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The Massachusetts DSA Labor Outlet
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HAVERHILL AND MALDEN EDUCATORS STRIKE AND WIN

Mon, 2022-11-14 15:44

By Eli Gerzon

Haverhill and Malden public school educators both went on strike on Monday, October 17 — the first time in decades that multiple educators’ unions have coordinated strikes in Massachusetts. Educators struck for one day in Malden and for four days in Haverhill, and union members in both districts secured new contracts and major wins.

Reflecting on the strike, Tim Briggs, president of the Haverhill Education Association, recalled that there was “more joy and tears than ever before in a four-day period!”

Educators’ unions in several other towns in the Commonwealth are now facing major contract struggles and have been inspired and helped by these two successful strikes. If they follow the example of the Haverhill and Malden strikes — by uniting educators and education support professionals, building community and student support, testing strike-readiness through carefully planned preparatory actions, coordinating strikes with other districts, and engaging members in militant direct actions to keep pressure on management — they are sure to win fair contracts which improve conditions for students and workers alike.

Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven walks the Haverhill picket line. Former MTA president Merrie Najimy speaks at Haverhill rally. Senator Ed Markey shows support for Malden educators. MTA president Max Page and NEA president Rebecca Pringle sit in on a Malden bargaining session.

Underfunded and Disrespected

For decades, educators in Haverhill, Malden, and other Massachusetts gateway cities have been underfunded. Gateway cities are working-class urban areas with high immigrant populations. Educators in these cities have been underpaid on top of confronting significant issues such as class sizes, caseloads, staff retention, and safety. Haverhill educators are paid about $10,000 less than the average public school educator in the state. In 7 of the last 20 years, they did not receive raises. 

Safety has been another major issue for educators in both Haverhill and Malden. Some young students can be violent with adults and cause real harm even at the age of six or seven. High school students sometimes get into physical fights, and it’s up to the educators to intervene. Sometimes that leads to teachers getting hurt. 

Educators spoke about wanting the school administration to hire more educators so that class sizes will be smaller, more manageable, and safer. 

Teachers at Constantino Middle School in Haverhill told Working Mass that there are rats moving around the school during the day, doors don’t lock, ceiling tiles fall off, rooms flood, and the heat doesn’t work in some rooms — to the point that kids have to wear winter coats in the classroom. 

Educators in both school districts expressed frustration about the school committees using delay tactics during contract negotiations for several months this year.

Deb Gesualdo, president of the Malden Education Association, has been on the union’s negotiating team since 2004 and described the delay tactics as, “The worst I’ve ever seen.”

Preparing to Fight Back

In Malden and Haverhill hundreds of rank-and-file union members attended the bargaining sessions as silent members — many of them for the first time. Workers were frustrated with how the school committees in both cities conducted themselves in these negotiations. After months of delays at the bargaining table, educators in Haverhill and Malden started to escalate their tactics.

In the fall both Malden and Haverhill organized rotating work-to-rule actions. And they organized days where educators would wear union swag: shirts, pins, and so on that would send a message of solidarity. Every morning in Haverhill, one out of their 14 schools held a rally before school started. They handed out flyers and spoke to community members. 

Cliff Ashbrook is a Programming and Web Development vocational teacher at Haverhill High School. In the union, his role is Contract Action Team (CAT) co-chair. CATs set up communication networks so rank-and-file union members are informed about contract negotiations and can coordinate actions. In the case of Haverhill, that means coordinating 1,000 educators.

Ashbrook said those rallies were also “to show strength and solidarity. It was really good practice: we needed actions where we could work as a team.” Many unions use these types of rallies as test runs for when workers actually go on strike. 

Another simple form of solidarity and escalation, pins, led to some dramatic results. In September, teachers and other educators started wearing pins to school reading “FAIR CONTRACT NOW #NoMoreBusinessAsUsual.” In smaller letters at the top, the pins read “EDUCATORS ARE THE HEART OF HAVERHILL” with HEA highlighted to represent the union’s initials. Educators also wore the Spanish version of the pins: “CONTRATO JUSTO AHORA.”

High school students like Ricardo Galloway noticed teachers wearing these pins. Students started asking around and learned more about the plight of Haverhill educators. They learned that Haverhill teachers have been underpaid for decades. Galloway was not impressed with the school committee’s offer of 1.5%, 1.5%, and 2% raises each year. “When we see inflation at 8%, we’re talking about a wage reduction rather than a wage increase right now. And so just based off that, it’s unacceptable.”

Galloway noticed some of the issues personally in his education: in the span of four years he had 8 different art teachers. He said this lack of continuity hurt his education. “The teachers, they want the students to have the best teachers, the best education possible. How can you expect that when you can’t pay our teachers competitive wages?”

Galloway said that ultimately, “This isn’t just about getting the teachers a fair contract. It’s about making education in Haverhill better overall? We want good teachers, long-term teachers who care about the schools.”

Inspired, Galloway and other students helped organize a student walkout at Haverhill High School in support of teachers on September 20.  

Haverhill students show support for striking educators.

“We had 220 kids walk out. That’s 10% of the student population,” said Galloway. 

Multiple students and teachers who spoke with Working Mass believe that student participation in the walkout would have been even higher if not for an email from school administrators before the walkout threatening to suspend those who participated and bench student-athletes. Security guards and school administrators blocked doors and told students they couldn’t walk out.

Another high school student, Russell Leung, said, “I was scared because I’ve never really been in trouble. Walking out and facing the repercussions was scary… But you know, I just had to do what was right.”

In the end, school administrators gave all 220 students detention. But none of them were suspended from school, as the emails had threatened.

Ready to Strike

After several months of delays by both school committees, on Friday, October 14, both unions in Haverhill and Malden independently voted to authorize a strike. They then coordinated staggered rallies on Saturday to turn up the pressure and prepare for the strike: 1 p.m. in Haverhill and 4 p.m. in Malden.

Local teachers, teachers from other districts, students, state Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven, and members of City Life/Vida Urbana all spoke at both rallies. A large truck from Teamsters Local 25 was there in solidarity at both rallies. They circled around the block in Haverhill and Malden blasting pop music, eliciting cheers, and forcing people speaking at the rally to pause as the truck passed. The current international president of the Teamsters, Sean O’Brien, started his career at Teamsters Local 25.

