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The Massachusetts DSA Labor Outlet
Updated: 16 hours 33 min ago

Victory After Historic Boston Starbucks Strike

Wed, 2022-09-21 14:57

By Eli Gerzon

Starbucks workers at 874 Commonwealth Ave have declared victory after the corporation folded on their minimum availability requirements and agreed to investigate a problematic manager,  major issues of the strike. This victory comes 64 days into the historic strike, the longest Starbucks strike in US history. 

The victory shows that unionized Starbucks stores can deliver positive changes to working conditions, even as the movement still struggles to win a first contract.

WE ARE PROUD TO ANNOUNCE VICTORY FOR THE WORKERS OF 874 COMMONWEALTH AVENUE!!!!! pic.twitter.com/W1kHkA11w2

— Boston Starbucks Workers United (@BostonSBWU) September 21, 2022

“I want it to be known that this is a win for workers everywhere. We’re setting precedents. We are making known the power that unions have.” said Spencer Costigan, shift manager at 874 Comm Ave. 

Victory on Working Conditions with National Ramifications

Starbucks has admitted that “under federal law” unionized workers are protected from the minimum availability requirement they imposed on all workers earlier this year. This is according to a flier posted in Starbucks stores in the Greater Boston area on Sunday, September 18th. This minimum availability requirement was a primary reason for the strike at 874 Comm Ave and in Watertown, MA. The requirement has been used as an excuse to fire Starbucks organizers across the country. The mention of federal law seems to indicate this applies across the US, but workers outside of Greater Boston have not reported seeing this flier. 

The flier reads in part:

“The minimum availability requirements does not apply to stores who had union representation or union organizing activity on or before July 11, 2022…. Under federal law, Starbucks is required to maintain the status quo and bargain in good faith over any terms and conditions of employment in stores with union representation.”

The workers’ press release also talks about the issue of store manager Tomi Chorlian who they allege has been misogynistic and transphobic among other issues. “We have also received confirmation from our District Manager, Phil Mann, as of yesterday (9/20/22) that he is actively seeking a replacement for Ms. Chorlian. Mr. Mann has also agreed to involve us in the investigation of Ms. Chorlian’s workplace behavior. We trust that Mr. Mann will help us return to a workplace free of our former Store Manager, Tomi Chorlian, and we especially look forward to taking part in her investigation.”

The picket line at 874 Commonwealth Ave was maintained for 24 hours/day for over 2 months by the Starbucks workers from the store as well as supporters from other unions, socialists organizations, and other community members. Supporting this strike has been a priority of Boston DSA and other DSA chapters around the state. 

When Working Mass asked Spencer about the role of the DSA they said: “I mean, the DSA was one of the first people to be out there helping us out. A lot of DSA members were there from day 1 to day 64. Every single day, just making sure that things were running smoothly. I think that the DSA is one of the most important groups that was involved personally.”

Workers Didn’t Realize They Were Facing Unfair Labor Practices

Kylah Clay has worked at other Starbucks stores in the Boston area but has been focusing on supporting Starbucks workers in organizing. Working Mass asked her about how she first got involved with 874 Comm Ave. 

Clay was invited to a meeting with workers at 874 Comm Ave and they shared their frustrations. She immediately realized they were dealing with unfair labor practices and explained that to them.

“Unfortunately, the vast majority of unfair labor practices go unrecognized by workers, because that is how the system thrives by making sure that workers are not empowered to exercise the rights that have been given to them.” Clay then went into specifics about 874:

“So the biggest one was when they told me that [store manager] Tomi [Chorlian] had changed their hours without negotiating their minimum availability requirement. Because obviously, a unionized store has the legal requirement to bargain before implementing new workplace policies like this – which is exactly what Starbucks conceded to recently.”

Clay offered various ideas for how to address the workers’ concerns. “And as I was explaining the different options available to them: walking on a march on the boss or a walkout. The last option I raised was a strike and immediately, a bunch of people, unmuted and they’re like, ‘Yeah, strike! Yeah, strike!’” From there they began planning and started the strike on July 18th, 2022. 

Frustrations

Across the country Starbucks has been breaking laws, defying the NLRB, delaying contract negotiations, and taking many actions where the primary motivation seems to frustrate workers. Working Mass asked workers at 874 Comm Ave if they’ve had any experiences like that.

Clay said, “everything about this has been frustrating every day, the fact that [Starbucks district manager] Phil [Mann] would never even answer our calls.”

Taylor Dickerson, another worker at 874 Comm Ave, chimed in, “Right? I mean, literally, it’s just, it’s so ridiculous that I don’t even know how to express it.”

“Yesterday, we were taking turns calling Phil every hour. So basically Taylo r[Dickerson], Nora [Rossi], and I were like, ‘Alright, I’ll call him twice.’ And then I’ll be like, ‘Okay, didn’t get an answer.’ And then Taylor would be like, ‘Okay, my turn.’ And then Nora’s turn.”

They said when they were able to talk with Mann he wouldn’t follow up. And often when they spoke with him it was as if they were “starting fresh as if we’ve never had a conversation before,” according to Dickerson. 

Clay and Dickerson also expressed frustration that Mann was their only point of contact at Starbucks despite the historic nature of their strike and the fact that it was clearly part of a wider movement. 

Dickerson explained, “Even if you just want to isolate it to Massachusetts, we had five stores go on strike for an entire week [first week of August in response to higher pay raises for only non unionized workers]. You think that would kind of raise the alarm for higher ups and make them want to talk to us. But no, they never did.”

Going Forward

When asked how they feel, Spencer said, “I feel tired.” They then laughed and went on, “I feel good…I think that things have been very inspiring to me on a lot of levels. The fact that we got a win when everything was pitted against us. Billions and billions of dollars…. All of the things that were working against us, we overcame them. And it just is very surreal that we managed to pull one over on this literal billion dollar multinational company at just like a little store in fucking Boston. It feels wild.”

Asked what final thing Costigan wanted to share, they declared: 

“Workers of the world unite!”

Eli Gerzon is a freelance writer, social media consultant, gardener, and Tarot card reader. They are an active member of Boston DSA and Jewish Voice for Peace – Boston. 

One Week Strike Gets Results at Watertown Starbucks

Tue, 2022-09-20 12:57

By Eli Gerzon

Watertown – Greater Boston continues to be a hub of the labor movement’s growing size and boldness, as strikers at 75 Mt Auburn St in Watertown, MA launched a strike, paralleling the existing strike at the 874 Commonwealth Ave store at Boston University.

The strike at the Watertown Starbucks started on Friday, September 9th, 2022 and ended on Friday, September 16th. This store location is part of the surge of newly unionized Starbucks stores with over 200 stores unionizing in less than a year.

Working Mass spoke with workers on the Watertown picket line on Sunday, September 11th and asked them why they are on strike.

Understaffing and Union Busting

The workers reported launching the strike action for multiple reasons, some related to store manager Grace Heaberlin. Heaberlin took over the Watertown location in March 2022 while workers were in the process of unionizing. Workers voted to unionize in May 2022. 

“Two people with perfect records were fired recently. [Starbucks] made a new minimum availability requirement even considering we are very understaffed and barely able to keep the store running as it is,” said Robin Hyatt, a Starbucks worker in Watertown.

Adrianna Ross, who has been working at the Watertown Starbucks for seven years, pointed out that the workers “did not negotiate for that new availability minimum.” After a store becomes unionized, Starbucks is required to negotiate any schedule changes with the workers. She added that one of the fired workers “has had the same availability for seven years, through three different store managers. And none of them have had an issue with it, until this one.”

Ross said the other reason they are on strike is related to Heaberlin’s conduct in regards to a shift manager under her supervision.

“We’re also out here because that same store manager allowed a partner [worker] to be openly transphobic and misogynistic to the staff. And to maintain his employment three months after reports were given to her about his behavior and treatment of us.”

Regarding the understaffing Ross said, “Sometimes there’s only two people on the floor handling a half hour rush of 40 customers!”  

According to workers the Watertown location now has only 15 baristas running the store when 25 baristas are required. There’s often only one or two baristas on the floor serving customers when there would normally be six. In the past, when they were short on staff, store hours were shorted, sometimes closing at 4pm. But the store has been operating on a full schedule during this staff shortage. Store manager Heaberlin has had many recent applications but has only interviewed and hired two workers in the last month, according to workers on the picket line.

There are many things in common with the strike at 874 Commonwealth Ave in Brookline on the Boston University campus and this one in Watertown. In both cases workers complain about getting a new manager who seems hostile to unions and perpetuates or allows transphobia and misogyny. Both want their right as unionized workers to negotiate for reasonable hours.

One major difference is that 874 Comm Ave has been keeping the picket line going 24 hours per day for nearly two months now. They say they need to maintain an active picket line to prevent deliveries: delivery workers are part of the Teamsters union and have it in their contract that they will not cross a picket line to make a delivery. 

In contrast, Ross said, “I believe they’ve put a pause on all orders because if they continue to have them we would just have expired products.” Ross expressed that the workers were not concerned about Starbucks hiring replacement workers, as “they physically can’t hire scabs because every store is understaffed!”

Some workers are scheduled to work when they don’t want to and others like Maeghan Odom want to work more hours but are given less hours. “I genuinely like working for Starbucks. If they provided for me, I would be a partner for life…. We want to make this a better place.”

Community Support

It was clear that many residents of Watertown and other union members from the wider community support their efforts to make the store a better place. 

“The last strike we had [August 1st, 2022] the Watertown Teachers Union came out in support of us. They stood on the line with us, held signs with us, they donated. Especially because that week was so hot, they gave us a cooler, water, popsicles to keep us cool. They were a huge support for us… So many of them come here. One of the partners who was fired works at Brighton High School…”

At this point Adrianna stopped to explain to a customer, “Sorry we’re closed, we’re on strike!”

The customer replied, “I know, I just wanted to tell you how awesome you are! I wanted to show my support!” Ross thanked her, told her ways she can support their efforts, and then continued.

“Yeah, like I was saying, one of the partners who was fired works at Brighton High School and the teachers talked about us and how they can support us. It’s amazing to see so many different industries and unions support us in what we’re doing.”

Working Mass met workers from the large Teamsters Local 25, the Brandeis University grad student workers union, and the Boston University grad student workers union which just went public earlier this month. 

Over the course of three hours dozens of people parked in the parking lot and then walked up to the store. Starbucks workers explained the store is closed because they are on strike for unfair labor practices. Some simply said, “Oh okay” and turned around. Many people asked for more information and expressed support. 

Someone even offered to buy them a drink from one of Starbucks rivals: “Do you want some Dunks?” A group of middle aged men were sitting at the outdoor tables playing cards and drinking Dunkin Donuts coffee. They expressed support and one said, “Everyone deserves a union!” 

Working Mass spoke with Renne Hartman, known as “Tutu” to most people, who has been going to this Starbucks for 15 years since she moved to Watertown. Hartman works at a daycare for children with autism. “I live literally up the block… I’m a coffee freak. I came from Seattle. So that’s homegrown.”

Hartman says she loves Starbucks and everyone in her life knows it, even the kids at her daycare. “One of the kids found a little bell for me. It says ‘Ring for coffee.’ I keep it where the kids can reach it. They’ll go over there and ring it. I’m like ‘What?’ They’re like, ‘You’re grumpy, you need some coffee!’ They recognize that the energy has gone down a bit.”

She also has a Starbucks gift card sitting on her dashboard which she jokingly refers to as her “parking pass” and a mini plastic facsimile of a Starbucks coffee cup hanging from her rearview mirror.

Hartman asked the workers on strike, “Is there anything as a non-employee, as layman we can do? Because I will do it absolutely! Whatever I can post…”

Hyatt hands her flyers with info and a link to the strike fund.

“I know a bunch of people that would be on board. I’m so sorry that you guys are having to deal with this….I’ve seen how hard you work over the years. I didn’t realize things had gotten so bad,” said Hartman. 

“It’s a slap in the face”

Across the country there has been a pattern of Starbucks breaking labor laws, disregarding rulings from the National Labor Relations Board, firing unionized workers, and delaying contract negotiations. One example from this Watertown Starbucks location seems to be the raise that Adrianna Ross received this month. According to Starbucks, as someone working at the company for 5+ years who is currently in a union, Ross was supposed to get a 3% raise on September 1st, 2022. Starbucks gave a 7% raise to non unionized workers who have been with the company for 5+ years. Recently, the NLRB ruled that Starbucks must give the same raises to workers regardless of union status. 

