INTERVIEW: NASHVILLE POLICE UNION PRESIDENT JAMES SMALLWOOD

Throughout all this social unrest and discussions of police brutality, white supremacy, and racism, one organization continues to get mentioned: Police unions. The “Fraternal Order of Police”, as they commonly refer to themselves, exist in many cities representing the interests of officers in their dealings with the city.

Different unions have different stipulations in their contracts, but very often what it says in those contracts dictates how situations are handled after officer-involved incidents. Some contracts shield the identity of officers, others ensure the officers continue to get paid throughout investigations, still others limit civilian oversight power.

The “Police Union Contract Project” researched many of the individual union contracts, and can be found here.

NPR just did a story on a recent study that tells us that where police unions are present, police-involved killings – particularly of minorities – rises.

To Nashville’s credit, according to the Police Union Contract Project, many of the problematic stipulations are not in the Metro-Nashville Police Department contract.

That said, recently we saw officers sent to the homes of two local activists, only to drop the charges  hours later, and many – including the ACLU – are calling for Chief Anderson’s resignation.

In the midst of this recent upheaval, we reached out to the President of the Metro Nashville Police Union James Smallwood, and he was willing to speak with us.

Below is that conversation word for word, which can be found exclusively in PODCAST FORM HERE. (SUBSCRIBE!)


HOLLER:  What, from the police union’s perspective, are your priorities right now?

SMALLWOOD:  Our priority is ensuring that our officers will be able to keep the communities that they serve safe. We want to make sure their paid benefits and working conditions are good and that their voices are heard, that we all work together to make the world a better place.

HOLLER:  I guess the questions I have are more about the role of the police union in all of this. Do you see the role of the police union as going to bat for officers no matter what, or is it more about finding a balance?

SMALLWOOD:  Well clearly you have to find a balance, nobody wants a bad cop gone more than a good cop, right, so having the mentality that no matter what we’re going to bat for you, that’s not really what any police officer stands for. That being said, if you pay for a service and expect to be represented, we’ve gotta provide you with that service. So if you’re in a traffic crash and you’re at fault and you call your insurance company and they say, “Well, you were at fault so we’re not going to cover you,” that would be a violation of the agreement that you had with you and your insurance company, and it would be similar with the union and their employee. They’re asking for representation, and it’s our duty to do that.

HOLLER:  So it sounds like you do see it as it’s the role of the union to support the officer first and foremost. I guess that’s kind of the thing that people wonder when it comes to police unions, it always seems to be that no matter what the video shows that unions tend to take the side of the officer, and it sounds like you do see it as their role, no?

SMALLWOOD:  No, that’s not what I said at all. So you’re saying it’s our role to take the side of the officer and no, it’s our role to represent the officer. Just because the officer may or may not be wrong doesn’t give us any determination as to whether or not he or she gets representation.

HOLLER:  So it’s like a lawyer almost.

SMALLWOOD:  Well, yeah, I mean there are criminal defense lawyers out there all the time who have a job to do, and their client may be guilty but they have to represent them. And that may be the case you’re seeing with George Floyd in Minneapolis right now, those officers were clearly wrong and have been charged with a crime, and they’ll have their day in court. I’m sure they have some sort of representation there and that’s probably something they’ve come to expect because he’s paid for a service through his union. That doesn’t mean his Union agrees with what he did, it means they are obligated to provide him with a service. 

HOLLER:  There’s a project called the Police Union Contract Project – the Nashville contract is one of the least problematic from their point of view. It actually got pretty high marks when it comes to police union contracts. There are provisions in other contracts around the country that do seem to set off some alarms, though, in instances like this. For instance, protecting pay for police even when they’re found to be in the wrong, or when they’re under investigation, shielding their identity, blocking civilian oversight – these are things that are not in your contract that are in other contracts. Are these things that you asked for but didn’t get, or are those things that you didn’t think were right to have in these contracts?

SMALLWOOD:  Those are things that we’ve not asked for but you need to be careful about what you may be placing as words that exist in contracts that may not be. I’ve not read these contracts you’re referring to, obviously, and my contract doesn’t include that, but I would assume that keeping things confidential while there’s an investigation underway – that’s reasonable, every officer is entitled to the same due process that any civilian out there in the street has. And the problem is when somebody is under investigation there’s not a whole lot of facts to consume and it’s very easy to draw conclusions. Once you draw conclusions it’s nearly impossible even with facts to show people that, okay this is what really happened, this is why we made that determination. So I can understand the reasoning behind saying, hey while there’s an ongoing investigation we’re going to keep this confidential until we reach the conclusion. The same exists when an officer is under investigation and receives his or her pay. If somebody complains about an officer and they’ve done nothing wrong, and the investigation turns out that they’ve done nothing wrong but we’ve decided arbitrarily to stop paying them because somebody complained on them, that’s a serious problem. You have affected somebody’s life very seriously for absolutely no reason, and to jump to the conclusion of guilt or innocence, and make an employee prove their innocence is not fair in any realm of reasonable representation. I think that’s probably what you’re seeing in those other cities.

