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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.

Standing In Solidarity With Low-Wage Workers At the U.S. Senate

Saturday, October 31st, 2015

Isaiah J. PooleU.S. senators and their staff only have to go to the Senate cafeteria to see what is wrong with the low-wage economy, with the workers who serve their meals earning near-poverty wages paid by the subsidiary of a multinational corporation that has blocked efforts by the workers to fight for better wages and working conditions.

Their struggle was made most vivid recently by the story of Charles Gladden, a Senate cafeteria worker who was homeless, earning only about $360 a week.

On Wednesday, some of those staffers made a point of showing that they understand what those workers are struggling with and are standing with them.

Their show of solidarity took the form of a “brown bag boycott,” in which they brought their own brown-bag lunches to the cafeteria. Joining the 40 or so Senate staffers who participated in the protest was Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). He promised that the boycott would not be a one-time event.

“We will be here every Wednesday until you are treated fairly,” said Brown.

Senate cafeteria workers have been doing battle with the federal contractor for Senate food services, Restaurant Associates, for several years for a $15-an-hour wage and the right to collective bargaining. They have staged one-day strikes and protests to ratchet up the pressure.

Last week two of the cafeteria workers wrote an op-ed in The Hill newspaper to outline their struggle, including the efforts by Restaurant Associates to thwart their worker organizing efforts.

“Since we started organizing, we’ve been relentlessly harassed and intimidated by our bosses. Managers have threatened to fire us, questioned us about our organizing efforts, cut our hours, changed our schedules, increased our workloads, and ordered us not to speak with union organizers,” wrote Betrand Olotara and Luz Villatoro.

In addition to a $15 wage, “we are demanding a free and fair organizing process just like the one Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is proposing in his Workplace Democracy Act,” they wrote. “Instead of going through a sham election, we should be able to join a union by just signing a union membership card.”

People can show support for the Senate cafeteria workers by signing this petition to “help Senate cafeteria workers form a union to bargain for a living wage.”

This blog was originally posted on Our Future on October 29, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Isaiah J. Poole has been the editor of OurFuture.org since 2007. Previously he worked for 25 years in mainstream media, most recently at Congressional Quarterly, where he covered congressional leadership and tracked major bills through Congress. Most of his journalism experience has been in Washington as both a reporter and an editor on topics ranging from presidential politics to pop culture. His work has put him at the front lines of ideological battles between progressives and conservatives. He also served as a founding member of the Washington Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

AFL-CIO To Put ‘Laser Focus’ On Raising Wages

Monday, February 24th, 2014

David MobergThe labor movement has a new driving message for its legislative, educational and political work that should resonate with most American workers, especially those who have the least: Your pay is too damn low!

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka put it less colloquially this week than the New York gubernatorial candidate who once ran on a single message: “Rent is too damn high.” Organized labor will put “a laser focus on raising wages,” Trumka told reporters in Houston at the start of the winter quarterly meeting of the federation’s executive council.

Whatever the words, the case for action is strong. Wages have stagnated for all but the rich for more than a decade and fallen for low-wage workers, according to theEconomic Policy Institute, a leading research institution on labor markets. Adjusting for inflation over the past four years, hourly wages for workers in the bottom 30 percent have fallen an average of 68 cents an hour.

Those trends, mirrored by the top 1 percent capturing 95 percent of all the new income growth following the end of the Great Recession, explain why inequality is growing, according to University of California, Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez.

However, as Trumka notes, the general public, as well as leaders from “the Pope to the president,” have begun to express outrage over inequality. A minimum-wage boost has been increasingly on the U.S. agenda, with a $10.10 federal minimum proposed by Congressional Democrats and supported by Obama. Although the AFL-CIO is promoting the $10.10 minimum, Trumka says he favors a “living wage” standard set around $17 an hour, indexed to inflation.

“Wages are about what connects us all,” he told reporters, suggesting that labor’s campaign for a raise for all workers could bring old and new allies together in a powerful movement for economic fairness.

It’s no surprise that unions want workers to earn more, and this is not the AFL-CIO’s first call for higher wages across the board. The labor federation adopted much the same focus after John Sweeney and Trumka first won the top posts in the AFL-CIO in 1995. (Sweeney authored a book titled America Needs a Raise: Fighting for Economic Security and Social Justice.) But progress has been slow. Despite some victories on minimum wages, living wages (which typically mean a higher minimum for certain workers, such as public contactors), and other measures, workers need a raise now even more than two decades ago.

