With support for labor unions at a 15-year high, thanks largely to teachers' movements around the country, let's mark this Labor Day in the way it was intended, as a celebration of the workers and organizers who, when they unite, can overpower the corporate and special interests that put profits over people.
In honor of Labor Day, I want to particularly highlight the late, great Tamra Jean Geanangel (née Klemencic), who just died of cancer on August 26, and all the women labor organizers blazing trails around the country and the world. Their warnings against what Trump can do to organized labor should chill the bones of anyone who wants to see wages rise and worker protections increase.
Helping Democrats block Trump's appointment of Kavanagh to the Supreme Court, voting in the midterms, registering voters, and getting out the vote in 2018 and beyond, will determine whether labor's role in the Resistance has wind in its sails, or it deflates. Below this post are tips for organizing for change, inspired by Tammy, and tools negotiating for your worth, whether you belong to a union or not. Rest in Power, Tammy.
“I was lucky to go to an apprenticeship program out of high school — four-year, on-the-job training, free through our labor union . . . I have the back of an ox,” Tammy says with a proud smile.
Tammy Geanangel spent twenty years as an operating engineer, operating heavy construction machinery in the field. From the time she was nineteen, she belonged to the Local 66 International Union of Operating Engineers in Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Tammy’s pug, General, now as old as his owner was when she joined the union, sleeps in her lap. Just home from an emergency veterinary visit for “his little hips,” General breathes heavily.
Tammy has sandy frosted highlights and glasses that frame her warm, twinkling eyes. She continues: “I would have done my job for free. That’s how much I loved it.”
“As you can imagine this is a predominantly male-oriented career. We had an elected official come on board and asked me to join the staff as a labor organizer” – a position into which she has thrown herself for the last ten years.
“He believed it was time for a woman to hold a position. I was so excited! I knew what kind of changes I wanted to see . . . We went eight years with Obama. He was so great. He will go down as my favorite president of my lifetime, I swear . . . Then it was a woman running for President and I thought everything was coming right in order.”
“But as soon as we knew who was running in the primary, all hell broke loose. I’ve just seen massive amounts of hate. And it’s just like, ‘Trump’s there. Finally, we can hate. Finally, we don’t have to be politically correct in how we talk to each other . . . The conversations I’ve had with other union members and family members . . . when you peel it all apart it’s sheer hatred."
Tammy’s gravelly western Pennsylvania accent quakes slightly: “As predictable as the press said Hillary is going to prevail, I think we all went to bed that night nauseous. Now, everything is more uncertain.”
Tammy says, “You know, Trump has said, ‘Construction workers make too much money?’”
She growls, “Get him up on a one-hundred-foot steel beam, dangle him from a tire crane and ask him, ‘How much are you worth?’
What she says next surprises me, after all the talk during and after the election about how Hillary Clinton supposedly doesn’t care about blue-collar workers:
“Because, with our line of work, Hillary was a champion in New York State with the building trades. An absolute champion. If it was being built in New York, it was being built by union members making livable wages. As a senator, she one-hundred percent had the building trades’ back — with project labor agreements, with-,” her voice trails off.
Tammy's feeling of betrayal cuts deep, as she contemplates everything for which she has spent her adult life fighting: ‘‘I worry now about the thirty years that I have contributed to a pension. I worry about this . . . this individual can make things so permanent with the Supreme Court justices he appoints that it can take us seventy years to come around again . . .”
Her labor organizer’s rousing cadence draws me in: “In West Virginia, they held huge barbecues for the coal miners saying, ‘We’re going to win this war on coal.’ Not one time did these politicians say, ‘Vote for us and we’ll turn this state right-to-work and eliminate the state prevailing wage.’ But that’s exactly what they did the second they got in office. We can look at that state and see what’s going to happen on a national level.
"Right-to-work can be pretty quick. It’s not a slow strangle of the union. It pretty quick bankrupts the union . . . But I do have to say it’s not going to slow me down. I am going to organize and organize. Like never before."
Suddenly, I see the sunlight of Tammy’s fight shining through the clouds of her grief.