“So I should have gotten a 7% raise but I got a 1.5% raise. It’s a slap in the face. I got a 32 cent raise. I should have gotten a 75 cent raise for the 3% and with the 7% raise it should have been an over $1.50 raise,” said Ross.

Meanwhile, in August Starbucks reported quarterly earnings of $8.15 billion – even higher than the $8.11 billion that was expected.

Will Starbucks adjust Ross’s raise to 3% or 7% after she raises the issue? Regardless, this fits a pattern of Starbucks doing things that workers find insulting, frustrating, and time consuming. And yet when Working Mass reached out to Starbucks last week their spokesperson said, “We currently have strikes happening at Massachusetts store locations. Starbucks has great partners and we value their contributions. We respect our partners’ right to engage in any legally protected activity or protest without retaliation. We are grateful for each partner who continues to work and we always do our best to listen to the concerns of all our partners.” 

Workers are still looking for Starbucks to live up to those words and to follow the law. The strike has ended but according to Robin Hyatt the workers are currently working on next steps and, “I’m generally feeling optimistic!”

Eli Gerzon is a freelance writer, social media consultant, gardener, and Tarot card reader. They are an active member of Boston DSA and Jewish Voice for Peace – Boston. 

Why WPI Grad Workers Need a Union

Mon, 2022-09-19 09:32

On September 19, with a supermajority of cards signed, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Graduate Workers’ Union is gathering on campus outside Boynton Hall to inform the WPI administration that they are filing for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board. In August, Cory B spoke with two graduate student workers on the WPI GWU organizing committee. Teagan Bate and Guin Gilman discuss how the union drive got started, the impact of the pandemic and rising cost of living, and why, in the face of an administration fixated on money, a union is needed to safeguard workers, the broader WPI community, and the institution’s scientific mission. This interview has been edited for clarity.

WM – Could you introduce yourselves and share what you do at the university?

GUIN – I’m a third-year computer science PhD student. I started by getting my master’s about a year ago, and I’ve continued on with my work here. I specifically work in the Cake Lab, where a lot of people work on things like systems security, but what I do is mostly related to the performance of GPUs on general purpose workloads, things like deep learning, instead of graphics workloads. I mostly work with the system architecture and low-level details, as opposed to deep learning itself, and I’ve kind of been a remote student for the past two years because of everything and also because I live in Rhode Island.

TEAGAN – I’m Teagan. I’m going into the sixth year of my physics PhD. I was a TA, a teaching assistant, for a few years, and a couple years ago, I transitioned into being a full-time research assistant. My research primarily has to do with synthetic biomimetic active matter, constructed from microtubules and kinesin motors, and its behavior.

WM – And could you tell us more about the bargaining unit you’re forming and the workers who make it up?

TEAGAN – There are between 500 and 600 graduate student workers, which includes teaching assistants and research assistants. There is also a smattering of other positions that graduate students could potentially hold that put them within the unit, such as being a grader.

GUIN – I’m a teaching assistant, for instance, and I have been the whole time I’ve been here. People tend to be teaching assistants the first few years they’re here, and it seems like we have a lot of people that are at varying stages of their degree so we have a mix of teaching assistants and research assistants in our group.

TEAGAN – And we can safely say that we have majority support in all departments. We have at least a couple departments where we have effectively 100% support, and the others fall somewhere within that range.

WM – Does the unit include both PhD and master’s student workers?

TEAGAN – Yes, as long as they’re funded through WPI.

WM – What sort of work do the two of you do in a typical week as grad workers in your respective jobs?

GUIN – As a teaching assistant during the school year, what typically happens is you’re expected to spend about 20 hours per week doing the teaching assistant portion of your job, and what that entails pretty heavily depends on the course you’re assigned to. For some courses, it’s a lot of grading that takes up the majority of the 20 hours. For other courses, it’s more about office hours and attending the courses to be there to help, like with larger classes. For most courses, though, it’s a pretty even split between grading and then office hours and interacting with students. And then, for the rest of your weekly hours, for the most part, you’re spending time working on research.

Currently, I’m working on my research qualifier, but even before that, it was a focus on independent studies and things like that to go toward my master’s thesis, which was based on doing original research. Around 20 hours at least are expected for making progress on that, and personally, I meet with my advisor about twice a week to discuss that portion of it. That might be a little more frequent than a lot of people, but that’s what I do. And when I was doing the master’s portion of my studies, I also had to take two or three classes per semester. I finished all the credits I need for classes so I don’t have to do that anymore, but it does make your schedule a lot busier.

TEAGAN – At times in my graduate career, I have worked probably 50 to 60 hours a week, spread out over seven days, but I would say, on average, I’ve now gotten to a point where I typically work about 40 hours a week, over six days, as a research assistant. Typically, I will be spending some of my time prototyping, developing, and doing experiments. A significant responsibility of mine is mentoring undergraduates, high schoolers, and sometimes newer graduate students in our lab. When I’m mentoring graduate students, that might be a bit less experimental stuff and more general lab duties and synthesis-type stuff, the kind of work and skills they need to pick up to be able to maintain the lab materials and environment. Whereas if I’m working with an undergraduate, it might be just a one-off experiment, but usually, I’d have prototyped and refined an experimental method to the point where I’m confident in it. Then I would tutor them in it and guide them in learning how to do it essentially at the same quality level that I can, and then passing those experiments on to them so that I don’t have to do the experiments anymore.

The other work I do is reading research papers and staying up to date on the niche. It depends on where I’m at with a project, but a lot of the time I might be at some stage of work on authoring a paper so I might be developing figures for that or writing method sections or working with my PI, principal investigator, on that. And then the other large chunk of my time goes toward data analysis, developing code, working with cluster computing, software systems, dealing with bugs, analyzing stuff, and hearing different analyses. Essentially my time is split between doing experiments, training people to do those experiments, analyzing those experiments, and then writing about them.

WM – How did the union drive start at WPI and how did both of you become involved?

TEAGAN – Two or three years ago, in the spring of 2019 or maybe spring of 2020, Dayna Mercadante, a PhD student in bioinformatics and computational biology, got interested in forming a union. She used to sit in a cubicle right down the hall [gestures], and she has since graduated and moved on. Now, I don’t know if this was the first person at WPI that was ever interested in forming a union, but she got interested and talked with Sabine Hahn, my other cubicle neighbor, who is one of our main leaders now, and got her interested, and I believe the first group they reached out to was a teachers union, and they might have sent some other emails to various groups or people, but the teachers union was like “Heck yeah! About time,” and they got directed to the UAW one way or another.

And then they got in touch with Josh Gilbert, who we’ve now been working with for more than a year, and it started to take off. That’s when I got involved. I was on the Graduate Student Advisory Council to the dean of arts & sciences, and I met Sabine and Dayna through that. They contacted me after meeting there and asked if I’d be interested, and I was pretty gung ho and got on board, but Dayna and Sabine, and maybe some other folks, had done some amount of organizing and been in touch with Josh at that point, and once it got going, I was in on weekly meetings, and we started to organize exponentially from there on out.

Josh has been instrumental in supplying us with information and advice, and we would not be where we are without him and the UAW’s support. So the actual working relationship that we have is like emails and meetings with Josh, and he’s just indispensable in terms of his experience and knowledge and what to expect. We have ended up being able to work with a really great organizer. It’s made a huge difference.

GUIN – It’s hard to remember how I first heard about it. I feel like it was either a cold email or just through the grapevine, but I was really interested in joining as well. When I first heard about it, I was a remote worker and had a lot on my plate at the time, but the beginning of this year is when I started to get really involved because I have plans to be on campus more often now, and my time is more organized at the moment because I finished taking classes.

TEAGAN – Congratulations!

GUIN – Thank you. It’s definitely given me a better handle on my schedule.

WM – You mention having been a remote worker. Is that something that had to do with the pandemic?

GUIN – It started that way. My first year was fall 2019 so I got to spend a semester and a half going to campus every day, which is like a 45-minute commute if traffic is okay, so it was a little bit rough. But with the pandemic, you basically had to be a remote worker, and then when people started coming back to campus, I decided I’d just wait a little bit longer than some people because of how long the commute is, and it was unclear if people were going to get to keep coming into campus.

WM – Were there other ways the pandemic affected your work and work for WPI grad workers generally?

GUIN – I think the biggest effect for me was the fact that I wasn’t physically on campus. One of the things that I really appreciated when I first got to WPI, about my lab specifically, is that we put a lot of effort into having a community of workers that help each other and are there to discuss things or give advice. Like if you’re new, there are more experienced graduate workers there that can help you, and when you’re by yourself at home, not in the lab, you just don’t have as many opportunities for that sort of thing. But then it also put a lot of mental stress on people, including me. In general, it just made it harder to keep yourself organized and make progress. There was a lot of variance in how prepared people were for this situation, and as a TA, when you got asked to help out with certain courses at that time, some of them were far more ready to go online than others. In the end, if the course wasn’t well designed to be given online, it increased your workload a lot more than you would have thought, and that definitely impacted my own workload quite a bit.

TEAGAN – I had a similar experience. At the time I was still a teaching assistant, and I was lined up to be teaching assistant for the most advanced physics lab in the physics department, which usually has a very small number of students. They’re doing technical, involved, lengthy experiments, and they do just a couple of them and then write large reports on them. I remember a big crunch was preparing that to be a fully online course. My PI was the professor for the course so we were able to communicate a lot, or more so than if we didn’t know each other, and I put in a lot of work to help get that course in place. It was a good experience because I felt like I was showing up and being on deck for the physics department and for my students. I mean, it was stressful, but not in a problematic way. So that worked out.

But in terms of my research, we’re an experimental lab so we were very big on being able to get in the building and continue to do our hands-on work, which you cannot do remotely and need to do as soon as possible. I think we only lost a couple weeks, or at most a month, where we were totally locked out of the building and couldn’t come in, and we got back in as soon as we possibly could. Because of that difference between my work and folks in, for example, computer science, who can do more remotely if you have to, I was back to my regular, in-the-lab, walking-around, doing-things-type work much faster than a lot of other people.

WM – What were the major driving factors for people wanting to unionize and was there a point where the union drive really got underway in getting card signers?

TEAGAN – I think as organizers and doing walkthroughs and working on the social media team and getting involved, I think Guin could agree that it generally seems to fall under a few categories: money, treatment, and healthcare. And they’re interlinked, but for a lot of folks, unnecessary distress comes from a lack of money, not getting paid enough, and things related to that, like conference expenses being withheld or all kinds of issues with payment, money, and things surrounding money in graduate student life. That’s probably number one, though I don’t know if they’re necessarily rankable. Number two is treatment, so that could be treatment by the administration, like maybe you have a pay issue, and you email the Bursar’s Office, do they give you a big stink about it? Do they make it very difficult? Are they responsive? Or maybe, unfortunately, you have an abusive PI who doesn’t handle emotions well and doesn’t treat you in an upright fashion and pushes you too hard or some other sort of PI abuse. But I would say, for me personally, and I think to some degree generally, a lot of the treatment issues are actually not usually with PIs but with the administration, in terms of how they email us, how they announce things, and how they make changes. Do they ask us before doing something with policy? Those kinds of things. And then I mentioned healthcare. We want full, good healthcare coverage and for it to not be taken out of our salary, and that’s been a real struggle to have that happen.

GUIN – And I do think a lot of how the organizing has picked up so much is at least partially related to the circumstances lately. Things like the pandemic and inflation put a lot of graduate workers in positions where they realized that they were being asked to do more than they could handle or that they were struggling more and not receiving support from the administration when they could be. So it made it more obvious that there are a lot of things that we could benefit from if we organized.

TEAGAN – Yeah, I’d say that the momentum corresponded to our level of organization, and it’s a positive feedback loop.

GUIN – Yeah.

TEAGAN – You get another person willing to be a leader and to go do a walkthrough or to put up a poster or to reach out and talk to a friend, and then they add another person, and it’s a spreading network. That’s why it can be exciting to be an organizer because you’ve experienced exponential growth. Now, there are lulls and there are slow points and disappointments at times, but I would generally say we’ve only brought in more people, more interest, and more energy to continue to bring in more people. I think a real high point for us was establishing leaders in every department, which took a lot of walkthroughs and a lot of emails. That was a big moment. And then, once we had done that, that’s when we decided to drop cards, and that first week of signing cards and those couple weeks, where we were signing cards and we just had this flood of cards coming in and we just saw our numbers going up across all departments and it was going really, really fast, that was probably the most exciting point. Our organizing committee meetings those weeks were full of people, and everybody was really high energy so that was a really awesome time.