The AFL-CIO campaign to raise wages centers on supporting legislation that would raise the federal and state minimum wages (including the minimum for tipped workers, frozen at $2.15 since 1991). But it goes further than that, to backing a broad swath of local, state and national proposals that would help workers prosper, including measures to establish living wages, strengthen enforcement against employer wage theft, guarantee paid sick days and bolster basic federal social safety-net programs, such as Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act. (Unions in many industries are seeking to preserve their non-profit healthcare plans jointly administered with management, which are threatened to be crippled by the ACA’s denial of subsidies and incentivization of limiting workers’ hours.)

Trumka did not outline any new tactics beyond labor’s standard ones: political education and mobilization to try to make wage and inequality issues central to the election this fall.

But he thinks the conditions are ripe to build public support for a wage boost. “Workers are sick and tired of wages being flat, not growing, and they’re working harder and harder and harder and getting by on less and less,” Trumka said. In this climate, if progressive politicians focus on raising incomes through cash or benefits, they will beat right-wingers, he says. Even the ACA, which has taken the brunt of Republican attacks, has millions of beneficiaries, and those ranks are growing every day. Without a viable alternative, the Right’s attacks on the ACA are likely to backfire, he said.

Championing immigrants

Trumka also passionately embraced a stronger campaign on immigrant worker rights, an issue on which unions and most immigrant rights organizations have already been working closely. The AFL-CIO has become much sharper in its criticisms of the deportation of immigrants, which has soared under Obama. “I think there is a rationale to stop the deportation,” Trumka said. “The system is broken. Three and one-half minutes of due process is a broken system,” he said, citing the average time for a legal deportation hearing with translation time factored out, drawing on a report by a deportation hearing judge to an AFL-CIO committie.

The AFL-CIO also intends to continue its work with “civic engagement” of immigrants, particularly by encouraging the naturalization and voter registration of the approximately 9.7 million legal immigrants eligible to become citizens, and eventually the registration of the 15 million U.S.-born children of immigrants who will become eligible to vote as they turn 18.

On an ideological level, he combined emphasis on fighting deportation and encouraging citizenship represents labor’s growing identification with a broader democratic movement. And on a pragmatic level, fighting deportation removes a tool employers often use to threaten migrant workers and depress wages, while naturalization and voter registration of immigrants, who tend to be progressive, increase the odds of electing liberal politicians.

Although prospects for passing any federal immigration bill appear dim, the AFL-CIO will continue to push for it, if for no other reason than to make the Republicans’ political quagmire over immigration deeper and stickier at election time.

The AFL-CIO executive council, which is made up mainly of presidents of affiliated unions, also is working to implement two other convention resolutions: how to make the AFL-CIO’s state federations and local central union bodies more accountable for following federation strategies and for fostering mutual support among unions, and how to expand and strengthen alliances with other progressive groups.

RoseAnn DeMoro, head of National Nurses United and a member of the executive council, applauds Trumka’s efforts to mobilize labor for a larger challenge to corporate power. “Rich wants to change how we’re doing our work completely,” she said. “He wants everyone working collectively. He wants us in low-wage areas. He wants us mobilized in every street. He’s talking about a completely reformed, far more aggressive labor movement. We’re at a crossroads. We either completely transform or continue in the same direction.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on February 24, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

Why Unions Are Essential to Tackling the Technology Challenge to Good Jobs

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Image: Richard KirschNew technology is keeping more and more workers stuck in low-wage jobs, and it’s society’s responsibility to make sure those jobs still have dignity and fair wages.

With robots taking over factories and warehouses, toll collectors and cashiers increasingly being replaced by automation and even legal researchers being replaced by computers, the age-old question of whether technology is a threat to jobs is back with us big time. Technological change has been seen as a threat to jobs for centuries, but the history tells that while technology has destroyed some jobs, the overall impact has been to create new jobs, often in new industries. Will that be true after the information revolution as it was in the industrial revolution?