“About a year ago, it was, my business manager sent me to Penn State for a labor leadership class. Some of the most amazing instructors at Penn State in Labor History taught this class. Our instructor, Mary Bellman, put a timeline of labor history on the wall around the room. And she asked us, ‘I need some input. What do you see when you walk around this room?’
Prof. Mary Bellman, Director of Labor Education, Pennsylvania State University
“I can remember being the first one to answer,” Tammy says. “‘I hate to say this because it breaks my heart, but we’re coming full circle to the beginning. We’re re-making the same mistakes. How can this be?’ And the instructor said, ‘You’re exactly right.’”
Tammy gave me Dr. Bellman’s number so I could ask her directly how labor rights are starting back at square one. She cut her teeth coordinating labor education programs with union women in Guatemala, which is where she met her husband. Now she is a Lecturer of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State, as well as a labor educator, conducting education programs with unions and workers.
“In the past 20 years, the labor movement has not invested in worker education,” Mary Bellman begins.
Women organizers helped win workers the 8-hour day. Photo circa 1910.
“We need more steward training – a steward is the on-the-ground liaison between one workplace and the union, people who would file a complaint if management is not following the contract they have with the union. But we also need the labor history training, bigger picture political training and economic training. We haven’t done nearly enough of that. There hasn’t been enough funding. The labor movement has been in crisis mode the past thirty years. At least we thought we were. Now we’re really in crisis mode.
“The labor movement overall did not vote for Trump. We just didn’t support Hillary as much as we supported Obama. But insofar as labor members voted for Trump . . . we haven’t provided enough of an image since globalization — we haven’t reached enough people to provide enough education on why this is happening in our communities, instead of blaming those who don’t look like us.”
Dr. Bellman explains that under Trump’s Republican Party, “We’re going to lose more rights to bargain or collect dues. Labor historians have told me that back in the day, when you relied on people chipping in directly, not out of their paycheck, you got a button to show you’d given. If you didn’t have a button, there was shame for not contributing. Some of these things may have to come back. But it’s not romantic. We shouldn’t belittle what that institutional support does for us.
"But at least we have examples in history on how to motivate people, how to build coalitions from the ground up. And how to build a multi-racial . . . the early labor movements were built by immigrants, built by black people, and white people. Those early examples were actually people coming together. That’s something we can resurrect.”
Black and white union maids striking in the 1930s.
She explains to me that the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935 under FDR, as a result of massive strikes and unprecedented mobilization. Private sector workers won the right to found unions supposedly without retaliation.
Dr. Bellman’s implication is that in the likely event that those rights now erode, we can look to history for inspiration. What’s more, current conditions abroad may also provide a road map.
“It’s important to remember that people have long organized under very oppressive circumstances. We can learn from people around the world who have done this more recently than we have and some very strong movements have emerged from it. There are labor leaders who organized under war time in Liberia. People organize under very terrible conditions in a way that we haven’t had to recently. People have put their bodies on the line. I hope people think more comparatively and more globally moving forward.”
Women protesting for peace in Liberia
“I don’t sign on to anything that frames globalization as U.S. jobs versus jobs in the developing world,” she says. “Those jobs are not coming back. Average standards of living in the developing world have gone up because of globalization. But I also don’t think those [free trade] agreements are necessarily good . . .You can have growing standards of living and growing income inequality at the same time. Some of the stuff coming out of the labor movement is short-sighted. Our unions are full of immigrants and we benefit from international solidarity. We have to reject the whole framing of ‘jobs coming back’ because they’re not. But I don’t see the agreements having enough protections for worker’s rights – rights for workers in other countries, to be precise.
“Immigrants are natural bridge builders here who have families abroad and a connection to the global economy. They can help us speak about it in a different way and think about it differently. We need to incorporate immigrants more seriously into our movement – in positions of power."
“When you have family in other parts of the world, you’ll frame things from a worker’s perspective, rather than the ‘U.S. versus somewhere else.’ Job creation doesn’t have to be at the expense of something else. One way to think about it is how do we support creating good jobs in our community, while also supporting job creation abroad?”
