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Archive for the ‘Strike’ Category

Hawaiian hotel workers want better pay for state’s high cost of living

Wednesday, October 17th, 2018

Thousands of Marriott hotel workers in Hawaii say they want better wages, sexual harassment protections, and a promise not to be replaced by automation. They have been on strike for more than a week, but it doesn’t appear the strike will end anytime soon.

Hotel workers who are members of Unite Here Local 5 have been working without a contract since July and voted to authorize a strike in September, Hawaii Public Radio reported. They have been picking outside of five hotels managed by Marriott and owned by Kyo-Ya Hotels & Resorts, but neither company has tried to schedule new bargaining dates with the union. A week ago, Unite Here Local 5 and Kyo-Ya Hotels & Resorts reached an impasse on negotiations, according to the Associated Press. Hotel workers at two additional hotels could go on strike at any time, since they also voted to authorize strikes.

Workers have been holding signs that read “One job should be enough,” which means pay should keep up with the cost of living, that people should be able to support families with their paychecks from one job, and that they should be able to “retire with dignity,” according to the workers’ labor union Unite Here. It also refers to what workers say is an expectation that hotel workers do the work of two people.

Marriott hotel workers went on strike in eight cities across the country last week, including San Francisco, Boston, Oakland, Detroit, San Diego, and Oahu and Maui in Hawaii. In Hawaii, 2,700 Marriott hotel workers are on strike. Like the hotel strike in Chicago, this strike includes workers from a variety of positions, such as doormen, front desk attendants, restaurant workers, and housekeepers. In Chicago, workers who are part of the Unite Here Local 1 union mainly focused on year-round health care and hotel strikes included a number of hotel brands, including Hilton and Hyatt. Workers at only one hotel are still on strike after five weeks. The union has settled 25 contracts that give workers year-round health insurance.

Kyo-Ya Hotels & Resorts released a statement Friday that said they are “committed to continuing our good faith bargaining.”

But Michael Kirby, a member of Local 5, told The Maui News that the company needs to address workers’ specific demands.

“I understand that Kyo-ya wants to welcome the workers back. They haven’t set a date to do any kind of contract negotiations,” Kirby told the publication.

Tourism officials are worried the strike could continue into 2019 and current and former hotel and travel industry executives say they’re worried about bookings, the AP reported. Visitors staying at the striking hotels have also complained about their stays, which included closed pools, no food and bar services, uncleaned bathrooms and a lack of clean towels, to name a few issues. Some people have asked for full and partial refunds as a result, Hawaii News Now reported.

Pay that properly covers housing is a big issue for hotel workers in Hawaii. Home values for someone living in Hawaii are very high, at a $617,400 median home value and a median rent of $1,573. The state has had the highest median housing values in the U.S. since 2007. Housekeepers made $22.14 per hour under their old contract. Paola Rodelas, spokesperson for the union, told Travel Weekly that this wage isn’t sufficient for hotel workers in the state. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Hawaii worker would have to make at least $36.13 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment. Looking at Honolulu specifically, a worker would need to make $39.06 to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

Rodelas told Travel Weekly, “For our workers, the most important issue is to make one job enough to live in Hawaii. It has to do with wages and benefits, but it also has to do with a range of issues. It also encompasses job security, automation and technology in the workplace, the increasing use of subcontractors and outsourcing, which is a big issue in Hawaii, and workplace safety. Housekeeping is back-breaking work and there are rampant issues of sexual harassment in hotels. We want to make sure there are adequate staffing and safety procedures.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on October 17, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

'One job should be enough,' striking Marriott workers say

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

Thousands of Marriott hotel workers are on strike in eight U.S. cities in a campaign with the slogan “one job should be enough.” The workers’ union points out that Marriott’s profits have risen by 279 percent since the great recession, while worker pay has gone up only seven percent. “As the largest hotel employer in the world, Marriott can set the standard in the hotel industry,” they write, and that standard should be that one job is enough.

Workers are on strike in Boston, Detroit, Oakland, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Maui, and Oahu, pressing for contracts that pay them a living wage as well as improving workplace safety through panic buttons for housekeeping staff and a reduction in some of the most grueling physical labor—hotel housekeepers have a very high rate of injury on the job. Workers are also worried about automation and other labor reduction efforts by the company.

Yleine, a room attendant in Vancouver, says in a video that “I’m doing two different jobs because I’m not getting enough hours in my hotel, and don’t have enough time to look after my son. I feel like, still, I can’t make it.”

In Hawaii, other unions got behind the strike, with flight attendants, sheet metal workers, and others moving their business away from Marriott hotels.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on October 13, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Rank-and-File Union Members Are Leading Another Massive Strike. This Time It’s AT&T Workers.

