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Immigrant Nurses Demand Equal Pay—And Win

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

 It started when a few nurses at Temple University Hospital told stewards that they weren’t being paid for their experience.

One of the first to speak up was Jessy Palathinkal, who had become a nurse in India in 1990. She got her U.S. nursing license when she moved here in 1995. But when she started working at Temple, her placement on the pay scale was as though those five years of nursing never happened.

She asked why. Human Resources told her the hospital didn’t count years of experience in foreign countries.

“I was feeling a little bit upset. I had all the certification,” Palathinkal said. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s not right, but what can I do?’”

What Palathinkal did was tell her shop steward. The steward told officers of their union, the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP). And the officers started asking around to see whether anyone else was affected.

They put out a call in their monthly newsletter—did anyone else think that their pay was incorrect for their level of experience? Three more nurses had the same complaint.

Four nurses joined a class-action grievance. Management denied it. That’s when union officers decided this was a hospital-wide issue.

Double standard

Management’s argument was that foreign experience was not comparable to U.S. experience. But the underpaid nurses coming forward had something else in common: they were primarily people of color, mainly from India.

That struck nurse Mary Adamson as unfair. After all, everyone had met the requirements to become a registered nurse in the U.S. “All these people had to take the test, and they passed it,” said Adamson, the union’s membership secretary. “They had the knowledge.”

“Maybe in H.R. they were thinking, because India is a third-world country, maybe they don’t want to take my experience,” Palathinkal said. “I can prove my knowledge and skills here, based on my work in India.”

“They were chipping away at contract language, doing it covertly, and targeting people that they knew would be afraid to speak up,” Adamson said.

An attack on the contract

She and other union officers at Temple saw this pattern of underpayment as an attack on the contract. If members aren’t vigilant, management can underpay nurses in many ways—overtime, shift differential, holiday pay. This was no different.

“Truthfully, their experience is just as valuable as working down the street,” Adamson said. “Health care is health care.”

The officers brought the grievance to the bargaining team, already in contract talks. This wasn’t a question of the difference between nurses trained abroad and those trained in the U.S., they argued—the problem was management not respecting the contract. The union’s 20-member bargaining team agreed to raise the issue in negotiations.

Although it was nothing like 2010, when Temple nurses struck for 28 days, the 2016 contract campaign was vigorous. A hundred nurses packed into bargaining sessions; 1,000 signed petitions for better staffing. The union threatened an informational picket before winning a final contract agreement that included a provision spelling out that foreign nurses’ experience should be treated equally.

Meanwhile the original grievance was headed to arbitration, but at the last minute, management caved and agreed to grant back pay to the original four nurses, in addition to bumping them up to the right place on the wage scale.

Winning clear contract language was a breakthrough, but the fight wasn’t over yet. “That expanded the universe” of nurses who might be affected, Adamson said. At membership meetings the union found more underpaid nurses. Ultimately a dozen were brought up to their correct places on the scale.

Raising consciousness

The whole saga was a new experience for Palathinkal, who had never worked at a union hospital before. At the start, “I didn’t have any knowledge of what I was supposed to do or who was I supposed to talk to,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘This is not going to work.’”

But it did. “The union stood up for me,” she said.

This grievance fight gave union activists a way to get recent hires involved and show them what the union is about. “Not everyone has been through a strike,” Adamson said. “We are constantly trying to raise the consciousness of new people who are coming in.”

Many of the affected nurses have stayed engaged, signing petitions and coming to meetings. “People become more aware of, ‘The boss might be cheating me,’” Adamson said. “Any time we get a win, people are happy about it. It reinforces among the workers that we’re watching.”

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on May 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Samantha Winslow is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.

Trump’s Immigration Gag Order

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Like many employment lawyers in California, I’ve represented a number of undocumented immigrant workers in lawsuits against their employers. Some of my undocumented clients had been sexually harassed, some discriminated against because of their ethnicity, and some had been denied minimum wages for performing menial work.

Of course, these clients and millions of others are working here in violation of our immigration laws. But once they enter the workplace, they are entitled to all of the legal protections guaranteed their American coworkers. The 14th Amendment protects everyone in the United States, regardless of how or why they are here. So any law whose purpose or effect is to deny workers access to the full protection of our employment laws violates the Constitution.

Although I worry about the slow pace of our journey toward workplace equality, I have more immediate concerns these days. The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and immigration executive order are creating barriers to the justice system for entire communities. If you believe there is a reasonable chance that you or a family member will be deported if you file a civil complaint, or even if you call the police to report a crime, you will be less inclined to complain.

Silencing Crime Victims

Look at what is happening in the criminal justice arena. We are barely 100 days into the Trump administration and already we are measuring its detrimental impact on crime reporting. According to the Los Angeles Police, Latino immigrants in L.A. have suddenly become less willing to report serious crimes. Chief Beck reported that complaints by immigrant Latinos dropped 25 percent in 2017 when compared to the same period last year. Reports of domestic violence fell 10 percent. Beck asked us to “imagine a young woman, imagine your daughter, your sister, your mother,” he said, “not reporting a sexual assault, because they are afraid that their family will be torn apart.” While undocumented families have always lived with the fear of deportation, the current political climate is amplifying those fears.

