Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for November, 2015

Childcare Workers Need a Living Wage

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

seiuWhen a group of young fast food workers decided to lift their voices on the job and join together in the demand for better wages, no one believed anything tangible would come from it. Two months ago, those same workers won $15/hr.

Their action and bravery sparked a global movement known as the Fight for 15, and as a childcare worker who cares for other children while barely making enough to care for myself, I am proud to be in the Fight For 15. We deserve to be able to take care of our families just as well as we take care of the children in the classroom.

Enough is enough.

Nearly half of all workers across the country make less than $15 an hour – workers in fast food, home care, child care, airports and universities. We are uniting with low wage workers throughout the country because poverty wages must end.

We are in the streets because the cost of living continues to increase while wages remain stagnant. About one in seven childcare workers lives below the official poverty line. In many regions, preschool and childcare workers earn a fraction of what’s required for a minimally decent standard of living.

I have raised four great kids as a childcare worker by picking and choosing which bills to pay. I have over 15 years of experience and still only earn $8.50 an hour. One day I would like to move up and lead my own classroom but that’s not possible with my CDA (Child Development Associate Credential. There is no room for the expense of additional classes in my tight budget.

11 million Americans have won raises since the first fast food strike. We are winning because we are united in the fight for a society we want: one where we can give our families a good life, support our communities, and leave a more safe and stable world for future generations. I am all in on this fight and you should be too.

This article was originally printed on SEIU in November, 2015.  Reprinted with permission.

Economists React to October Jobs Report

Monday, November 16th, 2015

Jackie TortoraOctober provided good news for the economy. The economy added 271,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a big increase over September’s number of 137,000 jobs. The unemployment rate also fell fractionally from 5% to 5.1%.

Average hourly private-sector earnings were up 9 cents, which, if sustained, will finally start producing real wage gains for ordinary working Americans.

In response to the October jobs report, AFL-CIO Chief Economist William E. Spriggs said:

While this month’s numbers are good, job growth has yet to deliver sustained wage gains that working people need to lead better lives. This means we face the deeper challenge of fashioning policy changes to create the institutional structure for shared prosperity; aggressive, progressive solutions, not corporate driven trade deals. Unfortunately, while our economy remains fragile, the now public TPP text proves our fears of just how damaging it could be to our economy. The fight for full employment and rising wages starts with rejecting this bad deal and embracing economic policies that put people and families first.

 AFL-CIO Senior Economic Policy Adviser Thomas Palley added:

This report is strong, which is good news. But the report also reveals the contradictions in our economy. Good news for Main Street is interpreted as bad news by Wall Street. The challenge for the Federal Reserve, and the standard by which it will be judged, is to ensure this type of news becomes ‘normal’ and not a one month exception that is used to justify hitting the brakes.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on November 10, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.

Is Pregnancy Discrimination On The Rise?

Saturday, November 14th, 2015

BraniganRobertsonA woman’s pregnancy is supposed to be a reason to celebrate – baby showers, nursery decorating, and 3D ultrasounds. When you’re pregnant the last thing you should have to worry about is your job. Unfortunately, pregnancy discrimination seems to be on the rise in American workplaces. Employment lawyers like me seem to be getting more and more phone calls from women claiming that they were fired because of their pregnancy.

What is Pregnancy Discrimination?

In 2013 I got a phone call from a woman who said that she got fired after she delivered a stillborn baby. I almost fell out of my chair. The company fired her the day she returned from maternity leave. After filing the case we discovered that the company made the decision to terminate her after she informed the owners that her baby had passed. We also found out that after making the decision to terminate her, the company hired an auditor to come in and “audit” her department to find that she was performing poorly. However, documentary evidence showed that she was a great employee. The case failed to settle and proceeded to trial. The jury found that the company discriminated against her because of her pregnancy and awarded her substantial punitive damages.

While this was an unusual case, it highlights the opposite of how a company should act. A company should never make a decision to fire a woman because she is pregnant, because she is having complications, or because she is planning on taking a maternity leave. While that may seem like common sense in today litigious environment, I am continuously surprised how often expecting women are fired for suspicious reasons.