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

Thousands of AT&T employees across the Midwest are entering the sixth day of a rare, rank-and-file-led work stoppage over alleged unfair labor practices. The union representing them, Communications Workers of America (CWA) District 4, has been in contract negotiations with AT&T since March. While members voted overwhelmingly in April to authorize a strike if necessary, the decision to walk off the job last week was not coordinated by union leadership or subject to an official vote.

Instead, the union says that the action was a spontaneous one resulting from widespread anger at the company. In recent weeks, the union alleges that AT&T has tried to bypass its elected bargaining team by e-mailing thousands of workers directly. A May 22 e-mail outlined what the company termed a “final offer” and encouraged employees “to urge CWA leadership to provide you with an opportunity to vote for it.”

CWA filed unfair labor practice charges against AT&T, alleging that this message constitutes bad-faith bargaining and “direct dealing” that violates the company’s duty to negotiate with the union as workers’ sole collective bargaining representative. The charges are still pending.

But in the meantime, the company sent three more e-mails, and workers’ frustration reached a boiling point, according to the union. Resentment had already been bubbling up over the AT&T’s decision to conduct more than 1,000 layoffs soon after receiving a windfall from the passage of federal tax reform. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson was a prominent backer of the tax law, which he said would allow the company to create 7,000 jobs.

Not only were the e-mails from the company “disrespectful,” says Beth Dubree, secretary treasurer of CWA Local 4900 in Indiana, they “didn’t even really discuss job security.” Throughout last week, she says, “Our members kept calling, wanting to know why the company was doing this.”

Work stoppages that protest illegal behavior by employers are generally considered protected activity under federal labor law, and so-called unfair labor practice strikes are often an important component of union strategy. But spontaneous, rank-and-file-led walkouts that cross state and occupational lines are almost unheard of in recent years. CWA District 4 represents some 9,500 AT&T technicians, call center representatives and other personnel across Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Thousands of workers in every state eventually took part, but the walkout started in Indiana.

In These Times spoke to several local elected officials and members about how the strike picked up momentum.

Early Thursday morning, one group of technicians in Local 4900 “decided that they had had enough” and walked off the job before their 7:00 a.m. shift, according to Dubree. Thanks to a group text chat, “the entire local knew about it by 7:30,” she says. Most workers’ shifts started at 8:00 a.m., and by that time, “no one went to work.”

“It was amazing how fast it spread,” says Dubree. “There wasn’t even a hesitation.”

Word traveled quickly to other states with the aid of a closed Facebook group to coordinate mobilization across the district. Jim Simons, executive vice president of Michigan’s CWA Local 4009 and a 28-year AT&T employee, said that he began receiving calls with news of the Indiana walkout at 8:00 a.m. “The next thing I know, all of Ohio is out,” he says. “At 1:00 p.m., I got the call that two of my garages had walked out.” Soon after, most of the local’s more than 800 members joined in.

Simons says that workers in his local were already livid about layoffs and outsourcing. AT&T was among the companies praised by President Trump for giving out $1,000 dollar bonuses to employees after the passage of tax reform. But according to CWA, the company also laid off more than 1,500 employees in December. “When you do the math, those bonuses were paid for by the layoffs,” says Simons. Some workers in his local donated their bonuses to members who lost their jobs.

AT&T did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the walkout, but the company has released a statement that reads, “We’re offering a generous package including annual wage increases, continuation of job security provisions that are virtually unheard of in the U.S., and comprehensive health care and retirement benefits. In addition, the offer includes a commitment to hire 1,000 people in the region. All employees covered by the offer would be better off.”

But in April, CWA released a report charging that in the past seven years, AT&T has laid off more than 16,000 call center workers nationwide, shipping jobs to lower-paying call centers overseas. Last year, AT&T and other big companies boasted that tax reform would allow them to create more jobs in the United States, and CWA is among several unions now pushing the companies in bargaining to reveal whether they plan to follow through. In its fourth-quarter 2017 financials, AT&T said that tax reform helped boost the quarter’s net income to $19 billion, compared to $2.4 billion in the same period a year before.

Anger over the tax cuts was front and center at a demonstration in Chicago this spring, where thousands of members gathered at AT&T headquarters to rally for a contract. During the rally, someone in the building put a sign in the window that read, “No one cares,” according to Simons. “You put all that together, and people were ready” to strike, he says.

As of Tuesday, most members in Wisconsin and Illinois have returned to work, but thousands in Michigan, Ohio and all of Indiana remain on strike, according to the union.

Tim Strong, president of CWA Local 4900 and a member of the District 4 bargaining team, also credits the wave of teacher strikes this year in inspiring members to walk out. Bargaining with AT&T is continuing this week over key issues including job security, use of contractors and healthcare costs, he says.

