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Trump reversal of Obama-era labor rule is great news for corporations

Friday, June 23rd, 2017

A transgender woman is suing McDonald’s and the owner of the franchised restaurant she worked for after allegedly experiencing sexual harassment and discrimination.

La’Ray Reed said a coworker asked if she were a “boy or girl,” “top or bottom,” or what her “role” was “in the bedroom.” She said she was groped and spied on while using the public toilet.

But for Reed to hold McDonald’s responsible for her alleged mistreatment, her lawyers have to prove that McDonald’s should be held responsible as a joint employer—not just the owners of the franchised restaurant. There is a question of whether the Labor Department’s recent decision to rescind the standard for determining who is a joint employer will hinder her ability to seek justice. The Obama administration’s standard went beyond simply looking at who sets wages and hires people, and considered a worker’s “economic dependency” on the business.

McDonald’s has resisted this legal responsibility for many years, and says it does not have control over things like pay and working conditions at franchised restaurants. In 2016, McDonald’s settled a wage-theft class action through a $3.75 million payment that allowed it to dodge responsibility. McDonald’s released a statement that said it “reconfirms that it is not the employer of or responsible for employees of its independent franchisees.”

Industry groups have been pushing against efforts to call businesses like McDonald’s joint employers for many years now. In 2015, Matt Haller, a lobbyist at the International Franchise Association called a 2015 National Labor Relations Board ruling on whether a recycling company could be called a joint employer, “a knife-to-the throat issue for the franchise model.” He told the Washington Post, “You’d be hard pressed to find a business that shouldn’t be concerned about the impact of this joint employer standard.” Haller said IFA was “pleased” at the department’s decision to rescind guidance this month.

But there is certainly hope for La’Ray Reed, and other workers like her who are experiencing discrimination or issues such as wage theft at work. Since the joint employer guidance does not have the full force of law, it is not as important to these cases as existing tests for determining if an employer relationship exists. Under the economic realities test, applied under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Labor Standards Act, among other laws, a relationship exists if someone is economically dependent on that business. Paul Secunda, professor of law at Marquette University, who teaches on employment discrimination law, said this test will play a much bigger role in determining whether an employee can hold McDonald’s responsible for discrimination.

“Just the Trump administration withdrawing this guidance does not mean in any way that these claims are doomed to failure or are otherwise are not plausible,” Secunda said. “Because what matters the most with employment law is focusing on employment discrimination under Title VII and what other state laws apply there.”

‘This control standard is the standard that has been in place since the 1950s and ‘60s, and so it doesn’t make sense to have different standards under different laws. It only makes sense to hold liable those who control what happens in the workplace,” Secunda added.

Representatives of Fight for $15, a group of fast food workers, teachers, and adjunct professors advocating for better pay backed by the Service Employees International Union, said McDonald’s has failed to enforce its own policies.

“The growing number of allegations suggests a failure by McDonald’s to enforce the zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment outlined in its Operations and Training and Policies for Franchisees manuals,” the labor group told BuzzFeed.

“There are terms and conditions that are set by the national parent McDonald’s,” Secunda said. “It has a policy on sexual harassment and equal opportunity that all its franchisees have to meet: that it will not tolerate sexual harassment whether based on transgender status or otherwise in the workplace. [The argument is] that McDonald’s parent company exercises meaningful control—that is being free from sexual harassment and demeaning conduct in the workplace.”

None of this means that any parent corporation is responsible for any franchisees’ lability, Secunda said, since every case must be decided on its facts, but where employers do exercise meaningful control over employees, there should be a possibility that they will be held responsible.

The decision to rescind this joint-employer guidance will by no means kill any possibility of holding a corporation, such as McDonald’s, responsible, and a judge would be more likely to consider the rule of law first, Secunda said, but the joint employer guidance would still be a helpful resource for the defendant to have in its arsenal.

“If I were a conservative jurist who wanted it to come out on the corporate conservative side of the world, I see that they could use this. ‘You know they’re the expert agency, so they can’t be wrong,’” Secunda said. “But I just think that would be disingenuous, because the agency has obviously changed its position based on the politics on the administration. And this should be an answer that has nothing to do with politics. It should be based on rule of law.”

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on June 22, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a journalist covering education, investments, politics, crime, and LGBT issues.

A Day in the Life of a Day Laborer

Friday, June 16th, 2017

Come sunrise, the men fill the street corner, among them Luis, quietly sitting by himself, nurturing hopes for work today.

There was no work yesterday, nothing the day before and nothing for weeks.

Still, the 50-year-old Guatemalan, who didn’t want his last name used, waits in the growing heat, saying he has no other choice.

He waits even though he hates day labor work, because he says it is sometimes dangerous, barely enough to live on, and some of the men on the street corner have bullied and hurt him on the job.