Reports are coming in from around the country showing a strong correlation between the Trump administration’s immigration policies and a drop in crime reporting in immigrant communities. We know reports of rape and domestic violence against women are chronically underreported for many reasons, including the very real fear that the criminal justice system will fail the victim. Now, under the Trump administration, the very act of reporting any crime to law enforcement has become unbearably more dangerous for millions of immigrant families in America.

Just last month California’s Chief Justice said, “When we hear of immigration arrests and the fear of immigration arrests in our state courthouses, I am concerned that that kind of information trickles down into the community, the schools, the churches. The families and people will no longer come to court to protect themselves or cooperate or bear witness,” she said. “I am afraid that will be the end of justice and communities will be less safe and victimization will continue.” As an employment attorney in California, I share these concerns.

Immigration policies that discourage individuals from reporting crime is bad for America. They cannot be justified on the grounds they are part of broader campaign to find and deport “bad hombres.” More crime victims, including legal residents and American citizens, will remain silent and unprotected, and more perpetrators of crime will go unpunished, because of these policies. Whether Trump’s promised border wall is ever built, his anti-immigrant rhetoric and ICE directives have already constructed formidable barriers within America.

Silencing Employees

When those same immigration policies discourage individuals from reporting violations of employment laws, our workplaces become more dangerous too. Imagine the conversations immigrant families across America will be having about their workplace rights in the coming years. Workers will be forced to decide whether the risks of deportation of themselves or a family member makes it worth challenging wage theft, discrimination, harassment or workplace safety violations. If an undocumented worker complains about the absence of a safety guard on a factory machine or the lack of personal safety devices by filing an OSHA claim or civil lawsuit, she might be arrested and torn away from her American-born children. So, she doesn’t complain, and the workplace protections we have fought for are placed in jeopardy for all.

In the past I have assured undocumented workers that prosecuting employment claims in court likely will not subject them to heightened ICE scrutiny. I continue to believe this to be true today. Although lawsuits are open to the public, they are in practice private affairs that concern only the litigants. Employees are almost never required to step foot near the actual courthouse where their cases are pending. Most cases settle out of court and are subject to confidentiality. The immigration status of the employee is deemed by law to be entirely irrelevant and non-discoverable in almost every employment case.

Trump’s deportation directives will not change the way employment lawsuits are resolved, whether they involve citizens, legal residents or undocumented immigrants. But his threats of deportation, coupled with stories of immigrant arrests in halls of justice across America, will make it far less likely that an undocumented immigrant will complain to anyone about working conditions.

Fewer immigrant workers will file employment-related claims during the Trump years, and not just those who are undocumented. In sanctuary cities like San Francisco where I practice law, the impact is not likely to be as great as elsewhere. In communities that support the Trump immigration agenda and accept his immigrant narrative, however, the fear of deportation is likely to keep a lot more workers quiet. And we know from long experience that any governmental policy designed to silence complaints about working conditions is not in our national interest.

About the Author: Patrick Kitchin is a labor rights attorney with offices in San Francisco and Alameda, California. He has represented thousands of employees in both individual and class action cases involving violations of California and federal labor laws since founding his firm in 1999. According to retail experts and the media, his wage and hour class actions against Polo Ralph Lauren, Gap, Banana Republic, and Chico’s led to substantial changes in the retail industry’s labor practices in California. Patrick is a 1992 graduate of The University of Michigan Law School and is personally and professionally committed to the protection of workers’ rights everywhere.

On May Day, Working People Across Borders Are United to Build Power

Monday, May 1st, 2017

Throughout North America and globally, May 1 is a day to remember and respect workers’ rights as human rights. As working people take to the streets in communities around the world, a quieter but equally important movement of workers on both sides of the United States–Mexico border has been growing.

Whatever language we speak and wherever we call home, working people are building power, supporting labor rights and fighting corruption—and we’re doing it together.

Our agenda is simple. We oppose efforts to divide and disempower working people, and we oppose border walls and xenophobia anywhere and everywhere. We want trade laws that benefit working people, not corporations. And we want economic rules that raise wages, broaden opportunity and hold corporations accountable.

Nearly 20 years ago, many independent and democratic Mexican unions began an alliance with the AFL-CIO.

We’ve developed a good working relationship. We’ve engaged in important dialogue and identified shared priorities. Now we are ready to take our solidarity to the next level, turning words into deeds and plans into action.

You see, we believe no fundamental difference exists between us. We share common values rooted in social justice and a common vision of the challenges before us.

