News & Commentary

October 17, 2021

Kevin Vazquez

Kevin Vazquez is a student at Harvard Law School.

This weekend, as first reported by Deadline, all eyes are on Hollywood. After an unprecedented strike authorization vote earlier this month, in which roughly 92% of eligible members voted and 99% of those who voted authorized a strike, IATSE announced that it reached a tentative agreement on a new contract with major film studios late Saturday night. If the contract is ratified by members (an eventuality that, at this point, appears far from certain), the largest private-sector work stoppage in the United States since 2007, which would have seen more than 60,000 workers withholding their labor, would be narrowly averted. A full draft of the agreement has not been released, but details released thus far include, among other provisions, a 3% annual wage increase; significant investment in health and pension plans; higher pay for streaming content; a minimum of 10-hours between shifts; at least 54 hours off on weekends; improved sick leave benefits; and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

IATSE appears to have secured much of what it was demanding from the studios, but some have expressed disappointment with the agreement, which includes wage increases lower than the inflation rate and leaves some of the workers’ most pressing demands – such as working hours and streaming residuals – unaddressed. Others, however, including local leadership, have praised the deal. “Hands down, this is the strongest contract we have achieved in our history,” said Art Directors Guilt president Nelson Coates. “Our solidarity, at both the leadership and rank-and-file level,” said IATSE President Matthew Loeb, “was the primary reason that no local was left behind and every worker was addressed.” Although IATSE rank-and-file must ratify the tentative agreement before it takes effect, they will not vote directly on the contract. The ratification process will instead be conducted through an indirect electoral college-style voting system, in which members are organized at the local level, and each local votes in a majority-rule election. The votes are then tabulated according to each local, and the agreement need only be approved by a bare majority of locals to be ratified.

John Deere workers, of course, overwhelmingly rejected a tentative six-year collective bargaining agreement reached between UAW and Deere & Co. last week by a nine-to-one vote, instead opting to undertake their first strike since 1986, which is entering its second week. On Saturday, Sen. Bernie Sanders released a statement in support of the striking workers (to whom he also sent pizza on Friday), saying he is “proud to stand in solidarity with the more than 10,000 John Deere workers now on strike who are fighting for decent wages, pensions, and retirement health care benefits,” particularly at a time when “profits at John Deere are skyrocketing, and when the CEO’s salary has exploded by 160 percent since the start of the pandemic.”

In sum, there is no guarantee that IATSE workers will vote to ratify the tentative agreement, and, in any event, “Striketober” continues unabated, as more than 100,000 workers have voted to authorize strikes this month. Whether this period is merely transitory or instead reflective of a deeper, more significant shift in American labor relations remains to be seen – and also depends, in large part, on the solidarity shown for the increased labor militancy by other workers, the public, and even politicians.

Looking ahead, voting will begin in the UAW’s national referendum vote on direct elections of top union officers next Tuesday, and the UAWD – United All Workers for Democracy – caucus, which has been organizing in support of one member, one vote for nearly two years, is hosting a “get out the vote” call for UAW members today at 5:00 p.m. EST. The UAW has been controlled by the “Administration Caucus” since the union was led by Walter Reuther in the period following the Second World War, and the UAWD is aiming to amend the UAW’s constitution to require direct election of top union officers – specifically, the President and the 11 other members of the UAW International Executive Board – rather than election through the current system of delegates. It is difficult not to notice that the vote for direct election of UAW officers – and, in the words of UAWD, a more “accountable” and “democratic” union – comes on the heels of John Deere workers’ historic rejection of the UAW-negotiated contract with Deere & Co. earlier this month.

On a similar note, this weekend, LaborNotes published an exploration of the Teamsters’ upcoming election, which will be conducted next month. The stakes, as the piece notes, are high: the winner, who will lead the union for the next five years, will be tasked with expanding organizing efforts, including in the Teamsters’ nationwide Amazon campaign, and bargaining the union’s – and the country’s – largest contract with UPS, which is set to expire in 2023. The union’s current President, James P. Hoffa (son of Jimmy Hoffa), is retiring after more than 20 years at the union’s helm, and there are two leadership slates vying to replace him, each of which has been campaigning for almost two years. One slate – “Teamster Power” – has received the endorsement of Hoffa and other current union leadership; the other – known as the “OZ” slate – is an insurgent campaign led by Sean O’Brien of Local 25 in Boston and Fred Zuckerman of Local 89 in Louisville in coalition with Teamsters for a Democratic Union. It is not the first time these two groups have crossed swords: Zuckerman ran for president against Hoffa in 2016 and came within two percent of defeating him; and, in an attempt to pacify the insurgency, O’Brien was appointed by Hoffa to lead the contract negotiations at UPS in 2017 but was ultimately fired, because, according to a public letter he wrote shortly after, of his “desire to include representatives from locals who opposed [Hoffa] in the last election.” In contrast to the UAW, the Teamsters is one of the few unions in the U.S. in which all members are eligible to vote directly for top leadership positions, and ballots were mailed out earlier this month, on October 4.

In political news, a program to replace the nation’s coal- and gas-fired power plants with renewable wind, solar, and nuclear energy – the single most critical part of President Biden’s ambitious climate agenda, which included $150 billion to incentivize utility companies to switch from burning fossil fuels to renewable energy sources – is likely to be dropped from the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill because of opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin, who has infamously deep ties to the coal industry. He has received more campaign donations from fossil fuel companies than any other senator, and, perhaps even more damningly, he also profits personally from the industry: He owns up to $5 million in stock in a coal brokerage firm that he founded in 1988, which is now controlled by his son, and he made nearly $500,000 in dividends from his stock ownership last year, according to his Senate financial disclosure report. In response to Manchin’s self-interested obstructionism, Democrats are attempting to rewrite the legislation without the key clean energy program and instead piece together alternatives – such as a carbon tax – that could cut emissions, although these alternatives will face their own set of political challenges. In short, Biden’s climate agenda, which prioritized union jobs and other labor objectives, is, like much of the rest of his overwhelmingly popular agenda, in perilous condition because of the self-serving intransigence of so-called “moderate” Democrats – although, in reality, there is nothing moderate about climate denialism.

Finally, for those interested in a weekend read, an article published in Jacobin on Saturday details the efforts of Starbucks workers in three locations in Buffalo, laboring jointly under the moniker Starbucks Workers United, to unionize their stores. It also describes the aggressive and coercive anti-union tactics adopted by Starbucks management, which earlier this week included the closure of two stores involved in the unionization campaign and the enlisting of Little Mendelson, the largest anti-union law firm in the country. These actions are in direct contrast to Starbucks’ carefully cultivated egalitarian and communitarian image and its insistence that its workers are “partners” and “family.” Starbucks workers, of course, have long realized that this hollow rhetoric ends where the company’s bottom line begins, and any supposed familial warmth hardens into icy self-interest as soon as profit margins are threatened. These artificial, fabricated relationships foisted onto workers by their employers pale in comparison to the genuine brotherhood and solidarity of the labor movement.

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