The factory where he worked for almost a decade shut down a few years ago, he can’t find any work as a caregiver, and, he says, the factories aren’t hiring or they are shutting down.

He says he has papers to show he is a legal resident in the United States, but he suspects that many of the men standing around him don’t have that status.

That’s not the case for Carlos Sanchez, 70, and Gustavo Almaraz, 28, who are standing nearby. Carlos says he is Puerto Rican and Gustavo says he was born in the United States.

But they say that many workers lack papers and so they suffer. Often, the contractors who hire the men off the street corner “automatically think you don’t have papers,” explains Almaraz. And that’s a problem, because they want to take advantage of you. “Some of the people here (doing the hiring) are mean,” he adds.

The two also say they know how to take care of themselves.

Sanchez says he knows how to do a lot of jobs and how to deal with people, starting out decades ago as a migrant worker earning 35 cents an hour. And Almaraz says he has picked up enough skills that he can virtually take every job offered on the street corner.

“It’s all on you,” Almaraz explains. “You see a car coming in and you have to go up and say, ‘Hey boss, what do you need?’”

The secret is finding a good boss and somebody who needs you for a long time, he says. It also involves knowing, he says, when to walk away from someone who abuses you. “I had a good-paying job with an electrician, but he started to become disrespectful. He started to yell and insult me.”

Almaraz says he won’t work for less than $15 an hour, but surveys indicate laborers often earn minimum wages or less, and sometimes nothing. “Nobody can live on less than $100 a day,” Almaraz says.

Near them is a 65-year-old Mexican: a short, stocky, balding man, who says he has been doing day labor ever since coming to the United States without papers 12 years ago.

He hasn’t been able to find work and so he says he will take less than the others. “Sometimes they don’t pay. It’s very difficult. There is no work and everything is expensive,” he says in Spanish.

Time passes, and the men disappear from the street corner. Some are off to work, getting into the trucks and vans that pick them up.

As soon as someone pulls up onto the gasoline station’s street corner, the men rush them, huddling by the vehicle’s windows, bargaining furiously as they tout their skills. And some just wander off.

Not Luis. He sits waiting. Some jobs he won’t take.  “I have friends who were injured doing roofing, and they went home (to Guatemala) handicapped,” he says.

Not too long ago, he took a moving job with another worker. It was supposed to be an easy three-hour job. But the items they moved were so heavy, he sat at home for three days afterward, his hands shaking.

“A lot of people will do this work. They don’t speak the language so they have to. But I don’t have to,” he says.

He waits along with more than 100,000 others who gather daily on dozens of street corners across the United States, according to figures from 2006. It is a world, where workers are often cheated out of their wages, injured on the job and then left without medical care, according to a 2006 survey. Where workers who complain often suffer retaliation by employers who fire them, suspend them, or threaten to call immigration officials.

As the hours pass, Luis huddles in the scorching sunlight, watching out for anybody looking for a worker and a job he can do.

Most of the men are gone, but not him.

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on June 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East. He can be reached via e-mail at freedomwrites@hotmail.com.

Workplace Fairness Applauds the Withdrawal of Andrew Puzder’s Nomination for Labor Secretary

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

Along with hundreds of workers rights organizations and millions of workers (whether they realized it or not!) Workplace Fairness is applauding the withdrawal this afternoon of Andrew Puzder’s nomination as Secretary of Labor. Puzder announced the following this afternoon (February 15):

“After careful consideration and discussions with my family, I am withdrawing my nomination for Secretary of Labor. I am honored to have been considered by President Donald Trump to lead the Department of Labor and put America’s workers and businesses back on a path to sustainable prosperity. I want thank President Trump for his nomination. I also thank my family and my many supporters—employees, businesses, friends and people who have voiced their praise and hopeful optimism for the policies and new thinking I would have brought to America as Secretary of Labor. While I won’t be serving in the administration, I fully support the President and his highly qualified team.”

Puzder could not have been a worse fit for the position he aspired to hold, as throughout his career, he has made his hostility to pro-worker policies abundantly clear. We can all (at least temporarily, until we see the next nominee) breathe a sigh of relief that Puzder will not be making policy decisions at the Department of Labor which will roll back workplace protections and risk workers’ lives. This stunning defeat would not have been possible but for all the working people around the country who banded together and said NO! to someone who was clearly unfit for the job.

Puzder’s withdrawal comes on the eve of his planned February 15 confirmation hearing before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee – the first step toward confirmation that any Labor Secretary nominee will have to face. Once Puzder was nominated, groups familiar with his anti-worker views began assembling a record of his appalling views towards and treatment of his own employees at CKE Restaurants, Inc., the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast food restaurants. It wasn’t that hard to do.