In the meantime, members have pulled off the longest work stoppage their union has seen since 1989. “I think it’s a reflection of the movement in this country—that you saw teachers who in many cases don’t even have collective bargaining rights going on strike,” says Strong. “And now 9,000 members decided to take this leap of faith and fight.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 5, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago ReaderThe Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

The West Virginia Teachers’ Strike Has Activists Asking: Should We Revive the Wildcat?

Wednesday, March 14th, 2018

The stunning success of the recent statewide West Virginia teachers’ strike makes it one of the most inspiring worker protests of the Trump era.

The walkout over rising health insurance costs and stagnant pay began on Feb. 22 and appeared to be settled by Feb. 27 with promises from Gov. Jim Justice of a 5 percent pay raise for teachers. Union leaders initially accepted that deal in good faith, along with vague assurances that the state would work with them on a solution to escalating out-of-pocket costs for workers’ healthcare.

Dramatically, rank-and-file teachers refused to end the walkout. Every public school in the state remained closed for nine days due to the strike, until the West Virginia legislature voted to approve a 5 percent pay increase for all state workers as well as a formal labor-management committee to deal with the healthcare problem.

The entire experience leaves many labor activists asking variations of three questions: What is a wildcat strike? Was West Virginia a true wildcat? And should we have more wildcat strikes?

What is a wildcat strike?

Wildcat strikes are job actions led by rank-and-file members in defiance of official union leadership. Why would leaders try to stop a job action that members want to take? The answer, generally, is that the strike is either against the law or in violation of a contractual no-strike clause (and, often, the leaders are in some way legally compelled to discourage it). In either case, workers who strike could be fired with no legal recourse for the union to win them their jobs back. This is a peculiar feature of America’s post-World War II labor relations system.

Prior to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), a strike was a strike. It was not uncommon to have multiple unions vying for workplace leadership and engaging in a kind of one-upmanship of job actions. While these actions occasionally produced small gains in pay or reductions in hours, they rarely ended with union recognition—much less signed contracts.

That’s because employers didn’t have to deal with unions. They might have begrudgingly made a unilateral concession to the workers’ wage or hour demands in order to resume operations, but bosses almost never formally sat down with elected union representatives.

The NLRA changed that status quo by compelling employers to “bargain in good faith” with any group of union members that demanded it. As Charles J. Morris documents in his 2004 book, The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the American Workplace, the NLRA did not include any provision for certification elections of exclusive union representatives. The framers of the NLRA wrote it for the labor movement that existed at the time: a collection of voluntary associations that made bargaining demands for their members only.

Compelled to bargain with unions, employers quickly developed a preference to deal with only one as an exclusive representative. That way, bosses could have contractual assurance that all outstanding disputes would be settled (or at least channeled through grievance and arbitration procedures) for the period of a contract that also guaranteed no strikes (or lockouts or other forms of industrial actions) would occur during the terms of labor peace.

Under that framework, the wildcat became a unique kind of worker protest. The etymology of the term “wildcat” can probably be traced to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and their unofficial symbol, the sabo cat.

Wildcat actions are not common and are rarely full-blown strikes. More often, they are temporary slowdowns or quick work stoppages in a smaller segment of a wider operation. They could be sparked, for example, over a sudden change in work rules or the belligerent actions of a supervisor. Usually, an official union representative rushes to the scene to attempt to settle the dispute with management and encourages the workers to return to their jobs.

Wildcats were more common in the early 1970s, during the last great strike wave in the United States. Those years saw a large number of strikes by teachers and other public-sector workers to win collective bargaining rights. Many of those strikes were technically illegal, but not wildcats as they were organized and led by official union leadership that had few alternatives in the absence of formal union rights under the NLRA.

However, in that climate of greater worker protest, many private-sector workers also went on strike. Many of those strikes were wildcats sparked by out-of-control inflation and intolerable speed-ups. In a sense, workers weren’t just striking in violation of their collective bargaining agreements but against their terms.

The most famous example was the 1972 rank-and-file rebellion at the General Motors factory in Lordstown, Ohio, which has fascinated generations of labor writers. In her 1975 book All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work, Barbara Garson captured this illustrative conversation between workers:

“It pays good,” said one, “but it’s driving me crazy.”

“I don’t want more money,” said another. “None of us do.”

“I do,” said his friend, “so I can quit quicker.”

“The only money I want is my union dues back – if they don’t let us out on strike soon.”

In 1972, the factory was churning out Chevy Vegas at a pace that gave each worker 36 seconds to do a minute’s worth of work before the next car moved down the line in the blink of an eye. Workers had taken to acts of sabotage, like throwing a few loose screws in a gas tank, in hopes that the “error” would be caught by quality control and shut the line down for a few minutes of blessed relief.

While the United Autoworkers (UAW) leaders prioritized wages in bargaining—they won an impressive 13 percent increase for their members in the contract that was then in effect—the workers at Lordstown wanted to slow the pace of work. They went on a wildcat strike that lasted for 22 days, until management settled a slew of grievances and agreed to rehire a number of laid off positions in order to reduce the pace of work.

