Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for August, 2012

What Workers Really Fear on the Job

Friday, August 31st, 2012
Credit: Joe Kekeris

Credit: Joe Kekeris

What’s your biggest worry about your job?

Some 40 percent of America’s workers say they fear their benefits will be reduced in the near future, according to Gallup’s annual Work and Education poll released today. That compares with 28 percent who are afraid their wages will be cut back and 28 percent who fear they will be laid off, a percentage that’s still high compared with pre-recession levels. (Click on chart to enlarge.) In addition, 26 percent fear their hours will be cut back.

The polls found U.S. workers with less formal education are more likely than those with greater educational attainment to worry about losing their job or having their pay or benefits reduced. Some 34 percent of college non-graduates say they are worried about being laid off, compared with 18 percent of college graduates.

So what do these new data mean?

American workers feel secure about their employment situation, even during one of the slower economic times in U.S. history—perhaps
helping to maintain consumer spending enough to prevent a second recession.

U.S. workers feel their benefits are most at risk, which may be the first place employers seek to cut back during difficult economic times. And workers may be willing to accept such cuts over more severe measures like pay cuts or layoffs.

When you depend upon your employer to provide essentials like health care, losing a job means a lot more than lost wages. Unions are the best defense against the billionaire-backed Romney/Ryan politicos who seek to do what America’s workers fear most: cut benefits, slash jobs and squeeze wages.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on August 22, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union (the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism (covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia) she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

Looking for a Good Job? Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Michelle ChenIf you think your job stinks, you’re not alone. And if you’re still looking for a decent job, don’t expect to find one anytime soon, or ever.

A new analysis of job quality, assessing various measures of benefits and wages, confirms what many of us already suspected: Good jobs are vanishing from the United States, with global trade and social disinvestment leaving workers stranded on a barren economic landscape.

The report, published by John Schmitt and Janelle Jones from the Center for Economic and Policy Reseach (CEPR), shows that the downward spiral began long before the recent economic crisis. It notes that since 1979, the “good job” (one that “pays at least $18.50 an hour, has employer provided health insurance, and some kind of retirement plan”) has become an endangered species:

[T]he economy has lost about one-third (28 to 38 percent) of its capacity to generate good jobs. The data show only minor differences between 2007, before the Great Recession began, and 2010, the low point for the labor market.

In 2010, “less than one-fourth (24.6 percent) of the workforce” possessed those precious good jobs. And the clincher is this downturn is beginning to look like a sad plateau:

The deterioration in the economy’s ability to generate good jobs reflects long-run changes in the U.S. economy, not short-run factors related to the recession or recent economic policy.

While workers around the world have witnessed massive economic volatility in the recent boom-bust cycles, food crises and political upheavals, the trend line of labor hardship holds steady. The societal impacts of unemployment crises parallel the effect of long-term effects on individual workers, especially young ones–a self-perpetuating sense of despair and isolation, and perhaps entrenched, long-term suffering.

The report’s long-term prognosis undercuts the historically entrenched national mythology of upward mobility. Alan Barber, a spokesperson for CEPR, tells In These Times via email:

It may come as a surprise or at least run against logic to some readers because even though the workforce is better educated and older, one would expect that more people have good job. Conventional wisdom holds that if a person goes to college and gets a degree they will get better jobs. It also holds that the longer you are in the workforce the better your prospects for getting a good job. But as the report shows this is not the case.

The divergence between the American Dream and American reality has widened as neoliberal policies have assaulted workers under the guise of promoting “personal responsibility.” The belief that hard work pays off has been betrayed by the degradation of public trusts like education and health care, while mortgage and student debt crises and the decline of union representation, hollow out communities from within.

The erosion of public services and social programs is nothing new, but the flip side of a shrinking safety net–a crumbling labor market–pushes self-sufficiency even further out of reach for millions.

