December 6th, 2013 | Mike Hall
President Barack Obama today said that “a relentless, decades-long trend”—“a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility…has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain: that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.”
The president declared that “making sure the economy works for every working American” is the “defining challenge of our time” and drives everything he does as president. His proposals to reduce inequality include an increase in the minimum wage and “ensuring that our collective bargaining laws function as they’re supposed to, so unions have a level playing field to organize for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class.”
In the speech at a community center in a low-income area of Washington, D.C., which was hosted by the Center for American Progress, Obama said, “[T]he premise that we are created equal is the opening line in the American story.” He highlighted a series of efforts throughout American history to put those words into practice—from Abraham Lincoln starting a system of land grant colleges; to Theodore Roosevelt fighting for an eight-hour day and worker protections; to Franklin D. Roosevelt fighting for Social Security, unemployment benefits and a minimum wage; to Lyndon B. Johnson fighting for Medicare and Medicaid.
“We built a ladder of opportunity to climb and stretched out a safety net so that if we fell, it wouldn’t be too far, and we could bounce back. As a result, America built the largest middle class the world has ever known. And for three decades after World War II, it was the engine of our prosperity.”
However, Obama said, “starting in the late 70s, the social compact began to unravel.”
A more competitive world lets companies ship jobs anywhere. And as good manufacturing jobs automated or headed offshore, workers lost their leverage, jobs paid less and offered fewer benefits. As values of community broke down and competitive pressures increased, businesses lobbied Washington to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage.
As trickle-down ideology became more prominent, taxes were slashed for the wealthiest, while investments in things that make us all richer, like schools and infrastructure, were allowed to wither.
The result is “an economy that’s become profoundly unequal.” Income inequality has grown to record levels, with the top 1% having 288 time the net worth of the typical family, with CEO pay soaring from 20 to 30 times that of the average worker to more than 273 times and with the top 10% taking half of all income, up from a third since 1979. In addition, Obama outlined how upward mobility has been squashed at the same time.
The president said that growing inequality and lessened upward mobility “should offend all of us and it should compel us to action. We are a better country than this.” He highlighted that these trends are bad for our economy, pointing to studies that show that economic growth is more fragile in countries with greater inequality.
Obama then presented a “road map” of proposals to reduce inequality and restore economic opportunity:
- Relentlessly push a growth agenda, making America a magnet for good, middle-class jobs in manufacturing and energy and infrastructure and technology, and ending incentives to ship jobs overseas;
- Empower more Americans with the skills and education they need to compete in a highly competitive global economy;
- Empower our workers. “It’s time to ensure our collective bargaining laws function as they’re supposed to so unions have a level playing field to organize for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class. It’s time to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act so that women will have more tools to fight pay discrimination. It’s time to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act so workers can’t be fired for who they are or who they love;
- Target programs for the communities and workers who have been hardest hit by the economic change and the Great Recession; and
- Revamp retirement to protect Americans in their Golden Years.
He said that “it was well past time” to raise the minimum wage for a growing service sector that includes “airport workers, and fast-food workers, and nurse assistants, and retail salespeople who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty.”
Obama also called for renewing the extended unemployment insurance program for the long-term unemployed and protection of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that Republicans have targeted for cuts.
It makes a difference for a mother who’s working but is just having a hard time putting food on the table for her kids, [and] it makes a difference for a father who lost his job and is out there looking for a new one that he can keep a roof over his kids’ heads.
He also told congressional Republicans, who have blocked and continue to block action on the economy—from creating jobs to raising the minimum wage to ending tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas:
You owe it to the American people to tell us what you are for, not just what you’re against….If Republicans have concrete plans that will actually reduce inequality, build the middle class, or provide more ladders of opportunity to the poor, let’s hear them.
Read the full speech here.
This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on December 4, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.
December 6th, 2013 | Laura Clawson
After coming within one vote of a veto-proof majority for a bill that would have required big box stores to pay a $12.50 living wage, the Washington, DC, city council unanimously supportedraising the city’s minimum wage to $11.50 by 2016 and tying it to inflation, in a preliminary vote Tuesday.
Despite the fact that many states and cities have raised the minimum wage without seeing jobs flee across nearby borders to places with the low federal minimum wage of $7.25, proponents of poverty wages always claim that’s what’s going to happen. That may be particularly true in Washington, DC, as a small urban zone sandwiched between two states, and one with such a high density of industry lobbyists—but in this case, there’s a twist involving two neighboring counties in Maryland:
By coordinating with lawmakers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which approved similar measures late last month, the council put the three localities on the cusp of creating a contiguous region with 2.5 million residents and a minimum wage higher than any of the 50 states.