By the end of the decade, the competitive pressures of global trade put workers back on the defensive. The Lordstown plant is still in operation despite multiple threats to shutter it. In a 2010 profile, the New York Times called it one of GM’s “most productive and efficient plants,” and noted that 84 percent of the workers had recently voted to approve concessions during GM’s bankruptcy.

Those competitive pressures, combined with austerity budgets in the public sector, have severely reduced many workers’ living standards. The West Virginia strike may be a sign that these desperate times have turned many workplaces into powder kegs of simmering resentment and desperation.

Was West Virginia a true wildcat?

West Virginia schools have a peculiar framework: no contracts or formal collective bargaining, but a degree of official union recognition—including dues check-off—within a highly litigious tenure and grievance procedure with statewide pay and benefits subject to legislative lobbying. That environment appeared perfectly crafted to sap unions of their potential militancy, assuming the bosses understood they had to provide a minimally-decent standard of pay and benefits. Instead, teachers faced some of the lowest pay rates in the nation, along with rising healthcare costs, which helped lead to their decision to walk off the job.

Because the West Virginia strike happened outside the context of formal, contract-based unionism, Lois Weiner argues in New Politics that it is inaccurate to describe the statewide walkout as a wildcat. “Confusion on nomenclature reflects how remarkable this phenomenon is: we don’t know how to name a movement of workers that is self-organized, not confined by the strictures of collective bargaining,” she writes, continuing, “There is no legally prescribed procedure for ending the strike because the vast majority of people striking aren’t union members and strikes are not legal.”

Given the frontal assault on the entire legal framework of union representation—Janus vs. AFSCME being the massive tip of the gargantuan iceberg—what unionism looks like in the United States is bound to be radically altered in the coming years. Weiner does us a service by breaking the union framework down into its component parts. We need more writers doing this if we are going to have an informed debate about which parts are worth fighting to preserve, and which are overdue for replacement.

Respectfully, however, I would argue that the West Virginia strike was a wildcat. The political dynamics were essentially the same as in the ritualized contract bargaining of the post-war private sector. Union leaders were in the position of “bargaining” with the governor over a legislative fix to pay and healthcare. They took a deal that was reasonable enough in order to demonstrate their own reasonableness to the bosses.

When the rank-and-file rejected that settlement by continuing to stay off the job, the strike became a wildcat. Official union leaders continued to represent the interests of the striking workers and helped harness the continued strike into an even bigger win—all while presenting themselves to politicians as the reasonable negotiators who could help them get the teachers back to work.

That the strike happened in the first place is thanks to a good deal of self-organization among segments of the rank-and-file, aided in no small part by e-mail and social media. Because two unions—affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—vie for members across the state like pre-NLRA unions used to, this rank-and-file rebellion appears to have whipsawed the competing union leaderships into a one-upmanship over who could more effectively lead the strike and claim credit for the win.

This example does suggest one model for a new unionism, rooted in our recent past.

Should we have more wildcat strikes?

I recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post on the Janus vs. AFSCME case about how agency fees, which are directly challenged in this case, have historically been traded for the no-strike clause. I’ve been making variations of the same point at In These Times for over two years, but this time it’s created a bit of a stir.

Some commentators are beginning to recognize that an anti-union decision in Janus could spark constitutional and workplace chaos that could make messy protests like the West Virginia teachers’ strike a more regular occurrence.

If deprived of agency fees, it is probable that some unions will cede exclusive representation in order to kick out the scabs, or “free riders.” And one wonders how much longer private sector unions in right-to-work states will continue to slog through unfair NLRB elections in order to “win” the obligation to represent free-riders, instead of embracing Charles J. Morris’ theory that the original 1935 process for card check recognition of minority unions is still operational and demanding “members-only” bargaining.

That trend would inevitably lead to new worker organizations rushing to poach the unrepresented workers left behind. Some would likely compete by offering cheaper dues or by cozying up to management. Others would vie for members and shopfloor leadership by railing against disappointing deals. This will be messy. As in the pre-NLRA era, workplace competition between unions may not produce lasting union contracts.

But it will also make a guaranteed period of labor peace impossible—and that could lead to more strikes like the West Virginia wildcat. Through Janus, right-to-work and the renewed open-shop offensive, the bosses have made clear that they’re not interested in labor peace. Let’s give them what they want.

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 13, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

The Lesson From West Virginia Teachers? If You Want to Win, Go on Strike.

Wednesday, March 7th, 2018

For many years now, observers have been ringing the death knell for the U.S. labor movement. West Virginia teachers haven’t just pumped life back into that movement—they’ve reaffirmed the fundamental principle that the key to building power and winning is for workers to withhold their labor.