The corporate elite in the United States and Mexico have been running roughshod over working people for too long. Corporate-written trade and immigration policies have hurt workers on both sides of the border.  We each have experienced the devastation caused by economic rules written by and for the superrich.

Those of us in the United States can see how unfair economic policies have destroyed Mexico’s small farms and pushed many Mexicans to make the perilous trek north or settle in dangerous cities. Many in Mexico are worried about their own families, some of whom might be immigrants in the United States today. Workers in the United States share their concern, especially as anti-immigrant sentiment has become disturbingly mainstream.

The truth is more and more politicians are exploiting the insecurity and pain caused by corporate economic rules for political gain by stoking hatred and scapegoating Mexicans and other Latin American immigrants.

We will not be divided like this. Workers north and south of the border find the idea of a border wall to be offensive and stand against the criminalization of immigrant workers. We need real immigration reform that keeps families together, raises labor standards and gives a voice to all workers.

Instead of erecting walls, American and Mexican leaders should focus on rewriting the economic rules so working people can get ahead and have a voice in the workplace. One of our top priorities is to transform trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement into a tool for raising wages and strengthening communities in both countries.

We’re outraged by the kidnapping and murder of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College, as well as too many other atrocities to list.

America’s unions are democratic in nature and independent of both business and government, but that’s mostly not true in Mexico. A key step in ending violence and impunity in Mexico and raising wages and standards on both sides of the border is to protect union rights and the freedom of association in Mexico.

We’re united. We’re resolute. We are ready to win dignity and justice for all workers.

This blog was originally posted on aflcio.org on May 1, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Richard L. Trumka is president of the 12.5-million-member AFL-CIO. An outspoken advocate for social and economic justice, Trumka is the nation’s clearest voice on the critical need to ensure that all workers have a good job and the power to determine their wages and working conditions. He heads the labor movement’s efforts to create an economy based on broadly shared prosperity and to hold elected officials and employers accountable to working families.

Thanks to Obama, immigrants are getting better jobs

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

The vast majority of undocumented immigrants who have been given the temporary ability to legally work in the United States are currently employed or attending school—helping them make “significant contributions” to various labor markets—according to a national survey released Tuesday by immigrant advocacy groups.

The survey took a look at 1,308 people who received legal work authorization and deportation relief through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, an 2012 executive action from the Obama administration aimed at assisting undocumented immigrants who grew up here in the United States.

According to the report, 95 percent of survey respondents are currently employed or enrolled in school. And nearly two-thirds of them reported receiving better pay under DACA, with almost half saying they found a job that “better fits my education and training.” Others said they now have a job with better working conditions.

The report also found that DACA recipients have gone into industries like educational and health services, nonprofit work, wholesale and retail trade, and professional and business services. Close to 6 percent of respondents started their own businesses—twice as high as the entrepreneur rate among the general American public.

The impact of DACA recipients on the U.S. economy has been enormous. Average hourly wages for DACA recipients have gone up by 42 percent, roughly an increase from $9.83 per hour to $13.96 per hour, according to the survey. More than half of all respondents said they recently purchased their first car, while 12 percent purchased their first home.

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Sigifredo Pizana Hernandez, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, attends the “Rally for Citizenship” on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 10, 2013, where tens of thousands of immigrants and their supporters are expected to rally for immigration reform. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

“These large purchases [of vehicles] matter for state revenue, as most states collect between 3 percent and 6 percent of the purchase price in sales tax, along with additional registration and title fees,” study authors wrote. “The added revenue for states comes in addition to the safety benefits of having more licensed and insured drivers on the roads.”

The survey was conducted by UC San Diego Professor Tom Wong, the advocacy group National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the immigrant rights group United We Dream, and the think tank Center for American Progress. (Disclosure: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent website housed within the Center for American Progress.)

This survey echoes findings from a similar report conducted last year, which found that DACA recipients were able to get jobs that better matched their skills and that paid them better wages.

This research helps present a clearer understanding about the impact of the DACA initiative, which from its inception has received sharp criticism from Republicans who say the policy is a show of President Obama’s “executive amnesty overreach.” In fact, Obama’s actions are legal and based on a decades-old legal precedent for the executive branch to exercise prosecutorial discretion for some immigrants who have “non-priority enforcement status.”

About 741,546 undocumented immigrants have benefited under DACA as of mid-September, according to the latest U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data.

However, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump—who typically refers to immigrants in disparaging terms and has promised to build a wall between the United States and Mexico—has indicated that he would dismantle the DACA initiative altogether if he becomes president.

This blog was originally posted on ThinkProgress on October 18, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Esther Yu-Hsi Lee is the Immigration Reporter for ThinkProgress. She received her B.A. in Psychology and Middle East and Islamic Studies and a M.A. in Psychology from New York University. A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiary, Esther is passionate about immigration issues from all sides of the debate. She is also a White House Champion of Change recipient. Esther is originally from Los Angeles, CA.