HOLLER:  What the other side of that would be is that you’re assuming innocence of the officer, and you’re assuming guilt of the deceased, or the victim, or whoever it might be in that instance.

SMALLWOOD:  That’s not it at all, that’s not even close to the truth. The other side of that is we understand if you have a complaint, we want to investigate it fully to get all the facts. It’s not saying that you’re a liar – that’d be like saying hey, Joe Smith we’re investigating you for theft, because this individual over here has accused you, but we’re going to go ahead and arrest you right now instead of investigating it, finding the conclusions, and making sure that we’re getting it right so that we don’t affect your life negatively for something that may not be the truth. It happens quite frequently, I mean people tend to embellish stories quite a bit, whether it’s related to law enforcement or not. We all know that there’s folks out there who don’t want to tell the truth for whatever reason, and we have to investigate. We have to get the facts, you have to get it right whenever you’re going to affect somebody’s life, and that’s why officers are entitled to the same due process that civilians are.

HOLLER:  A lot of the officers that we’ve seen involved in some of these incidents turn out to have a number of complaints against them. Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, for example, had 17 complaints, and was involved in some pretty high-level incidents before this. What is the general rule of thumb for how many of these incidents are allowed before there’s some sort of consequence with an officer? By the way, I’m a union guy, I’m in a union myself, so I’m very much pro-union. I’m just trying to understand the role that the union plays in providing protection for people that may have problematic records.

SMALLWOOD:  Well, I think if you researched this topic appropriately, at least for our agency you’re going to see that the protection that is attached to this narrative that’s traveling across the country – there’s not as much protection as people think at least not in Tennessee or here in Nashville. There is no solid number of complaints or investigations that will automatically trigger some sort of determination. That would be completely unreasonable because we have hundreds of thousands of encounters over a career as individual officers, and any of those who can turn into a complaint, justified or not. They could be minuscule as the officer was having a bad day and he was rude to me. There’s a progressive discipline scale in place, and those officers are counseled and trained to try and change their behavior just like any other disciplinary scale that you see in society. But the jump to the worst possible conclusion of well, this guy has had five or six complaints so let’s fire him – let’s look at the totality of circumstances, let’s look at what instances of those complaints. And it’s easy to go oh, well, there’s nine complaints in officer Smallwood’s file, so obviously he’s a bad cop. What were those nine complaints founded on? Did somebody review them and find out that eight out of nine of them were based not in truth, and the department investigated and found out that there were things that came into play that made them not factual? Officers get complained on all the time for writing traffic tickets simply because somebody doesn’t like to receive a traffic ticket, does that mean it’s a bad officer? No, that means someone’s not happy about the outcome of an encounter and that’s not something we can control.

HOLLER:  Whose discretion does it end up being for what happens to the officer? Is it just up to the senior presiding officer, whoever’s in charge? Does the union get involved in that?

UNION CHIEF:  The union will provide a representative only if the individual requests one, so if the individual says hey I’d like a representative to sit with me, I’ve never been through this before, we’ll provide a representative. But we don’t have any influence on what the outcome of the investigation will be, that would be a conflict of interest for us. Folks that are attached to either internal affairs or the office of professional accountability – their independent offices will investigate the officer in claims of wrongdoing, and they’ll come out with a finding. Or in, more minor cases, like you know, I stopped somebody today and they’re upset about a traffic ticket they received, the direct supervisor of the officer will review and make recommendations on how to proceed.

HOLLER:  There’s a study that NPR just featured on a Planet Money episode, about an economist’s finding that in cities where there is a presence of a union, police killings of minorities go up. The idea, I think, is that there’s job security. Do you feel like job security plays a part in some of these instances, or do you think that this is just random?

SMALLWOOD:  Absolutely not. Well and I guess my question on that study would be that did those study all encompass major cities, or what are all the variables that come into play, because just saying that where there are police unions there’s more killings… look at the facts of the case. We are trying to find reasons to blame police unions for things that happened that outside of our control. We’re trying to blame police officers for things that are outside of our control. The Minneapolis incident that is one that should never have happened, I agree 100%, and you’ve seen organizations and agencies from all across the country come out and condemn those actions. That should be a very clear signal to you that we recognize when wrongdoing happens, and we’re willing to point it out. Saying there’s more killings in a city because there is a union there, surely you see how ridiculous that sounds.

HOLLER:  You seem like a reasonable guy, but in Minneapolis, the union president is out there saying all kinds of stuff. They’re not always as reasonable as you seem to be. In St. Louis, there’s a similar situation. So it seems like there tend to be a certain bravado or challenging of the narrative by police unions sometimes, and I think that’s why people tend to assign that role to them in these situations. Do you think that there’s something wrong in the country with police-community relations, and if so, what would you recommend? I think right now we’re at a boiling point, people are looking for answers. Do you, as the president of a police union of a major city in the South, have any thoughts about what actually can be changed?

