rights—and we are already winning battles. Last year, California passed Prop. 47, a ballot measure that reduced the classification of some low-level nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The crimes covered by the proposal include things like minor drug possession and petty theft, minor offenses that should not define or destroy an individual’s life.
Mass incarceration is not only a civil rights issue, it’s an economics issue. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka traveled to Los Angeles before Prop. 47 passed to shed some light on the situation. He noted that one-third of African American men will serve time in federal prison during their lifetime. That’s an incarceration rate five times greater than that for white men, even though studies have shown that white men and black men commit crimes at roughly the same rates. Once those men and women get out of prison, they have a harder time finding employment and housing due to their arrest records.
The labor movement is a movement of second chances and firmly believes our criminal justice system needs to offer people another chance to contribute to our society. The AFL-CIO staunchly opposes harmful policies like mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes and we support programs that help people reintegrate into their communities, such as job training, education, probation and parole. If we are going to raise wages for all workers, we have to ensure that everyone has a fair shot at earning a wage.
Black History Month might be coming to an end, but the struggle to ensure that African Americans have a fair shot lasts until there is equity in our criminal justice system. Let’s focus on ensuring that every member of our communities has a shot at charting his or her own path forward. It’s time for us to wake up, come together and strive to create a criminal justice system that works.
Late Wednesday night, the Wisconsin state Senate voted 17–15 to advance a “right to work” bill that has been widely criticized as harmful to the working families of the state. Thousands rallied outside the Capitol on Tuesday and Wednesday in opposition to the legislation, as similar laws have been shown to have widespread negative effects in the other states that have passed them. Republicans Fast Tracked the bill in order to limit public discussion and feedback, and the bill is expected to be voted on by the state Assembly next week. If it passes, it will be sent to Gov. Scott Walker (R) who has indicated he will sign it.
Republicans Fast Tracked the bill in order to limit public discussion and feedback, and the bill is expected to be voted on by the state Assembly next week. If it passes, it will be sent to Gov. Scott Walker (R) who has indicated he will sign it.
Wisconsin State AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt, expressed dismay over Republicans ignoring the will of the people:
Republican senators clearly weren’t there to listen to their constituents or vote in the best interests of all Wisconsinites. With out-of-state special interests calling the shots, Wisconsin citizens get left behind. Right to work is a continuation of the destructive policies of the Scott Walker administration that have cost Wisconsin jobs and economic opportunity.
Wisconsin State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Stephanie Bloomingdale echoed those comments:
Despite hours and hours of testimony on how right to work will lower wages, increase workplace deaths and erode the base of the middle class by crippling the ability of workers to team up and join together through their unions for a strong voice in the workplace, Republican senators rammed right to work legislation through the Senate in a disheartening move to democracy.
Wisconsin’s working families aren’t allowing Walker and his allies to silence them. They will rally again on Saturday at noon to make sure their voices are heard and will be out in force for a scheduled committee meeting on Tuesday and an expected floor vote in the Assembly on Thursday.
State Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D) summed up the effects of the bill: “This bill is going to drive down family wages. Period.” UAW member John Drew condemned the legislation as “a political attack on labor, dressed up as an issue of worker freedom. They want to beat us down, brothers and sisters. This is politics, pure and simple.”
Republican leaders couldn’t even convince all of the members of their own party of the merits of the legislation. State Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R) voted against the bill: “I am not convinced that the supposed benefits of passing this bill will materialize and offset a potentially disruptive impact on our economy.” He was the only Republican who stood and spoke in support of the legislation. The public wasn’t convinced, either. More than 1,750 Wisconsinites submitted comments or registered to speak against the bill at the hearing. Only 25 were in favor.
Unions representing Wisconsin’s professional athletes also weighed in, opposing right to work. The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) issued a strong statement:
The NFL Players Association stands together with the working families of Wisconsin and organized labor in their fight against current attacks against their right to stand together as a team.
Devoted food and commercial workers who spend their Sundays servicing our players and fans at Lambeau Field will have their well-being and livelihood jeopardized by right to work. Governor Scott Walker may not value these vital employees but, as union members, we do. We understand how devastating it would be if they lost the ability to have their workplace conditions and wages guaranteed through collective bargaining. We do not have to look any further than our own [collective bargaining agreement] to see that a band of workers, joined together as a union, can overcome decades of poor workplace conditions and drastically improve pensions and benefits.