Supreme Court Should Approve Policies that Will Provide Much-needed Relief to Immigrant Working Families

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016

Richard L. TrumkaWe applaud the Supreme Court’s decision to take up the DAPA and expanded DACA case, which will have profound consequences for our immigrant brothers and sisters who live and work every day under a cloud of fear, as well as for the state of racial and economic justice in our country. We are confident the court will reverse the decision of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and allow the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policies to go into effect, affording millions of people the opportunity to apply for work authorization and temporary protection from deportation. We encourage the Department of Homeland Security to take all steps necessary to ensure these much-needed policies can be implemented as soon as possible after the court issues its decision this summer.

At a time when working people feel increasingly disposable and deportable, when corporations are allowed to profit from the mass imprisonment of people of color, when our government is rounding up refugee families from their beds at night, and when we are confronting at so many levels the racial bias deeply entrenched in our laws and their enforcement, the outcome of this case will have a significant impact on the direction our nation takes moving forward.

At heart, the question the Supreme Court will consider is whether our immigration enforcement regime will be allowed to take modest steps to begin to protect and empower hardworking people, or whether it will continue to serve as a tool to exclude and oppress.

Much is at stake in this case, but working people do not need a court ruling to tell them what is just. In the face of criminalization, exploitation and base attempts to sow division, we will continue to work in every community in the country to build what we believe is the only true antidote: solidarity.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on January 19, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Richard Trumka is the president of AFL-CIO, the largest organization of labor unions in the country.  He is an outspoken advocate for social and economic justice.  Trumka heads the labor movement’s efforts to create an economy based broadly on shared prosperity and to hold government and employers accountable to working families.

Ship Builder Settles $5 Million Lawsuit After Forcing Indians To Work And Live in Awful Conditions

Friday, December 18th, 2015

EstherYuHsiLeeA ship building and repair company will pay $5 million to settle a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) race and national origin discrimination lawsuit with 476 Indian guest workers who worked at the company’s facilities after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While Indian workers lived in squalid containers “the size of a double-wide trailer,” non-Indian workers were not subjected to the same conditions.

According to the lawsuit, Signal International recruited Indian guest workers through the federal H-2B guest worker program to work at its facilities in Texas and Mississippi and forced them to pay to live in deplorable conditions. In its lawsuit, the EEOC alleged that Signal forced “the men to pay $1,050 a month to live in overcrowded, unsanitary, guarded camps. As many as 24 men were forced to live in containers the size of a double-wide trailer, while non-Indian workers were not required to live in these camps.”

H-2B visas are generally used for low-skilled or seasonal work, which are valid for ten months, with the chance to extend visa renewals up to three years. As part of the visa program, employees should be reimbursed for the consulate interview fee, visa fee, border crossing fee, and transportation costs associated with obtaining their H-2B visas. Employees aren’t always reimbursed for the H-2 visa process. They are also tied to the employers during their stay in the United States.”

“We are very pleased Signal has accepted responsibility for its wrongdoing and that these workers, who have waited 10 long years for justice, will now receive compensation and can move on with their lives,” Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director for EEOC’s Birmingham District, said in a statement. “In many cases, these men paid thousands of dollars to come to the United States, only to be subjected to inhumane conditions and exploitation after they arrived.”

An estimated 66,000 H-2B visas are distributed on an annual basis. But employers often us the H-2 visa programs to take advantage of legal guest workers. An Economic Policy Institute study found that temporary legal guest workers are as likely to be subjected to low wages as undocumented workers.

The $1.1 trillion omnibus funding bill passed Friday included a provision to dramatically increase the number of H-2B visas. The AFL-CIO and the International Labor Recruitment Working Group criticized the visa provision because it could potentially roll back “protections for low-wage workers and guest workers… while lowering the protections for workers,” Joleen Rivera, a legislative representative at the AFL-CIO, said.

Still, the 476 Indian guest workers are not the only exploited workers from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Some undocumented immigrant laborers helping to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina were threatened with deportation and were often unpaid for the work they did.

This blog was originally posted on ThinkProgress on December 18, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Esther Yu-Hsi Lee. Esther Yu-Hsi Lee is the Immigration Reporter for ThinkProgress. She received her B.A. in Psychology and Middle East and Islamic Studies and a M.A. in Psychology from New York University. A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiary, Esther is passionate about immigration issues from all sides of the debate. She is also a White House Champion of Change recipient. Esther is originally from Los Angeles, CA.

We Rise: Building Immigrant Working People Power

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

Richard TrumkaA year ago the president announced a series of executive actions on immigration. Today is a fitting time to honor those who compelled him to act.

Around the country, courageous working people demanded an end to the deportation regime that was tearing communities, families and workplaces apart. They shut down detention centers, turned around buses, and spoke truth to power?—?all at great personal risk. They banded together to prevent the deportation of community members and loved ones who were in removal proceedings, and they won many cases. These brave actions and the determined clamor for #Not1More deportation led to the announcement of the historic deferred action program that will allow millions of parents to live and work without fear.