Lauren Sanguedolce, treasurer of the Haverhill Education Association, spoke powerfully about the experience that has been typical for many educators in Haverhill. Her speech got so many cheers, jeers, and laughs that it’s worth quoting at length: 

“We work for much less than the state average, struggling to pay our bills, but continue to hope that maybe the next contract will be better. We endure large class sizes because too many positions aren’t filled. We struggle with higher caseloads that take hours away from our family. We juggle classrooms without special education support because they’re used as substitutes. We work in old buildings that have no AC but have plenty of mice.”

“Members grumble and gripe because of a disappointing lackluster ride on the mayor’s contract train. [Jim Fiorentini]’s train doesn’t bellow a happy, ‘CHOO CHOO!’ It’s more like a pathetic cry of ‘CHEAP CHEAP!’ and ‘LIES LIES!’” she said to laughs from the crowd.

Sanguedolce also spoke about the things educators had to do in order to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic: teaching students on Zoom, teaching parents to use Zoom, following up, keeping track of everything on spreadsheets, and so on. 

“That was so difficult. We persevered. We did it all. And for what? To hear the power on the other side of the negotiation table say, ‘No. No. No.’” Sanguedolce paused while people booed before continuing, “… and to lie about what’s really going on at the bargaining table in press releases and so on.”

Sanguedolce concluded by saying, “We are the heart of Haverhill and we are the strongest we’ve ever, ever been.”

Despite the union strength on display, many educators were understandably hesitant to speak on the record. One educator who wanted to remain anonymous was holding a sign reading, “15 HOURS UNPAID” referring to the unpaid overtime work she does in a typical week.

Merrie Najimy, former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, started her speech in Haverhill by saying, “I’m going to say something that I wasn’t able to say when I was president of the MTA: I support you going on strike!”

The Strike

Both unions tried to negotiate late into the night on Sunday but finally chose to go on strike late on Sunday, October 16. Hundreds of teachers and community members showed their support on Sunday for the bargaining committee. Max Page, MTA president, and Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, were also in Malden for several hours to support the workers, making clear that the significance of this struggle extends far beyond Massachusetts. 

Many educators were nervous about taking this step. As former MTA president Merrie Najimy told Working Mass at the Haverhill rally on Saturday, “We have seen throughout history, that when laws are immoral or unjust, you just have to break them.” As president of the MTA she was not allowed to directly discuss strikes with her members. But under Najimy’s leadership, the MTA did provide trainings for teachers to learn to organize and prepare for strikes — while avoiding saying the word “strike.”

Gesualdo said, “I’m one of the few people who had been to any picket line. I told people they’d be smiling at the picket. They didn’t believe me. But they did! So many smiles.”

After one day on strike, Malden educators reached an agreement. After negotiating until 11 p.m. on Sunday, what changed on Monday?

“What changed is they [the school committee] saw how many people were out on the lines,” Gesualdo said. She added, “There were so many people — parents and caregivers joining their kids’ teachers and their kids’ ESPs, their kids’ assistant principals — on the picket lines, dropping off coffee and water and doughnuts and pizzas. And it was just beautiful.”

Gesualdo said she was especially proud that, for the first time, the Malden Education Association negotiated as one unit: teachers, administration, and ESPs. In the past teachers and administrative staff negotiated first. Sometimes there wasn’t even enough time for ESPs to negotiate a contract. The main differentiation between ESPs and other educators is their lack of an education degree and state licenses. Further, as Gesualdo said, ESPs have the highest percentage of people of color.

Negotiating all together was an inspiring case of cross-class and cross-racial solidarity. And it paid off: the minimum salary for an ESP has been $22,000. This new contract has a minimum salary of $30,000. That’s an $8,000 raise for these dedicated and essential educators. It’s less than the $35,000 minimum that the union was asking for and far less than the living wage of about $50,000 for Greater Boston. But it is a huge improvement that will bring economic relief and more dignity to the work of educators in Malden. 

Gesualdo said they also got six weeks of paid parental leave. People who already had children or never planned to have children fought for this benefit in solidarity with their fellow workers.

It took a few more days for contract negotiations to conclude in Haverhill on Thursday. They were asking for salary percentage increases, or cost of living adjustments (COLA), over the next three years of 10%, 6%, and 6%. The school committee was offering 1.5%, 1.5%, and 2%. They got an increase of approximately 4%-4%-4%.

In separate interviews, HEA president Tim Briggs, vice president Liz Briggs, and organizer Cliff Ashbrook all teared up when talking about the outpouring of support from local community members, as well as fellow educators and others from around MA.

Everyone that Working Mass spoke with talked about this strike and this contract as a stepping stone to build on during the next contract negotiation period. Everyone expressed the belief that workers have built new power and connections that will last well beyond the strike.

Uniting Educators and ESPs

In both Haverhill and Malden, one major focus of the union struggle has been supporting educators who are often underpaid and underappreciated at schools. That includes special education, English language learning, health services, transportation, and more. In the past, some of these educators have been called “teaching assistants.” But educators now prefer the term “educational support professional” or ESP to make clear that these educators are professionals and deserve the same respect as other educators.

When speaking about the underfunding of teachers, MEA president Deb Gesualdo, who is a member of DSA, said, “It’s no coincidence that education is a women-dominated profession.” She added, “Education is a racial justice issue.” Deb pointed out that ESPs are the lowest-paid educators and have the highest percentage of people of color in their ranks.

Gesualdo said the thing she is most proud of was the solidarity between different educators, including ESPs.

“For the first time ever, we bargained with all three of our units at the table together. We came to an agreement together, and we ratified the contract together. We didn’t take three separate votes.”

In the past teachers and admin would go first. Sometimes “by the time the ESPs negotiated, they could go a year without a contract,” explained Gesualdo.

Educators in Malden started working together across bargaining units when they fought for COVID safety at the start of the pandemic in 2020. They kept that solidarity going forward.