SMALLWOOD:  I think at least for the Fraternal Order of Police here in Nashville, I’m always looking to do better. I’m always looking to improve, but certainly we are always engaging in our community and trying to find new ways to build bridges. The FOP has a youth camp that we’ve had for more than 50 or 60 years that actually goes into communities and has kids that we deal with. When we identify kids on a call that may need a little bit of relationship building with the police or may be down-on-their-luck or for whatever reason, and the officer says that child could benefit from a free Camp week with a police officer, they sign them up, and then we will take them for a week long trip to our youth camp. We will work all week long with them playing basketball, or baseball, or kickball, and taking them swimming in the lake, or fishing, or kayaking. There’s a whole host of different activities that we do. But the whole concept is to build positive lasting relationships with those kids, and that will pay dividends long-term because they need to learn that we are their friends, not the enemy. That’s huge for us, that’s one of the things I’m most proud of, as our organization moves forward.

We’ve expanded on that to reach out to our community where we can identify people that are in need of financial aid, where there’s no social program that can step in and help, or where there is no welfare program. We say hey, we understand you need help with this we’re going to help you overcome that adversity. Officers can actually reach out to the FOP and say hey, we’re here on this call and Mrs. Smith has three children who are sleeping on the floor because they can’t afford a bed for their kids, and we buy bunk beds for them. So we actually step in and purchase bunk beds for these families and work to build that positive relationship. You’ve seen things like in West Precinct where they’ve developed a community engagement team and they’ve seen significant reductions in crime. That engagement team has been working in an area that had high crime, and that precinct has now seen a significant reduction because of that engagement with the community. Does that mean that everything we’re doing is working? No, we can do better. We should be doing better, you know the FOP, as much as we’d like to, there are time constraints. We need to be sharing conversations with people from our community, we need to sit down and share perspectives from both sides, because if one side does not understand fully the perspective of the other side we will never accomplish our goals and make our community a safer and stronger place.

HOLLER:  Do you think it helps when officers live in the area that they work in?

SMALLWOOD:  You know what’s very concerning about that question is that officers in the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department cannot afford to live in their communities. They can’t. They cannot afford to live in the Nashville community, and so it’s very difficult to answer that question because we’re simply not paid enough to survive with a living wage, and survive the cost of living in Nashville. We were driven out by high increases and the cost of living not keeping up with salaries. I think it’s important that we do continue to have those conversations with our community, and police officers are human beings. We’re not perfect, but we strive to do everything we can to help. You see them as Sunday school teachers, as baseball coaches, as Boy Scout leaders, whatever you name it. When they’re not wearing the uniform, they’re generally engaged in their community anyway. So we’re not just a badge in the uniform, we are humans, we are people, and we are out there engaged in every aspect we can possibly do, we just want to help make the world a better place.

HOLLER:  I ask this next one acknowledging that Nashville has not been really a part of this but we have seen a lot of videos of police… first of all, let me acknowledge we’ve seen a lot of looting and destruction on the part of people. I mean the vast majority of them have been peaceful protests, but there obviously has been problematic stuff, including here in Nashville. On the flip side, the vast majority of police have handled themselves well, but we’ve also seen a bunch of videos where police have gotten out of control and done things that are completely unnecessary. There are something like 500 examples from the past 2 weeks.

(FOLLOW THIS THREAD…)

HOLLER: When you see those videos, does it feel like that’s actually doing police a disservice when they act that way, or do you feel like there might be a justification for it?

SMALLWOOD:  So here’s where we come to a problem, and this is where you’ll go back to, well police unions are just there to stand up and protect officers whether or not they’re wrong. I don’t know the facts of a situation that happened in Buffalo, New York, or Louisville, Kentucky, or St. Louis, Missouri, or wherever any of these protests may have taken place. I know what was captured in the 30 second video, but I have questions. I want to know, were officers giving reasonable commands to leave the area, were they given ample time to leave and the person either refused or charged at the officer, or walked towards the officers. Those are all variables that come into play, and it would not be appropriate for me without getting all the facts to comment as to whether or not that’s right or wrong. I can comment as to whether it looked right around but that would be very reckless.

HOLLER:  I know I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case. When it comes to people who aren’t police, like in Minnesota there were officers driving by people walking on the highway, and a guy just stops and pepper sprays a guy for no reason and drives off. It seems like it just creates this air of distrust which feels like it makes you guys less safe in the end.

SMALLWOOD:  I’m not sure what event you’re talking about I’ve not seen it.

HOLLER:  I’ll send you some links!

UNION CHIEF:  Please do.