WM – You mentioned earlier having been on the Graduate Student Advisory Council, and I’m curious to know what you might make of those who argue that there are these existing structures like that, which are supposedly meant to give you a voice?

TEAGAN – Well, I think as someone who’s going into their sixth year, who has exchanged a lot of emails with the administration, has been to a lot of those meetings and talked with a lot of people on these various boards and things, it would be my tendency to get a bit cynical about it. But I’ll try to divorce myself from that cynicism. I think that those groups are important and play a role in opening a lane of communication and organizing community events. With that said, ultimately, I do not feel that those organizations have fundamental power to advocate for the student body in a way that brings results, and that’s where collective bargaining comes in. That’s the real difference with the union. The buck stops somewhere, and we actually need to sit down and negotiate at the table and work on a contract, and there’s real power behind that negotiation. Because with those other organizations, if it comes down to an uncomfortable decision, it’s not up to the students. And especially in terms of those university announcements and the communications that I’ve had and all the little squabbles I’ve gone through with the administration regarding registering for credits or getting paid right or on time or dealing with conference reimbursements, things often come back to money. And I think the thing that has frustrated a lot of us is that when it really comes down to any decision, when money is on the line, the administration seems to make a decision to make more money. Period. And that hierarchy of decision making filters out into many, many, many subtle places. So in those other groups, if there’s something that comes down to real money, like getting health insurance for everybody or raising pay, they’re going to make the decision that makes them more money and that doesn’t involve giving more money to graduate students.

GUIN – And I think the fact there’s so much enthusiasm and support for organizing a union among the graduate worker population demonstrates that a lot of people feel the same way, that we need another avenue to…

TEAGAN –  Advocate.

GUIN – Advocate, that’s the word I’m looking for. Yes, we need another avenue to advocate for ourselves because the ones that we have currently aren’t sufficient.

WM – One of the grad workers I previously spoke with from the organizing committee at Clark University, a PhD grad worker in their geography department, said that he was paid $19,220 a year in gross pay for a nine-month appointment. Could you share some numbers on what grad worker pay looks like across departments at WPI?

TEAGAN – Well, that’s exactly it, it will change between departments. Generally, I think teaching assistants make around $24,000 over nine months, and research assistants make around $30,000 over 12 months.

GUIN – That’s basically the same experience that I have.

TEAGAN – -ish.

GUIN – Yeah, it’s around that amount.

TEAGAN – I’m not quoting you an exact number because like I said there’s a range, and I don’t know if that’s the exact median but that’s about what I’ve seen.

WM – And I know summer funding is an issue for the grad workers at Clark University too. Could you talk more about how that plays out at WPI right now and what people would like to see change?

GUIN – On the topic of summer funding, and funding in general, the biggest thing that I’ve heard is it pretty much depends on your PI how secure you feel in being funded for the entirety of your time here. For instance, some people aren’t worried about being funded during the summer because their PI will help to make sure that happens, but other people are always worried that they can’t be sure they’ll secure a source of funding. What I think people want is for there to be a consistent, across-the-board ability to be sure that you can be funded for the entire time that you’re here. And I think that’s a pretty reasonable position to take, that it should be more consistent and not anxiety-inducing for so many people.

WM – Could I also ask you both how the rising cost of living is affecting you?

TEAGAN – I haven’t felt it as much myself because I’ve been lucky to have a landlord who has been willing to keep my rent pretty steady for quite a few years, three or four now. That’s had a large impact on my financial situation, and I can say that if that wasn’t the case, I can’t possibly see how I could survive. If my landlord raised my rent by $200, which would make it a pretty reasonable rent actually for the type of place I’m living in, I would be really pinched.

GUIN – It’s definitely affected my situation. I live in Providence, and it’s a pretty high cost of living. I’m also coming to campus more, and that requires a pretty long commute, and gas prices are getting expensive so…

TEAGAN – Gas has been one thing that’s hurt.

GUIN – That’s one of the reasons I haven’t been coming in as much as I planned to this summer! It’s literally just too expensive to do it as often as I want. I was planning on gradually increasing the amount of time I come into campus over the summer until I’m here consistently a few days a week, but I don’t make enough money to do that. And my rent has gone up basically every year I’ve lived here, and I room with three other people. I mean, that’s half the reason I live in Providence, most of the reason I live in Providence — because my roommates are here. If I didn’t room with three other people, there’s no way I could live here, and even then the only reason why I’ve been able to deal with our rent going up every year is because my roommates get raises! We split the cost of rent based on the income we make so when it goes up, I pay more but not as much more as my friends that all get raises.

So the fact that our incomes essentially haven’t changed, even though gas prices are up, inflation is happening, everyone’s rent is going up, I don’t see how any of us could deal with that if we didn’t have situations like these, which shouldn’t be necessary. We should have the ability to deal with the situation based on what’s provided to us, not just these external support systems.

TEAGAN – The university did announce a 2% raise, and that happened to coincide right when we officially announced so… [shrugs shoulders and laughs]

GUIN – Yeah.

TEAGAN – Yeah, we were expecting that, although we weren’t expecting it to be quite so low. When unions announce majority support publicly, we’ve seen other universities then offer a 3% or 4% raise to try to head off the steam. So when we heard it was going to be 2% we were like, wow, OK. I mean, that almost helps us. Often, when 3% or 4% raises are announced, units might lose a couple percentage points of support off of that, but I think we only saw numbers keep going up. I mean, it’s hard to measure that kind of thing, but yeah, 2% is not enough. [laughs] It’s just not.

WM – There’s a similar thing that’s happened with Massachusetts state legislative staff, who are trying to organize two bargaining units, one on the Senate side and one on the House side. The Senate staffers reached a majority of cards signed and asked for recognition, and part of the Senate President’s initial response was to give them a 10% raise. [laughs]

TEAGAN – Yeah, exactly. I mean, if our unit got hit with a 10% raise, that’d be a totally different story, but a 2% raise for me is like $22 per paycheck.

GUIN – Yeah, for a lot of people this won’t even cover a tank of gas to get to work so… [sighs]

WM – And even a 10% raise just barely covers inflation.

TEAGAN – Yes, and our pay has not gone up significantly in the last seven or eight years. It’s jumbled around a bit, and the university administrators sent out a semantic email about that when we were dumping on them for that, but our income has not changed significantly in seven or eight years. And inflation has gone up about 25% in Worcester across everything so…

GUIN – Yeah, people definitely think that their income hasn’t gone up at all, even if you could say it has by, I don’t know, say $20, because it feels to them with inflation and the increasing cost of living like their money is not going as far. I’ve only been here three years, and basically, all raises stopped when the pandemic happened so I’m not sure that I’ve even experienced one, and there are a lot of people here that are in the same boat as well.

WM – I know another big issue for grad workers at some other universities has been harassment issues and grievance procedures. Would you say that there’s dissatisfaction right now with whatever sort of structures or processes WPI has in place, and is this an area where workers want to see changes?

TEAGAN – Yes, it’s absolutely a big deal, graduate student-PI relationships. I would say that a decent majority, 80-90% of PIs that I know about, are at least reasonable or supported by their graduate students, and then there’s some small percentage who are kind of in a gray area, and then there’s a small percentage, less than 5%, that really should not be in the position they’re in and are really, really problematic. But that small percentage leaves behind a wake of people whose careers and mental health have been destroyed and who have lived a lot of suffering because of that. And, as of now, with sexual harassment cases or cases of advisor abuse, in terms of overwork or inappropriate treatment, ultimately, the final decision is up to the department or the university administration. Often they will side with the professor because it’s the easier thing to do, and it’s often the financially incentivized thing to do. There needs to be an objective process for dealing with these cases, and what other units at other universities have looked for in their contracts is to enshrine an impartial third-party negotiator, not aligned with either side, that makes the final decisions. And I think that would be a helpful step toward protecting students and also ensuring justice.

WM – Besides remote work, were there other obstacles to the union drive? I know at Clark University, there are a lot of international students, and one of their tasks was educating them about their rights. Any challenges like that?

TEAGAN – I’m glad you brought up international students. They have been a focus of the organizing committee and a focus of the social media team. We’ve seen that international students are often hesitant to join the cause vocally and publicly, and we see a lot of fear of reprisal. They’re worried that if their PI finds out about this that it’s going to be nasty. They feel like if the university finds out, it could be really nasty, but also, depending on where they’re from, they’re often worried that their country is going to find out about it, and they have concerns about visa officers making decisions about this. There are also concerns that if more and more international students coming to the United States start to unionize, will this affect their home country’s perception and result in a nationally lower visa issuance? With all of this fear, I think the way to deal with it is to educate and inform. People just need information, answers to specific questions, and the answers are usually, “Yes, there is some risk, but it’s less than you think it is, and you’re more protected than you think you are, and if you join in, you protect other people like you.” And that’s the message we want to send to people who might fear retaliation and might feel vulnerable — we’re here to support and protect you, and when we join together, we can protect all of us mutually.

GUIN – Yeah, I do think that the biggest obstacle, so to speak, in cases like that is that the risks are far more well known than the benefits so it’s really just a matter of getting that information out there to the people that aren’t aware of it. I think retaliation is a good example because it’s a pretty common misconception that you should be afraid of retaliation, even though you’d actually be protected from that if you created a union. So yes, I really do think it’s just a matter of getting the information out there to the people that need to hear it.

TEAGAN – Yes, the social media team on our Instagram and Facebook, we’ve been focusing on international students for this month so all of our posts are related to this kind of information. We’ve also been getting testimonials from international students regarding issues that they experience, and I think, ultimately, international students are more vulnerable and therefore stand to benefit the most from a union and the power of collective bargaining.

WM – Given the drop in union density over the past several decades, there are many people today who don’t have the experience of ever having been in a union or maybe even knowing someone who is. Have either of you had any sort of past connection in your life with the labor movement? And when you’re having organizing conversations with other grad workers, what is typically their first reaction to the idea of a union?

GUIN – My dad actually works for a union, like as a union representative, so I’ve always had a pretty positive perception of unions. I think that, in general, what causes the perception of unions to be negative when you talk to someone for the first time is mostly misinformation or lack of exposure. Most people I’ve talked to about it on campus are positive, and I think that’s reflected in how much support there is, but when it comes to people that aren’t positive when you first talk to them about it, it’s mostly just misconceptions. Growing up with my dad, I had the advantage of not being exposed to that as frequently, but really what matters is giving people a real example of the things that they’re misinformed about, and that’s why it’s important to be going around and talking to people face to face and talking about what their concerns are.

TEAGAN – I don’t really have any experiences with unions in my past. And I would say, actually, on my walkthroughs, often when I say “Do you know what a union is?” people pause for a while, and they say “Well, you know, uhhh…” They have a vague idea, but a lot of people certainly do not know the technical details of a grad worker union so on a lot of my walkthroughs I just explain what a union does for folks. Again, information is a big part of this campaign. Now, like I said, I don’t have any other experience with unions, but my perception is that the graduate worker unions in this country have their own sort of distinct aesthetic compared to other unions. I figure they might tend to be a little idealistic, in a good way, and a lot of our unit is young. I think our average age would be lower than most other unions in the country.

Graduate students also tend to be willing to stop and think and ask careful questions, and that’s one thing I’ve noticed a lot as I’ve been speaking with other graduate students face to face about this. Once I explain what a union is, I then suddenly get a very perceptive, specific question. And I do get people who are like, “Yep, sounds great; you don’t need to tell me anything more,” but a lot of people want to have some sort of extended discussion and get into the details.

WM – Sometimes the employer, or even other workers, will make an argument that “Well, maybe you’re not treated the best and maybe you’re not paid all that well, but you’re not going to spend your whole life here. This is like a rite of passage. You’re going to move on to bigger and better things eventually so why can’t you just deal with it?” What would your response be to that perspective?