A Rise in Pregnancy Related Lawsuits

My firm receives hundreds of phone calls each year from prospective clients. Over the last year or so, we’ve noticed a lot more calls from women who believe they were fired or passed over for a promotion because of they became pregnant or had a pregnancy related disability. We’re not the only ones who have noticed this. More and more lawsuits are being filed and federal and state legislatures are enacting or trying to enact more laws to protect women.

Why are their more lawsuits? It may be because more women are career driven today than in the past. Human Resources MBA has a great info graphic discussing this. Inevitably, this topic also leads lawyers to talk more about gender discrimination (which is also unlawful under Federal and State law). Regardless of the reason, lawyers are trying to help their clients in whatever situation they happen to find themselves in.

What Should You Do If You Are a Victim of Pregnancy Discrimination

A lot of pregnant women who are still employed call my firm because they are starting to sense that their manager is upset with them. “What should I do?” “Should I go to HR?” “Should I complain?” “Can I go on maternity leave early?” All of these questions are valid but each and every situation is different. Further complicating the issue is that each state has different laws on point. For example, in California there are a multitude of laws that could apply to a woman’s situation: Pregnancy Disability Leave, the Fair Employment & Housing Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, the California Family Rights Act, the Labor Code, State Disability Insurance, etc.

I first recommend that you spend some time doing basic online research. Look up your respective state’s labor department and see if there are any online resources. You should also speak with HR if your company has competent HR professionals. If you feel like the situation is worsening I recommend that you call a lawyer. Many employment lawyers like me who represent individuals will do a free consultation over the phone.

Hopefully you are never in this situation. A woman’s pregnancy should be celebrated and a time of great excitement. Although pregnancy discrimination seems to be on the rise, collectively we can fight against it by informing each other of the laws that protect women. So please do your research and don’t be afraid to call a lawyer!

If you have additional questions concerning pregnancy discrimination, visit WorkplaceFairness and see their pages on parental leave and pregnancy discrimination. If you need help finding a lawyer, visit their attorney database here.

About the Author: Branigan Robertson is an employment attorney in Irvine, California. He is a member of the California Bar and the California Employment Lawyers Association. He exclusively represents CA employees in lawsuits against employers and focuses his practice on pregnancy discrimination and wrongful termination. Visit his law firm’s website for more information.

Disabled Workers Face Discrimination, but it's not Inevitable

Friday, November 13th, 2015

LauraClawsonGosh, why are people with disabilities so much less likely to be employed than people without disabilities (34 percent to 74 percent in 2013)? One reason is what researchers from Rutgers and Syracuse universities discovered when they sent out resumes for fake job applicants who either had a spinal cord injury, Asperger’s syndrome, or did not mention a disability: applicants who mentioned a disability heard back from employers 26 percent less often than applicants who didn’t mention a disability, and it was actually worse for more experienced applicants.

You know how Republicans are always railing against laws that would prohibit employers from discriminating and the like? Maybe that’s because such laws work:

The study showed that the Americans With Disabilities Act, the 1990 federal law banning discrimination against those with disabilities, appeared to reduce bias. The lack of interest in disabled workers — and especially in the rate at which they were called back for an interview — was most pronounced in workplaces with fewer than 15 employees, the study found. Businesses that small are not covered by the federal law. At publicly traded companies, which may be more concerned about their reputations and more sensitive to charges of discrimination, evidence of discrimination on the basis of disability seemed largely to disappear. The same was true at firms that receive federal contracts, which are required by the government to make a special effort to hire disabled workers.

This is why we need stronger laws and more enforcement, not Republicans blocking progress because hey, we already have laws that kinda sorta cover that.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on November 7, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006  and Labor editor since 2011.

Pass the Wage Act Now

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Shauna BarnaskasFor many American workers, union and non-union alike, work ethic and attendance will only get them so far in the workplace. They may still face many adverse working conditions including but not limited to lack of safety, pay, and benefits. Furthermore, bargaining power of America’s workers is far weaker than it used to be. Most employees lack the chance to have a real voice in the workplace and negotiate with their employer over issues that drive workplace morale. In fact, collective bargaining is at a critically low and is currently lower in the United States than every other industrialized nation.