In an article in The New York Times, David Autor and David Dorn, who have just published research on this question, argue that the basic history remains the same: while many jobs are being disrupted, new jobs are being created and many jobs will not be replaceable by computers. While there is good news in their analysis for some in the middle-class, their findings reinforce the need to organize workers in lower-skilled jobs to demand decent wages.

The authors’ research found that while routine jobs are being replaced by computers, the number of both “abstract” and “manually intensive” jobs increased. In their article in the Times, the authors describe the new jobs:

At one end are so-called abstract tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity. These tasks are characteristic of professional, managerial, technical and creative occupations, like law, medicine, science, engineering, advertising and design. People in these jobs typically have high levels of education and analytical capability, and they benefit from computers that facilitate the transmission, organization and processing of information.

On the other end are so-called manual tasks, which require situational adaptability, visual and language recognition and in-person interaction. Preparing a meal, driving a truck through city traffic or cleaning a hotel room present mind-bogglingly complex challenges for computers. But they are straightforward for humans, requiring primarily innate abilities like dexterity, sightedness and language recognition, as well as modest training. These workers can’t be replaced by robots, but their skills are not scarce, so they usually make low wages.

As the authors conclude, “This bifurcation of job opportunities has contributed to the historic rise in income inequality.”

When it comes to addressing this attack on the middle class, the authors offer some hope, but not for those low-wage workers. They argue that a large number of skilled jobs, requiring specialized training—although not necessarily a college education—will not be replaceable by computers. These include people who care for our health like medical paraprofessionals, people who care for our buildings like plumbers, people who help us use technology (I was chatting online just yesterday to get tech support) and many others. Because these jobs do require higher levels of skills, they should be able to demand middle-class wages.

But what about those housekeepers, delivery truck drivers and fast-food workers, like those who are taking actions around the country today against fast-food chains to demand better pay. The authors do not offer a path to the middle class for them.

If history is an example here as well, we should remember that lower-skilled work does not have to come with low pay. The workers who stood on assembly lines in the 1930s did not have a college education or years of specialized training; they fought for the right to organize unions and demanded high enough wages to support their families.

This Labor Day, as more and more workers are stuck in the growing number of low-wage jobs, causing enormous stress for their families while keeping the economy sluggish, we need to look to the examples of new ways of organizing workers who can not be replaced by technology. There’s the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, who organized drivers to successfully win living wages and a health and disability fund. Or the successful boycott of Hyatt Hotels, leading to an agreement with UNITE HERE to not fight organizing campaigns in their hotels.

We need to support organizing by modernizing our labor laws to account for the large number of workers not currently or adequately protected, the new ways that work is organized and the global economy.

The lesson from the Autor–Dorn research is that technology doesn’t have to destroy the middle class. What will destroy the middle class is our failure as a society to provide dignity to all workers. That’s what fast-food workers and their community-labor supporters are fighting for across the country.

This article originally appeared in The Next New Deal Blog on August 29, 2013, and was cross-posed on AFL-CIO Now on August 30, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Richard Kirsch is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a senior adviser to USAction and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was national campaign manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

We Are Worth More

Friday, May 17th, 2013

jack-metzgarLast month a few hundred retail and fast-food workers, from places like Sears, Dunkin’ Donuts, and McDonald’s, walked off their jobs for a rally in downtown Chicago.   Carrying signs saying “Fight for 15” (or “Lucha Por 15”) and “We Are Worth More,” these workers make $9 or $10 an hour, at best, and they figure they’re worth at least $15.

A one-shift walk-out and protest by a few hundred out of the thousands of such workers in the Chicago Loop and along Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile cannot have the economic impact of a traditional strike – one that shuts down an entire workplace or industry for an extended period of time and, therefore, can bend an employer’s will.   And these workers’ chances of getting $15 an hour any time soon are worse than slim.   This “job action,” bolstered by community supporters organized by Action Now and with help from Service Employees International Union organizers, is more in the nature of a public protest than a “real strike.”   You could even call it “a public relations stunt,” but you’d be wrong to dismiss it as inconsequential.