At the rally on Saturday, October 15, Working Mass spoke with Rebecca Griffith, a special education teacher at Malden High School.

“I teach students who require 24-hour care in my case, and so my classroom cannot run; my students cannot be safe without our ESPs. And they often require extensive training and extensive knowledge in order to do their jobs and they deserve to be able to subsist on one job.”

Griffith continued: “The outpouring of support has been incredible. It’s honestly making us all very emotional that people are behind us on this and really seem to believe in what we believe, which is that all of our students, no matter where they come from, no matter what their needs are, deserve a world-class education.”

Striking Illegal for Public Sector Workers

State Representative Erika Uyterhoeven, a DSA member and DSA endorsed candidate in Somerville, spoke at the rally in Haverhill and Malden on Saturday and was at the picket line in Haverhill on Monday morning and throughout the week. We asked her what it means to see two different school districts going on strike at the same time.

“It speaks to me of a turning point that we are in desperate need of as a society,” she said.

Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven speaks at Haverhill rally.

Rep. Uyterhoeven spoke about how much austerity has hurt the people of Massachusetts and the role the State House has played in underfunding public schools in the Commonwealth. “I think that we do need to have our hand forced in the legislature and in all elected offices to turn this tide. Because what we have done is austerity, cutting taxes, cutting wages, more hours, and over and over again. People have had enough. And we need to change that.”

In Massachusetts, it is illegal for public sector employees, including public school teachers, to go on strike. Educators have gone on strike, of course, and collective bargaining agreements signed after strikes often specify that fines be waived or the strike petition be withdrawn. But the fear of the unlawful act does scare many educators away from even considering the option of a strike.

Rep. Uyterhoeven, along with state representative and fellow DSA member Mike Connolly, has introduced a Massachusetts House bill, H1946, that would “repeal the prohibition on striking by public employees and public employee organizations.”

The agreement reached by Malden was that the strike petition be withdrawn: they didn’t have to pay any fines and were guaranteed they wouldn’t have to deal with any retaliation. In Haverhill, they did have to pay some fines for going on strike. 

After the Strike

Ties between workers formed during the strike have persisted. Ashbrook said Haverhill educators are still using the same communication network: “We’re still communicating. One of our English teachers, her husband passed away after the strike. And we were able to utilize that communication to raise some funds and help out. So some pretty beautiful things came of this.”

Soon after the strike ended in Haverhill, educators in nearby Lawrence built and demonstrated their power, getting big contract wins without going on strike. Suzanne Suliveras, president of the Lawrence Federation of Paraprofessionals, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said the Malden and Haverhill strikes “had a huge impact” and were an “inspiration.” As in Malden and Haverhill, for the first time, they turned out silent members in the bargaining sessions: 150 silent members. That helped them get wins: “A majority of paras (ESPs) got a 50% increase. Someone who’s been in the system for 26 years and just went from $20/hour to $30/hour. Another from $16/hour to $21/hour. Some didn’t get raises for 7 years.”

Right now many education unions, including Haverhill and Malden educators, are organizing to mobilize workers in support of the Melrose Education Association and their rally for a fair contract on Monday, November 14, at 8 p.m. at Melrose City Hall.

Today: ALL OUT TO MELROSE!
Nov. 14 @ 7PM|Melrose City Hall@MEAMelroseMA members are fighting for fair contracts that include:
Enough planning time to meet students’ needs
Improved working/learning conditions
A living wage for ESPs
Fair pay for teachers @massteacher #1u pic.twitter.com/u1QYVchExe

— Malden Edu. Assoc. (@MaldenEduAssoc) November 14, 2022

Educators and Socialism

Working Mass asked MEA president Gesualdo and HEA president Briggs about how many of their members are also members of the Democratic Socialists of America and how their members feel about socialism. They each independently gave almost the same answer. Some of their members might be afraid of the term “socialism,” but socialism lines up with their beliefs.

Briggs: “But when you sat down, and you recognize what was involved with being a Democratic Socialist, they’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s me.’”

Gesualdo: “People don’t understand what the DSA is, and they have this negative connotation with socialism. [But] when I talk to them, that’s what their beliefs are. And they just don’t quite see that.”

Gesualdo said she used to be a member of DSA but her membership had lapsed. She renewed her DSA membership after our interview. Cliff Ashbrook in Haverhill said he joined DSA for the first time after our interview. Ashbrook said: “Yeah, it just makes sense for what I believe in. Wish I had heard of the organization sooner.”

Advice to Other Workers

When asked about advice for others, Cliff Ashbrook in Haverhill highlighted four important points: building community support, strengthening communication networks between school buildings to overcome isolation, developing a command structure with reps in each building and even each grade in order to connect rank-and-file members with local leadership, and taking back power at the shop-floor level by the use of “work-to-rule” tactics.

Ashbrook’s final advice: “Don’t be afraid. In most cases, your colleagues have similar concerns to you.”

Rebecca Griffith in Malden shared her advice to other educators: “Solidarity — you have to do this together. The union is not union leadership, the union is all of us. And our power is in our labor and our ability to stand together and say what we will and will not accept as our working conditions. As many have said, our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.”

Gesualdo in Malden: “Anyone anywhere, if they know that there’s a picket line and they can support workers, whatever type of job they have, go out and support workers who are striking or taking any type of job action. Because good contracts support workers in any sector, in all communities… It sets the standard for all workers and lifts up the whole community.”

Tim Briggs, the week after the strike, reflected that his fellow educators in Haverhill “didn’t know how strong they were…”

When they stood by each other,” Briggs said, “they found out that in fact, what they were doing was an act of love. I’ve never heard that word used as much as I did last week. It was amazing.” 

Students and teachers alike used that word often in speeches and interviews. That love has been exploited in the past. Educators accepted mistreatment and low salaries because they didn’t want to disrupt their students’ education. But in Haverhill and Malden, that love safeguarded students’ education, bringing people together to stand up and make things better for educators, students, and workers in their communities and beyond.

Eli Gerzon is an editor of Working Mass and a member of Boston DSA.

Photos by Eli Gerzon, Cory Bisbee, Cliff Ashbrook, and Jonathan Ng.