Communities around the country also rejected the notion that their local law enforcement officials should serve as agents of the federal immigration enforcement machinery. They had important discussions about due process and constitutional protections. Over time, more than 300 jurisdictions enacted ordinances declaring that they would focus their resources on effective community policing and place reasonable limits on their cooperation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This groundswell thoroughly discredited the Secure Communities program, a federally run program launched in 2008, and resulted in its termination in 2014.

These examples inspire us, and they also show us the playbook for how you make change in the nation’s capital— you force it from the ground up. Today as we confront legal and legislative obstruction and the rebranding of failed enforcement policies, the question we should all be asking is what do we push for next?

For the labor movement, the answer is simple. We know that every worker in our country has rights, and we want each worker to be able to exercise those rights, regardless of immigration status.

While this may sound like a simple idea, we are a long way from that reality now. The sad truth is that employers routinely hire undocumented workers with a wink and a nod and then fire them when they seek to organize a union or complain about unpaid wages or unsafe working conditions. And when new immigrants muster the courage to stand in a picket line, join a boycott, or negotiate for fair compensation, employers are still able to retaliate in ways that can set deportation proceedings in motion.

This is just not right; it’s an #Injury2All and the wages and standards for all working people in our country suffer as a result of these efforts to keep immigrant workers scared and silent. Here in Washington, we have been talking for years to Congress and the administration about the need to fix these problems, but we have yet to see the concrete changes that our nation’s workers so urgently need.

So we see this anniversary as an important opportunity to sound a new call to action. We intend to take our demands for basic worker protections to every community and every immigration office in the country. Our unions and allies will raise workers’ cases from many sectors of our economy and make clear that we cannot reasonably expect to end wage theft and exploitation without protecting those workers with the courage to take a stand.

From Chicago to Los Angeles to Austin and everywhere in between, our movement reaffirms what we have long understood, that an injury to one worker is an injury to all. Our federal agencies have the discretion to provide concrete protections to workers who exercise their most fundamental rights, but it is up to us to make them act.

Polite conversations in Washington aren’t working. These changes will only come if we demand them, from the ground up. Working people are ready for this fight, and it will be coming soon to a community near you.

We will keep pushing forward to demand what is just. Please join us.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on November 20, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Richard L. Trumka was elected AFL-CIO president in September 2009. He served as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer since 1995.

Labor Board Deals Blow to Fired Immigrant Strikers in Wisconsin

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

WISCONSIN—The union campaign at Palermo’s Pizza in Milwaukee.—which offers a test case in integrating labor, immigrant and community-based organizing—was dealt a painful blow last week by the regional National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB told both sides it would not find the company’s mass firing of immigrant strikers to be illegal, would not protect other strikers from being “permanently replaced,” and would not order the company to enter collective bargaining.

“The Labor Board, it wasn’t very favorable to our cause,” Palermo’s striker Raul de la Torre tells Working in These Times in Spanish. “There was ample evidence to show that the company violated the rights of a majority of workers.”

The decision was announced by labor and management on November 21 and is expected to be issued in writing by the NLRB this week. Organizers celebrated some portions of the NLRB’s decision, including an expected complaint (similar to an indictment) against Palermo’s on other counts of union-busting, including nine other firings. But they pledged to appeal the NLRB’s choice not to pursue the mass termination–a significant legal setback for immigrant worker organizing–and not to require the company to negotiate.

Voces de La Frontera, a low-wage workers’ center and immigrant rights group, has been organizing Palermo’s workers around issues like staffing and wages since 2008 and has helped spur a nationwide boycott of Palermo’s products. Voces Executive Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz said the NLRB’s validation of some of the charges against Palermo’s offered “very good affirmation for the boycott.”

But Neumann-Ortiz called the decision not to prosecute the mass firings “a travesty of justice in terms of immigrant worker rights” that shows how immigration laws are being applied in a way that “is undermining federally protected rights for all workers.” She said workers and their supporters “fully intend on getting that decision overturned both in the streets and in the legal system.”

In an emailed statement, Palermo’s President Giacomo Fallucca wrote, “We are proud that the NLRB decision confirms that we complied with the applicable laws. Voces de la Frontera should be embarrassed that its blatantly false claims have been rejected so soundly.” Dismissing the NLRB’s remaining charges as “minor technicalities,” Fallucca described the decision as “a major victory for Palermo’s and our workers” and urged Voces to “get out of the way” of an NLRB election.

Richard Saks, an attorney for the Palermo’s Workers Union, said it was “significant that the NLRB found Palermo’s guilty of a wide range of various serious violations of federal labor law, including retaliation and surveiling and interfering with employee rights to support the union and engage in protected activities.” But he said the union was “disappointed” that the regional NLRB had not found the firing of 75 strikers to be against the law.