HOLLER:  I definitely will. The last thing I’ll ask you about, and I think I already know the answer, but there is a refrain from activists right now to defund the police. Some people are taking it literally, and some people mean it literally which is like to not have police anymore, but other people mean that police budgets, in comparison to what we spend on other priorities like education, healthcare, that kind of thing, are fairly bloated. Memphis, for example, has a vast majority of the budget. I actually don’t know what it is in Nashville, but we are spending like nothing on education in Memphis from the city budget, and housing is also a small amount. The argument that people make is if we were spending more on other priorities, then your job would be easier because there would be less militarization of police and there be less imprisonment. Essentially it’s a vicious cycle, where the more we spend on policing, the more we spend on locking people up, the more people are down on their luck, and the more they’re going to commit crimes. If we just break the cycle and start spending on other things and invest in people, and trust in people, that that might actually ultimately help your job out. What do you think about that philosophy?

SMALLWOOD:  So, the reality is there are always going to be bad actors in our society. There are always going to be people out there who are willing to rob other innocent people who are willing to burglarize people’s homes, who are willing to break in and kidnap children, and continue the sex trafficking rings that are riddled in our society. There are horrible things that we see as police officers on a daily basis, and while social and community projects are great, and they should be funded and, absolutely we should be focusing on trying to get people to stop doing that, these people are always going to exist in our society. When somebody robs you and you’ve defunded the police, who’s going to come who’s going to answer that call? And saying we need to take money from away from law enforcement to fund these community projects is a lot like saying we need to rob Peter to pay Paul. We’re not doing any services by saying “defund the police.”  That’s not the solution. The solution is to find new, creative, and innovative ways to have our society reduce the violence, to reduce the victimization of our communities, and to reduce people terrorizing our neighborhoods. When we find those real solutions, I think you’ll see that that problem will solve itself. Policing is not the crux of all our socio-economic problems that exist in America. We are a nation of laws. Unfortunately those laws have to be enforced because not everybody wants to follow them. I think that that’s a very dangerous idea.

HOLLER:  I agree that it’s not the crux, but what others would say is that maybe it’s not the answer to everything either. That we always tend to turn to the police to handle everything, like mental health issues, and that kind of thing. That there’s too much on the plate of the police that actually they’re not properly trained for.

SMALLWOOD:  I agree that we could use more training and that people turn to the police for far too much. There are things that we need, like mental health responses. We need more training for that, but here’s the thing, when the call comes in, say there’s an individual suffering with a mental health crisis. And that individual either has a knife or a gun – are we going to send a social worker to the house by themselves to deal with that mental health crisis and have them take all the risks? I think the reasonable person in society says that doesn’t make sense. That’s why law enforcement exists. We stand on the line between danger and chaos and civility in our society. While yes, bringing a social worker to deal with a mental health crisis…there are crises beyond that that are real dangers to our society that need to be resolved. Sometimes that can’t always happen, so it’s not reasonable to say well if we fund all these social issues, we fund all these community projects, then we won’t need police officers anymore. To me that just doesn’t make sense. Even if I wasn’t a police officer, that doesn’t make any sense to me. It doesn’t stand to any kind of reason or logic.

HOLLER:  Do you understand why maybe black people might feel that way in general?

SMALLWOOD:  Why they feel what way?

HOLLER:  Why they feel like they can’t really trust police. I know black people who are afraid to call the police even when they need a cop.

SMALLWOOD:  And I think that’s why we need to get back to having reasonable conversations not based in emotion and rhetoric. I can see why, especially when you’ve got folks who are villainizing law enforcement, why there might be some concern. But frankly, law enforcement exists to help and to intervene when there’s a problem. When you look across the country… let’s just look at Nashville. Nashville has over 1 million police contacts per year. 99.9% of those contacts end in a positive or protective way. There are a few that do not, and those officers that are involved were held accountable for their actions. But for the majority, just like you said about peaceful protesters – there’s a few people in those crowds who want to be agitators and create problems, and riot, and loot, and steal, and pillage, and we ask the police to stand there and deal with those problems. The same exists in the law enforcement profession. The majority of us are here to serve our community, like counselors and social workers, to intervene in a crisis, to help where help is needed. There are a few that get painted, that made mistakes, or are bad actors, and they paint the entire profession with those few who make those bad actions. I think that’s where we need to have those real conversations with people in our communities and say look, if you want to be reasonable we’ll be reasonable, if you want to talk facts we’ll talk facts, but if you want to go, we’ll everybody’s bad because one person, but that standard doesn’t apply to us, that’s not reasonable. That’s not logical, and that’s where we get lost in the weeds.

HOLLER:  Is there enough de-escalation training?

SMALLWOOD:  We are huge proponents of de-escalation training, and we’re also huge proponents of training and general. Frankly, there’s not enough training. We would love to train more, but training cost more people and money. It takes more people to man the streets while officers are down getting more training, and it costs money to train those officers.

HOLLER:  When you say training, what are you thinking of?