GUIN – I would have two things to say in response to that, and one would be that a major benefit of organizing into a union is that you’re helping create a structure that can help the people that come after you. It’s a long-lasting thing that can support the rest of the graduate workers that will be here after we’re gone. It’s not even just for our benefit as current graduate student workers, it’s to make something that will last even after we graduate, and I think that’s important and that we shouldn’t just have to bear with it and neither should the students that come after us have to just bear with it. And a good reason why, as you can see from the example of successful graduate worker unions at other institutions, is that they don’t have to bear with it. They unionized and saw the benefits of that and have better working conditions. And I don’t see why we can’t also. What is preventing us from getting the same thing? Or why should we uniquely have to bear with it? I really don’t see that as a compelling argument just because it’s so clear that we don’t have to.

TEAGAN – Yeah, I can add that as an advanced-stage graduate student, I got involved with the movement at the end of my fourth year. And I knew that it was a couple people, a few people, a handful of people at the time when I joined, and I had a vague idea of the timeline, and I was aware that timeline might mean that I was not going to see a contract in my career here at WPI. And the timeline has only solidified more as I’ve continued working with the movement, and it’s always been clear that if I do see a contract, it would be very close to the end of my degree because I plan to graduate in May. So all my energy has been with that in the background. I’m doing this out of frustration but also out of hope. And for the undergraduate students that I work with and mentor. It just feels like the right thing to do. And I think I speak for many other people on the organizing committee and leaders across departments. We have leaders at all different stages of their degree. We have leaders who are involved and are just starting their first year, and we have leaders like me who are going into their sixth. But there are quite a few of us that are in the later stages and, in fact, it’s a pretty even distribution. I think we are a counter to that argument.

WM – Other than that very small raise, how has WPI responded so far? And how do you expect they’ll respond when you seek recognition?

TEAGAN – We’ve seen surprisingly little, especially when we announced a majority. I think we were expecting some sort of more direct response, but we really haven’t seen much, only these kinds of glancing blows like the raise and arguments in little semantic emails. Now, given what we’ve seen with other universities, we do expect an anti-union campaign to start to emerge. Usually, those are in the form of emails from PIs, from administrators, from various people. The emails usually tend to nitpick the campaign’s points and try to undermine faith. They try to sow fear and doubt. But given all our information on previous anti campaigns that other units have shared with us, we think we know what to expect to a large degree, and we’re fairly prepared for that in terms of how we’re going to respond on the ground and through social media and through email. We’ll expect that to ramp up probably once we’ve actually sent our cards to the NLRB and have asked for a vote, and when that vote is actually coming up is probably when we’ll start to see it, when they’re sure that a vote is coming.

WM – Last year, members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association went on strike at St. Vincent Hospital, and in the course of that struggle, one of the things the employer tried to do was claim that patients and doctors had no common interest in the nurses’ demand for safe staffing and that worker action to win this demand was somehow at odds with patients’ interests. Do you see undergrads and your PIs as having a common interest in grad workers not living in precarity?

GUIN – I definitely think there’s a common interest within the broader community. Just as an example, it can be really hard to maintain the research you’re doing and put out quality work if you’re constantly stressed about paying your bills or when you can’t come in based on how much gas costs and things like that. And it’s also relevant, for instance, for the undergraduate students as well because the amount of time that you can dedicate to supporting them and helping them and teaching them can vary drastically if you’re constantly worried about other things, are overworked, or are not being given the support that you need. That can affect the quality of the experience that you’re able to give to the undergraduate students, and that’s something that they would have an interest in. But a lot of the undergraduate students that I’ve talked to about this also have positive feelings toward it because they believe that it’s only fair that graduate students are treated fairly. They’re interested in it because they see us as a part of their community as well, and they want to see us get fair treatment. So I think it’s both. It would benefit them, and they also support it because they really do want to see graduate workers receive fair treatment.

TEAGAN – One of the arguments along the same lines that we’ll expect to hear in the anti campaign is the sort of slice-of-the-pie argument of “Oh, well, if we’re going to give more money to you, we have to get it from somewhere so we’re going to remove undergraduate housing or we’re going to remove graduate housing or we’re going to fire professors or there’s going to be less graduate students.” And when we form a unit, and we’re a cohesive community that can leverage our collective bargaining power, we will leverage that toward contract items, and some of those contract items could potentially apply to those issues. But when we come together as a community and unify our voice and give ourselves a platform, we can use that voice to protect not only ourselves but those around us in our community. Our professors are core to our happiness and ability to do our work as graduate students, the undergraduates are a core part of our community, our facilities are a core part, and the housing is a core part. So if the administration is threatening to take those things away in order to meet our needs while large funds are going into administrative fees and administrative salaries and the endowment, we can say that that’s unacceptable. and that’s not part of our values, and we can advocate for all of those issues. So, in other words, when we come together, we can use our advocacy to protect the entire community and all its values, not just these specific things for our graduate students.

Now, with that said, I also believe that a union is in the best interest of the scientific mission of WPI. That’s because, just like at any company in the nation, the best working conditions attract the best talent, and in order to be the most productive university that puts out the best science, has more graduate students of higher talent levels, and obtains the best grants and is the most competitive in obtaining those grants and funding, we need great working conditions. So improving our working conditions and advocating for the values of our community will only enhance our long-term scientific mission.

WM – And since you bring up mission, universities put a lot of resources into trying to brand themselves and project a certain image, and I’m interested to know if you think there is a gap between the values WPI proclaims and how without a union you feel you have actually been valued as grad workers.

TEAGAN – Like any American university, there’s a sort of boilerplate that comes along with that, and I understand that. But personally, I’d say that I don’t think there’s a huge discrepancy between the university’s public face and its internal treatment. I would say it’s a subtle thing and that the feeling does grow over the years that you work here. I mentioned all the little scrambles I’ve had with the administration. That’s just like I don’t get reimbursed on a conference expense, and then I have to email the payroll office, and they’re like “Ope, nope; you gotta do this thing. You’re out of luck,” and then I email my department head, and then my department head is like “Oh, that’s happening to you?” and then he reaches out to them, and then he straightens it out for me. It’s just like… And in that way, yes, I think there’s a discrepancy there between showing themselves as a great research environment when at least in terms of the emails that I exchanged and my interactions with the administration, it seems to be more about expenses and fees and percentages of grants and things like that. In summary, yes, the university puts out a boilerplate of happy, smiling faces and lots of science and great things, and in reality, it’s a business, and there are hard limits to things. But I don’t think it’s outsized.

GUIN – Yeah, I think that the main thing that makes me glad that I came to WPI and makes it a great place to work and do research is based on a lot of the individuals that I’ve met here and interacted with, and I feel like unionizing is one way to guarantee that everyone gets a good experience, and I think that’s important, that everyone should be able to feel like they have the opportunity to meet the messaging that WPI puts out about that.

WM – And in the past year or so, there have been large new units of grad workers who have successfully unionized at MIT and the University of California and existing ones which have gone on strike at Harvard and Columbia. To what extent have you all been following this wave of organization among other grad workers and have you been in contact at all with grad worker unions elsewhere?

GUIN – We do follow that pretty closely. As a member of the social media team, a lot of time we make posts about this stuff going on at other universities and how it can serve as a guideline for things that we might do here or examples of what unions can accomplish for graduate workers in similar situations. We’ve also been reaching out to some of the other unions, and we’ve received quite a bit of support. I think it can only help us and make the graduate worker community stronger, beyond just WPI, if we connect in that way and work together so that is part of our goal as well.

TEAGAN – We’ve paid a fair amount of attention to MIT and Harvard especially. I think we look east to those universities in a couple different ways, and I think they’ve been to a large part an inspiration in terms of founding a unit and moving the movement forward, but like Guin said, yeah, there’s a lot of other units in the country and they’re all doing stuff and so we’ve been tapping into that and sharing that information with our own unit, which I think is an important part of our campaign. One of our main sort of strategies is to show that everybody’s doing it, and I think that’s a powerful message.

WM – In addition to last year’s St. Vincent nurses strike, next year the Teamsters have their large UPS contract that’s going to come up August 1, and right now, all across the country as well, there are baristas unionizing Starbucks. There’s one right here in Worcester on E Central Street, which is actually on strike right now [at the time of the interview], and so I’m wondering, how do you see yourselves, as WPI grad workers, within the broader labor movement and this labor upsurge?

GUIN – Admittedly, we’re still organizing so the extent to which we’ve gotten involved in those things is not as big as we plan, but we all agree that it’s important that we continue to be members of the community of workers in Worcester because I think that we do share a lot of common interests, and as a unit, we can lend a lot of power if we work together like that.

TEAGAN – One thing the organizing committee has been discussing, earlier this summer and ongoing, is exactly what Guin is talking about, is seeking out community involvement. We haven’t just been waiting for people to reach out to us; we’ve been reaching out to see where we can lend a hand and chip in. And this goes along with what I was saying about my own commitment to the union that I don’t really expect to be on contract for any significant amount of time and that I’m doing it for future student workers. I think everyone on the organizing committee feels that this is not just about increasing our paycheck; this is about establishing a broader community and voice and power. And if something happens with Amazon workers or something like that comes up, we feel that we’re tied to that. And so when things come up in our community in terms of protection of workers and workers’ rights, that absolutely feels like something that we care about, that we will post about on social media, and that we will step out the door and bring a sign to.

The day after this interview, WPI grad workers, including Sabine Hahn (right), joined the picket line at the striking Starbucks on E Central St. WPI GWU

WM – Do you have anything that you’d want to say to grad workers elsewhere who may not yet have a union or have started organizing?

TEAGAN – I would say that you’re not alone, that everyone’s doing it, and that democracy is power.

GUIN – We’re stronger together.

Teagan Bate and Guin Gilman are PhD student workers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Cory B is on the Steering Committee of Worcester DSA and is a member of DSA’s National Labor Commission.

Thank you to the Massachusetts Nurses Association for allowing use of their Region 2 office for this interview.

Featured image credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel, Boynton Hall, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, CC BY-SA 4.0

How Foreign Private Equity Hooked New England’s Fishing Industry

Wed, 2022-08-24 09:14

by Will Sennott, Propublica

Owned by a billionaire Dutch family, Blue Harvest Fisheries has emerged as a dominant force in the lucrative fishing port of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Its business model: benefit from lax antitrust rules and pass costs on to local fishermen.

This story was originally published by ProPublica, in partnership with The New Bedford LightSign up for Dispatches to get ProPublica stories like this one as soon as they are published.

New Bedford – Before dawn, Jerry Leeman churned through inky black waters, clutching the wheel of the fishing vessel Harmony.

The 85-foot trawler, deep green and speckled with rust, was returning from a grueling fishing trip deep into the Atlantic swells. Leeman and his crew of four had worked 10 consecutive days, 20 hours a day, to haul in more than 50,000 pounds of fish: pollock, haddock and ocean perch, a trio known as groundfish in the industry and as whitefish in the freezer aisle.

As sunrise broke over New Bedford harbor, the fish were offloaded in plastic crates onto the asphalt dock of Blue Harvest Fisheries, one of the largest fishing companies on the East Coast. About 390 million pounds of seafood move each year through New Bedford’s waterfront, the top-earning commercial fishing port in the nation.

Leeman and his crew are barely sharing in the bounty. On deck, Leeman held a one-page “settlement sheet,” the fishing industry’s version of a pay stub. Blue Harvest charges Leeman and his crew for fuel, gear, leasing of fishing rights, and maintenance on the company-owned vessel. Across six trips in the past 14 months, Leeman netted about 14 cents a pound, and the crew, about 7 cents each — a small fraction of the $2.28 per pound that a species like haddock typically fetches at auction.

Tell me how I can catch 50,000 pounds of fish yet I don’t know what my kids are going to have for dinner.

“It’s a nickel-and-dime game,” said the 40-year-old Leeman, who wore a flannel shirt beneath foul weather gear and a necklace strung with a compass, a cross, and three pieces of jade — one piece for each of his three children. “Tell me how I can catch 50,000 pounds of fish yet I don’t know what my kids are going to have for dinner.”

Leeman’s lament is a familiar one in New Bedford, an industrial city tucked below Cape Cod on the south coast of Massachusetts. In recent years, the port of New Bedford has thrived, generating $11.1 billion in business revenue, jobs, taxes and personal income in 2018, according to one study. But a quiet shift is remaking the city and the industry that sustains it, realizing local fishermen’s deepest fears of losing control over their livelihood.