Even in an industry known for its low pay, overtime violations, sexual harassment, and health and safety concerns, CKE stood out from the rest, with about 60 percent of the U.S. Department of Labor’s investigations into CKE restaurants turned up at least one violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Female CKE employees reported sexual harassment at a rate 150% higher than other fast food establishments.

Puzder’s response was to blame his franchisees, yet the amount of control CKE exercised over its franchisees in virtually every respect but employment policies was clearly an effort to avoid legal liability. CKE’s official response:  “We’d like to offer a reminder that CKE Restaurants is nearly 95 percent franchised. Each of these 2,769 franchise stores are run independently and solely responsible for their employees, management and adherence to regulations and labor practices.” It’s very convenient for CKE to disavow all liability when it comes to adhering to employment laws, when it exerts control over virtually every other aspect of its operations.

Puzder has also been very vocal about his contempt for his own workforce and active in an industry group that lobbied hard against legal protection for workers. In 2011, he was quoted, when speaking about the Hardee’s workforce, as saying “you’re hiring the best of the worst. You know, it’s kind of the bottom of the pool. And at Hardee’s it was so bad, we were hiring the worst of the worst and hoping they would stay.” He also once mused about replacing his workers with robots, in a March 2016 interview with Business Insider. Of automated replacements to real live workers, he said “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

A place I frequent – which employs only real live humans – has a sign with this statement. This seems appropriate for the CKE workforce as well, except that some of these things are very predictable when you violate the law and mistreat workers.

If all that Puzder had working against him was his anti-worker hostility, in all honesty, he probably would have been easily confirmed. After all, Betsy DeVos was just approved as Secretary of Education despite her documented history of hostility to public education and lack of any experience working in the education field. At least Puzder had some experience with labor and employment laws, if only to violate them and constantly decry their enforcement. But between ethics concerns over how he would divest his CKE Restaurant holdings, his recent admission that he had hired an undocumented worker and not paid her payroll taxes while claiming he thought she had a legal working status, and allegations of domestic violence raised by his ex-wife during their divorce and custody proceedings, Puzder’s nomination was ultimately doomed.

Workplace Fairness was part of a coalition of over 100 groups nationwide in opposition to the Puzder nomination. The coalition, led by the National Employment Law Project and Jobs with Justice, ensured that Puzder’s record of extreme hostility to the rights of workers it would be his job to protect came to light and that workers who would be most impacted by Puzder’s views were equipped with the ability to speak out in response.  A rally planned in opposition to Puzder before his planned February 15 hearing is now a victory celebration.

We will have to wait and see who the next Labor Secretary nominee will be. Will it be someone with views as extreme as Puzder’s, but without such a paper trail? Or will an Administration that has claimed to support the rights of working people actually nominate someone who believes in those rights? Time will tell, but today we celebrate a hard-fought victory by workers’ advocates to prevent the #AntiLaborSecretary from taking office.

Paula Brantner recently stepped down as Executive Director of Workplace Fairness after serving in that position since 2008. She served as the Workplace Program Director from 2003 to 2007, writing legal content for the Webby-nominated site www.workplacefairness.org. Paula was the Program Director for Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, and the Working America Education Fund, from 2007-2008. From 1997-2001, she was the senior staff attorney at the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), heading NELA’s amicus, legislative/policy, and judicial nominations programs. An employment lawyer for over 23 years, Brantner has degrees from UC-Hastings College of the Law and Michigan State University’s James Madison College. She continues to advise the organization on website strategy and content and oversee WF’s 0.1.2.3 Content Licensing for Legal Websites program through her business PB Work Solutions, LLC.

As Long As the Supreme Court Is Setting Labor Policy, the Labor Movement Can Never Revive Itself

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

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First published at Jacobin.

With the death of leading anti-union reactionary Antonin Scalia, the current docket of Supreme Court cases has been thrown into turmoil.

For the labor movement, Scalia’s departure means narrowly escaping the anticipated anti-union decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. While most commentators expected a 5-4 anti-union ruling, the most likely result now is a 4-4 decision, momentarily leaving intact the agency shop for public-sector workers and preventing the establishment of a legal beachhead for future attacks.

Contrary to those who saw a silver lining in Friedrichs, judges would never have used the precedent to expand the rights of government workers on free speech grounds. Instead, as Moshe Marvitpoints out, union busters would’ve deployed the rationale in Friedrichs to argue any form of exclusive representation violates public workers’ free speech rights.

This would’ve turned the clock back over 60 years, to a time when all public employee bargaining was suspect precisely because it was deemed political. Additionally, it would’ve only been a matter of time before Friedrichs was applied to the private sector, imposing “right to work” on every workplace in the country.

But for Scalia’s death, a Supreme Court majority would have almost certainly overturned 50 years of settled law. In doing so, five individuals would have substituted their political beliefs for those of elected officials in agency shop states—participating in the broader attack on public employee rights spearheaded by politicians like Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and Illinois governor Bruce Rauner.

