TRUTH COMMISSION REPORTS
LABOR POWER & THE 3RD RECONSTRUCTION:
A TRUTH COMMISSION ON HEALTHCARE
We’re living through an era of transformation in work and labor. Longstanding trends of decreased manufacturing and increases in service sector jobs, coupled with rapid advances in automation, have led to increasing precarity among workers. The COVID-19 pandemic caused immediate mass unemployment, but almost as quickly forced workers back into jobs with little or no additional safety precautions, expansions of healthcare coverage, or paid sick and family leave.
The precarious nature of many of these jobs has presented persistent challenges to organizing in several sectors. Testifiers at our truth commission represented several different sectors that, while having distinct conditions, also share this common precarity.
“They're doing everything they can to try to force people out. They've given final written warnings to workers who’ve never had a single write up in the years they've worked for the company. They've threatened people's health care. Some managers intentionally misgender workers and mispronounce the names of black workers, in spite of repeated corrections. The company has cut our hours so that many of us aren't able to pay our bills. When we do get scheduled, our shifts are incredibly stressful with more work than we can handle, and many furious customers to deal with.” - Stephanie Heslop, Starbucks Workers United
Farmworkers in New York have long faced different kinds of precarity. Workers are predominantly immigrant, live in relatively isolated rural areas, and often are housed on the farms where they work. All of these conditions give their employers particular leverage over them. Additionally, farmworkers have faced longstanding legal exclusions from organizing that have only recently been changed legislatively with the passage of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act in 2018. With this new legal landscape, farmworker organizing has moved to a new phase of union organizing.
“I work on an apple farm. I have been working in agriculture here for 12 years. I live in New York state with my 4 children and my husband who also works in agriculture. We use our income for rent, food, medical care, transportation, and my 19-year-old son's college expenses. I do not receive any type of government or community assistance for any of these expenses mentioned. Like you, I am also a New Yorker and file my taxes annually like any other citizen. We want respect and justice like workers in other industries. We are essential in this country. The labor of farm workers is not the same as the work of robots or machinery. No robot or automated machine can replace us. We demand that our work be valued -- it is physically and mentally exhausting. We demand the reduction to 40 hours a week so that I can spend more time with my family and not have long-term health problems.” - Leticia Pascual, Trabajadores Agricolas Unidos-NY
In higher education, contingent labor through short-term contracts or hiring adjunct professors has been a long-term trend to reduce payroll costs and maintain a more precarious workforce. Added to this, many universities utilize graduate students to teach courses, establishing a seeming gray area between students and employees
“Graduate Student Employees exist in this strange paradox where we are both students as well as employees, and the joke has always been that we are whichever one is most convenient for the administration. One particular issue that directly reflects this situation is the concept of graduate student fees. This issue is not only affecting us at GSEU, but if you follow the union movement of graduate workers across the nation, we are not unique. Graduate students are vital to universities functioning as we not only serve as instructors, but we also provide valuable research and bring in a lot of money through grants. Across the SUNY system, we are responsible for around 60% of all instructional work.
Graduate fees take away 10-20% of our paychecks each semester. They are approximately an entire paycheck’s worth of money, if not more. They are due often before our first paycheck, as most of us are not paid annually, but rather on 9 and 10 month contracts. And these fees go towards things that are vital to our success as workers, not students.” - Emily Blakley, Graduate Student Employees Union
These conditions have led to a surge in worker organizing across the country. Of the testifiers at our truth commission, organizing drives both long-standing and more recent were represented. Of the emerging organizing, Starbucks stores across the country have burst like a wildfire, with dozens of stores going public with union drives and developing an impressive tally of union election wins.
“Last month all 3 Ithaca Starbucks stores voted nearly unanimously to join Starbucks Workers United, making us the first city in the country to have 100 percent of stores unionized. The movement is growing so quickly that it's hard to keep track, but I think we're up to 70 stores across the country now, with hundreds more filed for elections. I feel so honored to be part of this grassroots, worker-led movement, and I can say without a doubt that it is the best thing that I've ever done.… It's amazing to me that in spite of all this [employer opposition] the movement isn't stopping it's continuing to grow. This isn’t just a testament to the workers involved. What's happening wouldn't be possible without support from many different people and organizations.” - Stephanie Heslop, Starbucks Workers United
While the struggle to organize farmworkers has entered a new phase with the passage of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, many workers have been organizing for years, despite the numerous risks and challenges. Sometimes this has taken place in the legislative arena, such as the drives to pass expanded access to driver’s licenses for immigrants regardless of status, but also in instances of injury or particular exploitation where workers have pushed back against bosses directly. Testifiers represented organizations engaged in both parts of this struggle, including Alianza Agricola, which took a lead role in the fight for driver’s license access, and Trabajadores Agricolas Unidos, who are organizing to form farmworker unions.