Blue Harvest and other companies linked to private equity firms and foreign investors have taken over much of New England’s fishing industry. As already harsh working conditions have deteriorated, the new group of owners has depressed income by pushing expenses onto fishermen, an investigation by ProPublica and The New Bedford Light has found. Blue Harvest has also benefited from lax antitrust rules governing how much fish it can catch.

Since it was founded in 2015, Blue Harvest has been acquiring vessels, fishing permits and processing facilities up and down the East Coast. It started with the self-proclaimed goal of “dominance” over the scallop industry. It has expanded into groundfish, tuna and swordfish, as well as becoming a government contractor, winning a $16.6 million contract from the U.S. Department of Agriculture this past February to supply food assistance programs.

The acquisitions are backed by $600 million in capital from Bregal Partners, a Manhattan-based private equity firm. Bregal is an arm of a firm owned by a Dutch billionaire family, who are best known for their multinational clothing company, which maintains a steady track record of environmental philanthropy and low-wage labor around the globe.

Bregal, its parent company and Blue Harvest President Chip Wilson did not respond to questions. Wilson said in an email that he has been “fighting a handful of fires” and that “speaking with the press has been low on my priority list of late.” He is more concerned “about moving our strategy forward so that the 200+ folks who work for Blue Harvest can be confident about their future,” he said.

“New Bedford is an interesting community, particularly in this ‘colorful’ sector, and the rumor mill is particularly vicious,” he added. “I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to employees scared to the core for themselves and their families due to unsubstantiated rumors about our company.”

Labor is getting squeezed and coastal communities are paying the price.

In the first half of 2021, private equity firms, which often invest in privately held companies with the goal of ultimately selling them for a profit, accounted for 34% of mergers and acquisitions in the fishing industry, nearly double the 2017 percentage, according to trade publication Undercurrent News. Last fall, one such firm, ACON Investments, purchased three seafood processing companies, including one with a 38,000-square-foot plant in New Bedford. Another private equity company — Solamere Capital, which boasts as partners former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Taggart Romney, son of former Massachusetts Gov. and current Utah Sen. Mitt Romney — also acquired processing plants.

“What we’re seeing is a fundamental transformation of the fishing industry,” said Seth Macinko, a former fisherman who’s now an associate professor of marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island. “Labor is getting squeezed and coastal communities are paying the price.”

To be sure, private equity can inject capital to buy new equipment or renovate a processing facility. Boosters say that consolidation can improve efficiency and make U.S. seafood more competitive against cheaper fish imported from foreign countries that subsidize their fleets.

Still, private equity’s gain has largely been small fishermen’s loss. Known for seeking profits by slashing costs in retail sectors such as toys and shoes, private equity investors have taken a similar approach to the fishing industry, which offered an opportunity to make a significant return on investment through economies of scale.

The number of employers in New Bedford’s fishing industry has dropped by more than 30% in the past decade, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Fishermen are working much longer hours — 45% of fishermen reported working 18 hours or more per day in a federal survey published last year, up from 32% in 2012.

Almost all fishermen in New Bedford are paid a share of the earnings from their catch. It’s an arrangement with origins in the 19th century, when whale oil made New Bedford the Dubai of its day. Whaling captains built the city’s historic mansions; the whale ships’ investors built churches and hospitals.

But today, companies like Blue Harvest take advantage of this pay structure to shift costs onto fishermen, reducing their income. Under the private equity takeover, regional economies like New Bedford’s are keeping less of the industry’s profits while a cut of the owners’ share is shuttled to skyscrapers in Manhattan and, in some cases, overseas. Despite rising consumer prices for New Bedford’s fish, the poverty rate in the city has been double the state average for the past decade.

“Without question, there is an increase in costs that are being passed down to crew,” said Matthew Cutler, who studies socioeconomic trends among fishermen for the regional arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA, which is part of the Department of Commerce, governs the fishing industry.

Remote ownership is always going to be driven by dollars and cents. Without any loyalty to the place, business decisions can become cold and harsh.

So far, private equity mainly dominates New England’s groundfish, which constitutes roughly 11% of all seafood caught off the region’s coast by weight. But a proposal being considered by federal regulators could expand private equity’s control over scallops — the most lucrative seafood for New Bedford fishermen. The proposal has roiled New Bedford, where more than 100 fishermen signed a petition against it. It also worries New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell.

“Private equity owns a piece of the waterfront now,” he said. “Remote ownership is always going to be driven by dollars and cents. Without any loyalty to the place, business decisions can become cold and harsh.”

Owning his own vessel was Jerry Leeman’s goal when he first started fishing with his grandfather at the age of 12. He climbed the ranks from deckhand to mate and finally to captain. He hoped to go into business for himself.

But an overhaul of federal rules adopted in 2010 halted Leeman’s ascent and that of thousands of other fishermen in the northeast. Promoted by an alliance of conservation groups and some of the largest seafood distributors, the new framework sought to end decades of overfishing that had devastated species like the Atlantic cod while also helping American businesses compete with cheaper, imported fish by making the domestic supply more predictable.

Under “catch shares,” as the system is called, regulators cap how much of each species can be fished and require permits to catch them. Federal scientists set a “total allowable catch,” determining the amount of each kind of fish that can be sustainably hauled from regional waters each year. Based on a decade of their catch history, individual fishermen and companies were granted rights to a percentage of the annual total allowable catch — in perpetuity — free to fish it, sell it or lease it to others.

The catch shares system has proven to be an effective tool to reduce overfishing. Overall, New England waters have “shown slow recovery since the major declines,” a 2021 study noted. But the change hurt small fishermen. Their shares were based on their historical percentages of the catch for a given species. As the total allowable catch for some species was reduced to avoid overfishing, the same percentages translated into fewer pounds of those fish. Many fishermen sold their permits to bigger companies that had been granted larger shares and rushed to expand. New England’s fleet of vessels actively catching groundfish was reduced from 596 in 2007 to 269 in 2015, according to a NOAA study.

“This is the door closing on an entire generation of fishermen,” said Brett Tolley, who comes from a family of Cape Cod fishermen. After a series of reductions, he said the catch allocated to his family — about one-third of 1% of pollock and haddock — was too small to make a living. They sold their permit a year ago to a midsize local company.

While consolidation started before catch shares, the new system accelerated the process. It “turned the privilege to catch a pound of fish into a commodity that could be bought or sold without owning a boat,” Macinko said. “It opened the door to private equity.”

Recognizing the potential for consolidation, the Pacific Coast branch of NOAA built in controls prohibiting any individual from owning more than 2.7% of groundfish permits, limiting the inroads that private equity could make. Accommodating business interests, the New England office initially set a much higher cap of 20% before reducing it to 15.5% in 2017.

“You have to limit entry in order to have a profitable fishery,” said Chad Demarest, an economist with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center under NOAA. “The goal is to create some profit in the industry that is shared by the owners.”

Because Leeman was a hired hand when catch shares were adopted, he wasn’t allocated any permits. And as the price of a single permit climbed to as much as $500,000 for groundfish, he couldn’t afford to buy in. His dream of captaining a fishing boat that he owned was dashed.

Rights to fish “were free 30 years ago,” he said. “But then came the conservation groups. Then there was consolidation. Then there was big money.”

In the early years of catch shares, many smaller fishermen sold out to the same New Bedford fishing magnate: Carlos Rafael, often referred to as “the Codfather.” A first-generation immigrant from the Azores, a chain of Portuguese islands, Rafael arrived in New Bedford as a teenager. He started as a fish cutter, and over four decades he built one of the largest groundfish operations in the country, running more than 40 vessels.

A charismatic rogue who liked to describe himself as a modern-day pirate, Rafael was openly opposed to the catch shares system at first, believing it would eventually mean only one company would be left fishing on the East Coast. Yet as New England transitioned to the system, he was granted about 9% of the region’s total groundfish permits, one of the largest initial allocations. He decided that if only one company would be left standing, it would be his.

“So he [a smaller fisherman] doesn’t have the money to buy a fucking quota,” he said. “So he’s fucked either way. He’s hanging by his shoestrings. So this is a matter of fucking time for me to pick the rest of these fuckers and just get them all out of the picture….I always had the ambition to get fucking control of the whole fucking thing.”

According to court documents, Rafael made that statement to undercover IRS agents posing as Russian mobsters. He also divulged to them an illegal scheme he called “the dance.” On a February morning in 2016, the green-and-white panels of the Carlos Seafood building were reflecting red and blue as a team of federal agents raided the waterfront facility. He pleaded guilty in 2017 to 27 counts of fraud and tax evasion related to mislabeling almost 800,000 pounds of fish; he was sentenced to 46 months in prison.

At the time of Rafael’s downfall, Bregal Partners was rapidly tightening its grip on the fishing industry. It took its first plunges in 2015. It invested in Seattle-based American Seafoods, which Bregal has described as “the largest harvester of fish for human consumption in the US.” It also founded Blue Harvest, which quickly acquired four fishing operations on the East Coast.

It first bought a large scallop fleet in Virginia, then a midsize company in New Bedford. In 2018, it added Maine-based Atlantic Trawlers. (Leeman, who had been working for Atlantic Trawlers, stayed on the same boat, now owned by Blue Harvest.) It capped off its buying spree with its biggest prize.

As part of a settlement with NOAA, Rafael had agreed to sell his empire, estimated to encompass a quarter of New England’s groundfish industry, to the highest bidder. Rafael had tried to sell his company to the undercover agents for $175 million. In 2020, Blue Harvest acquired a portion of Rafael’s holdings — 12 groundfishing vessels and 27 permits — for $25 million.

Along the way, Blue Harvest bought and expanded processing facilities off Herman Melville Boulevard, named after the “Moby-Dick” author, who sailed out of New Bedford on a whaling voyage in 1841. The goal, the then-chief executive said in 2020, was to establish the “first vertically integrated groundfish company on the East Coast” — folding a large slice of the waterfront into one streamlined operation: vessels, permits, processing and distribution.

Controlling the supply chain enables Blue Harvest to reduce costs and compete with imports shipped frozen into the U.S. from Icelandic or Norwegian companies fishing in the North Atlantic. It also means that the company doesn’t have to pay its fishermen the market price for their catch.

Independent fishermen sell their catch at public auctions or to whichever wholesaler offers the best price. But Blue Harvest fishermen generally don’t have that opportunity. They must sell their fish to the company — sometimes at prices lower than they could get otherwise. Blue Harvest did not respond to questions about its payments to fishermen.

As it cast an ever-larger shadow over the port, Blue Harvest set a lofty goal: “transforming commercial fishing into an industry that is defined by sustainability, governed by transparency, and bound to the promise of delivering excellence to every plate.”

Leeman has never heard of the billionaire Brenninkmeijer family, but he’s working for them. Blue Harvest’s trail of global ownership winds from New Bedford’s industrial waterfront to Bregal Partners’ office in a sleek, 50-story skyscraper on Manhattan’s Park Avenue and then on to a Swiss company, Cofra Holding AG. Cofra, in turn, is wholly owned by the Brenninkmeijers, a Dutch family described by a former retail analyst at Morgan Stanley as both “highly secretive” and a “global powerhouse” in the retail industry. One member married into the Dutch royal family. Several have lived in a moated, five-story medieval castle on the River Rhine.

The family’s holding company has a wide-ranging portfolio. It has focused on renewable energies like solar and offshore wind, as well as on fossil fuel projects such as natural gas drilling and exploration in Appalachia’s Marcellus Shale. Its investments include shopping plazas in Spain, Belgium and the U.K. and commodities such as dairy, coffee, timber and, now, fish. Its sprawling supply chains encompass more than one million workers, from New Bedford to Bangladesh.

The family’s vast wealth originated in clothing. In 1841, brothers Clemens and August Brenninkmeijer began peddling textiles in a small region that now spans Germany and the Netherlands. In an era when most European clothing manufacturers catered mainly to affluent families, the brothers’ company, now called C&A, specialized in ready-to-wear clothing for the middle and working classes.

Under the Nazi regime, the company took advantage of opportunities afforded by “Aryanization” to take over stores owned by Jews fleeing persecution, according to a 2016 book by Mark Spoerer, an economic historian at the University of Regensburg, who was commissioned by the family to examine the company’s past. The German branch of C&A used forced labor in the Lodz Ghetto to manufacture clothing, Spoerer found. Soon after the war, C&A retail locations expanded around the world.