In effect of decline in collective bargaining and unionization, income inequality is on the rise. Rebuilding our collective bargaining system and putting power back into the hands of the workers and not just the companies and managers is significant, and necessary, for reestablishing wage growth and bringing positive changes to the workplace.

Having no recourse at work, workers depend on current labor laws to protect their workplace rights. Although the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is in place to protect the right of private sector workers, union and non-union, to engage in collective bargaining to improve workplace conditions, the reality of the NLRA is that it was enacted 80 years ago in the midst of the Great Depression, and has failed to update to account for current workplace trends. Unlike other labor and employment laws, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the entity charged with enforcing the NLRA, has a toothless enforcement mechanism that does not adequately protect workers rights, or deter employers from breaking the laws; it does not impose any real penalties financial or otherwise. In result, employers view breaking the law as nothing less than a smart business decision where they may receive a small slap on the wrist, or they may even receive no punishment at all.

In line with the current trend towards collective action from fast-food workers to Wal-Mart employees, Congress has introduced legislation to properly aid and protect workers in collective bargaining. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act, an act designed to strengthen protections for workers who collectively organize, and ensure that employers violating workers’ rights face actual consequences. The WAGE Act would amend the NLRA to provide it with a backbone for enforcement, and would essentially give a voice to union and non-union workers alike to provide them a path to action against those who illegally retaliate against the employees who are taking collective action.

The WAGE Act has many features, but its biggest aspects that will protect workers include adding a meaningful back pay remedy for workers illegally fired, including penalties for employers and a preliminary reinstatement; it implements triple back pay awards for workers who were illegally retaliated against regardless of that workers’ immigration status; and finally it would provide workers with a private right of action to bring suit to recover monetary damages and attorneys fees. Now, when employees complain about workplace conditions or benefits, its employer will think twice about the potential costs of illegally firing that employee under the WAGE Act penalties.

The WAGE Act would discourage employer retaliation through and promote prompt remedies through:

  • Providing a temporary reinstatement for workers who are fired or retaliated against when exercising rights to join together and seek workplace improvements. This would direct the NLRB to go to court to seek a preliminary injunction that would immediately return fired workers to their jobs so long as there is no reasonable cause to believe the worker was wrongly fired.
  • Strengthening the remedies for workers who are fired or retaliated against, providing the workers with the ability to bring cases directly to court for monetary damages and attorneys fees. In addition, the WAGE Act would triple the back pay that employers must pay to workers who are fired or retaliated against by employers regardless of immigration status.
  • Establishing robust penalties against employers who violate workers’ rights and commit unfair labor practices by implementing a $50,000 fine for illegal retaliation and doubling that amount for repeat violations.
  • Streamlining the NLRB process and implementing a 30 day maximum time limit for employers wishing to challenge an NLRB decision. After that time is expired, the NLRB decision is final and binding.
  • Improving workers knowledge of their rights through requiring employers to inform workers of their rights by posting notice and informing employees at time of hire.

This legislation is designed to help all workers, but it will necessarily give power back to low-wage workers trying to make a good living, immigrants afraid of complaining due to lack of rights, and all workers trying to collectively engage. For years, employers have taken advantage of the weak workplace protection laws, and the WAGE Act seeks to put the power back in the hands of the employee, allowing them to seek remedies for unfair labor practices without making them jumping through so many hoops.

The purpose of the WAGE Act is to help employees through protections against employers. “Too often as workers are underpaid, overworked, and treated unfairly on the job, some companies are doing everything they can to prevent them from having a voice in the workplace. The WAGE Act would strengthen protections for all workers and it would finally crack down on employers who break the law when workers exercise their basic right to collective action,” said Senator Patty Murray. Currently, the WAGE Act has gained momentum and support from presidential-hopeful, Secretary Hillary Clinton, the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (Teamsters) Union, and many other organizations and unions. With more organizations supporting this bill, and more attention to inform individuals about this legislation, the WAGE Act could potentially pass to get workers what they not just deserve, but need.