The vanishing promise of social mobility may have an even more severe impact across generations. According to the Pew Economic Mobility project’s report on intergenerational prosperity:

  • Eighty-four percent of Americans have higher family incomes than their parents did.
  • Those born at the top and bottom of the income ladder are likely to stay there as adults. More than 40 percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile of the family income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent remain below the middle.
  • African Americans are more likely to be stuck at the bottom and fall from the middle of the economic ladder across a generation.

So apparently the traditional rungs by which earlier generations climbed the class ladder–a bachelor’s degree, a first home, “loyalty” to a single company–are now shakier than ever. Pew researchers uncovered a cleft in mobility over time: in terms of “relative” mobility, people tend to do a bit better than their parents. But the gains often fail to add up to “absolute” mobility, which means people don’t ascend to a significantly better income bracket. Many are actually falling behind relative to the rest of the economy. About 16 percent are “downwardly mobile,” staying put or falling in the class hierarchy. Overall, some 20 percent “make more money than their parents did, but have actually fallen to a lower rung of the income ladder.”

The withering of the middle class is deeply skewed by race, with black and white households moving ahead at vastly different rates. According to Pew, “only 23 percent of blacks raised in the middle exceed their parents’ wealth compared with 56 percent of whites.”

So what’s left for workers who not only face a lifetime of economic hopelessness, but also can’t even give their kids the hope of achieving something more? The CEPR report doesn’t offer policy prescriptions, but does note that the shrinking share of good jobs in the U.S. workforce is not an inevitability. The research connects the decline in quality jobs to the dismantling of the economic supports that make work fair and rewarding, including union power and industry regulations. On a macro level:

the decline in the economy’s ability to create good jobs is related to a deterioration in the bargaining power of workers, especially those at the middle and the bottom of the income scale. The main cause of the loss of bargaining power is the large-scale restructuring of the labor market that began at the end of the 1970s and continues to the present.

The public sector has suffered under privatization, and once-solid middle-class jobs have been lost to the tides of global commerce. Immigrants meanwhile have been absorbed into a precarious low-wage workforce that feeds raging inequality. And meanwhile, political elites are finding new and creative ways to siphon more resources away from the public and subsidize predatory corporate wealth.

The deficit in good jobs can’t be simply chalked up to globalization or a decline in American workers’ “competitiveness.” It’s a reflection of a deficit in power at the bottom, and a surplus of greed at the top.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on August 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

Higher minimum wages have been good for jobs in New England

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Laura Clawson

Here’s one more study that opponents of raising the minimum wage will ignore when they argue that a minimum wage increase would slow job creation. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center has looked at minimum wage rates and job creation across New England. Every state in New England has a different minimum wage, ranging from the federal rate of $7.25 in New Hampshire to a high of $8.46 in Vermont. And guess what? States that increased their minimum wages by more and had higher minimum wages did better, not worse, at keeping jobs during the recession and regaining them after the recession. That’s not to say that a higher minimum wage is the only explanation for those results:

Ultimately, a variety of factors affect job growth, and the recession has affected states in different ways. The different rates of employment loss and growth in New England states during this period was likely the result of a variety of factors, but the data do not provide any evidence that higher minimum wages prevent job growth.

This isn’t the first study that’s shown no negative effect, or even a positive outcome, of a higher minimum wage on employment. It won’t be the last. But since opponents of an above-poverty-level minimum wage are much more concerned with profit margins at Walmart and Taco Bell than with creating or losing jobs, the “higher minimum wage is a job-killer” canard isn’t going away any time soon.

(Via We Party Patriots)

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on August 20, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Locked-Out Crystal Sugar Worker: 'We Didn't Do Anything to Deserve This'

Monday, August 27th, 2012
Credit: Joe Kekeris

Credit: Joe Kekeris

Michael Frank headed over to a rally in East Grand Forks, Minn., last night, one of many he’s taken part in over the past year. Frank, along with 1,300 other workers, was locked out of the American Crystal Sugar factory a year ago, and last night’s event was part of the workers’ ongoing efforts to urge the sugar beet processing company return to the bargaining table.