“It was opportunism,” acknowledged Maurice Brenninkmeijer, then chairman of Cofra Holding, in a 2016 interview with German newspaper Die Zeit. “I suspect that my relatives were solely focused on business, and in doing so they lost sight of our values.” He added, “I wish it had been different.”

In rare interviews, family members portray themselves as major donors to environmental initiatives. Their philanthropic arm, the Laudes Foundation, promotes sustainable usage of raw materials used in C&A clothing to address what it calls “the dual crisis of inequality and climate change.”

Yet C&A has come under fire for contracting with companies that have allegedly exploited workers. While it produces its own line of clothes, it also acts as an intermediary between Western companies and hundreds of garment factories in East Asia and South America. It’s most active in Bangladesh, where labor costs are among the lowest in the world.

In the end, they put profits first.

In 2012, a fire swept through a Bangladesh factory producing clothes for C&A, killing at least 112 workers. The company agreed to pay compensation to victims and to assess safety conditions. Last year, a German human-rights organization filed a criminal complaint against C&A, among others, for sourcing cotton made with the forced labor of Uyghur Muslims in China. Cofra and C&A did not respond to requests for comment.

“Given the scale at which C&A operates, they could literally lift millions of garment workers out of abject poverty,” said Ben Vanpeperstraete, senior legal adviser with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, who helped negotiate compensation for victims of the 2012 Bangladesh factory fire.

“In the end, they put profits first.”

One July day in 2017, Joseph Drago woke up in a loud, dark cabin below deck of a scallop vessel owned by Blue Harvest. He had a splitting headache and couldn’t catch his breath. He stumbled onto the deck and asked the crew what was happening.

It was fumes, one replied in Spanish. An exhaust leak from the engine had been pouring into the sleeping quarters. Soon after, the engine blew out, leaving the vessel bobbing in swells 80 miles off the coast. It had to be towed into port.

Blue Harvest boats have had a number of mishaps. Last year, one Blue Harvest vessel burned at sea; another ran aground, which can be attributable to human error or weather conditions. Leeman had to cut a fishing trip short in January when the boat’s engine malfunctioned.

The price stays the same but all our expenses just keep going up.

Current and former workers said that several vessels that Blue Harvest regularly operates were already past their prime when the company bought them. “Their next stop should have been the scrapyard,” said the former Blue Harvest mechanic, who requested anonymity out of concern for his career. “The boats had been worked like dogs.” Blue Harvest did not respond to questions about the condition of its fleet.

Captains and crew on Blue Harvest boats pay for maintenance, according to settlement sheets and fishermen. The company has also imposed other charges that fishermen say they haven’t encountered elsewhere in the industry, including a 3% “electronics fee” and a $400 “wharfage fee” for pulling up at the company dock to unload fish.

“The price stays the same but all our expenses just keep going up,” said Drago. “Every trip they’re taking more and more out of the crew’s share.”

Drago, like Leeman, aspired to buy his own boat. But with nerve damage in his hand from years working at sea, the 35-year-old plans to leave the industry as soon as he can find another job.

“You can no longer work your way up from the deck, become a captain and buy your own boat and permit. That was always the arrangement,” he said. “You’ll never make enough. They made it unattainable to do anything but work for them.”

As Blue Harvest snapped up fleets, it also acquired their permits. Today, it is approaching the antitrust limit of 15.5% ownership of permits for groundfish caught off New England.

Blue Harvest owns 12% of the permitted catch overall, including 21% of haddock, 19% of winter flounder, 16% of ocean perch and 15% of cod. It stays below the aggregate cap by owning smaller shares of other species, like 2% of a certain northern flounder. The company’s groundfish permit holdings total about 46 million pounds.

But those figures underestimate Blue Harvest’s market share. In addition to owning permits, it also leases fishing rights from other permit owners. At the beginning of the year, the company will lease a “bucket of fish,” one Blue Harvest manager said. “If we’re short on something, we’ll buy it” for the year. The manager said that this practice addresses a weakness in the catch shares system, which allows individuals and organizations to hold permits and passively earn a profit through leasing rather than fishing themselves. About 40% of all groundfish permits are not used by their owners and are available only on the leasing market, records show.

Leasing provides a small but steady revenue stream for those owners, and it helps to ensure that enough seafood reaches the market to satisfy demand. The practice also enables the expansion of larger companies. That’s because NOAA’s antitrust rules apply only to ownership. “There is no restriction on leasing,” said NOAA’s Demarest. “It would be a very illiberal idea to try to cap the amount that each corporation can land.”Theoretically, Blue Harvest or any other major player can legally circumvent the 15.5% cap by leasing the rights to catch more fish. Because of leasing, the cap “does not really prevent consolidation at all,” said Mary Hudson, a manager at a Maine cooperative that makes permits available to independent fishermen at discount prices. “Private equity backing can come in, set [leasing] prices and still buy it all.” Instead of fishing, some small fishermen have taken to leasing out their rights, she added: “They just don’t have the capital to compete.”

The news organizations’ analysis could not determine how much quota — the industry term for the number of pounds of fish someone is allowed to catch — Blue Harvest is leasing, or from whom. That’s because groundfish permits belonging to individual fishermen, organizations and large corporations are generally pooled and managed in groups known as sectors. The sectors act as a black box — fish quotas can be seen flowing in and out, but who exactly is leasing them is hidden. NOAA tracks and publishes the weight of fish leased between sectors, but those transactions do not identify the specific lessor or lessee. Even the U.S. government doesn’t track that information.

“It’s not legally traceable,” Demarest said. “The government can’t get involved in what happens within sectors.”

In Blue Harvest’s case, most of the company’s permits are held in two sectors that have leased the rights to catch more than 14 million pounds of groundfish since 2018. But there are other permit owners in those sectors as well. “This sector acquires quota from just about every sector out there,” said Hank Soule, who manages both sectors where Blue Harvest operates. He declined to say which owners within the sector were leasing the most quota.

How Blue Harvest Stays Under the Antitrust Cap for Groundfish

Blue Harvest’s allotted quota for certain kinds of fish, like haddock, exceeds the federal 15.5% cap for groundfish. It stays under the aggregate cap by having rights to catch less than 15.5% of other types of fish, like pollock. (It also catches more groundfish through leasing arrangements that don’t count toward the cap.)

Blue Harvest boats “are the ones that are fishing, day and night,” said John Pappalardo, a member of NOAA’s regional council. “Nobody else is fishing at the level they are. Obviously, they are going to be the ones setting the price and moving the market.” The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, a cooperative headed by Pappalardo, originally opposed catch shares, fearing the system would gut the local industry. But when he realized that the new system was inevitable, he voted to adopt it. Today, he’s stoic about the entry of private equity into the fishing industry. “If not them, then who?” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of independent vessels or communities get into the fishery again.”

Since Leeman doesn’t own permits, he isn’t eligible to lease them himself — that’s a perk afforded only to permit holders. But he ends up paying for it anyway. Blue Harvest passes the cost of leasing permits on to its fishermen, the same way it does for fuel, fishing gear or vessel maintenance, the manager and workers said. In November 2021, a settlement sheet shows, Blue Harvest deducted a $3,329.90 leasing charge from the pay for Leeman and his crew.

There’s a long history of foreign fishing in U.S. waters. In the 1970s, trawlers from Russia and elsewhere depleted East Coast fish populations, spurring a 1976 federal law pushing foreign fleets at least 200 miles offshore. In 1998, a cap was added, limiting a foreign entity to owning 25% of a U.S. fishing vessel.

In recent years, foreign companies have reentered U.S. fishing grounds through a different route: investing in local operations. They include Canada-based Cooke Seafood, which recently acquired a one-fourth interest in scallop fleets in New Bedford and North Carolina, and Profand, a Spanish company that did the same with Seafreeze Ltd., the largest squid and mackerel operation on the East Coast. According to Undercurrent News, Profand’s majority shareholder is Enrique García Chillón, who is known in his home country as “el emperador del pulpo,” or the emperor of octopus.

Federal enforcement of the 25% cap largely relies on companies’ own assurances that they are in compliance. The Coast Guard lacks the resources to vet businesses’ paperwork, a former official said, and is required by law to “minimize the administrative burden” on owners and operators of vessels.

“There should be more transparency in ownership. But there isn’t. It’s basically an honor system,” said Charlie Papavizas, a Washington, D.C., attorney specializing in maritime law. “As a result, there is a big gray area in what is permissible.”

In a 2015 press release, Bregal Partners acknowledged that, “as an arm of German-Dutch Brenninkmeijer Group,” it was limited by law to “a 25 percent ownership in any quota-holding fishing company.” Ownership forms for four of Blue Harvest’s vessels from 2018 and 2019 — submitted to NOAA and obtained through a public records request — listed four owners for each of the boats. One was Jeff Davis, who served as Blue Harvest’s CEO before retiring from the company in 2018. Another was Chris Lischewski, who was then chief executive of Bumble Bee Seafoods, known for its canned tuna. The others were Mark Thierfelder, a lawyer who has represented Bregal Partners, and Michael Arougheti, chief executive of a finance company that has advised Bregal on acquisitions in the fishing industry.

Davis and Thierfelder could not be reached for comment. A spokesperson for Arougheti declined to comment. Lischewski stepped down as CEO of Bumble Bee after he was indicted for conspiring to fix canned tuna prices. He was found guilty in 2019 and sentenced to 40 months in prison. NOAA lacks the regulatory authority to require investors to disclose the percentage of their stake in a vessel or permit, said Ted Hawes, chief of NOAA’s regional permitting office.

Blue Harvest said in a statement that the Coast Guard had approved its “capital and ownership structure” in advance and that the company has “continued to submit all required notices and reporting materials” to regulatory authorities. “At no time has Blue Harvest been owned 100% by Bregal,” it added.

On May 11, more than 160 scallop fishermen, business owners, marine scientists, attorneys and vessel owners crowded into the New Bedford Whaling Museum for a rowdy meeting. Attendance was especially high because the seas were stormy and many fishermen stayed in port. To loud applause, more than a dozen people denounced a proposal, backed by Blue Harvest and other large companies, that independent local fishermen fear would enable private equity to storm their last stronghold — scallops.

Leasing scallop permits is currently prohibited, but the proposal would allow it. The biggest companies in the market, which are running up against a cap on permit ownership, are advocating for the change.

Current scallop regulations allow one permit per boat, up to a total of 17 vessels. One local company, Eastern Fisheries, has reached the limit, according to a letter it sent to NOAA in 2021. In its own letter, Blue Harvest listed 15 scallop vessels.

“This is going to hurt the fishermen and the local economy,” said Tyler Miranda, a third-generation fisherman from New Bedford and captain of two scallop vessels who is leading the opposition. “The only people to benefit are the owners of the largest companies. How much do the biggest owners need to take out of our wages and bring into theirs? How much is enough?”

One of the few speakers in favor of the proposal was George LaPointe, a policy consultant to Blue Harvest and a former commissioner of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources. “We believe that we can improve flexibility,” said LaPointe, who was there to represent large scallopers, including Blue Harvest. As he returned to his seat, many fishermen booed.

New Bedford fishermen had a strong union until the mid-1980s, when the union was broken in the heat of a strike. Now, with private equity setting its sights on scallops as well as groundfish, talk of a union is beginning to stir again.

Leeman said he would welcome a union to fight for fair pay. On his own, he spends his days on land making calls to check how the rate that Blue Harvest paid compares to the market price.

Last year, after a 10-day fishing trip, he took a look at his settlement sheet and burst into the management office, demanding fair pay for him and his crew. “I said, ‘Until we get this straight, I’m not leaving the dock,’” he recalled.

And with the weight of a multibillion-dollar industry resting on the labor of a few hundred New Bedford fishermen, the company relented and paid him what he said was the market rate. “If I didn’t say anything, they’d still be paying us half of what that fish was worth.”

Originally published on ProPublica in partnership with the New Bedford Light.

Alex Mierjeski contributed reporting, and Joel Jacobs contributed data reporting.

Photo by Tyson Moultrie on Unsplash

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Sara Nelson Speaks on Strikes, Unions, and Capitalism

Sat, 2022-08-20 12:15

By Eli Gerzon

This Sunday Bernie Sanders, Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants, and Sean O’Brien of the Teamsters union are speaking on Cambridge Common at 1pm. Working Mass caught up with Sara Nelson this weekend, to talk about unions, socialism, and why she’s coming to Boston. Nelson will be joining the Starbucks Picket Line at 874 Commonwealth Ave at 10:30 am, before heading to the rally.