All of which is to say that rather than being a body above politics, the Supreme Court reflects the political trends of the day. Take last year’s gay marriage ruling. The words of the Constitution hadn’t changed, nor had some nebulous thing called “the law.” What changed, after decades of grassroots activism, was the political reality. The same forces that prompted the Supreme Court justices to change their view likely prompted establishment politicians such as Hillary Clinton to reverse their own position.

If judges simply interpreted “the law,” the death of a justice would not matter. But it does matter, and so a debate will rage over Scalia’s replacement.

Union activists should have a different discussion. Instead of engaging with the prevailing debate—which will likely consist of whether to appoint an ultra-right Republican or a corporate Democrat—those in and around the labor movement should use the confirmation battle to spark a conversation about the role of unelected judges in setting labor policy.

And we should note the role both parties have played in establishing and maintaining the present system of labor law. Even during oral arguments in Friedrichs, the liberals on the Supreme Court did not mount a rousing defense of public employee unionism. They simply warned the conservative majority about the dangers of overturning settled law—which they worried would threaten the appearance of impartiality the Supreme Court relies on to maintain its legitimacy.

Much of the body of settled law they were keen to defend—and which corporate liberals on the Supreme Court have been key to establishing—blocks effective trade unionism. Judicially created rules hamstringing labor include restrictions on class-wide solidarity and important tactics such as intermittent strikes, the permanent replacement of striking workers, and the use of the business form to evade unionism. Regardless of which candidate is eventually sworn in as Scalia’s replacement, this bipartisan consensus will almost certainly remain undisturbed.

Indeed, nowhere is the need for a Bernie Sanders–style political revolution more apparent than in the selection of Supreme Court justices. Sanders correctly rails against a bipartisan establishment encompassing politicians from both parties, corporate lobbyists and establishment media forces. But the federal judiciary, and in particular the Supreme Court, is perhaps the most quintessentially establishment grouping in American politics.

Which brings us to the bigger question at stake for unions. As long as labor allows nine establishment figures to dictate policy, we will never revive ourselves as a movement. The rules will continue to be stacked against us. Legislative or National Labor Relations Board initiatives, however well intentioned, will be nullified by the courts.

Over 100 years ago, a school of thought called Legal Realism shattered the idea that judicial decisions were anything but political decisions. Led by Oliver Wendell Holmes and firmly situated within the Progressive Movement, the Legal Realists rejected the idea that judges somehow divined decisions from abstract analyses of the law. To study law, they held, was simply to predict what judges would decide. This subversive idea—that there is no such thing as the law independent of actual decisions—proved highly destabilizing to a fundamentally undemocratic judiciary.

Around the same time, the labor movement was agitating against “judge-made law.” Understanding that labor policy was set by elites with no ties to the working class, unionists agitated not just for better judicial decisions but to remove labor policy entirely from federal courts’ jurisdiction.

For conservative unions like the AFL to radical ones like the IWW, defying judicial injunctions was a matter of official union policy. Unionists understood the law was not on their side. The anti-judicial sentiment reached its peak with the 1932 passage of the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which attempted to get federal courts out of the business of making labor policy. (Over the succeeding decades, the act was defanged by the same federal judges it was supposed to protect labor from.)

Today, the labor movement shouldn’t waste time pondering which elite Supreme Court justice will get confirmed, the latest NLRB initiative waiting to be overruled by the federal judiciary, or the newest scheme to revive labor within the confines of an unjust system of labor control. The more important discussion is the one posed by unionists a century ago: how do we break from the constraints of judge-made law?

While there is no easy answer to this question, shedding liberal illusions about the role of the Supreme Court is a start. It is also important to call out the many restrictions on union rights. We can educate, agitate and organize, but if the rules of the game are rigged, we will never succeed.

Winning requires first challenging the rules of the game and the prerogative of elite institutions to govern labor relations. Judicial support for public employee union rights, we shouldn’t forget, was only secured after millions of public-sector workers struck against a bipartisan consensus that rejected those rights.

There are no easy answers about how we knock down the barriers imposed by labor law. But let’s use the death of an arch-nemesis of labor to at least start the discussion.

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on February 17, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Joe Burns is a former local union president active in strike solidarity, is a labor negotiator and attorney. He is the author of the book Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America(IG Publishing, 2011) and can be reached at joe.burns2@gmail.com.

 

 

Labor Lost the Fight Over Fast Track. But the Fact That Unions Oppose the TPP at All Is a Big Deal.

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

leon finkOrganized labor’s recent “victory” over President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade initiative, was short-lived, as “fast track” was passed by Congress shortly after it had been denied him earlier in the month. But labor’s strong opposition to the deal is worth examining a bit more closely, as the fight was more than an uncommon rift between the administration and one of the Democratic Party’s steadiest and most powerful constituency groups. Labor’s opposition to the TPP is a dramatic sign of the transformation of popular opinion on a vintage issue of American public policy since World War II.

