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Thousands of Virginia teachers march to state capitol demanding more funding, better salaries

Tuesday, January 29th, 2019

Thousands of Virginia teachers left their classrooms and rallied in Richmond on Monday to demand more education funding and higher salaries. Teachers gathered in front of the state capitol building, just as their fellow educators did during strikes and rallies last year in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, and North Carolina.

Virginia Educators United (VEU), which organized Monday’s rally, wants schools to have adequate support staff, such as nurses and social workers, competitive wages for support staff, improved school infrastructure, and better recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers. VEU encouraged teachers to take a personal day to attend the rally.

“I just think it’s one of those things where we have been waiting patiently and we always say, the [Great Recession] this, the recession that. That was 2008; we don’t have time to wait anymore so we need to fund education now,” Kevin Hickerson, president of the Fairfax Education Association, told ThinkProgress. 

Hickerson said that in Fairfax, like many other school districts across the country, it’s common for teachers to be working two or three jobs in order to make ends meet. The district needs to take additional steps to ensure support personnel, such as custodians, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers, can afford to live in the communities in which they work.

In an analysis of states’ funding formulas by the Education Law Center and Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education, Virginia received a grade of “F” on its funding distribution. Virginia’s average teacher salary is slightly less than average at $56,861, compared to $58,353, but in the Richmond area, the average teacher salary is just $51,064, state data shows. According to the National Education Association, Virginia ranks 34th in the nation in average teacher pay.

Salaries aren’t the only reason teachers decided to protest; the schools themselves desperately need improvements, according to Hickerson.

“Our infrastructure needs a lot of upgrades and improvements. When you don’t take care of things now in terms of buildings, they just cost more later down the line. We need to upgrade our buildings and we need to get out of trailers,” he said. “We have close to a thousand trailers here in Fairfax County and I don’t want my daughter going into a trailer to learn and I don’t want other kids to also have that experience.”

Hickerson added that there are mold problems, heating issues, and leaks in trailers and on top of that, trailers may not be the safest place for students to learn.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) proposed a 5 percent pay increase for teachers and $268.7 million in new money for public schools in December. Republican leaders in the house of delegates have said they support a 5 percent pay raise. The Republican-controlled state senate has said it wants more flexibility for how local governments spend increased education funding.

When asked why Virginia teachers aren’t ready for a statewide strike like other states, Hickerson said that in addition to legal issues teachers may encounter due to public employee strikes being prohibited, the upcoming state elections present an opportunity to make change.

“I think we have a golden opportunity this election season with both our chambers up for bid in the house and the senate. I think we have a great opportunity to get public education-friendly candidates into those seats,” he said. “I think there is a good chance we can flip the house and the senate and bring public education to the forefront where we don’t necessarily need those strikes and collective action that makes us remove ourselves from our job. That doesn’t mean we stop lobbying or the momentum we started but at the same time that’s where we need to be putting our time and effort right now.”

Teachers unions haven’t dialed back their concerns about school funding after the 2018 statewide strikes. In Los Angeles, teachers went on strike for a week and won major concessions. Some of the improvements include a 50 percent reduction in standardized testing, turning 30 schools into community schools, and ensuring that schools have nurses working five days a week.

This month, Denver teachers voted to go on strike after more than a year of negotiations. Teachers there want to change their performance-based compensation system, which they say is confusing and limits opportunities for some teachers to improve their pay.

There are also ongoing discussions of work stoppages in West Virginia and Oakland, California. In West Virginia, the state senate advanced education legislation that embraces school choice, something teachers unions have opposed. West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee told the press, “everything is on the table” when asked if another teacher walkout would happen in response to the legislation.

In Oakland, Ismael Armendariz, vice president of the Oakland Education Association, said the L.A. strike has energized teachers, who have been working without a contract since 2017 and are asking for a 12 percent pay increase over three years.

“One thing that resonated with our members is that when you fight, you win,” Armendariz said.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 28, 2019. 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.

Longest government shutdown in history causes record number of TSA workers to stay home

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019

As the longest government shutdown in U.S. history ticks on, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is slowly starting to crumble.

The absence rate for TSA employees this weekend increased to a record-breaking eight percent, compared to 7.5 percent last week and just three percent this time last year, according to the Washington Post. The absences particularly impacted large hubs in Chicago, New York, Atlanta and Miami. Baltimore Washington International Airport also suffered some sever staff shortages this weekend. On Sunday, the absences topped ten percent, as many TSA workers were unable to afford to continue working without pay.

In order to keep lines moving at airports, TSA has dipped into its National Deployment Force (NDF) pool, which is normally used to help out with major events such as the Superbowl.

TSA is also doing its utmost to ensure that the public does not know the true extent of how the shutdown is affecting the agency’s ability to perform its job. In an email sent Friday obtained by CNN, the agency’s deputy assistant administrator for public affairs Jim Gregory laid out a series of talking points on how to handle inquiries about the scale of the shutdown.

“Do not offer specific call out data at your airport,” the email reads. “You can say you have experienced higher numbers of call outs but in partnership with the airport and airlines you are able to manage people and resources to ensure effective security is always maintained.”

While TSA offers national data, it does not offer details for specific airports owing to “security concerns.” This means that there could be significant variation at airports that push some higher than the eight percent absence rate recorded nationwide.