“They don’t want to sit down with us,” said Frank, a 33-year veteran with with company and currently day warehouse foreman. “We didn’t do anything to deserve this.”

The company locked out the workers Aug. 1, 2011, during bargaining talks over a successor contract between American Crystal Sugar and five local unions of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco and Grain Millers (BCTGM) at various locations in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa.

BCTGM members overwhelmingly rejected the company’s final offer last year, which included significant increases to workers’ health care costs and major changes to job security, including the right to outsource work and seniority language. (Sign a petition calling on American Crystal Sugar CEO Dave Berg to treat workers fairly and return to the bargaining table.)

Before locking out the workers, the company was hugely profitable, with $1.5 billion in fiscal 2011 net earnings, up from $1.2 billion in 2010. In 2011, CEO Dave Berg took in nearly $2.5 million in total compensation.

American Crystal has replaced the workers, bringing in people from around the country and creating tension throughout the once close-knit community. In small farming towns like East Grand Forks, it’s easy to run into someone who just took your job.

As Frank describes it:

We’re basically another middle class getting beat up here in the valley. What used to be family isn’t any more.

It’s also hard to imagine newcomers performing such highly skilled work. Before he became a foreman, Frank’s job involved molasses desurgarization—a new process by which more sugar is extracted than ever before by running molasses through resin beads.

Although clearly frustrated by his many months off the job, Frank, 52, remains solid in his commitment to stick with his co-workers and demand Crystal Sugar give workers a fair shake. A widow who’s caring for his three children, ages 6, 9 and 12. Frank is an active member of his local union’s solidarity committee, a group that reaches out to the Red River Valley community to mobilize participation in events and to fundraise for the families affected by the lockout.

American Crystal Sugar is a big player on Capitol Hill, giving more than $1.5 million in campaign contributions to members of both parties since 2011, according to opensecrets.org. The company is a beneficiary of a government policy that restricts imports of sugar from overseas, writes Minnesota Public Radio News.

This week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka sent a letter to 177 members of Congress who have accepted campaign contributions from Crystal Sugar this year and urged them to send the company’s money back. In it, Trumka writes:

Rather than negotiate with BCTGM to provide a fair share of the earnings to the workers who were instrumental in generating them, this company and its management have embarked upon a path designed to break the union itself. David Berg, the current CEO, has likened the workers and their contract to a “cancerous tumor.” I am sure you do not approve of this blatant disregard for working families and their communities.

Many unions have contributed to the strike fund, and the workers have received support from throughout their communities. Rep. Keith
Ellison (D-Minn.) called on the company to return to the bargaining table and pointed out that the workers “stood shoulder to
shoulder with the company to fight for a better sugar program in the farm bill just because that’s how dedicated they are.” Yet,

What have they got in return? They’ve gotten locked out.

(Watch a video of Milwaukee Alderman Tony Zielinksi calling Crystal Sugar CEO Berg—and you can do the same: 218-236-4400.)

Members of the unions’ “road warriors” group travels throughout the country to get out their message and build support. In May, two-dozen locked-out workers traveled from Drayton, N.D., for a seven-day, 200-mile journey to Moorhead, Minn., headquarters of American Crystal Sugar. Earlier this year, workers from American Crystal joined locked out workers from Cooper Tire in a 1,000-mile Journey for Justice from
Fargo, N.D., to Findlay, Ohio. The journey highlighted the corporate greed behind the lockouts, and the growing drive by corporate CEOs to drive down wages and benefits to pad their own pockets.

Speaking at last night’s rally, Anthony, 15, son of a locked-out worker, said Crystal Sugar would learn that

When you pick a fight with one working family, you are picking a fight with all working families.