The Washington measure is expected to pass a final vote easily and, if Mayor Vincent Gray vetoes it, the votes should be there for a veto override. So after all its hissy fits about the possibility of having to pay DC workers $12.50, Walmart will likely have to pay $11.50.
This article was originally printed on Daily Kos on December 3, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at Daily Kos.
December 3rd, 2013 | SEIU
Elizabeth Aviles works as a Certified Nursing Assistant in Waterbury, Conn. She is also a member of SEIU Local 1199NE. Since Aviles works only 22 hours a week, she is not able to purchase health insurance, which is especially troublesome since she has some serious medical issues that require immediate attention. So when a fellow member of 1199NE knocked on her door one day as part of an outreach effort, Aviles had no idea how her life would change over the next 30 minutes.
He explained how she might be eligible for Medicaid–under the expanded program the state was instituting thanks to the new healthcare law. He had Aviles dial the number to the state’s call center, and then she was placed on hold for 20 minutes.
“Once I got someone on the line, I was approved for Medicaid in about 5 minutes,” Aviles said. “A week later I got my Medicaid card in the mail, and now I have healthcare again.”
Aviles is relieved, because now she can get the medical help she needs. In addition, to an upcoming surgery she is scheduling, Aviles will be able to take care of some of the other lingering issues she has had. “At my job I’ve had to help treat clients who are suffering from back pain, when I’m suffering from the same thing myself and without the resources to get it treated,” she said.
The goal of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act has always been to give people access to medical care regardless of income and without putting them into serious debt. For millions of working American’s like Aviles who previously couldn’t afford care, that goal is becoming a reality.
This article was originally printed on SEIU on November 22, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
Author: SEIU Communications
December 2nd, 2013 | Paul Secunda
Thanks to friend of the blog, Jon Harkavy, for sending along this potentially important ERISA denial of benefit claim case from the 4th Circuit.
In Cosey v Prudential, (4th Cir. Nov. 12, 2013), the Fourth Circuit held that the common plan formulation “proof satisfactory to the administrator” does not unambiguously confer discretion on the administrator and thus subjects the administrator’s decisions to de novo judicial review (as opposed to arbitrary and capricious review under the Firestone/Glenn standard).
Like Jon, I find this decision interesting, as it has the potential to cut back on the abuse-of-discretion standard of review for many ERISA plans. However, I suspect that in response to this Court’s decision, we are likely to see many plan amendments adding language which more unambiguously states the plan’s intention to get the benefit ofFirestone discretionary review for its benefit determination decisions.
This article was originally printed in Workplace Prof Blog on November 18, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Paul Secunda is a professor of law at Marquette University Law School. Professor Secunda is the author of nearly three dozen books, treatises, articles, and shorter writings. He co-authored the treatise Understanding Employment Law and the case book Global Issues in Employee Benefits Law. Professor Secunda is a frequent commentator on labor and employment law issues in the national media. He co-edits with Rick Bales and Jeffrey Hirsch the Workplace Prof Blog, recently named one of the top law professor blogs in the country.
December 2nd, 2013 | Mike Elk
Since 2009, Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen has been pushing to eliminate the filibuster in Congress. Earlier this year, Cohen’s union, CWA, worked with the Sierra Club, NAACP and Greenpeace to convene the “Democracy Initiative,” a progressive coalition that, among other objectives, has called on the government to eliminate the filibuster, protect voting rights and get money out of politics. Yesterday afternoon, their hard work came to some fruition—the U.S. Senate voted 52-48 on a measure that would effectively ban the use of the filibuster to block nominees from being confirmed. Previously, a three-fifths majority vote was required to lift or avoid a filibuster; now, only a simple majority is necessary to do so.
In between fielding phone calls from senators yesterday afternoon, Cohen gave In These Timeshis first reactions to the victory that he had fought for nearly four years to achieve.
Cohen said that one frequently overlooked story of filibuster reform has been the grassroots activity among the organizations involved in the Democracy Initiative, which claims it represents more than 20 million members.
“Two million members have weighed in and contacted their elected officials [about this issue] since June. In the last week, 200,000 people have weighed on in this,” said Cohen. “Some of them are just active members on this organization, but some of the people … have known these senators for years.”
Though Cohen is an organized labor leader, he noted that the filibuster can stymie a wide variety of progressive legislation—which is why, he said, the Democracy Initiative, with its diverse background of activists, has been so effective.