Opinion: 100 Years On, the TUEL Is a Strong Framework for DSA’s Labor Work

Tue, 2022-10-18 15:41

By Henry De Groot

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the official position of Working Mass.

DSA Emerges as a Force in Labor

As the Democratic Socialists of America has grown into the country’s largest socialist organization in recent memory, its work in the labor movement has taken tremendous steps forward.

Thousands of union members, staffers, and other labor activists have joined our ranks as individuals, and many comrades have taken jobs in strategic industries. Our labor branches (also called working groups, committees, etc) around the country have engaged at all levels of labor struggle, from new organizing drives to strikes and strike solidarity to reform caucuses and internal elections.

This growth represents DSA’s arrival as a real force in the labor movement. As AFA-CWA president Sara Nelson told Working Mass when interviewed on the 874 Comm Ave Starbucks picket line, “DSA is everywhere — every single picket line that I go to — every single fight, they’re taking up the cause, talking about labor rights, making it central to the mission.”

"DSA is everywhere, every single picket line that I go to, every single fight they're taking up the cause, talking about labor rights, making it central to the mission." – @FlyingWithSara on the @BostonSBWU 874 Picket Line pic.twitter.com/LqTtdNKFF2

— Working Mass (@DSAWorkingMass) August 22, 2022

But what role should DSA play in the labor movement? And what lessons can we draw from history to sharpen our strategy and multiply our impact?

While no organizational model should be directly reproduced, in my opinion, the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) provides one of the best frameworks for guiding our socialist labor efforts today.

The Founding of the TUEL

Technically, the TUEL was founded in 1920, but TUEL activists themselves date its founding to 1922, the year that it launched its publication The Labor Herald and began its work in earnest, which was 100 years ago this year.

The TUEL was launched by former IWW organizer William Z. Foster and a handful of radical labor activists in November 1920. But soon after its founding, Foster headed to Soviet Russia to attend the founding of the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU). Impressed by the proceedings, he joined the Communist Party on his return and worked to gain its endorsement of the TUEL.

Armed with the well-developed labor strategy of the Bolsheviks and the political backing of the growing Communist Party, Foster began planning for The Labor Herald, and to transform the TUEL from “little more than a few scattered groups throughout the country” into the beginnings of a well-organized movement. In February 1922, directions for forming local TUEL sections were circulated, and the first issue of The Labor Herald was launched in March.

The front and back cover of the first issue of The Labor Herald.

The major orientation of the TUEL was the rejection of the IWW’s independent unionism in favor of embracing campaigns “boring from within” the established AFL unions to promote militancy and radicalism. In an attempt to protect TUEL activists from expulsion for dual unionism, the act of setting up separate and competing unions, the TUEL organized not as a union but as an educational body. It prohibited national and local unions from affiliating and maintained no true membership dues but rather only subscriptions to The Labor Herald and donations (See: TUEL Constitution). The TUEL organized by location and section, developing both local educational groups and correspondence within industries, and was open to all radicals, not only Communist Party members.

The TUEL held its founding conference in August 1922. Delegates were proportioned to the local TUEL bodies by their number of local subscribers, with members active in the locals entitled to vote. Delegates from 14 recognized industries each elected a secretary to oversee the development of the TUEL’s work in their industry. Together with one secretary-treasurer elected by the entire conference, these 15 individuals formed the national leadership of the TUEL.

Amalgamation and Industrial Unionism

While the TUEL aimed to educate militants, it always tied its work to concrete campaigns for the re-direction of the labor movement toward militancy. Beginning in 1922, the TUEL embarked on a well-organized program for amalgamation and industrial unionism. Amalgamation and industrial unionism are two parts of the same process. Amalgamation involves the uniting of existing unions within the same industry. Industrial unionism is an overall logic of how trade unions should be organized to maximize worker power — by industry instead of craft — which includes amalgamation but also the reassignment of some workers between existing unions.

In the 1920s, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the wider labor movement consisted of a strange mix of unions, many of which organized similar workforces in the same industry. The TUEL called for amalgamation, and the second issue of The Labor Herald launched the TUEL’s campaign for amalgamation of the 16 existing railroad unions into one national railroad union.

The TUEL organized its campaign by winning rank-and-file support for its strategy. A proposal for amalgamation went out to 12,000 railroad locals, with 4,000 locals endorsing the proposal. The TUEL and its activists in the railway unions then called a national conference of railway workers to facilitate the effort, which was held in December 1922 with 425 delegates from across the United States and Canada (See: “Amalgamation Movement in America” Feb 6, 1923).

The railroad campaign for amalgamation was the spearhead for a wider push to promote the general strategy of industrialization of the unions. The same tactic of passing resolutions was used, and the first resolution calling for the AFL to embrace the industrial model over the craft model of organizing was adopted by the Chicago Federation of Labor. By February 1923, the Minnesota, Colorado, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Nebraska, South Dakota, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin state federations, the Railway Clerks, Railway Trackmen, Butchers, Firefighters, Typographical, Men’s Clothing Workers, and Food Workers national unions, and several thousand local unions and central trade councils had all adopted proposals for the restructuring of the unions along industrial lines.

Conservative trade union officials, long protected by the craft union model, were alarmed by the campaigns for amalgamation and industrial unionism. Many officials opposed the efforts; some succeeded in organizing resistance, while others were swept out of office by supporters of the TUEL’s industrial vision.

While many unions did undergo amalgamation, a serious step toward industrial unionism, the larger campaign for industrial unionism failed to move the AFL away from the craft union model. However, a foundation was laid for the birth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which broke from the AFL in the 1930s and took up the banner of industrial unionism.

Overall, these campaigns showed the impressive organization of the TUEL and that it already had the ability to engage massive swathes of the labor movement by the end of 1922. By bringing proposals to strengthen the labor movement to the rank and file and overseeing these campaigns with a centralized national leadership team and militants organizing in concert throughout the country, the TUEL was able to engage workers far beyond the typical reach of the Communist Party.