Contribute to the strike relief fund.
Sign a petition calling on American Crystal Sugar CEO Dave Berg to treat workers fairly and return to the bargaining table.
Get the latest updates on the Crystal Sugar lockout.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on August 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union (the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism (covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia) she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

Infographic: When Dollars Stop Fatalities

Friday, August 24th, 2012

New infographics from E-Training and Compliance and Safety show that as the U.S. budget for workplace safety continues to rise, the number of deaths dramatically falls. In 2010, the United States spent a then-high of $558 million dollars a year on workplace safety, and a record low of 4,600 workers died on the job. (Infographic after the jump).

The Obama administration has requested an increase in the Occupational Safety & Health Administration budget every year, but faced opposition from Republicans, who targeted it for steep cuts in the fiscal-year 2012 budget battles.

The charts also make the very interesting case that raising the retirement age above the current 67 could be disaster, as workers over the age of 65 suffer fatal workplace accidents at nearly three times the rate of those between 55 and 64.

Featured By: Compliance and Safety LLC Safety Training DVDs

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on August 23, 2012. 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. He can be reached at [email protected]

Workers are worried about having their benefits cut. With good reason.

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

Laura Clawson

Americans’ fears about having their benefits or wages reduced, being laid off, or having work hours cut back shot up in 2009, and haven’t fallen back to pre-2009 levels since, a Gallup poll finds. Benefit cuts lead the list of worries, with 40 percent fearful about that, while wage cuts and layoffs follow at 28 percent.

It’s no wonder that fears about benefit cuts have consistently topped responses to this question since the first time Gallup asked it in 1997. You only have to look at any story about a union’s contract negotiations—companies are overwhelmingly demanding cuts to health insurance and pensions, and they didn’t come for union members’ health insurance and pensions first. Companies worked their way methodically through, cutting benefits to the most vulnerable workers first, selling middle-class professionals on the idea that 401(k) plans would make them investor-class masters of the universe and make pensions obsolete and undesirable.

Union members’ benefits only started getting hit after enough other people’s benefits had been cut that companies could play divide-and-conquer, stoking resentment against workers who still had good benefits, promoting the question “why does my neighbor have a pension when I don’t?” rather than “why did my boss take my pension?” And even as too many people still fall prey to that corporate campaign of division, it may be starting to sink in that once pensions are gone for everyone in the 99 percent, and once even people who have employer-provided health care are paying a bigger chunk of the costs every year until they can’t afford it at all, businesses are coming for something else next. So, yeah. American workers should be worried about benefits. And they should be doing something about that worry—voting, organizing, taking to the fucking streets—before there are no more benefits to be worried about.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on August 22, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Bargain to Organize: From Boon to Embarrassment

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

One sign, among many, of labor’s current travails is the stalled union growth strategy known as “Bargain to Organize.”

More than a decade ago, there was no bigger buzzword in union organizing circles. When John Sweeney was elected AFL-CIO president in 1995, he encouraged affiliates to employ the tactic by pressuring unionized companies to permit uncontested organizing drives at their non-union facilities or subsidiaries.

In one model Bargain to Organize campaign that began in 2008, the 6,000 SEIU members employed by Help At Home, a for-profit home healthcare company, used their own contract negotiations in Illinois to confront management about its record of union-busting in neighboring Indiana.

Then-SEIU organizer Matt Luskin reported that after an aggressive membership mobilization campaign, Help At Home signed an agreement that not only gave raises and better benefits to Illinois workers, but also “expanded the organizing rights of thousands of workers in other states where the company operates.”

Bypassing The Board

In every industry setting, the goal of Bargain to Organize has been some combination of management neutrality, card check, and/or a “free and fair” election process that enables workers to engage in union activity without harassment, threats, intimidation or job discrimination.

One major success for the strategy came after a five-year struggle in the 1990s, when the Communications Workers for America (CWA) finally won a card check and neutrality deal that now applies to employees of AT&T Mobility. Under its terms, AT&T will recognize CWA if a majority of the workers in a pre-specified bargaining unit sign union authorization cards. The American Arbitration Association (AAA) conducts the card count and certifies the results. AT&T Mobility managers are not allowed to interfere with union organizing activity. Management is even obliged to provide CWA with employee information and workplace access that’s not required under National Labor Relations Board election rules.