The struggle is real and we should be thankful every day for it because it makes us stronger. But don’t forget the joy! Solidarity is joyful. Justice is joyful. Waking to our power is joyful. Discovering our creativity and diversity is joyful!

Want some joy? Join a union. pic.twitter.com/K86dzhgOex

— Sara Nelson (@FlyingWithSara) August 1, 2022

Why are you rallying with Sanders and O’Brien? What do you hope a rally attendee will get out of the event and what actions do you hope they will take following it? 

These rallies are about rising above politics and bringing the working class together. Building power, supporting the organizing – that’s going on. There are local workers [from St. Vincent, Starbucks, and MIT] who will speak at the rallies bringing more attention to those local fights.  

That’s what we’re trying to do: build worker power. And help workers identify as the working class and recognize who is trying to exploit us. And not allow all the means of division: racism, sexism. Trying to divide along political lines, ageism. Not allowing these things to be tools of the corporate class to continue to drive this wild inequality and brimming poverty that’s taking over the country. 

AFA has a history of dealing with harassment, something Starbucks workers deal with.  What can people learn from AFA organizing and recent Starbucks and Amazon labor organizing? 

They can learn that unions are for everyone who works – everywhere. And oftentimes the best leadership comes from people who have been marginalized, discriminated against, who have had to fight through incredible struggles just to have the right to work. It’s really important that we have women standing up, people of color standing up, queer people standing up and showing leadership. We hope to model that. When workers come together, it doesn’t matter what you look like, or where you come from: we have power because we generate all the wealth in the economy. And together we can take our fair share. 

And join me before the rally at 10:30 am Sunday morning at the 874 Commonwealth Ave store for picketing in support of @SBWorkersUnited fighting for rights at Starbucks. #StrikeBack for the working class! https://t.co/lx7VE8aobA

— Sara Nelson (@FlyingWithSara) August 18, 2022

A recent report showed major labor unions have about $29.1 B in net assets (not including pension funds) and surprisingly little of it has been used to fund organizing. How should AFL-CIO unions use their funds to meet the new target of organizing 1 million new members over the next decade? In general how should union leaders be leading?

This could be a much more nuanced question. I’m going to answer it from a 30,000 foot view. Want to be clear: those assets are within each union and maybe in different areas. But in general: unions should be using the vast majority of their funds to meet this moment. I know, representing only flight attendants, that I can’t be the kind of leader that they want me to be, unless I’m helping build power for workers everywhere. Because what they really need is access to good healthcare, they need to be able to not be drowning in student debt, they need to be able to afford a place where they live near their work, and not spend 2, 3, 4, or an entire day just commuting to work, to try to make a paycheck. All of these issues require all of us to come together. If we’re going to build the kind of power that’s necessary to really address the needs of working people now – we should be investing entirely in organizing. And I mean internal organizing too: supporting strike activity, all of that too. 

I believe you joined DSA in the last few years. Why did you join? What does socialism mean to you?

I know it’s been reported that I joined but I did not technically join DSA. To me, socialism, the word, has obviously been weaponized. Let’s be really clear. I believe the way you solve problems is by defining them. And the problem is capitalism, the problem is unchecked capitalism. Because the only thing that capitalism cares about is money, profit, and getting more of it. And that leads to exploitation, increased by dehumanizing people, keeping them demoralized, And it’s violent. It’s leading to people die early, it’s leading to increased suicide. It’s incredibly violent. We have to name the problem.  

The last two times Sanders was in Boston it was for his presidential campaigns. Biden’s presidency has not been able to enact his own goals, let alone those of the DSA. Do you have plans to run for president of AFL-CIO or president of the US… or another elected office?

I have plans to organize. Period. I’m going to do that from any position that I have the ability to be in.

What songs have you been singing at labor events? 

(Laughs) My favorite song typically, at labor events, is This Land is Your Land. And beyond that, Solidarity Forever. And yesterday, I was reminded of the great spiritual Hold On

It is we who brew the coffee
Steam the milk and grind the beans
Wake our fellow working masses
Off to labor for their means
And behind the bar, there never
is a rich man to be seen
But the union makes us strong

Solidarity forever#874onStrike pic.twitter.com/1lqVP1fJHC

— Boston Starbucks Workers United (@BostonSBWU) August 16, 2022

You’ve called for a general strike in the past. What do you think it would take to get to the point to need that and to achieve that?

Well, the strike is our tactic, solidarity is our power. I’ll go back to: defining the problem, setting the demands and the urgency, and then backing it up with what we’re willing to do. Talking about a general strike makes it clear who has the power. So it’s important to talk about that. We shouldn’t be afraid to say the word “strike”. We walked through wilderness there for about 40 years where we were afraid and led to believe it was a bad word. And talking about strikes, whether it’s general strike or a strike in a specific workplace, demonstrates that workers have all of the power. And we’re willing to take it. We’re willing to be strategic about it. I would just go back to: it’s gonna take a hell of a lot more organizing. But if people are going to strike they have to understand what they’re striking for. So defining the problem and setting the demands are where you’ve got to start.

Eli Gerzon is a freelance writer, social media consultant, gardener, tarot card reader, and member of Boston DSA.

Why is Sanders Holding a Rally In Cambridge This Sunday?

Fri, 2022-08-19 13:12

By Eli Gerzon

Senator Bernie Sanders will headline a rally in Cambridge this Sunday, August 21st at 1pm, alongside Teamsters president Sean O’Brien and Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson. The rally is being held at the Cambridge Common, with doors opening at 12pm. You can RSVP for the rally here.

The rally will also feature speakers from the Starbucks workers strike, a Massachusetts Nurses Association member from the St Vincent Hospital strike, and possibly also the recent MIT graduate student unionization campaign.

The rally follows a similar rally by Sanders, O’Brien, and Nelson earlier this summer in Chicago. All three will also be in Philadelphia on Saturday before the Boston event. 

The event was announced last weekend and on Tuesday Senator Sanders tweeted a Dunkin’ Donuts themed poster by Tyler Evans, with the message:
“Workers in this country are organizing against outrageous levels of corporate greed. We will only succeed by standing together. That’s why this weekend, I’ll be in Philadelphia and Boston to rally with @Teamsters Pres. Sean O’Brien and @afa_cwa Pres. Sara Nelson. Join us there.”

The bottom of the flier reads: “America Runs on Solidarity.” 

The event sparks questions about the purpose of the rally series, which are often held to drive specific actions, especially driving voter turnout. In 2016 Bernie Sanders held a rally at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and the crowd was too large to fit inside the massive building: his staff estimated 20,000 people showed up. A few days before the 2020 presidential primary in Massachusetts, Bernie held a rally on Boston Common attracting a packed crowd of 13,000 people outside in the winter.

According to Taylor Garland, Communications Director for the AFA, the purpose of the rally is to drive Bernie supporters towards engagement with the labor movement, highlighting that the electoral arena is not the only way to push societal change, and encouraging supporters to engage with their unions or to form new unions.

O’Brien and Nelson are two of the most progressive and militant labor leaders in the United States, especially among presidents of national unions. Nelson gained prominence in 2019 by calling for a general strike to end the government shutdown, and continues to be a favorite labor leader of the left-wing of the labor movement. O’Brien, recently elected as part of a reform slate, has promised to take the Teamsters in a militant direction, and recently kicked off contract campaigns for the Teamsters-UPS contract, the largest collective bargaining agreement in the United States. 

Nelson and O’Brien’s close engagement with Sanders is a welcome sign of the growing relationship between the political left and the labor movement. Despite the growing popularity of Sanders from 2016 to 2020, his 2020 campaign failed to win substantially more labor endorsements in 2020 than it had in 2016; among national unions endorsing Sanders in 2016, ATU, CWA, and ILWU all failed to endorse Sanders in 2020. 

The event comes amid a surge of bottom-up labor organizing which has spread across the country, largely led by worker-leaders radicalized through Sanders’ two campaigns. That’s especially true in Massachusetts with the first Trader Joe’s unionizing in Hadley, MA in late July and the longest Starbucks strike in history still going at 874 Commonwealth Avenue in Brookline near Boston University. Many politicians have visited the Comm Ave. picket line to show their support including Senator Elizabeth Warren, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, and Boston DSA members Boston City Councilor Kendra Lara and State Representative Erika Uyterhoeven.

And join me before the rally at 10:30 am Sunday morning at the 874 Commonwealth Ave store for picketing in support of @SBWorkersUnited fighting for rights at Starbucks. #StrikeBack for the working class! https://t.co/lx7VE8aobA

— Sara Nelson (@FlyingWithSara) August 18, 2022

On Thursday Sara Nelson announced on Twitter that she will also visit the 874 store at 10:30am on Sunday to support their historic strike. Will Bernie Sanders or Sean O’Brien visit as well? Regardless, all three headlined speakers seem to support the type of militant rank and file organizing happening at Starbucks and the #HotLaborSummer which continues to sweep the nation.

Eli Gerzon is a freelance writer, social media consultant, gardener, and Tarot card reader. They are an active member of Boston DSA and Jewish Voice for Peace – Boston. 

Workers Strike Brookline Starbucks

Thu, 2022-07-21 17:35

By Agnes Smedley

Picketing in the Heat

Brookline– The doors are locked and the lights are off at the Starbucks at 874 Commonwealth Ave across from Boston University, as the workers strike until further notice. Working Mass joined Starbucks workers braving 90-degree temperatures on the picket line in front of the store on Wednesday, the third day of the strike. The workers, organized with Starbucks Workers United, officially announced the strike in a letter to management on Monday, July 18, but had already staged a sick-out the previous day. 

Starbucks baristas at 874 Commonwealth Avenue are ON STRIKE UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE due to unfair labor practices. Read more in their notice to management and join us on the picket line from 9am-1pm! pic.twitter.com/pFQQRqQB3j

— Boston Starbucks Workers United (@BostonSBWU) July 18, 2022

Workers are prepared to strike for at least a week even as a massive heat wave brings high-90s temperatures to the Boston area, putting the hot in #HotLaborSummer.

The Brookline strike is part of a national strike wave of unionized Starbucks stores in the past two weeks in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Denver, Boston, Seattle, Everett, Chicago, Clinton Township, MI and Cottonwood Heights, UT.

On Tuesday workers increased the pressure, organizing a rally with an estimated 40 people present including many community supporters. At the rally the workers had a large cake to jokingly celebrate Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s birthday, and asked why he has not yet come to the bargaining table. 

Hey @HowardSchultz, we brought cake and balloons to the picket for your birthday — will this bring you to the bargaining table? #StarbucksOnStrike #HotLaborSummer pic.twitter.com/8ceh8ATXLw

— Boston Starbucks Workers United (@BostonSBWU) July 19, 2022

Nora Rossi, a shift manager at the store told Working Mass that many of the supporters have been members of other unions. Some members from Starbucks Workers United at other stores have also come out to support. There is a core group of workers who have been holding the line, while other workers who are also students and therefore in classes have rotated in and out when they can. And many passers-by have been expressing their support, including by donating to the strike fund and dropping off water and other supplies.

Moment that reinforcements arrive on the strike line – with popsicles and Gatorade. Lots of community and union support today. pic.twitter.com/6TZXK4XfwE

— Working Mass (@DSAWorkingMass) July 20, 2022

Solidarity with striking @BostonSBWU workers at 874 Comm Ave! Join us tomorrow at noon and wear your red HGSU shirts! https://t.co/AiUb3MvB4b

— Harvard Grad Students Union-UAW Local 5118 (@hgsuuaw) July 18, 2022

Pushing Back on Unfair Treatment

The Brookline store voted to unionize in June, and shortly thereafter they were assigned a new store manager. 

The manager started cutting hours for employees and said there wasn’t enough work, all while hiring five new workers. Workers at the picket line said that up through Monday when they went on strike, the manager was still interviewing candidates. Worker organizers have gotten in contact with 2 out of the 5 new hires, but don’t have contact with the last three. 

Once we unionized we realized that we can help ourselves, we can make this happen ourselves, we have that power now, we’re protected.