Building Support for a Labor Party

The TUEL also engaged union members to promote a break between the labor movement and the Democratic and Republican parties. Earlier radicals in the IWW had rightly condemned Democrat and Republican politicians as servants of the bosses, but Foster and his co-thinkers made clear that the IWW had gone too far by swearing off electoral politics entirely.

A document published in the December 1922 issue of The Labor Herald outlined the TUEL’s position on the need for an independent workers’ movement. In the article, the TUEL’s national leadership calls for the formation of a united front labor party, founded on the basis of the interests of the working class and embracing all existing working-class parties. Within this party, they proposed, political formations would be able to retain their own identity while participating in common action.

While the document calls for the inclusion of the exploited small farmers, it makes clear that the labor movement must be the dominant force in the party and that to be successful the unions must affiliate. The TUEL’s leadership also envisioned a party that included both a “maximalist” (revolutionary) call for a workers’ government with “minimalist” (reformist) demands around immediate issues such as regulations on wages and working conditions.

As with amalgamation, the TUEL located the main obstacle for the establishment of a labor party in the corruption and conservatism of the union officialdom, making it clear that such a party would be built only by organizing masses of union members in struggle with their union leaders.

The Bolshevik Ideology of the TUEL

While the TUEL was undoubtedly anchored in the concrete issues of the labor movement, some historians have attempted to distort it by focusing only on the practical concerns of amalgamation, industrial unionism, and the building of a labor party.

Although the TUEL was not focused on spreading abstract socialist ideas, it did embrace a larger political ideology hardly in line with a model of simple mobilization of workers on everyday issues. The TUEL leadership put forward Lenin’s model of class struggle in simple terms, and educated workers on the history and current developments of the international Communist movement and especially events in Soviet Russia.

The essence of this Bolshevik model, the key role of the militant minority, was spelled out in one of the TUEL’s founding documents, The Principles and Program of the Trade Union Educational League, published as the first article in the first issue of The Labor Herald.

One of the latest and greatest achievements of working class thinking, due chiefly to the experiences in Russia, is a clear understanding of the fundamental proposition that the fate of all labor organization in every country depends primarily upon the activities of a minute minority of clear-sighted, enthusiastic militants scattered throughout the great organized masses of sluggish workers. These live spirits are the natural head of the working class, the driving force of the labor movement. They are the only ones who really understand what the labor struggle means and who have practical plans for its prosecution. Touched by the divine fire of proletarian revolt, they are the ones who furnish inspiration and guidance to the groping masses. They do the bulk of the thinking, working, and fighting of the labor struggle. They run the dangers of death and the capitalist jails. Not only are they the burden bearers of the labor movement, but also its brains and heart and soul. In every country where these vital militants function effectively among the organized masses the labor movement flourishes and prospers. But wherever, for any reason, the militants fail to so function, just as inevitably the whole labor organization withers and stagnates. The activities of the militants are the “key” to the labor movement, the source of all its real life and progress.

It needs to be stated that by militant minority, the TUEL leadership meant especially, albeit not exclusively, the communists within the labor movement.

In general, The Labor Herald did not try to convert its readers to Marxism by direct appeal. However, it did educate them on Marxist theory in language that would be readily received by practical workers. For example, the article “Wages, What Are They?” outlined the Marxist conception of wages in plain English and concluded with the vision of a society free from wage labor (Vol 1 No 6, Aug 1922). It also drew lessons from socialist labor history, as in the article “The Workers Internationals” (Vol 2 No 7, Sep 1923), and provided coverage of international labor developments, drawing clear socialist positions without using theoretical jargon.

Frequently, The Labor Herald held up the Bolshevik party, the October Revolution, and the Soviet government as a model for radicals in the U.S. labor movement. Of note are the TUEL’s publications of Foster’s pamphlet The Russian Revolution, Losovsky’s Lenin and the Trade Union Movement, and the section of the TUEL’s principles quoted above. Articles like “Discipline vs Freedom in Russia,” published in the very first issue of The Labor Herald, and “Fascisti and Bolsheviki” (Vol 1 No 11, Jan 1923) defended the tough methods of the dictatorship of the proletariat in no uncertain terms. And The Labor Herald called unequivocally for affiliation to the Communist-led RILU (“Which International” Vol 1 No 2, Apr 1922) and published reports on its congresses (“After the Second Congress” Vol 1 No 12, Feb 1923).

The ideology of the TUEL was three-tiered. On a broad scale, it defended revolutionary socialism in general, while framing its expositions in concrete terms and examples and avoiding abstract theory. On the level of concrete action, it called for the unions to take up militant strategy and tactics, such as amalgamation. But perhaps most importantly, and tying these first two factors together, it raised the keystone role of the conscious minority, calling for militants and radicals in the labor movement to unite within a centralized organization to facilitate their work among the broader union membership; as the TUEL explained without apology, this third factor was Lenin’s vanguard model as applied to the labor movement.

In “The Rank and File Strategy,” which has popularized the legacy of the TUEL among a new generation of socialist labor activists, Kim Moody writes that the TUEL “stood, above all, for industrial unionism and a labor party.” Moody briefly acknowledges the internal organizing of the TUEL before focusing almost exclusively on exploring its external campaigns.

Of course, the TUEL did stand for industrial unionism and a labor party. But as quoted above, for Foster “the activities of the militants are the ‘key’ to the labor movement, the source of all its real life and progress.” Moody entirely passes over the TUEL’s focus on organizing the organizers, which at least for the TUEL’s leadership was the most fundamental issue.

In my opinion, it may be useful to consider Foster’s thesis as a sort of ‘hyper-consciousness’ or ‘meta-consciousness.’ It is not enough for us to be aware of the role of workers and their unions in the fight for socialism, that is, to have socialist consciousness. Rather, we must also be aware of what role must be played by those who have achieved socialist consciousness, and how they may best organize to infuse socialist consciousness through the class struggle, that is, a consciousness of the development of socialist consciousness.

The Demise of the TUEL

A history of the TUEL would not be complete without at least a brief note on its demise. As they succeeded in building mass resistance, TUEL and Communist Party members faced increasing resistance from and eventually widespread expulsions by the AFL unions as early as 1924. 

Kim Moody also faults the Communist Party’s influence — or in his words “domination” — of the TUEL for its decline.