That the TPP could so easily be linked by its critics to the job-killing, wage-reducing interests of the “one percent” reflects deep and changing understandings of how the global economy works (or rather all too often doesn’t) for ordinary Americans. On this issue, the AFL-CIO, rather than reflecting narrow, let alone petulant comeuppance, is speaking with the wizened voice of collective experience after two terms of relative presidential neglect.

No one was a bigger champion of free trade at the end of World War II than the AFL-CIO, along with New Deal Democrats to whom the labor federation attached its deepest political loyalties. From a critique of controlled trade and top-down economic manipulation most notoriously associated with Japanese zaibatsu and German cartels like the I.G. Farben chemical empire, American liberals stressed the importance of both the free flow of commerce and workers’ freedom to organize. Only unencumbered access to markets and raw materials, such a view suggested, could assure the continuing growth of the American as well as worldwide industrial order.

In fulsome support of the Marshall Plan and surrounding international capitalistic institutions like Bretton Woods, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, the labor movement—having expelled its own Communist-linked affiliates by 1948—was often more anti-communist than the State Department itself during the Cold War years. In an era when strong unions claimed up to 80 percent of workforce representation in basic industries, it was not surprising that labor leaders would identify their own members’ welfare with that of the free-enterprise economy in which they were employed.  Indeed, Philip Kaiser, assistant secretary of labor for international affairs under President Truman, later recalled the suspicion that the American labor liberals originally faced in Europe among those who could not “[see] the difference between American competitive capitalism and their own national monopoly capitalism built on old feudal structures.”

More than mere freedom from government or employer control, open markets were linked to a period of economic growth and rising incomes that publicist Henry Luce anticipated as “the American Century” and that, in retrospect, also heralded a relatively egalitarian social structure. Thus for good reason—with the exception of garment and textile unions who first felt the sting of a new order of international wage competition—U.S. unions long endorsed “free-trade” unionism. Not until the NAFTA debates of 1993-1994, when the threat to American-sited factories from what maverick presidential candidate Ross Perot had popularized as the “giant sucking sound” of jobs leaving the U.S. and going to Mexico, did the labor federation first seriously reverse course, albeit ( in a standoff with another Democratic President, this time Bill Clinton) in a losing cause.

But changing attitudes came too late to effectively redirect social policy.  In an increasingly competitive world market, the link between corporate profit margins and worker welfare had become increasingly frayed. In the name of “social partnership” or “social dialogue,” America’s Cold War allies generally found ways to shield themselves from the worst of free-market competition and/or to blunt its impact for their own labor forces.

The European Common Market, for example, with stringent initial protections for European farmers and auto makers, was, according to historian Judith Stein, “really a customs union that violated [the core principles of] the GATT.” In addition, by various forms of “industrial policy,” or strategic subsidy of selected economic sectors and worker training, Japan and West Germany leaped ahead of the U.S. in key sectors of economic development, while even smaller states like Israel and Singapore blossomed thanks to outright state investment in the private sector or openly protectionist trade policy.

American workers realized little or none of such benefits, even when their preferred representatives presided over Congress and the White House. The unions watched, meanwhile, while their memberships dropped precipitously, from a high of 35 percent of the workforce in the mid-1950s to a paltry 11 percent today (including a mere 7 percent in the private sector). With the strike weapon now often a nearly suicidal non-option, American workers have watched their living standards decline, even as in the legislative realm, trade union rights, especially in the public sector, have become ever more restricted.

In an ever-more-expansive world economy, some Americans have prospered as never before, but the middle (where collective-bargaining contracts once reigned) has all but been wrung out of an hourglass economy. But for a few impotent side agreements to major free-trade treaties, workers have simply not been cut into the ‘deal’ of free trade.

All this is why American unions saying “Enough!” in the face of President Obama’s fast-track authority and attempt to pass the TPP and coming T-TIPP is such an important shift for American unions. The interesting question is not why they adopted the position they did, but what took them so long?

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 6, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Leon Fink. Leon Fink is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas.

This week in the war on workers: Did Kevin Johnson destroy black mayors group over charter schools?

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

Laura Clawson All-Star NBA point guard Kevin Johnson is now the mayor of Sacramento, California—and the destroyer of the 40-year-old National Conference of Black Mayors. At Deadspin, Dave McKenna details how Johnson first tried to take over the group, and then, when that failed, went to war against it while starting his own black mayors group, the African American Mayors Association. So why am I writing about this as a labor issue? Because Johnson, who is married to corporate education reform star Michelle Rhee, was trying to use the NCBM to promote charter schools:

[East Orange, New Jersey, Mayor Robert] Bowser says that Johnson, before his coup, had proposed a resolution saying NCBM endorsed the charter-school movement.“We took a vote and said, ‘Hell no!’ to his resolution,” Bowser says. “The black mayors are not buying the charter schools, period.”