On Tuesday, Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill passed by the state legislature that will provide a 5 percent raise for teachers and school personnel. The deal reportedly also includes a 5 percent raise for all state employees, though that will have to be finalized through an upcoming budget bill. The state has also agreed to set up a task force to address the increasing costs in teachers’ healthcare plans—a key issue for striking teachers.

While the details on how the pay hike would be funded were not immediately clear, what is certain is that the prolonged strike has forced that state’s hand—and teachers have won major concessions that will directly improve the lives of workers across the state.

A remarkable strike

The strike in West Virginia has been astonishing from the outset. Since Feb. 22, more than 20,000 teachers in all 55 counties took part in what became the longest statewide strike in West Virginia’s history. The mass action was led not by union leadership but by rank-and-file members who refused to accept a compromise proposal last week and continued to rally at the capitol in Charleston every day, demanding an increase in pay and healthcare protections. They were joined by other public-sector workers standing in solidarity with striking teachers. And teachers benefitted from goodwill and support from the public, which helped make their protest all the more effective.

All of this has taken place in a state that does not officially recognize collective bargaining or the right to strike. Teachers in West Virginia have proven that even under hostile conditions for labor, winning is possible when workers are willing to take risks and stage dramatic and militant actions. This is a lesson that will become all the more important following the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME, a case that could defund public-sector unions across the country.

The strike sent political shockwaves throughout West Virginia, halting other business at the capitol and catapulting the struggle for labor rights into the public eye. Workers draped in red—a callback to the state’s history of mineworker activism—stood on picket lines and held mass rallies across the largely rural state for nine days. The potential effects of the strike on other workers around the country are already beginning to come into focus.

Starting to spread?

Just days after the West Virginia strike began, teachers across the state of Oklahoma announced their intention to walk off the job in order to win higher pay. As is the case in West Virginia, Oklahoma teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation and are similarly prohibited from striking by state law. Yet following West Virginia’s lead, 41,000 Oklahoma teachers could be on the picket lines within weeks, and some teachers are already contemplating a wildcat strike without the official consent of union leadership. Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, tells Bloomberg’s Josh Eidelson that while some teachers may have previously been reticent to engage in a walk-out, the West Virginia strike “has given them an emboldened sense of purpose and a sense of power.”

On Feb. 26, graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign launched an ongoing strike to protect tuition waivers and make the university accessible to low-income students. On that same day, teachers in Jersey City, N.J. voted to authorize a strike over increasing healthcare costs.

And the militancy is not limited to educators: On March 4, 1,400 Frontier Communications workers in West Virginia and Virginia walked off the job to demand a fair contract including increased job security.

Labor’s onslaught

The spirit of defiance and disruption fueling these worker-led actions is a welcome development for a U.S. labor movement that is increasingly under attack. In addition to the threat of an unfavorable ruling in Janus, the Trump administration’s labor department has been hard at work rolling back workers’ rights, including allowing bosses to pocket their workers’ tips, opening the door to the spread of unpaid internships, making it easierfor employers to pay women and minority workers less, and refusing to defend an Obama-era rule that would have provided overtime protections.

Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board, now stacked with Trump appointees, has repealed a slew of rulings that had previously buoyed union organizing. As Mark Joseph Stern reported for Slate, “Taken together, this spate of decisions will hinder millions of employees’ abilities to unionize and bargain collectively.”

This onslaught comes on top of state-level efforts to curtail the power of labor unions. Twenty-eight states already have “right to work” laws on the books, and the Janus case could, in effect, spread these laws to the public sector in the remaining 22. These laws, allowing union members to “opt out” of paying dues, have been shown to weaken the power of labor unions while undermining their ability to protect and bargain for their members. They also lead to lower wages: Research from the Economic Policy Institute shows that wages are 3.1 percent lower in “right to work” states for both union and non-union workers alike.

The push by many states to privatize public services and starve public budgets of funding through austerity measures has put public-sector workers at greater risk of seeing their jobs disappear—and left them fighting over scraps when it comes to pay and benefits.

Walk off to win

The teachers’ strike in West Virginia is a prime example of how workers can organize and win in the midst of such an anti-labor climate. Rather than agreeing to accept a meager 2 percent pay increase previously signed by the governor, teachers channeled their anger and frustration into collective action. By banding together and refusing to work, the teachers exerted monumental pressure on the state government and won a pay increase more than double what had been on offer a mere two weeks before.

This is the kind of victory that proves why strikes work. Teachers and all workers who are considering walking off the job to win demands can look to West Virginia and say, “it worked for them, so why not for us?”

Winning a 5 percent pay raise is already a triumph, but if West Virginia teachers help spark more militant worker action across the country, the impact of their victory could be transformative—and just what an imperiled labor movement needs.