The greatest weakness of the TUEL was that it was controlled top-down by the CP. It never really developed a democratic structure of its own, nor an independent rank and file leadership to combat the growing sectarianism and erratic behavior of the CP. The TUEL’s lack of independence was signaled among other things by its affiliation with the Moscow-controlled Red International of Labor Unions. More importantly, virtually all the leaders of the various TUEL bodies were CP members. Both of these realities left TUEL without a self-organized base and unnecessarily open to red baiting.

But this criticism misses the mark. The issue was not that the Communist Party played a leading role in building the TUEL — quite the opposite, as it was the energetic work of the Communists that rapidly built the TUEL into a fighting force. The real issue was the shift in policy of the Communist leadership that resulted from Stalin’s consolidation of power and his misguided embrace of dual unionism in 1928. Following this line, the TUEL transformed itself into the Trade Union Unity League in 1929, embracing the dual unionism it had originally rejected.

There is no such thing as “independence” in the class struggle. Workers either embrace the ideas of the socialist movement, remain totally mired in the ideas of the ruling class which dominate in capitalist societies or most frequently float somewhere in between. Calling to replace socialist leadership of the labor movement with the leadership of an “independent” rank and file is tantamount to abandoning the fight for socialism altogether. What was needed was not “non-socialist” leadership, but rather “non-Stalinist” leadership.

The Meaning of the TUEL’s Legacy for Today’s Work

We cannot and should not copy the model of the TUEL as a formula. All considerations must be made in light of our current context and circumstances, though this affirmation must be the beginning and not the end of the conversation. So what are the lessons of the TUEL, and how does a consideration of our current circumstances inform drawing from the TUEL as a model?

Above all, the lesson we should take from the successes of the TUEL is the key role of the militant minority. And it is not enough to recognize the importance of a militant minority, we must set out to build and organize it. As we continue to engage in strike solidarity, support new organizing, and push back against conservative and bureaucratic leadership, we must maintain a focus on strengthening our own forces. There is always a danger of remaining a debating society without getting our hands dirty in the class struggle, but there is also a parallel and serious danger of being so engaged in trade union work that we lose ourselves as socialists.

Practically, this means prioritizing our internal work, including by strengthening existing labor branches and seeding new ones. The recent hiring of a DSA labor organizer is a great step in this direction.

Structure

The overall structure of the DSA’s labor work is rather haphazard; it has developed more sporadically than according to a specific plan. That being said, we are making tremendous progress, and many comrades are beginning to consider structural questions.

The TUEL’s tremendous success in 1922 was facilitated by the strong relationship between four internal bodies — its national leadership, its national publication, its industrial organizations, and its local organizations — all melded into one comprehensive whole.

In contrast, the national leadership of the DSA’s labor work is not tied organically to our local labor bodies or to DSA’s national and local industry groups. As it stands, DSA’s labor membership directly elects our national labor leadership, and neither local bodies nor industrial organizations elect delegates.

This is not to say that the national leadership has been doing a poor job; in fact, the opposite is true. National leadership has helped to lead fantastic campaigns. But hard work cannot replace the value of structural integration between the local, industrial, and national leadership.

Additionally, we have no national DSA labor conference, but only informal quarterly meetings. A national conference should be called with local labor branches sending delegates, and the national leadership should be elected on this basis, although probably not on the same formula as the TUEL’s industrial secretaries. A conference allows for a greater degree of discussion leading up to elections, clear proposals to be articulated, the opportunity to sharpen a national strategy, and better integration between national, industrial, and local. The bi-annual Labor Notes conferences have shown the tremendous power of bringing radical militants together, but ours must go beyond Labor Notes as a conference that is explicitly socialist and focused on developing both our internal and external work.

Of course, for the organization as a whole, the DSA already has a national convention — our supreme decision-making body — which weighs in on labor and all other issues. A DSA labor conference would not replace or supersede the existing DSA-wide structure; rather, the labor conference would be able to go into greater detail on specific tasks within the labor movement and place well-developed labor proposals before DSA’s national conventions.

Politics and Membership

Perhaps the largest difference between the Communist Party-TUEL relationship and DSA’s work today is the structure of political membership and participation. The Communist Party had strict membership requirements and a narrower political ideology, while DSA has loose membership requirements and a more inclusive web of political ideologies.

The TUEL could not have succeeded in engaging workers if every worker needed to join the Communist Party to participate; a degree of independence provided space to engage wider layers. There are far lower barriers to radical militants joining DSA, and therefore it is not clear that we should create a separate non-DSA sister entity like the TUEL. Certainly, most of our campaigns and work, such as DSA’s industry groups, should be and already are open to a broader layer of militants. But there are a large number of youth and workers open to socialism and willing to join — or at least work in cooperation — with DSA bodies, so no new organization is necessary.

Publications

The Labor Herald was one of the main organizing tools of the TUEL. The publication was key for reaching wider sections of workers, educating comrades on labor developments, and promoting the strategy of the collective leadership.

I have been proud to contribute to Working Mass, our Massachusetts DSA labor publication, and am grateful for the support that many comrades and workers have expressed for our work. But practically speaking, it would be far easier, more sustainable, and further reaching to put out one quality national labor publication than several local labor publications. I do see a value to local DSA labor publications, but they should be sub-blogs of a national publication.

Such a publication must balance the twin tasks of remaining grounded in the issues facing today’s class struggle, and the task of fighting for a socialist labor movement. This means avoiding the twin dangers of being a socialist journal totally removed from, and therefore uninteresting to, workers, and the parallel danger of focusing exclusively on worker issues at the expense of a truly socialist position. At Working Mass we have tried to walk this balance.

Campaigns

We are already engaged in a multitude of campaigns in the labor movement, especially new organizing, pushing for renewed labor militancy, reform caucus work, and pushing unions toward a break with the corporate Democrats. Strengthening our structures will do a great deal to systematize and maximize these efforts.

In general, our work will develop from cheerleading workers’ struggle to pushing unions toward concrete reforms, militant campaigns, and anti-corporate politics, to backing reform leadership and finally to running DSA members themselves in leadership elections.