“Public relations,” ironically, has a bad image.  But think of it as workers witnessing their own plight, calling for others in similar situations to join them and appealing to those of us with decent incomes to support them.  Witnessing, with its religious overtones, is not intended as an immediately practical action.  It’s first about individuals summoning the courage to put themselves forward to make a public claim that they are one of thousands (millions nationally) who are being treated unjustly.  In this case, it means taking the risk that they may be fired or otherwise disciplined for leaving work and going into the streets to proclaim “We are worth more.”

Witnessing is meant to make us think about justice as the witnesses simultaneously inspire and shame us with the courage of their individual actions.  I was at one of the first draft-card burnings that protested the Vietnam War in 1965, and I remember saying something like, “I’d do that if I thought it would do any good,” while knowing in my heart of hearts that I didn’t have the guts to take that kind of risk then.  But it inspired and shamed me – and thousands and then hundreds of thousands of others — to do many other things to fight against that war as we inspired and bolstered (and exerted peer pressure on) each other.

For the broader public, these initial job actions – in New York and Chicago among retail and fast-food workers; in California and Illinois among workers at Walmart warehouses; and all over the place amongWalmart retail workers – are “public relations” that raise awareness and pluck consciences.   But for workers who watched workmates walk off the job to witness for them, there may be some of that inspiration and/or shame that is a particularly powerful call to action. That’s what organizers are counting on, in the hope that the numbers of such workers will grow helter-skelter across the retail industry, eventually initiating a contagion of worker direct action that can put these workers in a position to negotiate for “labor peace,” with or without the blessing of the National Labor Relations Board.

There’s another determined witness who couldn’t be more unlike these striking workers.  He’s a retired law professor from the University of Texas, Charles Morris, who is a leading expert on the legislative and early administrative history of the National Labor Relations Act and the Board that enforces it.  In a 2005 book,The Blue Eagle at Work, Morris makes the legal case that the Act defined a labor union as any group of two or more workers who act together (“in concert”) to seek redress of grievances from their employer.   According to Morris, the “concerted activity protection” articulated in the Act means that employers cannot legally fire workers for forming a non-majority  or “members-only” union (as few as two workers acting together), and what’s more, an employer is legally bound to “bargain in good faith” with that union.

Through meticulous legal research, Morris has shown that these worker rights were in the Act from the beginning but have been forgotten by the subsequent customary practice of defining a union as only that group of workers who have formally voted to be represented by a petitioning union. What’s more, other legal scholars have now signed on to Morris’s legal interpretation and are ready to bolster it before an NLRB that is willing to hear their case.  There would be such an NLRB, what Morris calls “a friendly Board,”if Republican Senators would allow a vote on President Obama’s nominees for the Board.

A favorable NLRB ruling would be important for a variety of legally technical reasons that workers and organizers could use to their tactical and strategic advantage – none of which includes the expectation that employers will voluntarily obey the law just because it is the law. But equally important is that Morris’s reading of the Act’s history restores the original meaning of a labor union that is based on workers’ decisions to act together “in concert” with one another.  That is, a labor union is not just an institution with a bureaucracy and a marble palace in Washington, D.C., though it may be that as well.  It is any group of workers in any workplace, no matter how big or small, who decide to and then do act in concert to advance their own interests in their workplace.

In March Chicago Working-Class Studies helped organize a public forum that brought Charles Morris together with workers and organizers from Fight for 15, the Walmart retail and warehouse strikers, and two other groups who are already acting as unions under this definition.  Though there were some disagreements between the elderly legal scholar and the mostly young workers and organizers — one emphasizing the importance of politics and administrative case law in the long run, the others focused on the potential of direct action in the here and now – they agreed that if and when the two come together, the possibilities for a worker-led upsurge of union organizing are great.

Nonetheless, through their actions these workers have already changed what a labor union is and is thought to be.   It is now, and really always has been — even a century before the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, even when it was an illegal “conspiracy” — simply a group of two or more workers acting in concert with one another.   To be really effective there will need, of course, to be many, many more than the hundreds and thousands who have begun this process.  But it starts with a few brave witnesses who take a risk and ask others to join them.  The peer pressure is now on the rest of us.

This article was originally printed on Working-Class Perspectives on May 6, 2013.  Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jack Metzgar is a retired Professor of Humanities from Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he is a core member of the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies. His research interests include labor politics, working-class voting patterns, working-class culture, and popular and political discourse about class.

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