SMALLWOOD:  All across the board, whether it be mental health crises, de-escalation, or any of the training that may pertain to the law enforcement profession. We need more training, and we’re always saying train us more, train us more, train us more, but there are limitations on how much training is reasonable and how much we can actually get done.

HOLLER:  Would your officers be receptive to it?

SMALLWOOD:  We already have the escalating training, yeah.

HOLLER:  I mean other stuff, like mental health issues and things like that.

UNION CHIEF:  I’m sure if you ask the police department they’ll show you the curriculum. If you look at the curriculum, there’s already mental health training, there’s already those kinds of things that people are saying police officers need to be doing, like implicit bias training. We are doing these things, like de-escalation training. We are doing these things proactively, but there’s one thing to remember, and that’s that de-escalation requires cooperation and it’s a two-way street. As much as we would love for every situation to deescalate, that’s just not always the case. There are people out there who do not want to comply. There people out there who are looking for a fight, and we can de-escalate all we want, and they will not cooperate with that de-escalation tactic. We have to rise to the level that they’re at at that point, because we have just as much of a right to go home at the end of a shift is anybody else does, and if somebody doesn’t want to work with us and de- escalate as we try to deescalate the situation then we have to come to their level and make sure that that threat doesn’t continue to threaten our community and ourselves.

HOLLER:  As a final question, there’s a bill right now for Constitutional Carry, basically permitless carry, in Tennessee. I know there are some law enforcement officers that are against this, do you guys have a position on that?

SMALLWOOD:  This is gonna sound like a cop out, but any comment on legislation has to come from our State FOP office, not from a Local.

HOLLER:  Well, James, I appreciate you doing this, I’m a union guy. I think you’re a reasonable guy, and I think that there are different union presidents throughout the country that are going to give you different answers and different attitudes, and so I appreciate you taking the time.  I hope you understand that people are just scared and frustrated, and in the age of video this stuff really leaves a lasting impact. That’s where people are coming from, and I just hope the lines of communication are open. I hope you guys stay open to some of these ideas because people feel like something needs to change, as this all has amounted to something here. So hopefully that’ll be something that’s mutually beneficial.

SMALLWOOD:  I appreciate that, and as long as things are reasonable, I think we are open to conversation. It’s when things become unreasonable and are painting pictures that don’t really exist, that are not based in reality or not based in fact – that’s when we start to lose control of our society, so I think we all need to be communicating better, we all need to be sharing perspectives. I think that a three second video does not show what a 30 minute call was. We see it time, and time, and time again where somebody has taken a cell phone video, narrowed it down to a three second clip, and then when we get the full video, we see oh, well x, y, and z happened that led to this, and now, with the facts that surround it, it’s reasonable. That’s not what happened in Minneapolis, it’s just general talking about what we see time and time again when law enforcement videos get released on the internet. Minneapolis is a completely separate and independent issue, George Floyd should still be alive today. Unfortunately there’s nothing I can do to change that, I’m in Nashville.

HOLLER:  There’s been a bunch of them, there’s been a buildup here. If it hadn’t been for the 30 or 40 that happened beforehand…it’s an explosion, this isn’t an isolated incident. I think that’s part of the problem. But I understand what you’re saying. Thank you for your time, maybe down the line we can circle back.

SMALLWOOD:  Sure, thanks.

COMMENTARY: “DOLLAR GENERAL FIRED ME FOR ORGANIZING ESSENTIAL CO-WORKERS”

The following is commentary from Daniel Stone, who was recently terminated by Dollar General. 

My name is Daniel Stone. On April 27th I was terminated from my role at Dollar General Corporate for organizing essential coworkers.

This termination came after months of efforts to organize & connect with my fellow coworkers in stores, distribution centers and elsewhere.

As the pandemic began to assert itself across all corners of the economy, I focused intently on how my company would act on behalf of my coworkers. Ultimately, as my emails asking about hazard pay, PPE and more for these coworkers were met with generic corporate responses, myself & others began to act.

We have created a movement of Dollar General workers & that will not end with my termination.

The company tried to silence one voice, but in reality, the voices only get louder.

My actions began in March when I sent emails to Kathy Reardon, the Chief People Officer, asking about the CEO’s COVID-19 video that was emailed to all of us. In those emails, I asked about Paid Sick Leave & more for our fellow associates. Her response was ultimately unhelpful to the plights of the workers, but she did mention her gratitude for Employees like me.

I totally feel that gratitude now.

I continued my efforts, emailing Kathy, but she stopped responding. It became clear to me that the Chief People Officer’s concerns did not include the People in office, store and elsewhere.

I shifted my efforts to Human Resources shortly after that, since I figured that maybe I had a better shot of convincing HR to hear my coworkers grievances and perhaps they could then enact change. That was not the case.

In Mid-March, when Corporate dished out bonuses for white-collar workers, including me, and they were in the thousands while our fellow associates in stores were given bonuses of $300, $200 & $100 (before tax!) it became even clearer — This company will do whatever they need to to protect their rich investors while quite literally sending people to contract this virus, all for breadcrumbs.

