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On the Hudson Yards picket line

#CountMeIn - learning lessons from a resurgent US trade union movement

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In November last year, 12 young trade unionists from Yorkshire took part in a TUC study visit to New York to learn about how a grass roots trade union movement is finding new ways of organising, breaking old taboos, and reaching out to build alliances across communities. In this blog, Andy Chamberlain (UNISON, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals) reflects on his experiences, and how he wants to use what he's learned back in Sheffield.

Words by Andy Chamberlain (with additions by Gareth Lewis)

We arrived on Friday to what I knew would be a unique experience. We travelled to the hotel from the airport and narrowly escaped losing a delegate on the subway. Happily we soon came together again ready to face the week.

On Sunday we were due to visit a historical burial ground and monument of thousands of black slaves from the 17th and 18th centuries. Tragically the museum and memorial grounds were closed due to graffiti of racial slurs on the site. I had a mixture of disappointment but mainly anger. I’m determined to continue working with my union and within the community to fight discrimination of BAME people wherever it may be found. Racism is still real not only in New York but in Yorkshire too. I’ve been motivated to continue to fight for what is right. Later in the week many of us attended a black lives matter event with the speaker Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor author of several works including #blacklivesmatter to black liberation and How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. She spoke about a wide range of subjects from the criminal justice system to feminism from a black perspective. I’d highly recommend reading her work.

Racism is still real not only in New York but in Yorkshire too

We started Monday at the Murphy Institute. We were given a brief overview of trade unions in the US. It was interesting to note the vast variety of union density throughout the country; as high as 32% in the public sector in New York but as low as 6.5% of private sector workers.

It was at the Murphy Institute, but later in the week, that the department's director Paula Finn introduced us to the concept and practice of 'Bargaining for the Common Good' (BCG). This is based on the principle of building long lasting alliances that embeds trade unions within communities, much like how unions in West and South Yorkshire were at the heart of town communities in the 20th century. We heard similar stories of a sense of betrayal and mistrust between unions and community organisations in recent years where coalitions on specific issues have ended in tears due to different aims and objectives. The purpose of the BCG network is to overcome the temporary nature of of single issue coalitions and encourage unions to think beyond contract negotiations.

Bargaining for the Common Good is based on the principle of building coalitions that embed trade unions within and at the heart of communities. The idea is to think beyond negotiating a union contract

resources from Labor Notes
resources from Labor Notes

Later on Monday we went to a local organising group based in Brooklyn called Labor Notes which promotes workers’ stories through a monthly magazine and website. Stories such as teachers describing the trouble of underfunded schools and their struggle. It also provides training and resources for community organisers. The organisation struck me as an ideal example of what community organising looks like and how to learn practice I can use within my union and my community. It also asked questions such as why many union members voted for Trump and where democrat candidates have failed to address issues that workers face. This made me reflect on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU referendum and how the decision will affect many workers around the country. It’s important we have meaningful discussions with people to address these issues.

Another local organising group or workers centre was ‘Make the Road New York’. This centre had a large diverse membership with many Latino populations using their services including legal, health, welfare and English classes. It gained funding from a variety of sources including government grants, wealth foundations and some (dwindling) union funds. It was interesting to hear an organisation that started small had developed into large community space and campaigning arm. Its community organising team works closely with the newly elected democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Make the Road New York's community organising team works closely with the newly elected democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Make the Road NY
Make the Road NY

Tuesday began with a visit to the Retail Wholesale and Department Services Union (RWDSU) They offer a free class for the unemployed on customer service skills. This training includes elements of workers’ rights and union information. The union also offers a ‘hiring hall’ where employers pay to have access to potential workers in a recruitment situation. I found this enterprising sprit by a union to be excellent. It was a great way of celebrating and promoting unions to potential members.