“There are key environmental nominations being held up,” he pointed out. “Mel Watt was being blocked from heading the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and that’s critical both to helping people on their mortgages and to our broader coalition on economic justice. The [National Labor Relations Board] was being blocked. We all needed this reform,” said Cohen.
Though Thursday’s vote was certainly a great leap forward, Cohen said, progressives shouldn’t get complacent. He, along with the rest of the Democracy Initiative, intends to continue the fight to expand filibuster reform even further.
“[Filibustering senators] should have to talk [for 11 hours] like Wendy Davis at the minimum,” he said. Explaining that in the Senate, the GOP can currently deny filibuster cloture without all of the senators being present, he continued, “If you want to block something because you want to support a minority vote, you better show up [for a cloture vote].”
Cohen knows that further changing the rules of the Senate and getting the money out of politics will be an uphill battle. But he’s still optimistic. “It’s not hopeless,” he said. “It’s hard, but it’s what we signed up for, and we have to do it.”
Full disclosure: The Communications Workers of America is a website sponsor of In These Times.
This article was originally printed in Working In These Times on November 22, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.
November 26th, 2013 | Wendy Musell
It’s not every day that I profess my adoration for a public official so, well, publically. Especially not for a sitting Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge who is often called conservative.
But I heart Kozinski.
It’s not because of his reportedly big personality, his colorful turn of a phrase, or his willingness to take on controversial topics. I must confess; I often disagree with his politics and his findings.
It’s that he gets it.
At least he gets it when it comes to the critical importance of vigorous discovery in civil cases to plaintiffs . . . now that he’s involved in a consumer class action suit against Nissan Motors.
What made this otherwise conservative judge see the light? It turns out that Judge Kozinski is unhappy with his attorney’s failure to delve into Nissan’s alleged illegal behavior before entering in what Judge Kozinski suggests is a “sweetheart” settlement deal in Klee, et al. v. Nissan North America, Inc., a class action on behalf of Nissan Leaf car owners for warranty and alleged battery defects. He was so enraged with his attorney’s failure to delve into the knowledge of Nissan regarding these alleged defects before selling the vehicles to consumers that he filed a pleading asking the Judge to deny court approval to the proposed settlement. In his thirty page opposition, he (and his wife) passionately made the case that “extensive” and “vigorous” discovery is needed to demonstrate liability of corporate defendants.
After deriding his high-powered attorneys for failing to obtain evidence that would be necessary to prove liability at trial, such as internal memos, emails, incident reports and prior complaints, Judge Kozinski wrote: “it’s the job of the lawyers suing to find out everything the company knows and hopes to conceal.”
Judge Kozinski took the words right out of my mouth.
His observation pinpoints the controversy over changes to federal rules now being proposed that would limit discovery in all civil cases, including those involving consumer, employment and civil rights claims, filed in federal courtroom across the country. The proposed changes to the federal rules that govern discovery would cut the number of depositions allowed by half (from 10 to 5) and limit them to six hours each. Documents requests are slashed imposing a limit of only to 25 requests; interrogatory requests from 25 to a paltry 15 and admissions having new numeric restrictions of only 25.
The proposed changes, recently submitted by the Judicial Conference of the United States to Congress are now open for public comment. Public hearings, which have already begun, are being held in Phoenix, Arizona on January 9, 2014 and Dallas, Texas on February 7, 2014. Public comments received from civil rights, consumer rights, and environmental champions argue that the rules will effectively do away with the discovery needed to enforce laws for the protection of all citizens.
On the other side, comments received from representatives of big corporate interests complain that the cost of discovery is too high, requiring a “trim” of discovery for all cases in federal court.
If these proposed changes to the federal rules of civil procedure take effect, Americans who bring consumer, employment or civil rights claims against large corporate entities will feel Judge Kozinski’s pain. An employee who was wrongfully fired for, say whistleblowing, won’t get to find out very much and certainly not what the company hopes to conceal. Instead, it is far more likely that companies who are intent on doing bad things and firing employees who bring unlawful practices to light will play possum until the meager discovery afforded under the proposed changes are all used up in a game of “gotcha.”
Judge Kozinski’s experience as a class member in a consumer rights case has led him to provide a vivid example of how paramount discovery is to prosecuting cases that that are brought under federal laws enacted to protect the public from false claims or faulty products. Judge Kozinski’s experience demonstrates how important this yawn-inducing technical “fix” to the discovery rules is to the general public. People and their elected representatives should be paying attention too.