This negotiated process eliminates the Board’s role in determining the scope of new bargaining units–a frequent source of representation election delays. Plus, it avoids the costly, uphill battle of an employer-contested NLRB election campaign.

Through card check, more than 40,000 AT&T cellular technicians, customer service reps and retail salespeople have gained union contract coverage. In the heyday of Bargain to Organize, similar large-scale membership gains were made by the Teamsters at UPS Freight; UNITE HERE at the Hilton Hotel chain; the SEIU and other unions at Kaiser Permanente; and, most recently, the SEIU and California Nurses Association at Hospital Corporation of America (HCA). (For more details on some of these struggles, see “A Look at Three ‘Strategic Campaigns.'”)

Fewer Deals To Be Made?

In the last several years, however, few AFL-CIO or Change To Win affiliates have made any new large-scale Bargain to Organize breakthroughs. Although some unions are still waging “leverage campaigns” to neutralize employer interference–like UNITE HERE’s crucial Las Vegas battle with the non-union Station Casino chain–existing bargaining relationships have not yielded additional protections for unrepresented employees at Verizon, General Electric and many other partially unionized firms.

Instead, unions in telecom, manufacturing, and other industries have been thrown on the defensive by management demands for contract concessions. In this climate, union proposals for organizing rights have become “throwaway demands.” The demonization and defeat of “card check” in labor’s failed 2007-10 campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) has led some unions to abandon that approach in favor of the old model of secret ballot elections (with an employer pledge that they will be “free and fair.”) However, in many tough bargaining situations, “even those modest steps are next to impossible now,” says one top union leader. “That’s why most people aren’t even trying anymore.”

Where some unions have continued to use their bargaining relationships with employers to gain or maintain membership, the results have become increasingly controversial and even legally questionable. They have revived longstanding rank-and-file concerns about unfavorable trade-offs between contract standards and growth.

What Quid Pro Quos?

Such Bargain to Organize tensions and controversies are not new. When I was working with CWA members in the 1990s at the phone company now known as Verizon, it took much education and discussion before local union activists embraced the idea of putting organizing-related demands on a par with wages, benefits, and working conditions. Even after organizing rights became a strike issue–in a 17-day walkout by 75,000 Verizon workers in 2000–some influential local officials still viewed card check and neutrality as a far-removed “national union issue.” (Many International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers strikers viewed it as just a CWA issue!)

In 2008-2010, as I reported in The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, the costly series of disputes that enveloped SEIU, CNA, and UNITE-HERE arose partly over Bargain to Organize strategy disagreements. Then-Change to Win leaders Andy Stern and Bruce Raynor argued that “contract relief” was needed to gain an organizational foothold in healthcare, food service, and other industries. If local unions weren’t willing to partner with management and promise some degree of “labor peace,” too many nursing homes, hospital chains and catering contractors would thwart unionizing efforts.

In one problematic Stern-Raynor organizing experiment, newly recruited food service workers ended up in a nationwide “local,” Service Workers United (SWU); SWU members were covered by a “template agreement” that sometimes undercut existing local UNITE-HERE contracts with the same employers. Adding insult to injury, the affected workers belatedly discovered that top union negotiators had secretly agreed to restrict membership activity–such as informational picketing, consumer appeals, and other contract campaign tactics–that would be necessary to win future wage and benefit improvements.

Bargaining for De-cert Protection

Critics of this non-transparent, concessionary approach now cite United Healthcare Workers-West, SEIU’s third largest affiliate, as the latest practitioner of a debased form of Bargain to Organize. Instead of mobilizing its members like SEIU’s Illinois Healthcare affiliate did at Help at Home, UHW has bargained to keep its existing dues-payers from escaping to the new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

Earlier this year, UHW was faced with the defection of 750 workers at Seton Medical Center to NUHW. So the incumbent union made a side deal with the hospital owner, the Daughters of Charity, which consolidated five separate bargaining units into a single one covering 3,000 employees. This tentative agreement–designed to make decertification more difficult–was made contingent on subsequent union approval of pension and medical plan changes.