One of my emails was to Nichole Wheeler, HR Manager, in which I asked her if Corporate Employees could work in stores on weekends. As I had gone in stores to get groceries for my own household, I had spoken to coworkers about the concerns they shared and decided to ask HR about this possibility.

HR shot that idea down and this was a turning point for me.

Dollar General was comfortable sending workers across the chain in for work everyday during a pandemic, with degrading wages & little to no protection against the virus, but we as corporate workers were not allowed to show solidarity with our coworkers?

It’s shameful.

After other correspondences with Nichole it became evident that the company was not interested in engaging with me & my coworkers. Stories of workers being unable to feed their children, pregnant women scared to work during this virus, hours being cut despite a temporary, laughable, one-dollar raise for Part-Time workers and so many more.

These stories are what led me to engage in protected concerted activity with my coworkers & the support of UFCW 655 in Missouri.

Workers are tired of asking companies for their empathy, now, we demand fairness.

On ~4/13/20, Corporate Employees who were still working in the building, few of which were in mine, could have access to 5 wired masks a week. On ~4/20/20, multiple workers had confirmed that Dollar General was sending them literal t-shirt cutouts as masks.

Across Georgia, Arkansas, Pennsylvania & elsewhere my coworkers were being subjected to this virus, with low pay as it is, and now they’ve been sent T-Shirts to protect themselves and their families? This was insulting, not to mention completely ineffective.

A company making billions in profits, that could afford to pay their executive team nearly $24 million dollar in total compensation in 2019 couldn’t even give workers on the ground the basic respect of a mask.

Eventually, my efforts came to a head on 4/27/20 when I was terminated for what the company cited was bad blood towards the company as well as negative emails.

I’m still not sure how asking about hazard pay, PPE & whether or not corporate workers, who are coworkers with people in stores, can go in in our free time to help, is negative  – but that’s for their conscience to debate, not mine.

Myself & others inside that building know the treatment that our fellow associates are experiencing and for that we organized. At the time of writing this, across all platforms, we have recruited 300+ DG employees to join this movement. From March to my termination in April we reached out to numerous people with the same message of organizing to force Dollar General to recognize our plights.

When one of us is unable to feed our child, we speak up.

When one of us is seeing their hourly wage go from $7.25 to $8.25 but their hours go from 30 to 12, we speak up.

I am hurt to be away from my team at Dollar General, and hope they’re doing well, but myself & others could not sit by while fellow associates are being abused and their bodies being crushed to dust for the good of a company that would replace them tomorrow if they could save a penny.

Workers are tired of asking companies for their empathy. Now, we demand fairness.

In closing, I want to request that if you have spare funds during this pandemic that you give something to a Workers Rights advocacy group, a Union, anything that you feel can advance the cause of Workers Rights. In this country, corporations rely on campaign financing as well as a general Anti-Worker sentiment that we have to change.

Additionally, I want to give a quick shoutout to a few people who have taught me how to organize, how to know what my/others rights are as a worker, and who gave me personally the courage to keep going:

Billy Myers — Organizing Director, UFCW 655

Ashley Bachelder — Interim Co-Director, Workers Dignity/Dignidad Obrera

Vonda McDaniel — President, CLC Nashville Lori — DG Associate/Coworker

Judd Legum — Popular Info

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GRAPHIC OF THE DAY: “A Downward Trend?”

Lee says we’re in a “downward trend”, the data, Vandy experts, and Fox’s Chris Wallace disagree.

VIDEO: From the Front Lines of the UAW Strike In Spring Hill

“We appreciate the support. We’re in it for the long haul. We’re gonna fight the good fight.” ‬

‪Striking UAW Local 1853 workers in Spring Hill, TN say the middle class is disappearing, it’s the haves and have-nots… and GM wants to keep it that way.

Yesterday some were arrested on the picket lines for “disorderly conduct”, including UAW president Tim Stannard. They are out of jail, but the DA says he will be pressing charges.

Meanwhile GM has CUT OFF the health benefits of the striking workers, another reminder that health care should be a RIGHT in this country, not a privilege bestowed upon us by the wealthy who can dangle our lives in front of us.

Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles was out there saying he wants their health coverage restored, but it’s worth remembering Ogles was a leader of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed organization that helped block Medicaid expansion in Tennessee, keeping 300,000 without coverage. Suddenly he cares about folks being able to see doctors?

#UnionStrong #StandWithUAW ‬

Message of Support From Germany To Chattanooga VW Workers

Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga will soon be deciding whether or not to unionize. Governor Lee recently made a trip over there to encourage them not to, and was loudly booed for his efforts.

Here’s a good article about the situation and the tactics employed by management by Chris Brooks, who covers union issues:

Managers have handed out flyers tying the UAW to plant closures. In a captive-audience meeting, CEO Frank Fischer implied that the UAW was to blame for the 1988 closure of a Volkswagen plant in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania.