As I’ve previously reported for Working in These Times, Palermo’s workers began actively pursuing unionization in the spring with support from Voces, the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers (USW) union (an AFL-CIO affiliate). In May, three-quarters of production workers signed a petition seeking recognition as the Palermo’s Workers Union. By law, companies can choose to recognize a union based on such a demonstration of majority support. Or they can then be forced to recognize a union if workers win an NLRB-supervised election.

Palermo’s refused to recognize the union, and the same day, workers were told that they had 28 days (soon reduced to 10) to prove that their immigration status authorized them to work in the United States.

In response, workers submitted a petition to the NLRB seeking a union election. Many also went on strike. Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in what appears to be the first application of an agreement with the Department of Labor designed to avoid manipulation of ICE for union-busting, announced on June 7 that it was suspending immigration enforcement at Palermo’s. But the next day, Palermo’s fired 75 striking workers. Management called this legal compliance; organizers called it obvious union-busting.

The workers have now been on strike for almost six months. The union election has been repeatedly delayed, both by successive union-busting allegations filed by Voces and, before that, by a petition from a rival union, the United Food & Commercial Workers, to appear as an alternative to the Palermo Workers Union (the PWU is expected to affiliate with the USW). Because of the gravity of the union-busting allegations, the change in the make-up of the potential pool of voters (as strikers are replaced by new hires), and the wide margin by which workers originally petitioned management, USW and Voces began arguing that a fair election was no longer possible, and that the NLRB should issue a bargaining order requiring Palermo’s to proceed directly to negotiations with the PWU instead. Such orders are rare.

The NLRB strategy carried risks from the beginning. Because of the opportunities they provide employers to intimidate workers, and because of the limited leverage they offer to compel employers to actually negotiate in good faith, some major unions have essentially abandoned NLRB elections, opting instead for “comprehensive campaigns” to pressure employers to voluntarily grant union recognition based on a showing of majority support.

Interviewed in September, AFL-CIO Director of Immigration and Community Action Ana Avendaño described the Palermo’s struggle as an example where filing for an NLRB election might be serving an important purpose, because it provided a formal demonstration to ICE that the workers were actively organizing, thus securing the suspension of enforcement. Avendaño said that could make the NLRB filing worthwhile, despite the risks, and even if actual union recognition was won through a voluntary agreement reached because of the strike and the comprehensive campaign.

But the ICE letter didn’t stop Palermo’s from firing 75 workers, and the regional NLRB is not planning to prosecute those terminations. According to Saks, the NLRB “is essentially saying that the company would have acted that [same] way absent the strike and absent the unionization effort.” He added that because the NLRB was not finding the mass firing to be illegal, it also would not consider the strike to be an “Unfair Labor Practices” strike, and thus Palermo’s could legally “permanently replace” those strikers who haven’t been fired.

Saks said that the NLRB’s choice not to issue a bargaining order means that “there will probably have to be an election at some point for union recognition.” He said the Board has not indicated how quickly that could happen. If the regional NLRB’s decision stands, it could wait to schedule an election until after reaching resolution on all the charges it is proceeding with against Palermo’s.

That leaves union activists hoping for one of three results: Getting the regional NLRB’s decision changed on appeal; winning a majority of the current voter pool in an NLRB election; or winning union recognition and the reinstatement of the fired workers directly from Palermo’s through its comprehensive campaign. “All of those options are still on the table,” said Neumann-Ortiz. She said that while the favorable aspects of the NLRB’s decision provide validation for the workers’ allegations, the disappointing ones demonstrate “the importance of continued public support for these workers to have justice prevail.”

So far, the comprehensive campaign’s main lever has been a consumer boycott of Palermo’s pizzas, including pressure on Costco, the chain where the majority of Palermo’s product is sold. Organizers credit behind-the-scenes pressure from Costco—which benefits from a progressive reputation as an “anti-Walmart”—for spurring Palermo’s to seek a meeting with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in September. This month, De la Torre and other Palermo’s workers made a national tour, demonstrating at several Costco locations before arriving at headquarters in Washington state, where they met with officials from the company.

De la Torre described the meeting as “very positive” and said the Costco representatives “were surprised to hear what Palermo’s has done to the workers.” At the end of the meeting, said De la Torre, a Costco official “made the comment that if the charges that we made against the company were validated [by the NLRB], they could buy their pizza from any other company.”

The campaign has also targeted universities, including the campuses of the University of Wisconsin. UW-Madison undergraduate Allie Gardner said the boycott is “absolutely a student issue, because we’re on campus and we’re the ones who are paying tuition to go to this school that is then creating contracts with corporations that aren’t honoring the labor policies that we’ve created as an institution.” Gardner is a board member of the United States Students Association and of the statewide UW student council, both of which have passed resolutions calling on universities to support the boycott. The licensing committee at UW-Madison has unanimously called for the university to end its Palermo’s contract; students are pressing the university’s chancellor to honor that recommendation. The UW-Milwaukee student senate recently voted to endorse a boycott as well.