During his takeover attempt of the NCBM, Johnson also tried to turn a civil rights event, the commemoration of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, into a charter-boosting event.

Then there’s Ballard Spahr. During the takeover, Valarie J. Allen, a partner in Ballard Spahr’s Philadelphia offices, sent a missive to the NCBM’s general counsel, Sue Winchester, threatening to report her to “the California Bar” if she didn’t comply with Johnson’s dictates. It turns out that Allen’s prime role with the firm is to run its charter school portfolio. And that’s a big job. “In the past 10 years, Ballard Spahr has helped more than 60 charter schools … secure more than $676 million in tax-exempt bond funding,” reads the sales pitch Allen makes to charter schools operators on the firm’s website. Allen goes on to boast that Ballard Spahr handles “more than 10 percent” of all charter-school financing nationwide.

Surprise, surprise, Johnson’s new African American Mayors Association is holding a charter-dominated education panel at its convention this year.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on May 30, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Laura Clawson. Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. She has been a Labor editor since 2011.

How 'Do What You Love' Does Us Wrong

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Laura Clawson“Do what you love” sounds like a great mantra. But, in an important essay, Miya Tokumitsu argues that the problems with “do what you love” extend beyond the privilege embedded in the idea that it’s possible for everyone to do that or the erasure of people for whom survival requires doing things they don’t love:

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace. […]Ironically, DWYL reinforces exploitation even within the so-called lovable professions where off-the-clock, underpaid, or unpaid labor is the new norm: reporters required to do the work of their laid-off photographers, publicists expected to Pin and Tweet on weekends, the 46 ?percent of the workforce expected to check their work email on sick days. Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.

The whole thing is worth a read—even if, like me, you do love what you do.

This article was originally printed on the Daily Kos on January 25, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at the Daily Kos.

Despite Violence, Cambodian Workers Vow To Continue Their Fight

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Michelle ChenThough Cambodia’s days of colonialization, war and genocide may be over, the country is still wrestling with political turmoil. At the start of the new year, when workers massed in Phnom Penh to demand a fair minimum wage, the government responded with a spray of bullets.

A major garment worker strike in December capped a recent groundswell of protest in the country’s capital. After deeming insufficient the government’s proposed hike of the minimum wage to $95, labor leaders aligned with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party to shutter factories and bring large crowds into the streets, concluding a year of labor agitation that saw more than 130 strikes.

Newly reelected Prime Minister Hun Sen—a former Khmer Rouge official whose legitimacy has been questioned amid accusations of rigging last summer’s election—took the protests as an opportunity to suppress both the pro-democracy and labor movements with one fierce blow. On January 3, police responded to protesters’ bottles and petrol bombs with live ammunition, killing five and injuring dozens. More than twenty were detained, and some are reportedly still being held incommunicado.

On January 4, the government then forcibly cleared a major protest encampment in the city center; many workers have since returned to their jobs. Factories have also started to reopen after temporarily shutting down out of safety concerns. In the wake of the unrest, a coalition of rights groups, including Clean Clothes Campaign and International Labor Rights Forum, has called for an “immediate end to all violence and intimidation against workers and their representatives,” release of detained protesters and no charges against the strikers. Meanwhile, activists are continuing to push for the minimum wage to be raised to $160 a month.

Cambodian garment and shoe producers employ roughly 600,000 people in about 800 factories, and their business is eased by neoliberal trade policies with Western nations, particularly the United States. Yet these fashion powerhouses pay workers a pittance—generally as low as about $80 a month—compared to the profits they reap.

David Welsh, a Phnom Penh-based organizer with AFL-CIO’s international arm, the Solidarity Center, says the $160 minimum wage demand is the very least the garment industry could offer, especially considering some advocacy groups estimate that a living wage would be more than triple workers’ current pay. The Solidarity Center has been facilitating talks with the Labor Ministry and campaigning with local civil society groups for the detained activists. Along with other labor groups, the Solidarity Center has also raised concerns about a trend toward placing workers on so-called fixed-duration or short-term contracts, which tend to restrict job security for workers who came to factories seeking steady livelihoods.

According to Welsh, big retail brands foster a common media narrative that claims labor costs must be kept low to meet market demand. He explains that companies use the threat of pulling out of Cambodia if unions demand too much as a way to “discourage workers, to sort of say, ‘Do this or you’ll be out of the job.'”

Realistically, though, Welsh says, “The amount of work that is being put into creating an incredible supply chain internationally … with foreign investors that are getting off like bandits, frankly, off the backs of impoverished Cambodian workers—the dynamic cannot continue.”