The Major League Baseball Players Association stands with our brothers and sisters in organized labor and deplores the current attempts in Wisconsin to undermine the collective voices of working people by seeking passage of so-called “right to work” legislation. We are proud to be among the ranks of labor unions that negotiate the terms and conditions of employment for their members, sitting across the table from management as equal parties under the federal law that guarantees the right to union representation. This state legislation is nothing more than an obvious attempt to undermine those rights and that power.
The current bill would impede the ability of working families in Wisconsin to achieve fair collective bargaining agreements with good wages and appropriate on the job protections. “Right to work” is not about freedom, it is about empowering employers at the expense of the employees. Again, we urge a No vote on the current legislation.
Wisconsin isn’t the only state where extremists are pushing right to work legislation in an attempt to silence working families. New Mexico’s legislature is headed down the same destructive path as are several other states.
Oil workers at three more refineries and a chemical plant joined the United Steelworkers’ (USW’s) unfair labor practice strike against the oil industry over the weekend. With workers and plant safety a major concern, USW President Leo W. Gerard said:
The industry’s refusal to meaningfully address safety issues through good faith bargaining gave us no other option but to expand our work stoppage.
Some 1,350 workers are employed at the four facilities, bringing the number of striking workers to about 6,550 at 14 and the chemical plant.
The new strike sites are the Motiva Enterprises refinery in Port Arthur, Texas—a 50-50 joint venture between Shell Oil Co. (American subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell) and Saudi Refining Inc. (subsidiary of Saudi Aramco)—Motiva’s two Louisiana refineries in Convent and Norco, as well as the Shell chemical plant in Norco.
The union is bargaining for new labor agreements to cover some 30,000 workers throughout the oil industry at 65 refineries and hundreds of pipelines, terminals, petrochemical plants and other facilities.
USW Vice President Thomas Conway says:
We’re committed to reaching a settlement that works for both parties. But adequate staffing levels, worker fatigue and other important safety issues must be addressed.
Click here to sign a petition to oil industry management and federal, state and local officials supporting the striking workers in their efforts to secure a fair contract that will protect the health and safety of workers and communities.
One 24-hour period shows how much progress can be made when workers come together to speak with one voice. Collective action must be at the heart of the growing discussion about raising wages. Only when workers pool their power can they make progress that benefits not just union members but all workers and entire communities.
Not content to just verbally attack working families, as he did in his recent State of the State address, new Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) has taken action to strip rights from workers. He signed an executive order that prevents public employee unions from collecting fair share fees from nonunion workers. He also has hired a legal team to pursue a federal court ruling that the fees are unconstitutional.
While the law requires public employee unions in Illinois to represent all workers in collective bargaining efforts, fair share fees make sure that nonunion workers pay for that representation. Rauner argues that fair share fees are being used for political activity, but local unions dispute that claim and say that Rauner’s move is “a blatantly illegal abuse of power.”
Roberta Lynch, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, said Rauner’s action was based on “a paper-thin excuse that can’t hide his real agenda: silencing working people and their unions who stand up for the middle class.”
Writing on Huffington Post, political organizer and strategist Robert Creamer said:
Since unions—and collective bargaining—are the major weapons everyday people have to raise their wages, his assault on unions is a direct attack on the middle class and its future in America.
During Black History Month, we will be profiling past and present leaders in the intersecting movements to protect and expand the rights of African Americans and working families. We’ll highlight both important leaders of the past and those who are continuing the legacy of those strong leaders who laid the foundation for the present. First up, we take a look at Bayard Rustin.
Rustin served the trade union and civil rights movements as a brilliant theorist, tactician and organizer. In the face of his accomplishments, Rustin was silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten and fired from leadership positions because he was an openly gay man in a severely homophobic era. He conceived the coalition of liberal, labor and religious leaders who supported passage of the civil rights and anti-poverty legislation of the 1960s and, as the first executive director of the AFL-CIO’s A. Philip Randolph Institute, he worked closely with the labor movement to ensure African American workers’ rightful place in the House of Labor.
One of Rustin’s most notable moments came when he was tapped to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event for which he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Organized during a two-month period, Rustin helped create what would be the largest protest in America’s history at that point. Rustin has been referred to as the “most important civil rights leader you’ve never heard of” and a key mentor of Martin Luther King Jr.
The manual that was handed out by Rustin and other leaders of the march made it clear that economic and workers’ rights were an integral part of the fight for civil rights for African Americans. The list of demands central to the march included a massive job training and placement program with a living wage, a national minimum wage that gave all Americans a decent standard of living an expanded Fair Labor Standards Act and a federal Fair Employment Practices Act that would prohibit discrimination not only by the government, but by employers and unions, too.
“We are all one. And if we don’t know it, we will learn it the hard way.” —Bayard Rustin