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 6, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is the Community Editor at In These Times. He is a Chicago based writer. miles@inthesetimes.com @MilesKLassin

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.

The Looming Writers Strike Is About Much More Than What’s On TV

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

People say we’re living in the golden age of television. Fans enjoy more high-quality choices than at any time in history. But this could all grind to a halt if the Writers Guild of America (WGA) follows through with authorizing a strike, which would start May 2 barring any last-minute deals with the major studios.

In the short-term, late-night talk and sketch shows could go dark or resort to improvisation, and the fall broadcast schedule could be threatened. (The WGA covers screenwriters as well, but movies operate on such a long timeframe that a strike wouldn’t affect releases for over a year.) But more broadly, the battle would determine who benefits from the billions of dollars sloshing around Hollywood: well-off studio executives or the creators who bring unforgettable characters to life.

As Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner told colleagues in recommending a strike, writers simply want “to participate in this windfall we created in the last five years.”

Squeezed on all sides

Writers last walked out in 2007-2008, when YouTube was three years old and the concept of delivering original scripted programming over the Internet was scarcely in anyone’s head. The WGA had the foresight to secure revenues from streaming residuals in that contract. But nobody was prepared for how the industry would change.

Increasingly, scripted shows have shorter and shorter seasons. Sixty-eight percent of all programs aired 13 episodes or fewer last season, according to WGA calculations, rather than the traditional 22. Because writers are compensated on a per-episode basis, that change amounts to a halving of their pay.

In addition, studios are giving shows more time to make those limited numbers of episodes, which is great for the craft but bad for writers’ bottom line. Other behind-the-scenes talent gets paid based on their presence at work; only writers lose money when they get three weeks per episode instead of two.

You might think shorter runs allow writers to hook onto more shows over their careers. But under current terms, writers sign exclusive contracts, with an option to return to their show if it gets renewed. They can’t stack up three shows in a year to make up for lost wages. And exclusive holds can last a full year, if networks delay in confirming a definitive air date. If the delays last long enough, writers can become ineligible for union healthcare and other benefits.

In the past, writers filled these gaps with residual payments. But networks, fearful of tough competition, air far fewer re-runs now. Instead, they sell entire seasons to video-on-demand (VOD) services. Writers make less money from these formats than from network residuals. For example, a network repeat for a 1-hour show yields a writer more than $24,000, while an ad-supported VOD airing nets just $1,228 for the writer, according to union contract rates.

For movie writers, the issues are different. The big studios are making fewer movies, down to 139 releases in 2016 from 204 in 2006, limiting writers’ opportunities. Studios have also begun to reduce script “development,” even demanding free rewrites instead of offering paid time to hone and perfect a screenplay. The vanishing of DVD revenues has also taken a bite. Earnings for screenwriters today are roughly equivalent to earnings from 2000, the WGA estimates.

Finally, the WGA has a large gap in its healthcare fund: It expects a $56 million deficit over the next three years. While negotiations seem like they will yield higher base wages for writers, healthcare has become a critical sticking point. The studios have agreed to fill much of the gap, but with “wage diversions” that would effectively come out of writers’ paychecks. The WGA wants a much higher contribution from management to fund a rainy-day reserve. The two sides are roughly $45 million apart.

“A very, very big pie”

TV and film remains very profitable, at least for executives and shareholders. The “Big Six” studios (Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Disney) reported operating profits of $51 billion last year, twice as much as in 2007. Upfront TV ad rates increased last year to well over $9 billion, as live programming becomes highly valued in an era of ad-blockers and DVRs. Upstarts like Netflix or Amazon have even more riches at their disposal to pay for programming.

The studios are mostly arms of large conglomerates, whose parent companies run telecommunications or electronics businesses. Leslie Moonves, head of Viacom/Paramount’s CBS Corp., earned $69 million last year. These giant corporations with diverse, worldwide revenue streams clearly carry the ability to pay writers fairly for what they generate in value. Stories about slow growth in box office receipts or significant studio challenges mask the tremendous cash still available to multinational giants.

But the studios want to hang onto their bounty, and they have resources to take the sting out of a writer’s strike. A decade ago, the full catalogs of practically every television show ever made weren’t as readily available on demand. Plus, not incorporating reality show storytellers into the 2008 contract could come back to burn the WGA now, as this would become the non-union scab programming replacing sidelined scripted shows on many networks. Add to that a Hollywood strike’s impact on thousands of other ancillary jobs—from stagehands to catering to limo services to hair and makeup—and the WGA could have some challenges this time around.

This would be the sixth WGA strike since 1960, and previous efforts have secured important advances for the backbone of the entertainment industry. Moreover, they have become teachable moments for a country unused to labor strife—a way to directly explain the concepts of fair wages and workers demanding to share in a company’s success.