In addition to low wages and precarious employment, activists have also recently highlighted the Cambodian garment sector’s abysmal working conditions. A recent report by the U.K.-based Labour Behind the Label campaign revealed that many garment workers are clinically malnourished from being unable to afford adequate food (which costs roughly US $2.50 per day). Labour Behind the Label also reported a mysterious phenomenon of workers fainting en masse on the job—perhaps due to chemical fumes at workplaces, perhaps due to overall poor health or psychological distress. One worker quoted in the report explained, “We are constantly at the point of fainting. We are tired and we are weak. It takes only a few small things to make us faint.”

After tragedies like the Rana Plaza factory collapse last year, the public has started heavily urging companies to advocate for workers in their overseas supply chains. In Cambodia, the suppression of protesters has heightened that pressure even further. Joining the global chorus of condemnation from unions and the UN, several Western brands, including Gap and Adidas, have publicly criticized the government crackdown and expressed support for minimum-wage reforms “based on international good practices.” H&M also recently announced a plan to negotiate a “fair living wage” for Cambodian and Bangladeshi workers—but with the caveat that the company would first pilot the pay system in just three “model factories” and work toward full implementation by 2018.

Such progress would not be unprecedented. As we reported last year, workers at the Kingsland factory in Phnom Penh revolted after their factory was suddenly shut down without paying owed back wages. Workers partnered with the Solidarity Center and local activists to broker a $200,000 settlement with the owners and their multinational clients—demonstrating that there is a labor infrastructure in place that could serve as an model for organizing and collective bargaining in Asia’s garment workforce.

Ultimately, however, labor advocates argue that piecemeal reforms will not satisfy demands for justice across a global manufacturing chain: All foreign investors must stop chasing profit margins in places with low wages and few safety regulations. Instead of this “race to the bottom”, Welsh says, brands should commit to “remaining in an industry where trade unions are allowed to operate … without reprisal, without legal suits, without detention.”

Today, he says, modern international investment still clusters in countries “where the rule of law is incredibly weak, and where people are in such dire economic straits that they find themselves forced to work under [almost] any conditions.”

This oppressive environment doesn’t just erode labor rights; it also dissolves civil society as a whole. Although December’s protests were focused on the exploitation of garment workers, Cambodians were simultaneously revolting against the multiple social injustices they have endured under authoritarian rule. Consequently, the protest rallies brought out activists representing various social sectors: trade unionists, factory laborers, sex workers, various pro-democracy demonstrators, housing rights advocates and even radical monks. Using social media to spread messages via mobile networks, these activists stirred public support for the emerging populist movement.

As Kun Sothary of the Messenger Band, a collective of women garment workers representing workers across many industries, told Asian Correspondent, “We learned of the common problems of garment workers, sex workers and farmers through our field visits … poverty, exploitation and human right violations … We are all the same victims of a free trade system and development that is not ethical.”

Overall, reorienting the ethics of Cambodia’s economy will be key to ensuring the liberty of its citizens. Though Cambodia’s strikes may be subdued for now, the turnout in the streets has shown that the driving force behind the country’s industry is people power—not brand names.

This article was originally printed in Working In These Times on January 14, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

Why the Revival of US Labor Might Start with Nonunion Workers

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

abdFor workers in America, it can be hard to know where to turn when a boss pays you late or not at all, doesn’t provide benefits, or just yells at you for no good reason.

That’s why a Working America, a “community affiliate” of the AFL-CIO that focuses specifically on nonunion workers, launched a website last month that makes it easy to get that kind of information. FixMyJob.com is a bit like WebMD, but instead of typing in your aches and pains, you tell it about problems at your workplace. Launched on June 5, the site has already garnered 5,000 visitors, according to Working America organizer Chris Stergalas.

After choosing from a comprehensive list of workplaces and problems, visitors to FixMyJob.com get a set of resources and options for taking action. While unionization is a part of the solution for many problems, the site also informs workers about labor laws and instructs them on how to advance proposals to defend their rights. The site is a part of Working America’s expanded new campaign to organize people in their communities in all 50 states, says Executive Director Karen Nussbaum.

In both online and offline campaigns, Nussbaum said, the aim of Working America is to reach beyond the workplace and rally support at the local level for a pro-labor agenda. Working America’s list of priorities includes living wage laws, expanded health care, adequately funded public schools, and the protection of voting rights.

Before the launch of Working America, Nussbaum had served as founder and director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women; as director of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor; and as an advisor to former AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. I recently spoke with her about her vision for Working America, about FixMyJob.com, and about what the 50-state expansion means for the prospects of union revival.