[To learn more about how the proposed changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure would harm civil right cases, read Wendy Musell's earlier blog post,Gaming the system: If you can't beat em, change the rules.]
This article was originally printed on CELA Voice on November 24, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Wendy Musell is a partner at the civil rights law firm Stewart & Musell, LLP, a bi-coastal law firm located in San Francisco, California, and Freehold, New Jersey. Stewart & Musell, LLP is a firm devoted to protecting civil rights in employment and in criminal law. Ms. Musell is committed to representing employees in public and private employment and protecting their civil rights.
November 25th, 2013 | Laura Clawson
To make it sound less problematic that its stores are opening at 6 pm on Thanksgiving, Walmart has been telling anyone who’ll listen that it’s giving “an extra day’s pay” to those working the holiday. Awesome! Now tell me what you mean by “day.”
No, silly, Walmart doesn’t mean everyone who works Thanksgiving gets eight hours of extra pay. They get the average of the hours they’ve worked over the previous two weeks. And that’s where some Walmart workers say the problems lie:
Gertz and other Wal-Mart workers say their hours are cut prior to the holidays, so their average daily wage also goes down.Last year, Gertz’s hours were cut by five hours a week before the holiday. Her hours were also cut in the weeks after the holiday, which bit into her paychecks further. She said some associates in her store had their hours slashed from 40 per week to 24 in the weeks after.
Raise your hand if this sounds like something Walmart wouldn’t do. [A handful of Walmart spokespeople raise their hands, alone.] Because that’s Walmart: consistently adding the insult of pretending they’re really generous to the injury of poverty wages and poor treatment. Not unlike pretending it’s a kind, caring thing to hold a food drive for their workers who can’t afford Thanksgiving dinner on Walmart pay.
10:17 AM PT: Walmart points out that the worker quoted in this story didn’t work Thanksgiving last year. It continues to not rebut the claim that it cuts workers’ hours ahead of giving them “extra” pay.
This article was originally printed in Daily Kos on November 22, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at Daily Kos.
November 23rd, 2013 | Jackie Tortora
“The Hunger Games” are real. If you’re familiar with the books and movies, or have at least heard of the “Hunger Games” phenomenon, you’re probably aware that the series tackles some pretty serious issues of poverty and economic inequality that hit way too close to home. If you’re not, here’s some background.
“The Hunger Games” takes place in the fictional world of Panem, which is a dystopian North America sometime in the far off future. All the wealth in the country is concentrated in the Capitol and people in the 12 districts are constantly in fear of starvation. Everything the people in the districts produce, whether it is coal, grain, machinery or clothing, is controlled by the Capitol. People are forbidden to hunt or grow their own food, thus relying on the Capitol’s meager grain and oil rations. To punish the people of Panem for District 13′s rebellion (the Capitol wiped out the region in a nuclear war), each year two teenage tributes from each of the 12 districts must sacrifice their lives in an arena where they fight to the death, with only one victor remaining.
While the story is fictional, it reminds us of a lot of the issues surrounding economic inequality we see today. Some sobering facts:
- Nearly all—95%—of the income gains from 2009–2012 have been captured by the wealthiest 1%.
- In recent years, the wealthiest 1% have gotten richer and richer, while the median household income is down 8% since 2000.
- Wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of national income since 1966, while corporate profits are now the largest share of national income since 1950.
- The federal minimum wage, $7.25, hasn’t risen since 2009. The tipped minimum wage, $2.13, hasn’t risen in two decades.
- One in 6 people in America are hungry and 1 in 5 children are.
Check out 8 Ways Economic Inequality in America Is Like the “Hunger Games.”
“The Hunger Games” bestseller books and blockbuster films represent a rare opportunity where these issues of social and economic justice are being widely discussed in pop culture and in homes across the United States.
Check out this video from the Harry Potter Alliance:
Disclaimer: Having a union doesn’t guarantee no workplace injuries on the job, but union mines have 68% fewer fatal injuries than nonunion mines.
Working families, union members and leaders are joining the online movement to lift up these issues of economic inequality and poverty using the “Hunger Games” as a jumping off point. Check outoddsinourfavor.org, where you can join the “resistance” and post a photo doing the “salute,” the symbol of solidarity of the working people.
Below is a graphic you can share on social media showing various union members, leaders and working people representing each of the 13 districts of Panem.
Click here to share the graphic above.