Nora Rossi, shift manager and member of Starbucks Workers United

In their letter, workers claim the manager, Toni Chorlian, has unilaterally changed the schedule with no notice. Under the National Labor Relations Act, management in a unionized workplace must bargain “in good faith” with a recognized union before making changes to certain mandatory subjects of bargaining, including wages and hours. Making changes to mandatory subjects of bargaining without bargaining “in good faith” is considered an unfair labor practice. 

The demands of the strike center around resolving the alleged illegal threats of termination, union busting through scheduling, and call to removes the new manager who workers allege has made racist and transphobic remarks and actions.

“The way we’ve been talked to by management and otherwise has been very demoralizing, and it’s been very hard on everyone at the store. On top of having our hours cut and being understaffed we were run ragged physically, it’s also an emotional toll every day,” said Rossi.

“We decided we cannot do this another day, we have to do something. We’d been kind of waiting for a while, like, somebody help us, somebody do something, somebody help us, and once we unionized we realized that we can help ourselves, we can make this happen ourselves, we have that power now, we’re protected.”

What will it take to win?

The newly unionized workers do have many more legal rights and collective power now that they are unionized and on strike. However, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to stop unfair labor practices and bring Howard Shultz to the national bargaining table. 

The Brookline workers said that they need continued support from the local community and are asking for two things: donations to their strike fund so that they can continue to make rent and strike until their demands are met, and for supporters to sign up for morning and overnight shifts to hold the picket line in order to stop deliveries.

Support the strike! pic.twitter.com/ZWIvBIVh8z

— Working Mass (@DSAWorkingMass) July 20, 2022

Deliveries are usually made between 3-5 in the afternoon, but the company is able to change the delivery time of the Teamsters-staffed logistics companies to arrive in the middle of the night. Teamsters are contractually protected against crossing picket lines, but only if the picket line is physically in place. If the delivery workers show up at 1 am with deliveries and there’s no picket line, they won’t have a “legitimate” reason to say they couldn’t deliver.

State Representative and Boston DSA member Erika Uyterhoven joined an overnight picket line shift at 9:00 pm Wednesday night and urged supporters to sign up for a shift to block deliveries. 

Join us on the picket line at 874 Comm Ave standing in solidarity with ⁦@BostonSBWU⁩! #mapoli

Sign up to support the 24-hour picket here: https://t.co/dLdpk7NGFw pic.twitter.com/R7wQkbIF6Q

— Erika Uyterhoeven (@erika4rep) July 21, 2022

The nationally coordinated strike wave at Starbucks demonstrates the fighting mood of these newly-unionized workers. In struggle, the workers are realizing their collective power.

But will one store on strike in Boston be enough to get the manager fired? Or do Boston café workers need to follow Seattle’s lead by having all Boston area cafes striking at the same time? Whatever the answer, socialists and community supporters will be there every step of the way!

Agnes Smedley is a member of Boston DSA and a coffee worker at a local Boston coffee chain, writing under a pen-name to protect their on-going organizing efforts

City Feed Workers Seek First Contract

Wed, 2022-07-20 16:20

By Michael Gutierrez

Jamaica Plain: Workers at the grocery store City Feed & Supply voted to form a union this past June. The vote came on the heels of an outpouring of local support and rode the wave of a national unionizing trend in business sectors not traditionally associated with union representation. 

The vote was certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), mandating formal recognition of their union City Feed Unite (CFU), an affiliate of the Boston Industrial Workers of the World (Boston IWW).

Formal recognition means that ownership is mandated to recognize the CFU as the collective bargaining unit of its workforce. A hiring freeze, overwork, and a schedule that generates wait times and subpar service due to understaffing high-volume periods are among the chief concerns of CFU workers. But as many newly unionized shops are discovering, pushing bosses to respect labor law requires the same militancy as does unionizing in the first place. 

The workers at City Feed celebrated the union win, while realizing that more work is yet to be done. As reported in the Boston Compass,

“It’s proof that all the time they spent having one on one conversations with people actually worked,” said one CFU-affiliated IWW organizer, who asked not to be named in order to protect future employment security. “They were able to change their coworkers minds’ substantially.”

Regarding the 20-10 City Feed vote, Spooner [a City Feed worker and organizer] acknowledged that in addition to the 10 votes cast against unionizing, several employees did not cast a ballot. He said this should be taken as a sign that more work is to be done in ensuring all voices are included in the union’s vision and development.

As the focus of CFU turns to negotiations, it seeks a good faith negotiating partner in the ownership at City Feed & Supply, David Warner and Kristine Cortese. Based on a tweet update from the CFU sent out mid-July, it appears that the rapport between CFU and ownership is suboptimal.

Although we won our union last month, workers at City Feed are consistently exhausted by tiring, understaffed shifts as a result of a freeze in hiring by upper management. pic.twitter.com/FwMeiV6Tg4

— City Feed Unite (@CityFeedUnite) July 17, 2022

While it’s important to let the negotiations play out, the CFU, Boston IWW, and the local community will be watching to see whether ownership acts in good faith during this phase of the process. Solidarity may be needed in the near future to bring community pressure to bear on City Feed ownership.

Imposing an artificial hiring freeze during busy periods is a potential union busting tactic, meant to introduce workplace stress that taxes solidarity, dampens enthusiasm for organizing, and scares off participants in the pro-union vote. Owners will embrace high turnover if it means regaining control over its workforce rather than addressing them as equals, even if it leads to a worse experience for customers. Corporate mega giants like Amazon have raised the union-busting tactic of high turnover to a fine art, and smaller business owners have taken note.

The ownership of City Feed & Supply did not respond to a request for comment.

You can follow CFU and the Boston IWW on Twitter to stay up-to-date on the struggle for a fair contract at City Feed.

Michael Gutierrez is a Boston DSA member, on Twitter as @taco2day.

Article originally published at Hump Day News.

Boston Teachers Union Reaches Tentative Agreement

Thu, 2022-07-14 17:41

By Henry De Groot

*7/15 – Article has been updated to clarify the rate of proposed pay increases.

Tentative Agreement Announced at AFT Convention

This morning, Boston Teachers Union (BTU) President Jessica Tang announced that the union had reached a tentative agreement with the City of Boston. BTU members have been working for 11 months without contract.

A tentative agreement (TA) is a proposed contract reached between an employer and a union’s negotiating team. Tang’s proposed contract will go before BTU members for a ratification vote. If ratified, the contract will be voted on by the Boston School Committee.

Mayor Wu and Boston Teachers Union announce new contract agreement https://t.co/iNzVptc2im

— The Boston Globe (@BostonGlobe) July 14, 2022

According to Tang, the agreement “makes strides toward establishing that inclusive and intentional approach that the frontline educators of the BTU have advocated for, along with taking other key steps to improve the conditions of our school buildings and to create more family-friendly work policies.”

Tang made the announcement at the 87th American Federation of Teachers (AFT) biennial convention, currently in progress at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

AFT president Randi Weingarten spoke in support of the proposed contract from the convention floor.

“I am proud and thrilled to have such an innovative and progressive agreement announced at the national convention of the American Federation of Teachers,” said Weingarten. “The theme of this year’s convention is ‘Reclaim our Future’ and this contract will help students, families, and educators do exactly that by taking huge steps forward to promote inclusion and create improved learning and working conditions throughout the Boston Public Schools.”

Great way to kick off the ⁦@AFTunion⁩ convention by hearing from the Mayor of Boston about the new contract for the Boston Teachers Union, ⁦@BTU66⁩, and the respect she has for educators. Congrats Jessica Tang and the BTU! #ReclaimOurFuture pic.twitter.com/f83j01sTCV

— Bob Morgenstern (@MorgyWV) July 14, 2022

The contract comes during a period of crisis for the Boston Public Schools district. Only two weeks ago the district appointed a new superintendent after Superintendent Brenda Casselius resigned midway through the year. BPS also narrowly avoided being placed in state receivership by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), agreeing to a strict improvement plan that begins this month.

Proposed Contract Details

In a press release, BTU described the proposed contract as taking “major steps forward on key district inclusion policies and practices.”

After countless hours of organizing, mobilizing and negotiating, we are pleased to share that as of this morning, BTU has reached a tentative agreement with the BPS School Committee and the City of Boston on our multi-year contract.https://t.co/BLuikGBKRQ

— BostonTeachersUnion (@BTU66) July 14, 2022

“Specifically, the parties agreed to key overhauls in the district’s approach to special education in order to better meet student and family needs, including targeted reductions in class sizes and taking a collaborative approach to assessing the needs of students who have individualized education plans (IEPs) and/or who are English Learners. Restructuring inclusion policy in the schools has been a shared priority of Mayor Michelle Wu and the Boston Teachers Union.”

Additional contract details laid out in the press release include:

Academic Supports – BPS is committed to ensuring that all students have the needed academic support within the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) framework, in which problem-solving and decision making is data driven and practiced across all levels of the educational system in order to support students.

Staff Training – The district will make additional funding commitments toward professional development around inclusion policies and best practices, including training for school leaders, special and general education teachers, related service providers, school psychologists and specialized training for coordinators of special education.

Planning Time and Input for Educators – Teacher planning time and preparation is critical and BPS will ensure that all teachers have adequate time to develop lesson plans collaboratively. Together, BPS and BTU will ensure that decisions regarding IEPs are made through a team process consistent with state and federal law.

Inclusive Education Liaison – For school years 2022-2023 to 2026-2027, the parties will fund an Inclusive Education Liaison who will play a critical role in implementing the shared vision of an inclusive district.

Paid Parental Leave – Expanding the City of Boston’s family leave policy to all education staff, including some positions within BPS that were previously excluded.

Green New Deal – Provides greater transparency regarding facilities work orders in BPS buildings to improve classroom conditions.

Housing Support – The agreement includes a commitment by the City to provide key housing support to unhoused families including a related pilot program.

Compensation Improvements – The agreement includes wage increases of 2.5% each year over three years with an addendum that will ultimately yield an additional 2% in overall wages over the life of the three-year pact.

A Test For BTU, Boston Leadership

If ratified, the contract will be a significant victory for Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s new administration, as well as Tang’s “BTU for All” leadership team. The close relationship between Mayor Wu and President Tang is exemplified in the BTU’s press release, which quotes heavily from Wu. Mayor Wu also spoke in favor of the agreement at the AFT convention this morning. 

@MayorWu talking about being a mother of children in PUBLIC SCHOOLS in Boston @AFTunion convention.

She gave appreciation to the Boston teachers union and did not separate the teachers from their union.

Can you imagine a mayor like this, Chicago? I can. #1u #ReclaimOurFuture pic.twitter.com/x15HTayNCZ

— Michelle Gunderson (@MSGunderson) July 14, 2022

But just hours after the announcement, some BTU members were already expressing their frustration with the contract. According to one informed source, concerns include the proposed concessions to the district on most of the union’s initial demands, as well as BTU leadership’s behavior during the negotiation process.

Some members are worried that the new contract’s language on crucial issues like inclusion policy and class size is too weak to protect educators from the kind of working conditions that have caused massive teacher burnout over the last two years. On top of that, rank-and-file educators were prevented from observing key parts of the final bargaining session yesterday, as union leadership pushed heavily to “get the contract done.” 

Whether or not these concerns will affect the outcome of the ratification vote remains to be seen. But inflation will likely play a role. In a Facebook post, Tang clarified that raises in the contract, when including the “inclusion differential” “makes it actually 3, 3.5, 3 with one year retro so it’s actually 9.5% compounded over the next two years.” (*We originally reported that the contract offers a 2.5 percent annual raise). But just yesterday a report by the Labor Department showed that consumer inflation reached an annualized rate of 9.1 percent, a four-decade high. Wage increases that do not keep up with inflation represent a cut in workers’ real incomes. 

If the ratification process does develop into a contested vote, it will be a significant test for President Tang’s five-year leadership. Tang was unavailable to comment on this story.

Both national teachers’ unions – the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association – have been host to some of the most developed “rank-and-file” opposition movements, backed by socialists and progressives. Several opposition movements have won control of important teachers unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union, United Teachers Los Angeles, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the largest union in the Commonwealth.

In the last few years, the Boston Teachers Union has largely avoided serious contests between union leadership and representatives of the national “rank-and-file” movement. But this tentative agreement could change that.

Henry De Groot is a member of Boston DSA and an editor of Working Mass.

Picture Credit: BTU Facebook Page – https://www.facebook.com/bostonteachersunion/posts/5505273146158917