Last month, in an AFL-CIO report and legislative testimony by workers, the campaign also questioned state subsidies provided to Palermo’s.

 “With the progress of the strike and the boycott so far, I feel happy,” said De la Torre. “But I’m not yet satisfied.”

Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers is an In These Times sponsor.

This post was originally posted on Working In These Times on November 28, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet.  After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years.  His website is http://www.josheidelson.com. Twitter: @josheidelson E-mail: “jeidelson” at “gmail” dot com.

NLRB Chairman: New Penalties Needed for Union-Busting of Undocumented Workers

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

NEW YORK CITYNational Labor Relations Board Chairman Mark Pearce says his agency could pursue new remedies to punish employers who retaliate against undocumented immigrants for organizing. Last year Pearce interpreted a 2002 Supreme Court decision to rule out back pay as a remedy in such cases, limiting the NLRB’s options of financial penalties.

Interviewed Friday by Working In These Times, Pearce called the tension between immigration law and labor law “extremely frustrating,” and the tools available for protecting undocumented workers against employer crimes “insufficient.”

“The concept of ‘made whole’ by us needs to be examined,” said Pearce, referring to a legal guideline for NLRB remedies. “Perhaps there are things within that concept that we can utilize. Now I can’t articulate what they are, because we’ve got to consider it.”

Pearce made these comments following a forum hosted by Cornell University’s ILR School. In his remarks to the assembled attorneys, Pearce said he “had angst over” his ruling in the NLRB’s Mezonos Maven Bakery case last year. In that 3-0 decision, the NLRB found that a bakery that fired a group of workers who had collectively complained about a supervisor could not be required to pay them back pay, because they were undocumented.

The Mezonos decision cited the US Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB, which overturned an NLRB ruling granting back pay to an undocumented worker who was fired after trying to form a union (the NLRB is tasked with enforcing and interpreting private-sector labor law, but federal courts have the power to overturn the NLRB). Writing for a 5-4 majority, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that “awarding back pay in a case like this not only trivializes the immigration laws, it also condones and encourages future violations.”

At Friday’s forum, Pearce said that the Hoffman decision had forced him to deny back pay in Mezonos and “continues to create that problem where an employer could get away scot-free” with firing undocumented union supporters. Pearce said he had “struggled with the tension between the National Labor Relations Act, immigration law, and the rights of undocumented workers.” While the NLRB can still use non-economic remedies in such a situation, like requiring a company to post a notice saying it will comply with the law in the future, Pearce said that “seems a little empty” without a financial cost attached.

After the forum, Pearce told Working In These Times that the tension he’d identified could be resolved if a future Supreme Court case offers the NLRB “a more promising, or a more significant remedy to be applied for discriminatees who happen to be undocumented. But otherwise, it would probably have to take a change in the law.”

In the meantime, said Pearce, “the board has a certain degree of discretion with respect to the remedies.” He noted that the NLRB is legally empowered to “make whole” workers who are illegally punished or discriminated against, but is barred from assessing punitive damages against employers. That means that financial penalties against companies generally come in the form of back paywhich Mezonos took off the table for undocumented workers. “So exploration would have to be had,” said Pearce, “as to the full parameters of [the ‘made whole’] concept, to see whether or not a remedy could be fleshed out [for] those kinds of violations.”

Such a move “would be significant,” said Ana Avendaño, the AFL-CIO’s director of immigration and community action. “Because under the current structure, employers basically get a free bite at the apple. They can violate the law with impunity.”

Interviewed Saturday by phone, Avendaño disputed Pearce’s view that the Supreme Court’s Hoffman ruling required the NLRB to deny back pay in Mezonos. She said that a lower-level NLRB judge had been right to find that Hoffman didn’t apply in Mezonos, because in Hoffman it was the undocumented worker that had been proven to have violated immigration law, and in Mezonos it was the employer. Avendaño, who was among the attorneys arguing for back pay in Mezonos, said she hopes the second circuit court will reject the NLRB’s Mezonos reasoning and send the case back for a new ruling.

But Avendaño echoed Pearce’s criticism of Hoffman, which she said “has a chilling effect” on undocumented immigrants seeking to organize at work. Ultimately, she said, new legislation will be necessary to restore such workers’ rights, perhaps as part of a broader immigration reform.

Still, Avendaño welcomed the NLRB Chairman’s comments about the possibility of other remedies under current law. Given that the law bars punitive damages, and Hoffman restricts back pay awards to workers, Avendaño said, “one idea that advocates haveand the legal basis for this is soundis that there could be a fund established, where employers would still have to pay the back pay, but it would go into the fund, not directly to the worker.”

Avendaño said such a “special remedy” would be “less than ideal,” but would be an improvement over the status quo, where employers face a “perverse incentive … to just violate the immigration law, and then violate the [National Labor Relations Act], and have no responsibility for it.”