Pictured from left to right:
District 7: Carmen Berkley, director of Civil, Human and Women’s Rights, AFL-CIO
District 2: Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO
District 1: Tefere Gebre, executive vice president, AFL-CIO
District 3: Stan Sorscher, labor representative, Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA)
District 4: Michael Sacco, president, Seafarers (SIU)
District 6: Veda Shook, international president, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA)
District 9: David B. Durkee, president, Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM)
District 5: Elizabeth Shuler, secretary-treasurer, AFL-CIO
District 8: Gregory Cendada, executive director, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance
District: 11: Ana Avendaño, assistant to the president and director of Immigration and Community Action at the AFL-CIO
District 10: Jennifer Angarita, national worker center coordinator, AFL-CIO
District 12: Richard Trumka, president, AFL-CIO
District 13: Ai-jen Poo, executive director, National Domestic Workers Alliance
This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on November 22, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.
November 21st, 2013 | SEIU
Although Marie Museau, a nursing assistant at Palmetto Hospital in Hialeah, Fla., works as a healthcare provider, she does not have health insurance. She and thousands of other healthcare workers in the Sunshine State spend their days attending to the health of others, yet cannot afford to visit a doctor themselves.
Museau makes too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to afford the family health insurance plan she could purchase from her employer, which would cost her closer to $600 per month. “That’s almost half my take-home pay,” she said.
If Museau lived in Arkansas, Connecticut, Kentucky–or any one of 23 other states–she would qualify for fully paid healthcare thanks to the new healthcare law. The law transfers billions of federal dollars to the states, so they can expand their Medicaid programs to cover millions of additional working Americans.
However, because politicians in Florida have blocked the state from accepting the funding–which is fully paid by the federal government initially and later 90 percent federally paid–she and three of her children will continue to go without health insurance.
Museau has a fourth child–a son who requires intensive care at home after a car accident several years ago. She worries about her own health, and her ability to care for her injured son if she gets ill. “I have heart issues and need to see a cardiologist, but at this point I just can’t afford to,” she says.
Museau was failed by her state. By refusing to accept the $51 billion in fully paid federal funding, Florida politicians lost their chance to insure 1.2 million Floridians and create 120,000 new healthcare jobs in the state. All of this just to try to sabotage the new healthcare law and appease tea party extremists who are demanding its repeal.
The fight is not over. SEIU members have been working overtime to persuade Florida lawmakers, including Gov. Rick Scott, to finally accept these dollars that will give hardworking Floridians just like Museau the affordable healthcare they need.
“I’m hoping the state of Florida accepts that money,” Museau said. “It would really help me and my family.”‘
This article was originally printed on SEIU on November 20, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
Author: SEIU Communications.
November 20th, 2013 | Sarah Jaffe
“We are on strike today to have respect and dignity at work,” says Walter Melendez, one of approximately 40 Los Angeles port truck drivers who walked off the job at 5a.m. morning in protest of alleged unfair labor practices. The strikes featured the rolling “ambulatory pickets” that the truckers have excelled at—chasing down trucks as they leave the port and setting up picket lines in front of them.
Melendez works for California’s Green Fleet Systems, a company that moves freight from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to nearby distribution hubs. The drivers have filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board charging that the company retaliated against them for pushing forward with a drive to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
The push continues even as, according to Melendez, the company does its best to intimidate workers: pulling them into one-on-one meetings to dissuade them from unionizing, and even following and photographing them engaging in organizing activities outside work. Melendez believes that more Green Fleet drivers would have joined the strike this morning, had they not been deterred by these tactics.
In total, some 100 port truckers from three different companies—Green Fleet, American Logistics International and Pacific 9 Transportation—walked off the job today in a coordinated effort to raise working standards. Unlike the truckers at Green Fleet, who are employees, the workers from Pacific 9 Transportation are considered independent contractors. They argue that this is an illegal misclassification because they have none of the benefits of real independence—such as being able to set one’s own hours or work for different companies. Meanwhile, their bosses deduct operating costs from their paychecks, something that would be illegal if they were indeed employees. More than 50 Pacific 9 drivers have filed claims with the California Labor Commissioner alleging that this practice has robbed them of more than $7 million in wages. According to the labor federation Change to Win (which is backing much of the port trucker organizing), hundreds of similar claims filed in recent years by port truck drivers have all resulted in “substantial penalties” for the employer.
“They’ve taken from us everything that a human being needs to have a decent life,” says Daniel Linares, who’s worked for Pacific 9 for seven years as a so-called independent contractor.