But now, writers are fighting concentrated power brokers who have devised all sorts of ways to maintain a stranglehold on the billions of people worldwide who fork over money to watch their favorite characters.

Glen Mazzara, former showrunner for The Walking Dead, perhaps put it best on the WGA website: “We’re just trying to get a little bigger piece of a very, very big pie.”

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on April 20, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

David Dayen is a freelance journalist and the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. He lives in Los Angeles, where prior to writing about politics he had a 19-year career as a television producer and editor.

Momentive Workers Strike As Trump’s “Jobs Forum” Pick Cuts Wages

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

More than 700 Momentive Performance Materials chemical plant workers in Waterford, NY have been on strike since November 2. The Albany Times Union explains why, in a report about the striking Waterford chemical plant,

Workers rejected a contract offer that would cut vacation time, reduce 401(k) benefits, increase health insurance costs and slice retiree health insurance and other benefits. The union had approved earlier cuts in pay and benefits in contracts with Momentive in 2010 and 2013, but workers said a third consecutive contract to cut benefits for workers and retirees, some of whom have ongoing health problems linked to years of working with toxic chemicals, is unfair.

Pay cuts, benefit cuts, cutting retiree’s pensions… The workers’ standard of living has been driven down since the company was bought by a hedge fund in 2006 including complete elimination of healthcare and life insurance for retirees. Some wages have been slashed up to 50% and jobs have been outsourced to intimidate remaining workers.

So they are on strike.

Trump’s Promise

In his inaugural address Friday President Trump said that “the wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.”

One person ripping the wealth from the middle class is Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the private equity firm Blackstone Group — and Chair of Trump’s new “Strategic and Policy Forum.” BloombergPolitics explains,

“This forum brings together CEOs and business leaders who know what it takes to create jobs and drive economic growth,” Trump said in a statement issued by Blackstone. “My administration is committed to drawing on private sector expertise and cutting the government red tape that is holding back our businesses from hiring, innovating, and expanding right here in America.”

Trump’s “jobs forum” pick Schwarzman is one of the owners of the Momentive Performance Materials chemical plant where the workers are on strike — because of the pay cuts and cuts in health care and retiree benefits that is ripping their wealth from them and redistributing it to a few extremely wealthy people at the top.

The Albany Times Union report, titled, Trump key economic adviser has stake in Momentive’s striking Waterford chemical plant, explains,

Outside the Momentive chemical plant, striking workers huddled in the cold around burn barrels have raised a symbol of their corporate owners: An inflatable caricature of a cigar-smoking pig with wads of cash flowing out of its jacket pockets.

But actual ownership of Momentive Performance Materials — sold to a New York City-based hedge fund a decade ago by General Electric Co. — is a corporate web that includes six billionaires on the Forbes magazine list of the nation’s 400 richest people, including a man named this month by President-elect Donald Trump as his chief job creation adviser.

Stephen Schwarzman, founder and CEO of the Blackstone Group, will have Trump’s ear on economic and tax policy as head of the President’s Strategic and Policy Forum, a group of more than a dozen captains of industry, including former GE CEO Jack Welch.

… With an estimated net worth of $11 billion, Schwarzman is ranked 45th richest on the Forbes 400 list for 2016. His New York City-based firm currently holds about $361 billion in assets, making it the largest hedge fund in the world. The 69-year-old has estates in East Hampton, Saint-Tropez in the French Riviera, a beachfront villa in Jamaica, and a luxury Park Avenue apartment in New York City that was once home to John D. Rockefeller.

How rich is Schwarzman? See Billionaire Stephen Schwarzman Makes $250 Million In Five Days As Blackstone Posts Big Numbers.

Will Trump Keep His Promise?

Trump promised that he is going to restore the middle class. But Trump’s “jobs” pick is helping destroy the middle class at places like Momentive. From the Albany Times Union report,

“I would pray to God that Donald Trump would reconsider what he is doing and have a talk with some of these people, especially Mr. Schwarzman, about what is going on here in Waterford,” said Dominick Patrignani, Local 81359 president. “We are extremely concerned with the loss of jobs, and this guy is supposed to be the new czar of job creation and growth.”

Which is it going to be? Jobs and good wages for working people or, as Trump himself put it, ripping the wealth of our middle class from their homes and then redistributing it to a very few billionaires — like Trump’s “jobs” pick?

Whose side will Trump prove to be on? Momentive’s workers will tell you that Trump is off to a very bad start at meeting his promise.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on January 20, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

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

This week in the war on workers: Pennsylvania state college and university faculty strike

Monday, October 24th, 2016

LauraClawson
After going without a contract for more than a year, and with their administration withdrawing from negotiation, faculty at Pennsylvania state colleges and universities (but not including Pennsylvania State University, confusingly enough) went on strike Wednesday. The administration is running the usual “oh, those greedy workers” playbook because the faculty don’t want to make concessions on healthcare expenses that other workers have been pressured into.

apscuf

Meanwhile:

Union President Ken Mash stood outside the chancellor’s office building Thursday afternoon in Harrisburg to push for a resumption of contract talks.