While some may argue this bill is just more pro-union propaganda, the simple fact driving this bill is that it is pro-worker. It helps all workers regardless of union affiliation and allows the employees to more easily get back-pay and reinstatement. Without workers, essential functions in society cannot happen; this bill is necessary to providing workers with the power they need to protect their own rights. Employers have notoriously taken advantage of weak worker protection laws to slow down or stop working people from joining together to improve their lives. The WAGE Act is a necessary first step toward overdue labor law reform to promote collective action and put power back in the hands of the employees. Pass the WAGE Act now.

To learn about unions, the WAGE Act, or your workplace rights generally, please visit Workplace Fairness today.

About the Author: Shauna Barnaskas is an associate with Abato, Rubenstein and Abato, P.A., located in Baltimore, Maryland, where she concentrates her practice in the representation of ERISA plans. Shauna was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa to a union family, and has been actively involved in the labor movement her whole life. Mrs. Barnaskas earned her Juris Doctor degree from American University Washington College of Law in 2014, where she served as the Articles Editor for the Labor and Employment Law Forum. Prior to joining Abato, Rubenstein and Abato, P.A. Shauna served as a law clerk for the United States Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee where she was a contributing author of the committee staff report, “For Profit Higher Education: The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment and Ensure Student Success.”  Additionally, Mrs. Barnaskas was selected for the Peggy Browning Fellowship program where she worked for the American Federation of Teachers.

This Veterans Day

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

grace baehrenThis Veterans Day we’d like to take a moment to thank all veterans for their service and sacrifice for our country. In turn, we’d like to make sure that veterans are aware of their rights in the civilian workplace. At the federal level, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) is the main source of protections for veterans in the civilian workplace.

USERRA has two main goals:

  • To ensure that veterans seeking civilian employment can do so free from discrimination because of their service; and
  • That should a veteran need to take military leave — or is activated from reserve to active duty status – they can retain their civilian employment and benefits.

Generally, a veteran is eligible for USERRA benefits if they left a civilian job to perform military service and:

– Have given prior written or verbal notice of the military leave to their civilian employer;

– Have 5 years or less of cumulative service during the employment relationship with the civilian employer;

– Have been released from service under conditions other than dishonorable;

– And return to work, or apply for reemployment, at their civilian job in a timely manner after the completion of service.

For more information on veterans’ rights under USERRA and how to enforce these rights, see our page on military leave.

Additionally, it is important to know your state’s laws on military leave. While some state laws merely reinforce the USERRA benefits, others include additional benefits for veterans. To view the applicable laws for your state, see our State Laws on Military Leave page.

Finally, veterans should be aware of the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Act (VEVRAA), which provides additional protections to “protected veterans” who are employed by federal contractors. Protected veterans are defined to include disabled veterans and veterans who are recently separated (are within the initial 3 year period after discharge or release from active duty). VEVRAA makes it illegal for federal contractors to discriminate against protected veterans in employment decisions and further requires that federal contractors take affirmative action to recruit, hire, and promote protected veterans. For more information on VEVRAA see this fact sheet from the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs.

About the Author: The author’s name is Grace Baehren. Grace Baehren is a student at The University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law and an intern at Workplace Fairness.

The Right to an Unfair Trial

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

arbitration800

 

This cartoon was originally posted on JenSorensen.com on November 09, 2015 and the TheDailyKos on November 10, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jen Sorensen is a political cartoonist, writer, and graphic journalist. Her work has appeared in the Village Voice, LA Times, Ms. Magazine, The Progressive, NPR.org, and alt-weeklies around the country. You can find more of her work here.

Bottom Line: Does the TPP Trade Deal "Put American Workers First"?

Sunday, November 8th, 2015

Dave Johnson

The full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has finally been released and We the People can see what has been negotiated in our name. President Obama laid out the bottom line, saying the deal “puts American workers first.” Does it?