In the last period, it was the field of labor politics in which the largest layer of union workers engaged with radical ideas and fought for left-wing positions within their unions. In practically every local there were supporters of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 campaigns self-organizing for their union to endorse Sanders. Having served on the leadership team of Massachusetts Labor for Bernie in the 2020 campaign, I can tell you that we suffered from a lack of organization and would have benefited tremendously from a pre-existing, well-organized structure. In the next period, organizing unions toward working-class politics has the potential to drive the clearest and most favorable division between the fighting-democratic and conservative-bureaucratic elements of the labor movement. 

In the field of worker organizing, the two clear campaigns are new organizing and pushing existing unions toward militant strike action. We should assist every organizing campaign we can, and have a key role to play as the militant minority. But it is the established unions, not the militant minority, which have the resources capable of reaching the millions of workers required to rebuild a powerful labor movement. It is crucial that we place clear demands on the leadership of established unions to invest the resources necessary to expand the labor movement.

While the issues of amalgamation and industrial unionism are not fully resolved, they may not be the crucial campaigns for our work that they were for the TUEL. However, it is worth considering whether movements like the graduate workers would be better off in one national union rather than spread throughout several national unions. But even if this was answered in the affirmative, it is probably not the most important campaign.

The question of independent unions also deserves further consideration — and potentially differs from that of the TUEL. While we should absolutely fight for radical militancy within the AFL-CIO unions and other established unions, much of the best new organizing is taking place either outside the established unions or nominally within them, as with Starbucks baristas organizing under Workers United, but led by the workers. Certainly, we should back the campaigns of UE, Amazon Labor Union, and other independent union campaigns. Without abandoning a general orientation toward the AFL-CIO, it may — or may not — be the case that establishing our own union could be helpful in select cases where the already established unions simply will not run campaigns. These questions deserve further consideration — ideally at a DSA labor conference.

Conclusion: Learn from the TUEL

If we accept the TUEL’s philosophy that the militant minority is the key to the success of the labor movement, then we must prioritize strengthening our own internal structures in order to maximize our impact. The centralization of DSA’s labor work, facilitated by a national conference and a national publication, will maximize our ability to engage with the wider labor movement. From this position of strength, we will be better able to support new organizing and labor strikes, push unions towards militancy and away from corporate politics, oppose and replace conservative-bureaucratic leadership, and reach millions of American workers with a clear socialist strategy for worker power.

All DSA labor activists should study the publications of the TUEL. In my opinion, first-hand sources are generally better than historical reviews, which are almost always morphed by the political leanings of their authors.

Here are a few places to start:

For More:

Henry De Groot is the Managing Editor of Working Mass, a member of the Boston DSA Labor Working Group, and an organizer with Massachusetts Drivers United.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the official position of Working Mass.

BU Graduate Workers Build Momentum on Union Drive

Thu, 2022-09-29 14:59

By Eli Gerzon

Boston – Last week, a lively crowd of a few hundred rallied on Marsh Plaza at Boston University in support of Boston University Graduate Workers United (BUGWU). The union went public this month and is now building up support in the lead-up to eventually filing for a vote to unionize.

Speakers talked about how vital graduate student workers are for the basic functioning of the university through teaching classes and conducting research.

“I try not to use the word ‘student’ that much because we actually are workers,” said Katie Myer, a third-year doctoral student of special education.

Long Hours, Low Pay

Officially graduate workers at BU are supposed to work 20 hours a week, but every grad worker who spoke with Working Mass testified to working far more than that. Alex Lion, a fifth-year grad worker in the biology department, said she averages 10 hours a day or 50 hours a week. But Lion said it can be even more than that: “I had a week where, fairly recently actually, where I worked 14 hours for four days. And that hurt.”

Grad workers are paid between $25,000 and $45,000 per year. BUGWU is demanding every grad worker receive a living wage which, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, is $46,918 in the Boston area.

Wages are so low multiple people talked about grad workers struggling to pay rent and get food. People in the school of social work have started a food pantry for BU grad workers and some students help each other get on the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or “food stamps”). The wages paid by BU are so unsustainable that they need to be subsidized by public tax dollars.

Additionally, many BU grad workers don’t receive a paycheck in the summer for a few weeks or even a few months at a time, and some are not allowed to work at other jobs while they are part of the BU grad program.

Some years Lion ate so little she actually lost weight: “I think the worst one was 15 pounds… I frequently would go down to one meal a day. Yeah, it was a lot of splitting meals up into multiple smaller meals, so I could make it last longer.”

Why are grad workers skipping meals when BU recently bragged about the growth of their  “roughly $3 billion” endowment under the leadership of BU president Robert A. Brown?

Fighting Back on Low Wages and Injustice

The union effort goes beyond the need for a living wage. Nairan Wu from the BU linguistics department said at the rally, “We don’t just want higher wages, we want control of how we work and what we research. We don’t just want a piece of the pie, we want the whole bakery!”

Wu says, "We don't just want higher wages, we want control of how we work and what we research. We don't just want a piece of the pie, we want the whole bakery!" pic.twitter.com/RtJGo8nUvm

— Working Mass (@DSAWorkingMass) September 20, 2022

After the rally, Working Mass spoke with Greer Hamilton, a doctoral candidate of social work. She said she’s “fortunate” because BU recently increased her salary from $27,000 to $29,000, and she’s been “privileged” to be able to work multiple jobs. “So I can piece together my income. But for many students, that’s not a possibility.”

Hamilton joined the union effort this past spring and has been active in the union’s caucuses. “I’m part of the Black grad workers caucus. And we have a larger monthly meeting of all the caucuses.”

Hamilton shared how the union campaign is an opportunity to overcome the isolation she feels as a Black worker. “There’s not many Black students across campus. I’m fortunate where there’s three of us in my program. So I have community. But I didn’t know that there was Joshua [Lawrence Lazard], I met him today, for example. There’s no real way to form communities. So I think for us right now, we’re focusing on that. And then thinking about: how do we tie what we want to the larger union projects?”