If a fitting test case reaches the NLRB, said Pearce, “We would have to see whether the board has that kind of authority, or is there something that causes us to feel that we are able to create an exception to the standard remedy.” Avendaño said the AFL-CIO hopes that will be the case: “If there was an opportunity, and we may have one soon, then we certainly are going to advance that argument.”

This article was originally posted on In these Times on October 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

Workers and Activists Look Ahead after Gov. Brown Vetoes Pro-Immigrant Bills

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

As two critical bills waited quietly on California Governor Jerry Brown’s desk last weekend, immigrants across the state held their breath, hoping that the progressive legislation could affect the national immirgation debate. By Sunday night, the anticipation gave way to disillusionment with two stunning vetoes.

The highly anticipated Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would have enacted major protections for tens of thousands of housekeepers, nannies and other caregivers and closed loopholes ignored by federal labor law. It would have extended California’s policies for overtime pay and workers’ compensation, and helped ease in-house workers’ arduous, sometimes-abusive work routines by providing for a set amount of sleep and the ability to cook one’s own food.

Above all, the Bill of Rights would place California alongside New York (where similar legislation has already passed) in formally recognizing the rights and unique needs of this burgeoning, cross-cutting sector. The bill won support from a huge array of groups, from labor unions to celebrities, precisely because of the myriad social issues that domestic work braids together: the changing demographics of the workforce, the challenges of securing affordable childcare or elder care for families, and the struggles of immigrant workers, particularly women of color, in a largely unregulated industry.

But Brown scrapped the bill (sadly following an earlier veto by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) and aligned himself with the business lobby, led by the California Chamber of Commerce, which had complained that the provisions of the bill would be unworkable and overly burdensome for employers.

The California Domestic Workers Coalition will continue its campaign (with plans to deploy sponge bombs to help Brown “clean up his act”) by building on its growing network of allies, including women’s rights, labor and faith groups. Looking ahead, Katie Joaquin, a Filipino community activist with the California Domestic Workers Coalition, tells Working In These Times, “We’re going to continue to build upon those relationships. And the first step is to hold Governor Brown accountable for what we view as a blatant lack of leadership.”

Inspired by the New York example, Joaquin says, the California bill is part of a movement for what the National Domestic Workers Alliance calls “an alternative vision of care,” which is based on sustainable working conditions and better training in the care industries, in order to meet the growing need for caregivers as the population ages. “We need to have a vision for training and caring for caregivers at the same time that we’re making care accessible for families,” Joaquin says.

Immigration policy complicates the labor struggle. Brown delivered a one-two punch to California’s migrant communities by also vetoing the Trust Act, which would have restrained the power of local police to route arrestees suspected of immigration violations into the custody of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That means that the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, including domestic caregivers and other low-wage workers, will continue.

Immigrant rights activists had pushed the Trust Act to counter the Obama administration’s enforcement regime, particularly the Secure Communities program, which encourages federal and local police to collaborate to nab undocumented immigrants. The program mirrors Arizona’s infamous SB1070 law and other state initiatives that threaten to expand racial profiling of Latinos and feed the federal deportation machine (which hasn’t significantly eased up in spite of the administration’s slippery claims of refraining from deportating “low priority” cases, such as students with clean records).

Still, aside from the painful vetoes, Brown managed to approve more modest pro-immigrant measures, such as allowing driver’s licenses for some undocumented immigrants (a move apparently aimed at the youth who would qualify for temporary immigration relief and work permits under the White House’s new “deferred action” policy).

The problem is that making it easier for undocumented workers to drive isn’t going to prevent them from being pulled over and ensnared in deportation proceedings. A young man named Juan Santiago told the Associated Press:

he was pleased he would be able to get from his home in Madera to his college classes 30 miles away once his work permit application is approved. But he said the measure does little for his mother, who brought him across the Arizona desert into the U.S. when he was 11.

“It was a happy and a sad day for us,” Santiago said. “The fact that the governor vetoed the TRUST Act, it means there’s nothing to protect the rest of my family members.”

The legislative changes that immigrants most need now are those that protect the whole neighborhood–at work, in school and at home. In an email to Working In These Times, Chris Newman, legal director of California-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), one of the leading advocates for the Trust Act, says:

Equality demands that all Californians have faith in law enforcement, and the vetoes send a message that whether it’s civil rights, labor rights, or public safety, Jerry Brown does not respect the interests of immigrant workers in California.

While the vetoes were a blow to the movement, passing pro-immigrant policies is not an end in itself. Even in New York, where a hard-fought Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is already on the books, workers have faced difficulty in using the law to directly challenge employers over workplace violations.

Building political savvy and leverage on the street level is critical, with or without supportive legislation. As NDLON activist Pablo Alvarado wrote on the group’s blog, the governor “can veto a bill but he cannot veto a movement.” Ultimately, it’s the community’s power, not the letter of the law, that defines justice.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 3, 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.

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