TPP Text

The full text of TPP can be seen here. The text consists of more than a thousand pages of incomprehensible legalese like this:

… the rate of customs duty applicable to the originating good from the Party where the good acquired the originating status in accordance with the process requirement or change in tariff classification requirement set out in Annex (PSR); or (ii) the rate of customs duty applicable to the originating good from the Party where the largest value was added among claimed production process, or the highest rate among the rates applicable to the originating good from those Parties involved in claimed production process, when the good acquired the originating status through a production process in accordance with the requirement set out in Article DD. 2(a), (b) or the regional value content requirement set out in Annex (PSR).

and this:

Pursuant to paragraph 1(b), the Commission shall review the operation of this Agreement with a view to updating and enhancing this Agreement, through negotiations, as appropriate, to ensure that the disciplines contained in the Agreement remain relevant to the trade and investment issues and challenges confronting the Parties.

You get the picture. This is going to take time and experts to figure out. Worse, it was negotiated in a corporate-dominated process, so if TPP is approved we have to assume that anything that is hard to understand or ambiguous will later be used to justify taking from We the People and giving to A Few People.

So Does TPP “Put American Workers First”?

President Obama set down the bottom line of TPP by releasing a statement calling TPP, “a new type of trade deal that puts American workers first.” In the statement he wrote, “If you’re an autoworker in Michigan, the cars you build face taxes as high as 70 percent in Vietnam.”

It is interesting that he would use the example of auto workers here. The September post “TPP Terms Are Even Worse For U.S. Than NAFTA?” looked at how TPP will affect the American auto industry and found:

Under NAFTA 62.5 percent of the value of cars and 60 percent of auto parts must be made in NAFTA countries, or a tariff will apply. But for TPP the U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman appears to have made a deal saying only 45 percent for cars and 30 percent for parts need to be made in TPP countries – the rest of that business goes to China and other non-TPP, low-wage, low-labor-standards and low-environmental-protection countries. The result will be a huge shift of jobs and business away from American, Mexican and Canadian auto and parts makers.

Now we know the actual terms. Canada’s Globe and Mail reports, in “Canadian auto sector alarmed by concessions revealed in full TPP text ,” that

Canada’s auto parts makers, who employ 81,000, say the text of the agreement shows the local-content protections for vehicle components are significantly skimpier than the former Conservative government had advertised. Former prime minister Stephen Harper had said local-content requirements for important vehicle components would be between 40 per cent and 45 per cent.

… Engine parts and such body stampings as truck frames and metal roof panels will only be required to have TPP content of 35 per cent.

Basically when we are talking about “non-TPP countries” getting some percent of the business, we are really just talking about China. So says tariffs do not apply if 35 percent to 45 percent of the car and parts are made in TPP countries. This means that 55 percent to 65 percent of the car and parts can be made in China and still be tariff-free. This is much worse than even NAFTA, which, as we know, destroyed American auto and parts manufacturing jobs and entire regions of our country.

Kevin L. Kearns, President of the U.S. Business and Industry Council, in the post “Domestic Manufacturers Call Full Text of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement a ‘Very Bad Deal for America.’” says of this,

“Apparently, one of America’s biggest economic problems is that Toyota does not sell enough cars and trucks here, and thus does not displace enough American jobs. The TPP deal allows Toyota and other Japanese automakers a special concession to keep their global supply chains intact.”

So the president’s singling out of auto workers as benefiting from TPP was unfortunate. They do not, and American auto workers will be hit hard as production moves to China.

In the release statement Obama also wrote, “If you’re a worker in Oregon, you’re forced to compete against workers in other countries that set lower standards and pay lower wages just to cut their costs.”

Does TPP stop the competition of Oregon’s workers “against workers in other countries that set lower standards and pay lower wages just to cut their costs” as the president promises here?

The athletic apparel maker Nike is based in Oregon. The workers who actually make Nike’s shoes are already all outsourced, already located in countries “that set lower standards and pay lower wages just to cut their costs,” including TPP signatories Vietnam (where it employs 345,000 workers), Mexico and Malaysia. TPP will remove tariffs already charged on those shoes and garments as they come into the U.S., making it even more attractive to outsource production to countries “that set lower standards and pay lower wages just to cut their costs.” Nike will be rewarded by that tariff cut with greater profits from their choice to outsource.