Back with Tammy Geanangel, I hear a similar concern about the us vs. them mentality. She conveys deep solidarity with immigrant workers.
“My job now is an organizer, to organize the unrepresented worker,” says Tammy. “I went to a job where there were quite a few Hispanics on this job. And, you know, I approached them like I approach everybody. This wasn’t the normal reaction I got. The reaction I got was sheer fear and they immediately removed themselves. The owner of this company told me that he, um, he ‘purchased’ them. I asked him, ‘What do you mean you purchased them?’ ‘Well they’re contracted immigrant workers,’ he says. He puts his order in. He pays so much money. And he gets his workers. He puts them up in flea bag motels.
And I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute. Any time you purchase a human being, it’s slavery.’ And I made it my job: ‘How can I help these people?’
Undocumented rescue worker at Ground Zero, 2001.
“At every turn, I got, ‘Tammy you’re gonna hurt them. They’re gonna get turned back to Guatemala or wherever they’re from. They don’t get a second chance.’ We’re coming full circle and Trump is just like the cherry on the sundae. The supporters say, ‘Oh give him a chance. Let’s see what he can do for us.’ But I just don't see what good can come from this. Basically, what Trump can do is he can eliminate the federal prevailing wage."
I ask her what we will need to do to protect union rights. She pauses, turning hope over in her mind like a multi-colored marble.
“I say, ‘Now organize like you’re on steroids.’ I say, ‘You know, everybody has to band together.’
“I have to keep people engaged, in livable wages. We can’t start seeing a race to the bottom, where you’ll take anything as long as it’s a job. Educating people like never before. And hoping there’s not laws put in place that prevents me from doing that. So, yeah, all I can say is, as far as the changing of the scenery, is ‘work harder at organizing.' The AFL-CIO is huge. They’ll stay right on top of this. Our international unions, again, will I truly believe guide us in the right way, give us the right tools we need. Service union, teachers unions, all of them . . .”
AFL-CIO chief shreds Trump: He’s done more to hurt workers than help them http://hill.cm/AXLKd82
You have allies, I offer.
“I have allies . . . these groups that are feeling our same pain after the election. All these groups that stand to lose everything they’ve fought so hard for, from the immigrant workers who are here to the LGBT and the wo-.” Her voice fades before she can get out the word “women.”
She lets out a long sigh.
“That’s why I can’t wrap my head around the loss, from the woman’s vote . . . for some reason there were quite a few women who voted against her.”
Her melancholy turns again to determination.
“I never want to see a little girl lose hope of her dreams. So I will always encourage young girls to go after what they truly want to do. When you do love something, it’s not a job... From the time I graduated from the apprenticeship, I have always tried to encourage women... I never sugar-coated it... it’s not glamorous operating giant machines in sideways rain and ice... but there are those women who shine through.”
His collar jangling, General stands up, changes position and then settles back in Tammy’s lap gingerly. She smiles, adjusts her glasses and goes on.
“Since I’ve been in the administration the last ten years, I’ve seen such a change in how women have been dispatched out to jobs, how they take their jobs so serious. The companies want these women — they’re meticulous, they’re such hard workers. And yes, they do love to be engaged in the politics of it. We’re constantly mentoring them, bringing them up and getting them involved.”
Action Steps Inspired by Tammy Geanangel
1. Train, encourage, promote and mentor young women, women returning to the work force after raising children, or older women in your workplace and in your union. Keep a log of their accomplishments, so you can share them with management and prove that their most effective workers are often women when it’s time to consider raises, promotions and awards. Do the same with members of any marginalized group.
2. Join forces with those beyond “the usual suspects.” Reach out to other workplaces, other unions, immigrant groups, civil rights groups, groups representing all genders and sexual orientations. Recruit as many of them as you can to your Consenting to Lead Club or get them to start their own group closer to where they live. Anyone who is struggling for more rights can be your ally in the struggle for fairness for all. By expanding your coalition, you increase your power.