Working America was founded in 2003 partly as an answer to the question of how to mobilize people who are not union members but would benefit from activism by and for working people. Nussbaum said that, from the beginning, her staff “concentrated on talking to workers in their communities.” Scoring success in mobilizing blue-collar voters for electoral campaigns, the organization created a foundation of members, and it is increasingly attempting to mobilize them around broader issues like working conditions, paid sick leave, and the right to join unions.

She added that the ultimate goal of Working America is “finding the connections with collective bargaining.” But she’s experimenting with different ways of organizing that might lead there. “It’s about taking whatever path opens on the way.”

In past years, Working America focused on battleground states during elections. But regional and statewide labor federations have pushed the organization to expand to all 50 states over the next five years. At first, Nussbaum said, that goal seemed “preposterous,” but she has come to embrace it. Ultimately, she said, she appreciated the strategic value of supporting local labor structures as they connect with community allies and work on issues that go beyond a single workplace.

One reason why the 50-state strategy is necessary is the national proliferation of so-called “right-to-work” laws and attacks on voting rights, two issues that Working America has taken up in Pittsburgh, Penn..

Nussbaum describes the approach taken by activists leading the Pittsburgh campaign:

These are a group of mostly white people in their 40s and 50s. They decided that voter protection actually was the key issue for them. Their group set a goal of reaching a million people in the Pittsburgh area on the issue. Part of that million was going to be reached by doing letters to the editor and circulation of the newspaper and so on. It also included things like a guy who said, “I go to my hardware store every weekend and everybody there knows me, so I will set up a table at the hardware store every weekend,” which is what he did. Another woman said that she dropped her father off at adult daycare every day, and so she would talk to the workers and other people at the adult daycare center.

This type of organizing taps into the existing frustrations that people have—in the Pittsburgh case obstacles to voting—and showing them how they can make a difference. “It’s everybody recognizing their own networks,” Nussbaum said. “I think that’s the key to organizing, isn’t it?”

She explained that Working America encourages people to see themselves as leaders within their own social circles, and, as it did in the case of the man in the hardware store, this recognition makes it easier to take action.

Nussbaum sees FixMyJob.com as a complement to these offline campaigns and as a means for introducing people to the labor movement. “Some people who use these tools will get turned on and they will become activists for life,” she said. “Some will fail, but it will help create a new environment that I think supports what we’re already beginning to see bubble up.”

This article was originally posted on Yes! Magazine on July 8th, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Amy B. Dean is a fellow of The Century Foundation and principal of ABD Ventures, an organizational development consulting firm that works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations.  Dean has worked for nearly two decades at the cross section of labor and community based organizations linking policy and research with action and advocacy

Boston's Low-Wage Workers Affected by City's Shutdown

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

Kenneth QuinnellWhile most attention in the Boston tragedy is rightfully focused on the victims of last Monday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon, the damage done by the terrorist attacks didn’t end with the explosions or the subsequent shootout that led to additional deaths. Much of the city shut down during the manhunt for the terror suspects; and while most salaried employees could take the day off without losing pay, low-wage workers did not have that luxury. Other workers were forced to work long hours or brave dangerous conditions to get their jobs done.

Salon took a look at the various ways that the bombings affected workers in Boston, including a fear that many businesses will not compensate low-wage workers for the time off the city’s shutdown required:

“Most low wage workers can’t afford to lose a day’s pay, and there’s no doubt this lockdown will adversely impact the city’s working poor,” said Jessica Kutch, a labor activist who co-founded the organizing site coworker.org, in an email to Salon. “I’d really like to see employers state on the record that their hourly workers will be paid for the time they were scheduled to work today—but I suspect that most employers will place the burden of this shutdown squarely on the backs of people who can least afford it.”

Salon also reported that some businesses are requiring workers to use vacation time, although some relented in the face of internal pushback.

First responders, of course, have been working extended hours, with police and medical personnel working much longer than normal days:

Steven Tolman, the president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, told Salon, “They’re doing God’s work,” he said. “They’re exhausted, they’ve been working constantly. The heroism of the people who were there and saw things that they never thought they’d see in their life is just incredible.”

“It’s justification why public employees are entitled to a decent pension and the best health care because they put so much on the line in a time of need,” he said.

Workers in some industries have been necessary for supporting law enforcement engaged in the hunt for the suspects or stranded tourists while transportation has been limited:

Brian Lang, the president of UNITE HERE Local 26, told Salon that many of the hotel workers he represents have been working double shifts with little time off, as many of the guests have been unable to leave the city. Police from out of town have completely occupied some hotels, while authorities set up a command center at the Westin downtown, just blocks from the bombing.

“Those hotels were full of people all week, so our members in there were like the second responders,” Lang said. “There were the first responders who aided the people who were directly affected by the bombings, but many of the folks who were affected were from out of town and they were staying at these hotels. They were exhausted, they were traumatized, and it was the hotel workers who comforted them, fed them, who made sure they had clean, safe rooms to say in.”

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on April 22, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

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