When these proposed givebacks were revealed in late April, Daughters of Charity workers discovered that they will now have a 401(k) account rather than be covered by a defined benefit pension plan; they will pay 25 percent of the monthly premiums for previously free PPO medical coverage; their out-of-pocket costs for medical plan utilization (doctor visits, prescriptions, etc.) will double; and workers who fail to meet various “Wellness Program” standards for personal healthiness will pay 20 percent more for the cost of their insurance premiums.

To get these concessions approved, UHW conducted a rushed two-day ratification vote that began less than 12 hours after a settlement was announced. (The SEIU constitution requires 3-days advance notice of such votes; workers at Daughters of Charity got only nine hours.) According to workers who complained to SEIU president Mary Kay Henry, UHW reps refused to provide them with copies of the tentative agreement. Disgruntled Daughters of Charity workers continue to organize for NUHW and expect an NLRB re-run of the election they narrowly lost at Seton Medical Center in March.

Employee Free Choice?

At Chapman Hospital, a non-union hospital in southern California, UHW/SEIU engaged in organizing misconduct that publicly discredits the very concept of card check–playing into the hands of the rightwing, corporate opponents of Employee Free Choice Act. UHW announced last winter that 220 workers had formed a new bargaining unit after a card-check process agreed to by management. In June, however, the NLRB issued an unfair labor practice complaint against Chapman and UHW, charging that the hospital had recognized the union without real majority support. To avoid a hearing, both parties signed a settlement earlier this month that removed UHW/SEIU as the bargaining representative of the hospital workers.

In Kentucky, the NLRB has also cracked down on a similar example of company-union collusion. On August 1, the Board asked a federal court to issue a rare 10(j) injunction against the UAW and Voith Industrial Services, a contractor hired by Ford in February to transport newly assembled SUVs from its Louisville assembly plant. This car haul work was previously performed by 160 members of Teamsters Local 89 employed by Jack Cooper Transport, a signatory to the IBT’s national auto transport contract. According to the NLRB, almost all of these experienced, $20-an-hour Teamster drivers were replaced when Ford brought in Voith instead. Voith’s replacement workforce (paid $11 per hour) then came under an inferior contract, pre-arranged with the UAW, per a similar deal involving Ford and Voith in Michigan last year. Recognition of the UAW was granted before most new drivers were even hired.

“We believe this is an unlawful collective bargaining relationship,” NLRB regional director Gary Muffley told the Louisville Courier Journal on August 11. The NLRB is seeking an order that would reinstate the displaced drivers and restore the Teamster bargaining relationship that’s been in place since 1962.

Bargain to Organize’s bottom fishing, like the UHW’s card check sham at Chapman or the UAW’s undercutting of the IBT in car-haul, may add to “union density” on paper but it’s not going to boost workers’ power or help anyone make contract gains. Likewise, the challenge of persuading union members that they have stake in union growth strategies only gets more difficult when concession bargaining becomes a way of slamming the door on employee free choice between competing unions.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on August 21, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steve Early is author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home, is a labor journalist and lawyer who has written for numerous publications. He was a Boston-based international representative or organizer for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years, and is a member of the editorial advisory committees of three independent labor publications: Labor Notes, New Labor Forum and Working USA.

What is poverty?

Monday, August 20th, 2012

Mark E. AndersonWhat is poverty? According to the federal government poverty for a family of four is $23,050 a year. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which, if you work a 40-hour week, 52 weeks a year, you would earn $15,080 a year. The average rent cost in the United States is $808 (PDF) a month or $9,696 a year. If you use the thriftiest numbers provided by the USDA (I am assuming this is not a healthy diet) groceries for a family of four averages between $507 and $582 (PDF) a month depending on the age of the children. That is $6,084 to $6,984 a year. Food and lodging for this family of four costs between $15,780 and $16,680 a year. I have not even gotten to childcare costs yet, which for a child who is around four years old ranges $3,900 to $15,540 a year (PDF) a year. There is help for this family of four though, the average amount of SNAP benefits available to a family of four? $496 a month, not enough to pay for all of their groceries, however, it is enough to prevent starvation. Even with SNAP benefits it is obvious that in the family of four only one of the adults can work, as the other has to stay home with the children. I cannot imagine how a single parent at this level of income could keep it together let alone get out of poverty.