3. Invite young adults, teenagers and little kids to your Consenting to Lead Club meetings, your workplace, your union meetings and political meetings, so they can see women working for change and so you can show them that fighting for what’s right is a fun challenge that brings people together. When people bring their babies and kids to meetings, help them care for them.
4. Have your Consenting to Lead Club organize a boycott against companies that “purchase” groups of undocumented workers, until they agree to pay them a living wage.
5. Learn and share collective bargaining skills and conflict-resolution skills:
a. Collective Bargaining – http://www.aflcio.org/Learn-About-Unions/Collective-Bargaining
6. Support the fight for an increased minimum wage: http://raisetheminimumwage.com/
7. If you are an executive, book major events or conventions only at venues that employ union workers. If you work for a political party, make sure every debate and speech is booked at a union-run hall. Make that the first question you ask.
8. When choosing a state in which to hold a major event or convention, make sure it is not one of twenty-seven Right-to-Work states, and counting: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Let the states you reject know why you are making your decision.
9. Do not contribute to or vote for anti-union politicians. With your Consenting to Lead Club, organize campaigns to vote out legislators who betray unions.
10. If you are a worker, organize your workplace and join forces with groups from other workplaces to maximize your collective negotiations for higher wages, equal pay, benefits, etc. Begin in secret, if necessary.
11. Organize your Consenting to Lead Club to call your representatives and attend events where they will be to demand that they don’t pass any infrastructure bill that eliminates the Federal Prevailing Wage.
12. With your Consenting to Lead Club, organize progressive cookouts for union members and pro-union politicians to hear workers’ needs and share how you will fight for them.
13. With your Consenting to Lead Club, organize for pro-union politicians:
a. register voters
b. recruit and train volunteers
c. teach workers their rights and get them involved in your campaign
d. plan events, like phone banks and canvasses, to support your pro-union candidate
e. organize fun fundraising events
14. With your Consenting to Lead Club, call anti-union politicians, from the local level to the congressional level, and let them know you will be actively working against them until their actions show they are willing to fight for workers. The Indivisible Guide says that it is always better to contact those politicians at their local district offices, rather than at their D.C. offices. In-person is the best way to get the attention of politicians and their aides. Calling is second best. Writing letters is third best. And email is last, but better than nothing. Only contact politicians in your own state. Politicians will not heed the cries of out-of-state residents. If you want to target a particular state, reach out to your friends who live there.
a. Start petitions and deliver those petitions to those politician’s offices.
b. When you meet with them or one of their aides, also bring personal accounts of why pro-union legislation is important to families like yours.
c. Protest at political events held by anti-union politicians and candidates and speak up about why unions and prevailing wages matter.
15. If you don’t belong to a union, consider starting one.
16. Learn how to negotiate for what you're worth.
Action Steps Inspired by Mary Bellman – for unions specifically
1. Lobby your union for more steward training at workplaces to create a clear channel of communication, so management treats workers fairly.
2. Lobby your union for, and offer to help organize, labor history classes to show how multi-racial coalitions won bargaining rights.
3. Lobby your union for, and offer to help organize, political and economic training in every local.
4. Invite foreign-born speakers to discuss current labor movements abroad.
5. Organize group brainstorms on how to unite with the global workers’ movement, to improve conditions for all workers, both domestic and foreign, and unite them in common purpose. Create international union “pen pal” and exchange programs.
6. Recruit immigrants to union leadership positions.
7. If the Trump regime reduces rights to bargain or collect dues, resume giving out buttons to those who contribute to the unions, to incentivize giving.
8. Push for trade agreements that are fair both to domestic and international workers, that push for greater income equality everywhere. Don’t get into knee-jerk a “pro” or “anti” stance.
9. Lobby your union to create, and offer to help organize, workshops and programs to train workers for new jobs, like alternative energy and informational technology jobs, because the old jobs are not coming back (and it’s not immigrants who are taking them).
And always . . . GET OUT THE VOTE!
 “National Labor Relations Act,” National Labor Relations Board, https://www.nlrb.gov/resources/national-labor-relations-act.