We also met with activists who had organised migrant car wash workers, alongside other community groups. The conditions of the carwash workers had been extremely poor with a $3/hour wage and theft of tips by managers. The campaign organised workers into the union within the different boroughs of New York City. Conditions improved considerably with the induction of a ‘union contract’ (similar to collective bargaining) and ultimately lobbying of the local authority to bring the carwash accountancy act which gave powers to close down exploitative businesses.

Our afternoon session saw us meet organisers within the RWDSU who had organised Amazon workers. This employer had a variety of anti-union policies which echo many employers in South Yorkshire (including Amazon). The organisers used a practice of ‘salting’, where organisers are recruited as employees to find issues within the company. Whilst I have some reservations about this practice the principal of discussing the issues workers face and what matters to them I feel is vital.

Make the Road has a large diverse membership with services including legal, health, welfare and English classes. It was interesting to hear about this Workers Centre that started small but has developed a large community space and campaigning arm.

On our last full day a small group of us woke at 5am to join the Laborer's local 79 union branch on the picket line for their #CounMeIn protest against the use of non-union workers on the luxury Hudon Yards development. local 79 and other union branches have been on strike at this site since summer 2015. It was inspiring and exciting to see such a lively picket line, and to learn about non-union contracts and the use of the 'scabby' the rat mascot.

Later we attended the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) who represent academic staff at the university. The union had recently changed its membership model following a change to legislation. In the past all employees paid union dues in return for collective bargaining agreements. In return they became ‘affiliate members’ This practice had been deemed illegal (seen as a closed shop model) and the union had begun a drive to retain staff as full members. It was good to see the positive model that had been taken ‘we have the privilege to contribute’.

It was at this meeting that it came to my attention that public service employees in New York State are prevented from taking industrial action (including strikes and even collective work to rule) by law. Indeed leaders of the transport union had been imprisoned for a strike back in 2005. Members are also fined an additional days’ wages and automatic deduction of union subs were suspended. I felt that as we face a government in the UK that is clearly anti trade union (the Trade Union Act being an example) it’s vital we stand up for the rights we have and discuss with our members and others some of the rights already taken and protecting the rights we have.

On the day of departure some of us had the opportunity to meet with pioneering organiser Nastaran Mohit at the New York NewsGuild (part of the Communication Workers of America) to hear about grassroots organising and the difficult history of unions and workers centres.

I've learned a tremendous amount and am keen to share these ideas and develop our movement


Later on we saw some of the direct action taken by members of RWDSU at a coffee shop that had been exploiting workers overseas. I then took the opportunity to visit the plaque memorialising the stonewall riots. These were in 1969 and marked a time when LGBT people stood up to a police raid and ultimately marked a change in the treatment of LGBT people in America but also was highly influential in the world. It was a fitting end to the week in an area that has, in a small way, improved my own chances and treatment in world today.

The news that Amazon was planning to site their HQ2 in New York landed the week of our visit, so it was exciting to see how trade unions and community groups were preparing to respond. And we've since seen how successful their campaign was...

Stumptown flyering
Stumptown flyering

Our final meeting was an opportunity to sit in on the anti-Amazon coalition steering group composed of trade unions and community organisations. With the news landing the week of our arrival of Amazon's choice of New York for their HQ2, this was a fascinating meeting to take part in, to hear how they planned to meet Amazon head on.

On our return to the UK, we had a weekend residential at Northern College, with a series of workshops to help us plan how we wanted to use what we'd learned in New York, and turn that into campaigns and activities in Yorkshire.

I’d like to finish my report by thanking Unison and the TUC for making the trip possible. I’ve learnt a tremendous amount and am keen to share and develop our movement. In particular thank you to John Campbell (my branch secretary), Gareth Lewis, Bill Adams (both of TUC Yorkshire and Humber) and Cathryn Lawrence (Northern College tutor).

Northern College debrief weekend residential
Northern College debrief weekend residential

On our return to the UK, we had a weekend residential at Northern College, with a series of workshops to help us plan how we wanted to use what we'd learned in New York, and turn that into campaigns and activities in Yorkshire.

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