“I joined Alianza Agrícola, being one of the leaders of the organization since it began. We started with the driver's license struggle, and I've been very involved. I like to participate more than anything because I know that we are fighting for something to improve the community. I work on a farm full time and in my spare time I support the organization. I think it is always good to get involved and more than anything to listen and know that we are not alone in the struggle, that there are many people who are with us.” - Marcos Martinez, Alianza Agricola
On university campuses, members of the Graduate Student Employees Union have challenged the imposition of fees and asserted their rights as employees in multiple ways, from direct campus organizing and demands to legislation at the state level.
“We have addressed the issues of grad fees in the past by reaching out to faculty members, getting letters of support, and directly asking labor relations to meet with us regarding our concerns.
For the past three years, GSEU members have been trained in building political power, learning how to lobby effectively and how the legislative systems and the labor movement can come together to address mutually inclusive needs. Three years of building relationships within the New York State Legislature and lobbying for graduate student needs has put GSEU on the map in the State Legislature. We recieved near unanimous support in both the senate and assembly, including bipartisan support. Unfortunately, three years in a row, our efforts to address graduate students fees through the state budget was ended by the executive branch. While this continues to be a disappointing battle, GSEU members have gained invaluable knowledge as well as partnerships.” - Emily Blakley, Graduate Student Employees Union
“The labor movement as we know it can only exist if it fights for justice for all workers. And I mean all workers. I don't mean just members of unions. I don't mean eligible voters, I don't mean blue collar, middle class workers. When I say all workers, I mean all workers.” Rev. Terry Melvin
One of the strengths of the labor movement is its potential to connect with a core experience of the poor and dispossessed that cuts across other differences - the experience of being a worker. For many people, the workplace is one of the places they experience the contradictions and injustice of our political and economic systems most directly. It can also be one of the sites where the power of collective action is the most concrete, as Stephanie Heslop testified.
“Labor unions are a very important part of the broader movement for justice, because when you work a low-wage job, it's not hard to be persuaded that the system is rigged and immoral. Workers have incredible power if we choose to use it, because, in spite of what our bosses would like us to think, it is they who need us. It is our labor that makes them wealthy. This is something that many Starbucks workers are experiencing firsthand in this campaign.”
Speakers were also clear that organizing the poor and dispossessed around our rights as workers is only one piece of the larger movement we need. On the one hand, as Rev. Melvin reminded us, the reality of what we are up against compels us to unite.
“The lines are drawn. There is one side that is holding all the chips. This side wants to destroy unions, remove the voice of workers on the job, roll back health and safety regulations in the workforce, destroy social services provided by the government like Social security, Medicaid and Medicare, and while they are doing this, they are also denying women their bodily autonomy, and banning the acknowledgement that LGBTQ people exist. They are also supporting child labor overseas, the rise of the alt right, and the packing of the Supreme Court with religious fanatics… We either recognize our common enemy or die on the hill of tribalism.”
We also must join our struggles because, as Becca Forsyth shared, we need and deserve the transformation of so much of our society.
“Raising wages and giving workers power in the workplace through a union is an important part of the change that we're fighting for,” she said. “But we're also demanding much more. Everybody has a right to live. The United States Constitution was established ‘to promote the general welfare and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity.’ Given the abundance that exists in this country, and the fundamental dignity inherent to all humanity, every person in the United States has the right to dignified jobs and living wages, housing, education, healthcare, welfare, and the right to organize for the realization of these rights. That's the goal of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival - to bring together the poor and the low wealth of this country to demand an end to the attention violence and the policy violence that keep us poor. It doesn't have to be this way.”
Ways To Take Action
#MeetUsInDC ON JUNE 18 2022 for The Poor People's and Low Wage Workers Mass Assembly and Moral March on Washington and To The Polls
Mass Poor Peoples & Low Wage Workers Assembly June 18, 2022. Moral March on Washington
Mass Poor Peoples & Low Wage Workers Assembly June 18, 2022. Moral March on Washington
The June 18, 2022 Mass Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington will be a generationally transformative and disruptive gathering of poor and low-wealth people, state leaders, faith communities, moral allies, unions and partnering organizations.
It is NOT just a day of action. It is a declaration of an ongoing, committed moral movement to 1) build power, 2) shift the political narrative and 3) make real policies to fully address poverty and low wealth from the bottom up.
The Assembly is a pulling point of organizing from fall 2021 to summer 2022 and will spring us toward the 2022 elections. All along the way, we will be doing MORE: Mobilizing, Organizing, Registering, Educating, Engaging and Empowering people for a movement that votes!