Federal Poverty Levels 2012

Those are the numbers that define poverty in America; however, the definition of poverty goes much further than those numbers. The American Heritage dictionary defines poverty as, “the state of being poor; lack of the means of providing material needs or comforts.”

Let that soak in for a minute, “lack of the means of providing material needs or comforts.” Things like food, shelter, and stability. You cannot get sick, you cannot take a day off to go to the doctor, you cannot afford to go to the doctor at all. If the price of food goes up you have to take away from some other part of your budget. But what takes the hit? Is your landlord going to allow you to pay less rent? How do you buy school supplies? How do you get to and from work? None of the figures above include transportation.

Imagine living in a world where you don’t know if you have enough money for your next meal, going without food so that your children may eat. Worrying about scraping together enough money to take your child to the doctor for things that most of us take for granted like immunizations. The feelings of inadequacy when your child wants nothing more than a candy bar and you cannot afford it. How grateful you feel when a stranger hands you a dollar bill to buy that candy bar and how miserable it makes you feel inside that you must depend on the kindness of strangers for such small pleasures in life. How hard birthdays and Christmases are when you cannot afford to purchase even the smallest of gifts (especially in our consumer-driven society).

According to conservative mouthpieces if you have a color TV and a refrigerator you are not poor, and several of the memes that exist today say that if you have a newer car and a cell phone you are not poor, discounting that you may have purchased that newer car or cell phone before you lost your job and lost your home. That you need to be drug tested before you can receive any kind of benefits. The poor are second-class citizens who cannot be trusted with the meager benefits that are provided to them. They should, “just get a job,” and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Great advice; however, if you are making minimum wage, you don’t have bootstraps to pull up.

The same people who refuse to help the poor because they are, “lazy and shiftless,” have no problem giving a tax break, that is larger than what someone making minimum wage earns in a year, to someone who makes their money through investments, in other words, a tax break to someone who has never worked a day in their lives. Only because they have a higher social status they deserve what amounts to a government handout in the form of a tax break, while someone working for minimum wage every single day does not deserve a hand up.

While I am not a religious man I find it hypocritical that the people who claim to follow Christianity do not follow some of its core teachings. When my mom forced me to go to confirmation classes at Bashford United Methodist Church in my youth I primarily went through the motions just to make her happy; however, one quote that Rev. Rick Pearson taught me has stuck with me all these years, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth – 1 John 3:17-18.”

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on August 19, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Anderson, a Daily Kos Labor contributor, describes himself as a 44 year-old veteran, lifelong Progressive Democrat, Rabid Packer fan, Single Dad, Part-time Grad Student, and Full-time IS worker. You can learn more about him on his Facebook, “Kodiak54 (Mark Andersen)”

Blame Flies Over Police Massacre of 34 South African Miners

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Workers Try to Organize Airport Subway, Get Fired

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

david baconOAKLAND, CA—This city is supposed to be a union town, but out at the airport, workers say they’re getting fired for trying to join one. The airport is administered by the Oakland Port Commission, whose members, appointed by the mayor, are mostly viewed as progressives. The commission has passed a living wage ordinance that not only sets a level much higher than state or national minimum wage laws, but also requires companies who rent space to respect the labor rights of their workers.

One of the workers fired recently is Hakima Arhab, who says she lost her job at the Subway concession after she complained about violations of the ordinance, and because she and her coworkers are trying to join UNITE HERE Local 2850.