This week Jorg Hoffman, chair of IG Metall and Deputy chair of the Volkswagen Supervisory Board, sent a message of support to the Volkswagen workers encouraging them to unionize and reprimanding VW Chattanooga’s management for allowing anti-union lawyers to continue to try to influence the process.

“Chattanooga’s management has the clear directive from headquarters in Germany to stay neutral in the election,” Hoffman says. “I am really disappointed management has not been neutral. They have been neutral verbally, but their actions have been the opposite.”

Hoffman goes on to say that anti-union lawyers were ordered away from the plant, but that they continue to advise management off-site.

“We denounce the use of fear in this campaign by Chattanooga management,” he says, adding that “voting yes will not endanger your plant or your jobs” and that all over the world unions and management are working trustfully together.”

Hoffman makes a good point. Here in America, unions have been under attack for decades by management and the politicians they control. But in other countries, like Germany, for instance,  workers have seats on the boards of companies, and therefore have a say in the direction of the company’s.

The relationship is therefore far less adversarial, as workers feel ownership, participate in the good times as well, and make concessions during the bad.

Many Germans attribute this arrangement to Germany’s economic success. Imagine that – unions being empowered and appreciated rather than attacked and dismantled.

The numbers don’t lie – unions and the middle class go hand in hand. The union authorization election runs Wednesday through Friday this week; 1,700 workers are eligible to vote.

From Labor Notes:

“I’m only 33 and I can’t see myself working here for another 10 years,” said Ashley Murray. “I would be disabled by then. We need a union because they are a multibillion-dollar company and they treat us like shit.”

Murray is a production employee at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, one of 18 hourly employees there I interviewed for this story. Comments like hers were almost universal.

Volkswagen was wooed to Chattanooga in 2008 with a $554 million subsidy package from the state and local governments… It was the largest taxpayer handout ever given to a foreign-owned automaker up to that moment, and remains the largest subsidy deal in Tennessee history. The deal came free of any job or investment requirements.

More from Labor Notes on the conditions at VW:

The current starting wage for a production worker at the factory is $15.50 an hour and pay tops out at $23 an hour, or around $48,000 per year without overtime.

Volkswagen provides the lowest pay and benefits of any automaker in the U.S., according to a 2015 report by the Center for Automotive Research.

If you agree Governor Lee and Chattanooga management should keep their hands off the election – and others in the future – Holler at him HERE.

TN Teachers Against Vouchers Calling In Sick To Flood The Capitol Tuesday 4/9

(FIRST SEEN ON THE TN ED REPORT… Follow @TNEdReport for more updates)

A Tennessee teacher writes about the education policies that make her sick.

I’m sick.

Sick of my students being over-tested and our schools being underfunded.

Sick of teachers leaving the profession because they are underpaid and undervalued.

Sick of Tennessee being 45th in the nation in per pupil funding.

Sick of being disrespected by a Governor who has proposed increasing state funding for unaccountable charter schools by 100% while only increasing funding for teachers by 2%.

And how I feel is only going to get worse if the state government passes voucher legislation, which will further drain the resources our students need from public schools and hand them over to unaccountable private companies.

That’s why there’s a movement of teachers planning on calling in sick on Tuesday, April 9th to travel to Nashville and flood the capitol.

We plan on letting our state’s politicians know just how sick we are. And we plan on making it clear to them: the war on public education in Tennessee ends now.

I’m a member of the Tennessee Education Association, but I know that there are many in the state leadership who think that collective action is too aggressive and premature. They still believe that we can work amicably with state politicians. I disagree.

Anyone still entertaining that idea should have had a rude awakening last week when Betsy DeVos visited our state and held closed door meetings with privatizers and politicians.

Several months back, when Governor Lee announced his unfortunate choice for the TN Commissioner of Education, I publicly stated that he had declared war on public education. Some may have thought that was a bit dramatic. However, the Governor wouldn’t have invited the most vilified Secretary of Education in history to the state if he didn’t plan on dropping an atomic bomb on public education. His voucher and charter bills are just that.

With the backing of ALEC and Betsy DeVos those devastating bills will pass unless teachers wake up and do something drastic. Millions upon millions of dollars will be drained from public education and siphoned away from our students.

How do I know this? Because it was perfectly ok to have an admitted child predator be the chair of the House Education Committee until he voted against the voucher bill. Only then was he no longer fit to be the chair.

Strong arm tactics are running rampant and the writing is on the wall.

The go-along to get-along approach of the state teachers association, which means working with the enemies of public education, has been a pipe dream for almost a decade, and it’s time for teachers to wake up. All the emailing and phone calls in the world won’t stop politicians bankrolled by billionaires like the Koch brothers and DeVos family from pursuing devastating legislation that hurts our schools, students, and communities.