Meanwhile Nike competitor New Balance has been trying to continue to make shoes in the U.S., and this removal of tariffs is likely to force them to give up. TPP lowers the cost of moving production to countries “that set lower standards and pay lower wages just to cut their costs.”

So the president cited autos and Oregon, but a close look reveals these to be unfortunate choices. In both cases American workers are put first – first in line to be laid off as even more production shifts out of the country.

Does TPP Put American Steelworkers First

If TPP truly puts “American workers first” you’d think that American workers would be happy about TPP. They aren’t. The United Steelworkers said of the TPP text:

“It’s a dagger twisting in the heart of American manufacturing,” the USW said in a Nov. 5 statement. “Even the Wall Street Journal predicted the deal would cause a massive trade deficit in manufacturing, which would result in hundreds of thousands of job losses.”

The TPP, the union said, provides incentives for U.S. companies to outsource production and send jobs overseas. It would cause dramatic job losses in the U.S. manufacturing sector, and its rules of origin for automobiles and auto parts would allow China to provide the majority of a vehicle’s content, it said.

The TPP also would allow currency manipulation to continue, do nothing to prevent state-owned enterprises from receiving state support and protection, and allow foreign workers to continue to suffer violations of their rights, the USW said.

So it looks like TPP does anything but “putting American workers first.” It puts them first in line to be laid off.

Economic Theory

So why the big push for TPP?

Here’s the thing. By moving production to low-wage countries with poor environmental and safety (and other) regulations that protect people, American companies can lower the cost of production. Economic theory says this “frees up resources” in our own economy to be put to “more productive uses.” Economists say the workers can thereby move into higher-paying jobs, doing things that can’t be done in Vietnam.

But of course this is not what has been happening since the country’s elites were sold on the “free trade” agenda decades ago. We have seen the financial sector (and its associated value system) increase as the manufacturing sector (and its associated value system) declines. We have seen a dramatic increase in inequality as the “investor class” pockets the wage and other cost differential from moving production out of the country. We have seen entire regions of the country literally devastated (see Detroit and the “Rust Belt”) because the resources released by outsourcing America’s production have not been reinvested in the U.S. They have instead found their way to foreign tax shelters. We have seen the country lose entire industries, and the supply chains, “know-how” and other elements of a manufacturing ecosystem that might enable us to rebuild someday.

Now that we can actually read it we can see that TPP is just one more “NAFTA-style” power-grab elevating the “investor class” above the rest of us and our ability to run our own government in ways that make our lives better. TPP is about taking from We the People and giving to A Few People. It is a bad deal and it must be stopped.

This blog originally appeared in Ourfuture.org on November 6, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

D.C. labor activists blast fruit grower over alleged worker abuse

Friday, November 6th, 2015

John Lett

As early afternoon shoppers strolled sidewalks outside a Whole Foods market in an artsy, eclectic section of Washington, D.C., dozens of labor activists broke mid-day monotony by loudly calling attention to alleged injustices 2300 miles away in Washington state. “If they’re abusing workers in one place than they will abuse workers in another. An injury to one is an injury to all,” says Maria Parrotta, a young bespectacled brunette who enthusiastically joined protesters on the busy city block. “You must be concerned because they’re people just like you. You need to understand the broader picture.”

The picket was organized by the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, a self-described militant tinged labor union with outspoken socialist views that was founded in 1905. The organization says it’s extremely concerned about the treatment of Mexican guest workers who are currently deadlocked in a labor dispute with management at Sakuma Brothers Farms in Washington state. The laborers there, a tightknit group of 400 berry pickers who call themselves Familias Unidas por la Justicia (United Families for Justice), became an independent union in 2013. But according to the IWW, managers at the farm have used hardball tactics to intimidate the fruit pickers, and thus, upending contract talks. “The negotiations ended up breaking down and Sakuma Brothers sent armed security guards to forcibly breakup the labor camps where the union supporters were staying, as well as their families,” says James Colgan, an energetic 27-year-old man wearing a newsboy cap, who serves as a communications representative with the Industrial Workers of the World. “They have been the subject of racist harassment, sexual assault in the fields and very serious labor conditions by working very long hours for very little pay.”