Arhab told her story to Working In These Times:

I worked at Subway for a year and a half. When I got the job there I thought that I would have a better life. It should be a good job. I thought I’d have more money, and be able to afford a few more things for myself, and be able to send money to my home country, because I have family there. When I started at the airport I was getting $12.82 an hour, and then it went up to $13.05.

Most people go through the airport and see us from one side of the counter, but from our side it feels really different. It turned out to be like working in hell. When the airport was busy, there were huge long lines—sometimes it seemed like 100 people. We had to wait on them, and make the orders up at the same time. Sometimes I thought I’d fall down from being so tired, but I’d eat something sweet and go back to my job.

The schedule was always changing, and it turned out to be just a part-time job. They kept cutting peoples’ schedules. Whenever we would hear that they were going to hire someone, everyone would get scared because we were afraid our hours would be cut. They’d hire people and give them our hours.

Then they told us that if we worked two days in the airport, we should work outside too. The owners have many other Subway stores, so they’d pressure me to work for them outside the airport. And it was a hard job too. But I did it because I was scared that if I didn’t they would fire me from the airport job.

They expected me to work outside the airport if I wanted a full time set of hours, but the work outside was at a different wage. That work only paid minimum wage—$8 an hour. They’d send me around to all their stores. Sometimes I’d open one store, and then go close at another one. I worked overtime, but they didn’t pay me overtime pay. They’d give you separate checks, so you’d never get overtime pay.

I was very angry about that, but they refused to give me a full schedule at the airport. They even wanted me to work seven days a week, but since they wouldn’t pay overtime, at first I said no—that was too much. Many of my coworkers did, though, because they couldn’t afford to say no. If you said no, then the owners would cut your whole schedule.

So I also just shut up and worked too. And the worst part was that sometimes when I’d work 50 or 60 hours, they wouldn’t pay for all those hours. They’d be short an hour or an hour and a half.

I knew some other workers who work at HMS Host concessions right next to us, and I knew they had a union. Last spring I got very sick, but I still had to work, because otherwise, how was I going to pay for my rent or my food? I was so, so angry. One of them asked me, “Hakima, do you want to speak to the union?” I told her, “Yes, I want to do it.” So I set up an appointment with the union, and asked them to help us: myself, my coworkers and all the workers who work hard in the airport without benefits or sick days. That’s how it happened.

Finally I filed a complaint with the government, with the Port of Oakland. But they didn’t take it seriously. It was like they were just playing around, and told us it would take months to investigate. And I needed my job, especially after I was fired.

On May 29 I took unpaid vacation, for 20 days. The owner agreed that I could do that when I told her four months before. But I filed the complaint before I took the time off. She found out, because the Port gave her the names of the people who complained.

So when I came back on June 19, she gave me a check for the days I worked before the vacation. She told me, “Hakima, you know, I’m very very slow right now. I don’t have any more hours for you.” I told her, “No, no, no. Don’t play with me. I know you just took in $5,500—you’re making the highest amount ever here in the airport. How can you tell me that?”

And just two days later, she hired another worker at the airport. She just wanted to kick me out because I’d gotten involved in the union, and I stood up and filed a complaint. Because I was demanding my rights. That’s why she fired me.

Last week we had a rally out at the airport, to support me and the other workers who have been fired. We even had a chant in Berber. That’s the home language of North Africa, and I’m from a little Berber town in Algeria. And the meaning is “We are Berber, we are people who would rather fight and be fired than work without rights.”

The union says several other workers have faced retaliation as well. Isaac Kos-Read, director of external affairs for the Port of Oakland, says the port takes the complaints very seriously, but called it “an open ended thing. It could take as little as a month or as many as three months. We don’t know.” By now, the port is investigating 15 complaints. Meanwhile port security is writing up workers if they use their badges to go into the airport to meet with employers or other workers.

Nevertheless, “the port prides itself on providing jobs, and union jobs. Over 70% of the jobs at the port are union jobs,” Kos-Read says. “We assiduously enforce the living wage ordinance.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on August 10, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.

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