Linares says that he and his colleagues marched to Pacific 9 management offices today and attempted to deliver a letter collectively explaining why they were on strike, but no one would come out to meet them. Eventually, Linares says, one worker was allowed to go inside to deliver the letter.
Los Angeles is not the only port where drivers are speaking out. Militancy has increased in recent months among port drivers around the country, whether classified as employees or independent contracters. Last month, a self-organized coalition of port truckers held a wildcat strike to protest the costs of new environmental regulations for the Port of Oakland being dumped entirely on their shoulders. Savannah, Ga., port truckers recently crashed a City Council meeting to ask for the city government’s support for their efforts to improve their jobs, and last summer, drivers at ports in New York and New Jersey became the latest port truckers to join the Teamsters.
As I wrote this summer, a report from the National Employment Law Project and Change to Win likened the situation of the independent contractor drivers to “sharecropping on wheels,” because the drivers have to pay for their own trucks and maintenance costs. In return, they are paid only by the load—meaning that time that they spend sitting in line at the port awaiting another load, breathing the fumes from their own trucks, is time unpaid.
Paula Winicki, a research and policy analyst for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy,breaks down the costs that Pacific 9 deducted from a single contractor’s paycheck: $125 a week for the lease of the truck, $530.05 in fuel, $50 for repairs, other miscellaneous deductions for parking, insurance, permit and license fees, and more, that with fuel, repairs and lease add up to $962.90. The paycheck for one week after the deductions was $12.90. Winicki notes that these issues are endemic to port trucking companies, so leaving wouldn’t help much. And in any case, once they sign a long-term lease for a truck with Pacific 9 or another company , “They’re tied to the company. … If they walk away, they lose a truck— and maybe get sued for breaking the lease agreement.”
Even the Green Fleet workers, who are actual employees, face the problem of piecework at the ports. Says Melendez, “When we started they told us [we'd get paid] by the hour, and then when we started working they’re like, ‘We pay you guys by the truckload.’ It’s like they pay us how they want to pay us.”
That means constant pressure to work harder and for longer hours. One of the things Melendez wants to change is the 12-hour shifts he’s pulling. “After ten hours you get tired working in the trucks, our bodies and our eyes and everything get tired, they don’t understand us, they say ‘Keep going, keep going.’ ”
A 2009 study [PDF] from nonpartisan think tank Demos, authored by David Bensman, Professor of Labor Studies and Employer Relations at Rutgers University, looked at the roots of the crisis in port trucking: the Federal Motor Carrier Act of 1980. This piece of deregulatory legislation shifted costs onto workers and, Bensman argues, the public, leaving taxpayers to pay for increased pollution, at risk of traffic accidents caused by unsafe trucks, and picking up the health bills of workers who have no health insurance. Goods for companies like Walmart, Forever 21 and Skechers shoes are made cheaply overseas thanks to low-wage labor and then moved cheaply through the ports thanks to drivers shouldering much of the costs.
Bensman says that the way deregulation ”destroyed” the port trucking industry “speaks volumes about the neoliberal labor markets of our time.” He concludes:
The deregulation of the port trucking industry, which began in 1980, has achieved some of its goals of increasing competition and driving down freight rates, but the public cost of this success is now clear: Ports compete for business by abdicating responsibility for air quality, chassis and container safety, and labor standards. Logistics firms benefit directly from lower freight rates, but suffer indirectly from a broken, unreliable, inefficient drayage system, which cannot share business information in a transparent and timely manner.
Drivers like Melendez would love to have safer, cleaner trucks to drive, but when the cost of updating the trucks comes out of their wages, they have to choose between breathing and eating. This is a problem around the country—drivers in Savannah made the same complaints, as I reported before.
In other words, the workers aren’t the enemy when it comes to dirty air around the ports—they’re victims of a thankless system. The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports aims to take into consideration the workers’ issues alongside the environmental impact of the trucks—an impact that is usually felt in low-income communities that are nearest the ports—and includes labor groups such as the Teamsters and Change to Win as well as community organizations such as Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The support of community groups is key for short-term strikes by non-union workers, a tactic that has grown in popularity since Wal-Mart and fast-food workers took to it over the past year. Without a union contract, the best protection workers have against increased retaliation by the bosses is the watchful eyes of supporters who show up to join the picket lines and then walk them back to work the next day.
And as workers from different companies strike together in coordinated fashion, they multiply the impact they can have on their whole industry. “The companies are a little scared because it’s not [only] Pac 9, in the area, that is getting organized,” Linares says. “This is a general movement now.”
This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on November 18, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belaboredpodcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.