IWW chose to picket Whole Foods market because the grocery chain sells berries that are grown and picked by workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms. Once harvested, the sweet fruit is shipped to Driscoll Berries and then sold on shelves at Whole Foods. “We’re hoping that this information picket will raise awareness to the liberal customer base and get them to be sympathetic to the worker’s plight and hopefully urge businesses to drop the sale of the berries,” says Colgan. Armed with homemade signs, demonstrators marched in a circular motion on the sidewalk and chanted: “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now,” as a curious onlookers sipped coffee and stared at the scene. “Farm workers are often the most poorly treated workers in the United States. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration,” says Colgan.

In response to the labor dispute, senior management at Whole Foods says the company is committed to a pro-working class culture and expects its supply chain to comply. “We seek supplier partnerships that share our concern for social responsibility and the environment.” Down the labor ladder, Sakuma Brothers Farms says it’s committed to ending the dispute. “We both want stability, we both want all employees to have the legal right to work, and we both want a fair wage and a positive work environment,” according to a Sakuma family spokesperson. Management at Driscoll Berries have adopted a similar position and says: “It is our commitment that people are treated with consideration and respect, that their workplaces are clean and healthy, and that employment within the Driscoll’s system provides income opportunities that meet or exceed the local standards.”

But the Industrial Workers of the World stands by its strong accusations of worker abuse at Sakuma Brothers Farms and pledges support for Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Colgan says the IWW plans to keep the heat on the berry supply chain by continuing to place public pressure on the farm’s managers, Driscoll Berries and Whole Foods. “Our organizing committee will reconvene and decide next actions,” says Colgan. “We will probably have larger pickets and bigger actions.”


This article was originally printed on Examiner.com on October 28, 2015.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: John Lett. Since 1996, John Lett has worked as a news reporter and field producer for several local broadcast stations around the United States. He currently serves as a web video producer covering labor news for an AFL-CIO affiliated union headquartered in suburban, Washington, D.C. On weekends he routinely manages production of archival footage that focuses on geopolitical rallies and protests in the District of Columbia. Some of his most recent assignments include Arab American protests of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, international HIV activism on the National Mall and local immigrant outrage over African political unrest.

A Bill of Rights That Puts Workers Above Corporations

Thursday, November 5th, 2015

in these timesRalph knows firsthand that non-unionized workers lack basic rights. Last year he got a text from his boss while at a cancer clinic in Spokane, Wash. After receiving chemotherapy treatment, Ralph learned he was being terminated from his job in the produce transportation industry—a decision his employer had no legal obligation to justify. According to Ralph, he was fired for “insubordination” after he began to question the business’s finances. Now, he’s been forced to take a minimum-wage job and file for bankruptcy, and could lose his home.

“I will not recover from this in my lifetime,” Ralph tells In These Times. “Tell me where the justice is in that.” (Ralph wished to remain pseudonymous because he is exploring filing a suit against his former employer, though lawyers have told him that he probably does not have a viable case.)

Workers without a union contract lack any guarantee of due process on the job, let alone a dignified wage. Other than Montana, no state—nor the federal government—requires employers to give a “just cause” for firings. But a movement in Spokane has gotten a first-in-the-nation Worker Bill of Rights on November’s ballot, which, if passed, would act as a kind of union contract for all workers in the city.

The proposition is being championed by Envision Spokane, a labor-community coalition. Envision Worker Rights, a sister political committee of the group, announced that it would introduce a new, worker-focused measure, and gathered more than 2,600 signatures to ensure its place on the city’s ballot.