Over the last year, I have watched educators in one state after another rise up, take their power back, and force legislators to actually represent THEM and not privatizers. It didn’t matter that the strikes were illegal or sick-outs were risky. When educators stick together and have the backing of the community, they can make real change possible. Teachers can take on billionaires and win. They already have in other states.

In my opinion, the only thing that will stop this insanity is for teachers to walk out. Shut it down. Take back our schools. Take back our profession. Do our job……. and fight for our kids.

I hope to see you in the capitol on Tuesday, April 9.

Lauren Sorensen is a second grade teacher at Halls Elementary School in Knox County and a former president of the Knox County Education Association.

VIDEO: Rep. Jim Cooper Fires Up The Crowd At The CLC Lunch

This week Rep. Jim Cooper visited the Central Labor Council lunch in Nashville and spoke to a rapt audience about the need for unity and togetherness in the coming election, when the labor movement would be a key part of a “winning strategy” in the hopes of preserving key programs like Medicare and social security.

Cooper spoke about rampant inequality the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Gilded Age, acknowledged that the system isn’t fair, but reminded everyone that “the rich people are out there voting”.

Watch the HIGHLIGHTS:

OPINION: Tennessee Teachers Could Be Next To Strike

This post from organizer/journalist Chris Brooks was first seen on the TN Ed Report. Follow @TheAndySpears for his take on politics and policy and subscribe to the TN ED REPORT HERE.  

Chris Brooks is a former organizer with the Tennessee Education Association and currently works as an organizer and staff writer for Labor Notes.

Tennessee teachers have taken a pummeling over the years.

They’re grossly underpaid and their professional autonomy has been stripped away. Their students are over-tested and their schools underfunded.

But what has been the collective response?

To lie low.

Keep their heads down.

This is especially true of the leadership in their union, the Tennessee Education Association. They’ve pursued a strategy of “it’s better to be at the table than on the menu.”

This strategy emphasizes access over confrontation. They hope that small incremental change will be possible through a combination of lobbying and writing checks to political campaigns. And since the union isn’t being adversarial, isn’t pushing too hard or too fast, they hope they won’t be a target for political retribution.

Those hopes have been misplaced.

Across the state, conditions in schools have only gotten worse. Tennessee consistently ranks near the bottom of the country in per-pupil spending. Experienced and qualified teachers are leaving the profession in droves.

Now, newly elected Governor Bill Lee is taking direct aim at public education. He just announced a state budget that doubles funding for charter schools and is pushing lawmakers to approve $25 million for vouchers. Governor Lee’s disastrous privatization agenda will further drain resources from schools that are already struggling to get by.

The lesson here is that we can’t incrementally lobby our way out of the hole we are in.

Lying low doesn’t work, but there is another way.

All across the country, teachers are supercharging the routine of lobbying and elections with a far more powerful tool: they are going out on strike.

Teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Kentucky have used collective action to transform the political landscape. They’ve decimated charter and voucher legislation, stopped further spending cuts, and pushed policies that actually benefit student outcomes: lower class sizes, more nurses and counselors, an end to toxic testing, and paying teachers adequately so school systems can retain them for more than a few years.

There is clear tangible evidence that strikes work. A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that “protests by teachers and others last year helped lead to substantial increases in school funding in Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.”

It didn’t matter that striking is illegal in many of these states or that the state government is dominated by anti-union Republicans.

When teachers found the courage to strike they found out that the community—and often even their boss—had their back

With so many school districts struggling to make ends meet, striking teachers found that their demands for increased state funding had the support of their local administrators. Because superintendents closed their schools during the nine-day West Virginia strike, teachers didn’t lose pay and the strike rolled on.

Parents know that issues like class size and funding matter. It’s common sense. Would you rather your child be in a classroom with twenty other students or forty? Do you want your child to be taught by a capable, qualified professional or to be endlessly drilled in preparation for a high-stakes test?

Unsurprisingly, teachers everywhere have received an outpouring of support from parents and community members when they hit the picket lines.

Teachers living with anemic unions and deteriorating conditions in their schools have created their own Facebook groups to communicate with each other and coordinate actions across school sites. Examples include West Virginia Public Employees United, KY 120 United, and Arizona Educators United.

Now there is TN Teachers United.

“This group is for any public school educator who is tired of their students’ needs being put last and is tired of their voices being ignored,” said Lauren Sorensen, a second grade teacher at Halls Elementary School in Knox County and a longtime leader in her local union. “If you are ready to organize and act, then join us.”

The group was formed following a video call organized by Labor Notes between Tennessee teacher activists and two of the rank-and-file organizers of the statewide walkouts in Arizona and West Virginia (see video below).

Tennessee teachers face the same issues and challenges as teachers in West Virginia and Arizona—and they are just as resourceful.

They just have to ask themselves: are they going to keep lying low or are they going to start fighting back?

Chris Brooks is a former organizer with the Tennessee Education Association and currently works as an organizer and staff writer for Labor Notes.