On Saturday 29 September 2018, Labor Notes, an organisation of US-based trade union activists held its annual Troublemakers’ School in New York City.
Established in 1979, Labor Notes is famous for its publications and workshops on rank-and-file activism. In their own words, they are “the voice of union activists who want to put the movement back in the labor movement”.
With over 350 attendees, this year’s school was the largest yet. The opening plenary, featuring Alexandra Bradbury of Labor Notes, Mark Cohen of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and Jia Lee of the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators stressed the need to establish a “culture of control by members” within the unions. They reminded us that many of the most impressive industrial actions in living memory, such as the Teamsters’ 1997 UPS workers strike, were built upon internal fights for union democracy.
Such lessons take on a special significance in the current context of the US labour movement. On the one hand, we have recently seen powerful spikes in union combativeness as the West Virginia teachers’ strike, which rank-and-file members drove to spectacular effect from the grassroots despite conflict with union leaders and the fact that public sector strikes are illegal under West Virginia state law. On the other hand, between the US Supreme Court’s ruling this June in Janus v AFSCME and the 27 US states with “right-to-work” laws, unions are having to operate in an “open shop America”.
In a session on immigration speakers from the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, the Legal Services Staff Association, the Worker Resource Center, and Brandworkers International, outlined the various tactics and strategies that unions and workers’ centres are adopting to protect immigrants from deportation.
The Trump Administration has heightened animosity towards immigrants (especially those from Muslim or Latin American backgrounds) and ratcheted up the horrifying detention and deportation practices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The speakers emphasised the need for families to have in-place emergency plans in the event of an accident or raid, including safety hotlines and documents like power-of-attorney forms. Whilst New York City has been declared a “sanctuary”, the police still send information to ICE upon arrest. ICE have therefore tended to wait in plain clothes outside of courthouses to grab undocumented immigrants due for hearings.
This continued practice of data sharing results from a major concession by centre-left politicians who felt they had made a worthwhile gain around immigration reform.
One horrifying example of how political concession betrays migrants is the case of Pablo Villavicencio Calderon, a pizza delivery man.
He had ICE called on him when his New York State ID was not sufficient to enter the Brooklyn army base to which he had delivered on previous occasions with no problem.
Mercifully, Villavicencio Calderon was eventually released from detention. Nevertheless, it is further worth noting that, because of police-ICE data sharing, stop and frisk can easily lead to deportation proceedings where undocumented migrants are charged with minor offences, even if the search was itself performed unlawfully.
ICE workplace audits function as raids by another name, since they come with arrests. For example, at a Queens outlet of the Tom Cat Bakery, two dozen migrant workers have been dismissed with a miniscule severance package of one week’s pay per year of service as a direct consequence of an ICE audit. 800 workers disappeared at the Clover Hill Bakery in Chicago because they were found to have insufficient documentation.
As well as getting trade unions to become sanctuaries, as Teamsters Joint Council 16 have done in New York City, unionised workers can push ICE to extend the deadlines for audits and educate people on how ICE often tricks supervisors into letting them into workplaces.
You have to understand the Janus decision in the light of the “right-to-work” (open shop) in the American conservative sense of the term. “Right-to-work” statutes prohibit mandated union membership and dues.
They impose a duty on unions to represent employees in the workplace who are not themselves union members. This results in workers viewing themselves as entitled to one of the main immediate benefits of union membership (representation in workplace disputes) without providing financial support to the union itself.
In this context, “right-to-work” allows bosses to undermine unions in the name of upholding personal liberty. It reinforces what Solidarity has called the “insurance policy” image of a union as providing a personal service of “protection” in exchange for a fee, rather than as a vehicle for collective action to change the workplace itself.
Janus was decided mere months ago, but employers across the US are already using it to persuade public sector workers to cancel their union membership through emails, mailers, social media advertising, and even house visits. The ruling lets bosses frame the matter as follows: “If the union has to represent you even if you’re not in it, why waste your money on membership dues?”
US activists are emphasising the need to talk to colleagues about the “right-to-work” concept, and of why everyone in the workplace tangibly benefits from building a union’s collective strength through membership numbers and dues. This means talking about the purpose of unions so that workers stop seeing them as only a means of self-defence in individual disputes.
The closing plenary with Abraham Lobe of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, and Jewel Tolliver, Melissa Brown, and Mike Clancy of Count Me In, wove together many of the day’s main threads. A central illustration of the US labour movement’s present challenges was the ongoing Hudson Yards private real estate development in Chelsea, Manhattan: the largest in the US by square footage. The development site is currently open shop, with non-unionised workers not receiving healthcare or adequate workplace safety.
The speakers pointed out how real estate magnates behind Hudson Yards, like Steven M Ross, want the workers to build a city in which they cannot afford to live themselves. As such, the reminder to such tycoons that “New York is a union town!” takes on a broader political significance than workplace conditions alone.
It is a reminder that, as the classic lyrics go, it is we who “built the cities where they trade”, and we have no intention to “stand outcast and starving ‘mid the wonders we have made”.