Joshua Lawrence Lazard @theuppitynegro shares a story:

"Everyone thought Goliath was clearly going to win in a fight against David. But Goliath had some weaknesses and David had some surprising skills to help him win! You have surprising skills too. We will win!" pic.twitter.com/80JXRNwtlK

— Working Mass (@DSAWorkingMass) September 20, 2022

On the BUGWU website they list their primary issues as a living wage, comprehensive health care coverage, international student rights, workload protections, and housing justice.

A few speakers at the rally spoke about the unique challenges and fears faced by international students, with some noting fears that being involved in the union could lead to deportation. “Then I realized: that’s why I need to join the union. We will be stronger and safer together!”

International student says, "I was afraid to speak up and join a union. What if I lose my green card? Then I realized: that's why I need to join the union. We will be stronger and safer together!" pic.twitter.com/qHfL0fsa9n

— Working Mass (@DSAWorkingMass) September 20, 2022

Administration Launches ‘Union-Avoidance’ Campaign

A few days after the rally, on Friday, September 23, BU went on the offensive, explaining why they “oppose a graduate student union at Boston University.” A copy of that email can be read here.

Knowing that their efforts would face resistance, weeks before the email was sent out, BUGWU created a BINGO card predicting some of the union-busting talking points that the BU administration might use.

@gradworkersofBU is down to play! pic.twitter.com/L4UBEBLtR0

— Josepħ Guidry (@astrojoeg) September 2, 2022

Just over an hour after the email was sent out, BUGWU sent a tweet declaring, “We got BINGO!” By their count, the administration had already used 10 of the 24 talking points they had predicted.

Our unit just got its first union-busting email from @BU_Tweets and guys? We got BINGO! pic.twitter.com/9Mn1wnWHME

— BU Graduate Workers United (@gradworkersofBU) September 23, 2022

The comparisons below between BUGWU’s BINGO card and the administration’s union-busting efforts show the impressive ability of BUGWU to predict administration tactics. Undoubtedly, the BU graduate campaign has learned lessons from the other graduate campaigns that have unfolded across Boston and the country, empowering them to get ahead of the administration’s messaging.

BINGO PREDICTION: “The union is an outside organization.”

ACTUAL EMAIL: “I truly believe that representation by an outside, non-academic third party in our University community would change the fundamental relationship that currently benefits our students.”

BINGO PREDICTION: “One contract can’t cover everyone.”

ACTUAL EMAIL: “A one-size-fits-all union model is fundamentally incompatible with an intellectually diverse and academically complex university.”

BINGO PREDICTION: “Things could get worse!”

ACTUAL EMAIL: “Furthermore, unionization at BU may necessitate changes to how the University distributes the funds that are available for graduate education in ways that could negatively impact some of our graduate student cohorts.”

On Thursday, September 29, BUGWU tweeted out an account of PhD students having their instruction time disrupted by an hour-long lecture on “why they as graduate workers did not deserve a living wage. This has never before been a standard part of the syllabus in this class.”

1/ Earlier this week at Boston University (@BU_Tweets), in a required class for 1st year Phd students, the class was lectured for an hour on why they as graduate workers did not deserve a living wage. This has never before been a standard part of the syllabus in this class.

— BU Graduate Workers United (@gradworkersofBU) September 29, 2022

Solidarity From Graduate Workers Across Boston

Other grad workers in the Boston area have dealt with similar rhetoric and won unions and contracts quite recently.

Christian Cmehil-Warn is on the bargaining committee for the MIT Graduate Student Union (MIT GSU) and held a banner for his union at the BU rally. Cmehil-Warn said he was excited to be there to support BU grad workers and had some encouraging news from MIT: “So our election was in April and we started bargaining [for a contract] yesterday… There is hope! We got there. And it went pretty well, I would say.”

Going from a union vote to contract negotiations in five months is indeed hopeful. By contrast, over 200 Starbucks stores in the United States have voted to unionize, and none of them have started formal negotiations with Starbucks almost a year later for some of those stores.

Marisa Borreggine from Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU) was at the rally along with others from Harvard. HGSU recently won their second contract after first voting to unionize in 2018. With HGSU’s union efforts further along than the BU campaign, Borreggine offered advice based on their experiences.

“You have to be willing to put up a unified front and know that the end goal [is] having a strong contract that has protections against harassment and discrimination, has fair wages and has anything that the workers put as their top priority,” Borreggine shared. “We should not let the university divide us right now.”

Protection from sexual harassment and other misconduct is an underappreciated reason to join a union. Amulya Mandava, vice president of HGSU, is one of three women who sued Harvard in February 2022 over accusations the university for years ignored sexual harassment of students by John Comaroff, an anthropology professor.

Mandava spoke at the rally about being “threatened with career-ending retaliation by a professor who was engaging in sexual misconduct. Finally, I was able to speak up with others he sexually harassed and retaliated against with the help of our union. Unions help us have a safer place to work.”

Many professors at BU support the unionization effort. Raul Fernandez, a senior lecturer in the Higher Education Administration program at BU and former candidate for state representative, spoke at the rally. Fernandez said he is a proud union member and knows that the decision to join a union is not taken lightly: “We don’t join unions because we want to, we join unions because we need to!”

BU professor, former BU student, former candidate for state rep, and union member – @raulspeaks spoke in support of the @gradworkersofBU union:

"Believe me when I say I've seen some stuff, I've seen some stuff! We don't join unions bc we want to, we join unions bc we need to!" pic.twitter.com/Fix1LDjHgj

— Working Mass (@DSAWorkingMass) September 20, 2022

Most people who spoke with Working Mass had joined the unionization effort in the last few months or sometime last year. Zach Coto has been part of the unionization effort since its beginnings in 2016. Coto does research on ants and social behavior in the biology department at BU. He talked about the importance of all workers supporting each other, and how he and other BU grad workers supported Starbucks workers on strike nearby at 874 Commonwealth Avenue.

“That’s how everyone in Boston, all workers, are gonna get ahead. If you’re a worker: be in solidarity with your fellow workers and everyone else as well. It’s so important. So important.”

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.

Featured image: BU grad workers and supporters rally outside BU’s Marsh Chapel on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Cory B/Working Mass

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.