Spokane’s Worker Bill of Rights would amend the city charter to provide several new on-the-job protections. It would give all Spokane workers rights to equal pay for equal work and to not be wrongfully terminated, as Ralph believes he was. It would also guarantee a “family wage” sufficient to cover basic necessities such as food, housing, utilities and childcare for workers of large employers. When employers run afoul, workers would be entitled to sue.

This may seem straightforward, but typically workers must hash out these protections through the arduous process of bargaining a union contract. Granting them proactively to all workers represents a promising new paradigm.

Thomas Linzey, executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which is supporting the Worker Bill of Rights, explains that under current law, “in non-unionized, private workplaces, workers have no constitutional rights. It’s why e-mails can be read, urine can be tested, lockers searched. … By prohibiting firings without cause, due process constitutional rights would be afforded to all people working within the City of Spokane.” This departs from the “state-action” doctrine, the bedrock legal principle that the Constitution only protects citizens from the government, not from private entities.

When faced with efforts to protect workers and communities, corporations have often carped that their own rights are being violated. The International Franchise Association (IFA), for example, sued the City of Seattle over a $15 minimum-wage ordinance passed in June 2014, saying, among other things, that it discriminated against franchises and violated their constitutional right to equal protection. A U.S. appeals court ruled otherwise, and Spokane’s initiative is clearly not afraid of violating so-called corporate rights. The amendment declares that corporations “shall not be deemed to be ‘persons’ ” with legal rights if this interferes with the workers’ rights outlined in the measure. While Spokane is unlikely to reverse longstanding legal precedent on its own, advocates see the Worker Bill of Rights as part of a national movement to challenge corporate personhood.

This concept is resonating with many in the region and beyond. Some nine local unions and two regional labor councils have endorsed the initiative, along with community groups such as 15 Now Oregon and national figures like Noam Chomsky. Beth Thew, secretary-treasurer of the Spokane Regional Labor Council, the regional arm of the AFL-CIO, tells In These Times that the Worker Bill of Rights is “basically everything that organized labor stands for.” Given the decline in union density nationwide, she says, it makes sense “to take a more radical tactic.”

The list of backers also includes Democratic and Green Party-endorsed Spokane mayoral candidate Shar Lichty, the self-proclaimed “Bernie Sanders of Spokane.” Lichty acknowledges that “poverty is a huge issue here in Spokane”—more than 15 percent of residents live below the poverty line—and says she will defend the measure if elected.

As a result, Envision Spokane’s message is winning support from people like Ralph, who, though struggling to stay out of poverty himself, is phone banking for the campaign. “People today are just trying to fricking survive till the next day,” he tells In These Times.

The Worker Bill of Rights builds on Envision Spokane’s previous efforts to pass a Community Bill of Rights, which similarly challenged corporate personhood. The measure would have given neighborhoods power over local development and increased local environmental protections, among other provisions. First introduced on the ballot in 2009, the proposition failed to gain a majority of votes, and an updated version lost narrowly in 2011. The measure qualified again in 2013, but that vote has been delayed by a pre-election lawsuit brought by a coalition of county commissioners and business groups. The Washington Supreme Court will hear the case in November.

In August, the Worker Bill of Rights dodged a similar legal challenge, this time by Spokane’s own Republican Mayor David Condon, who sought to keep the measure off the ballot. The City of Spokane filed a lawsuit arguing, among other things, that the provision denying corporate personhood was unconstitutional because it would deny corporations access to the courts. A superior court judge ruled that the mayor did not have legal standing to keep the measure off of ballots, but city officials have persisted in their opposition. City Council members have also added controversial advisory questions about the potential costs of the initiative—whether, for example, the city should raise taxes to pay for it—that could sway voters against the measure.

Brad Read, a longtime Spokane high school English teacher and Envision Spokane organizer, is hoping that voters recognize the critical importance of the Worker Bill of Rights.

“It’s about the rights of real people … taking precedence over corporations,” he says. “If we don’t start to chip away at this edifice that has been carefully crafted for over 200 years, then we’re screwed.”

This article was originally printed on InTheseTimes.org on October 26, 2015.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Simon Davis-Cohen is a New York City-based writer examining the powers of local governments and corporations in the United States.

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