“If they want to come out and right now and negotiate, we’re willing to go ahead and do that,” Mash said. “But, I don’t want to be totally unfair either, because they do have my cellphone number, so if they want to call later on and say that they’re ready to negotiate, we’re ready to do that too.”

This might have a little something to do with the faculty’s grievances:

State funding for the system, at $444 million this year, is about the same as it was 17 years ago, even as full-time enrollment has risen more than 10 percent.

And:

The union also balks at having to take on other duties without compensation, including a 67 percent increase in the supervision of interns who go into the business world. The increase would raise the annual allotment of interns to 120. The union also balks at cuts to competitive grants for research and professional development. Another issue is the state system’s plan to put part-time adjunct professors on a lower pay scale for the first time. And it objects to changes in the promotion, tenure and grievance rules.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on October 22, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

No Justice, No Peeps! Workers Walk Off the Job At Pennsylvania Peeps Factory

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

Mario VasquezWorkers employed by candy manufacturer, Just Born Quality Confections, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, are on strike over the company’s pension plan proposal. The strike, workers allege, hits the company—which makes Peeps, as well as Mike and Ike and Hot Tamales candies—just as next year’s Easter orders are meant to be made.

“This is my livelihood,” says Alex Fattore, a mechanic who has been at Just Born since 1980. “We make Easter happen. I want to go back in there and make Easter happen.”

Roughly 400 workers walked off the job September 7, drawing a hard line against the company’s attempt to switch new hires to a 401(k), instead of the multiemployer pension plan that workers are presently a part of. They are represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) Union Local 6.

The company claims that it’s concerned about the pension plan’s long-term viability. The plan reported assets of $5 billion and liabilities of $8 billion, and projected insolvency within 14 years, according to the company. The union, however, counters that the company is not allowed to put pension details on the negotiating table, per pension fund rules. The company is pushing its plan as a part of collective bargaining negotiations for an agreement that expired in June.

“The company is growing,” says chief shop steward Keith Turner, a machinist with 21 years of Just Born experience, alluding to its claims of double-digit growth. “It’s kind of ironic that they would turn around now and tell us that they can’t afford anything.”

Workers additionally claim that if the move to a 401(k) plan for new hires were to go into effect, it would only further weaken the multiemployer pension fund, forcing the fund’s trustees to reduce retiree benefits.

Just Born did not respond to a request to comment, but it released a statement that read, in part: “Our proposal—to have existing associates remain in the current pension plan and to have future hires participate in a 401(k) plan—provides a respectful path that honors our current associates’ existing benefits, and provides a sustainable retirement benefit for our future hires.”

“It’s the equivalent of—let’s say you signed a 30-year mortgage, and after 20 years you decide, you know I don’t want to pay this part of it anymore so I’m just not going to—and you just can’t do that,” Turner tells In These Times.

The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO has called for a boycott of Just Born products.

While this is the first strike at a Just Born facility in decades, this is not the first time the company has attempted to impose a change in pension plans, according to union officials. Last year, the company implemented a final contract including the same 401(k) plan proposed at the Bethlehem plant, after declaring an impasse in its contract negotiations with the roughly 35 workers at its Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews factory in Philadelphia. BCTGM challenged the change with the National Labor Relations Board but was denied, leading the union to take the matter to federal court in a case that is still pending, a year and a half later.

“We’ll say, a few years from now, if we didn’t stand up and stand our ground—that we had the opportunity to stand our ground with this company and say we aren’t going to take this,” Fattore tells In These Times. “We’re going to stand our ground and we’re going to fight (for) what’s right.”

Since workers voted to strike, they have tried to keep up morale. An unfair labor practice charge was filed by Local 6 after allegedly discovering that an individual affiliated with Just Born contacted striking workers, posing as a union official, telling them to return to work. The complaint, filed with the National Labor Relations Board, is pending.

Another, more public, company action that is causing substantial worry among striking Just Born workers is the hiring of replacement workers at the facility, with about 175 reportedly attending a job fair and another 600 applying for jobs online. As of press time, both sides have agreed to come back to the bargaining table alongside a federal mediator this week.

“We pretty well know from people inside, and from what we can see on the outside, that they haven’t made a Peep yet,” says Turner. “The longer that this goes on, the more squeezed that they are for their Peep production. We’re hoping that a little bit of hunger from us, and a little bit of hunger from them, makes something happen.”

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on September 27, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Mario Vasquez is a writer from southern California. He is a regular contributor to Working In These Times. Follow him on Twitter @mario_vsqz or email him atmario.vasquez.espinoza@gmail.com.

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