The absences have, however, trickled down to travelers, who have been forced to wait in line for much longer than normal to get through security. TSA has consistently maintained that it is screening the vast majority of passengers in 30 minutes or less, but the ebbs and flows of airports during the shutdown has meant that some have been in scenarios where they’ve been severely understaffed.

Last week, for instance, multiple security lanes at Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson International Airport were closed; wait times to pass through security lasted more than an hour and multiple flights were canceled. TSA is also expecting an influx of visitors into Atlanta for the Superbowl on February 3rd.

The continued lack of funding for TSA has also meant some workers have decided to simply quit outright, according to Hydrick Thomas, head of the American Federation of Government Employees’ TSA Council.

“Some of them have already quit and many are considering quitting the federal workforce because of this shutdown,” he said in a statement. “The loss of officers, while we’re already shorthanded, will create a massive security risk for American travelers since we don’t have enough trainees in the pipeline or the ability to process new hires.”

It’s not just TSA employees that have been struggling as the government shutdown enters its 30th day.

FBI field offices in Newark, Dallas, New Jersey and Washington are also establishing, or plan to establish, food banks for agents, who are also considered essential employees and must work through the shutdown. Because of security considerations FBI agents are usually prohibited from taking a second job, but according to CNN there has been a sharp surge in the number of agents and workers looking for additional employment.

Meanwhile, employees at federal prisons are also logging double shifts, and even in some cases using medical or maintenance employees to work as guards to help supplement low staffing numbers. According to the New York Times this led some inmates at New York’s Metropolitan Correction Center to go on hunger strike last week, as staffing shortages had forced the jail to cancel family visits for a second week.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 21, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Luke Barnes is a reporter at ThinkProgress. He previously worked at MailOnline in the U.K., where he was sent to cover Belfast, Northern Ireland and Glasgow, Scotland. He graduated in 2015 from Columbia University with a degree in Political Science. He has also interned at Talking Points Memo, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and Narratively.

Federal Employees Are Suing the Trump Administration for Forcing Them to Work for Free

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

Workers are suing the Trump administration, arguing that it’s illegal to compel federal employees to work with no pay. Filed by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the lawsuit comes amid calls for federal workers to go on strike or stage a sick-out as the government shutdown enters its fifth week.

On December 31, the AFGE sued the Trump administration for denying pay to federal workers during the partial government shutdown, alleging that the action was a clear violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the 1938 law that created the right to a minimum wage and overtime pay. On January 9, the union filed an amended complaint in the lawsuit, charging that the government is in violation of minimum wage laws. 

Nearly half a million federal employees deemed “essential” have been ordered to continue working despite the fact that they do not know when they will ultimately be paid for their hours.

Heidi Burakiewicz, an attorney representing the plaintiffs as part of Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, told In These Times that the amended complaint was initiated over the fact that 420,000 federal employees had gone a full two weeks without a paycheck by mid-January, which is a violation of minimum wage laws.

Burakiewicz says the plaintiffs are seeking back pay, plus liquidated damages to compensate for the financial decisions they’ve been forced to make during the shutdown. “People are running up late payment penalties and interest charges,” said Burakiewicz. “There’s so many people who live paycheck to paycheck, and we’ve heard about so many incredibly heartbreaking situations.”

Although there are just two plaintiffs so far, AFGE is setting up an electronic sign-up system for other workers to join the lawsuit, and Burakiewicz estimates that she’s already received about 7,000 emails from people inquiring about how to become part of it.

This isn’t the first time Burakiewicz has sued the federal government. After the 2013 government shutdown, Burakiewicz represented 25,000 essential federal employees who filed a lawsuit on similar grounds. The government tried to get the case dismissed by arguing that federal law prevented them from spending any money that had not been allocated by Congress.

A judge with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims disagreed with the government’s assessment and ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2014. In 2017, the court determined that the workers were actually entitled to double their back pay. Despite the victory, the workers are still waiting to receive their compensation.

Burakiewicz says that one of the reasons the litigation has been so slow is because the lawsuit was unprecedented and there were a number of legal issues that had to be ironed out. Since this terrain has now been covered, she thinks that this second lawsuit will proceed much quicker—and that it will be much easier to calculate damages for the workers.

As the shutdown continues, some are calling for strikes and work stoppages. On January 14, Barbara Ehrenreich and Gary Stevenson called on Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers to go on a strike in a New York Times op-ed. “The moral foundation for a strike is unquestionably firm,” reads the piece. “The federal government has broken its contract with its employees—locking some of them out of their workplaces and expecting others to work for the mere promise of eventual pay.”

Federal employees are legally prevented from going on strike, and in 1981 Ronald Reagan infamously fired almost 13,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) for participating in one. Many credit Reagan with dealing organized labor a blow that it has never entirely recovered from, as the private sector began imitating Reagan’s move and began replacing striking workers rather than negotiating with them.

However, there are signs that workers today are bringing the strike back. The year 2018 saw waves of teachers’ strikes and work stoppages that rocked a number of GOP-controlled states. All of these actions were led by the rank and file, and in many cases the teachers pushed the leadership of their unions towards more radical demands. Teachers’ strikes are illegal in West Virginia, yet that didn’t stop them from walking out nor did it impact their success.

In Slate, Henry Grabar spoke with historian Joseph McCartin about the many reasons that TSA workers shouldn’t fear the specter of PATCO if they end up striking. Reagan was popular during the time of the strike, while Trump’s approval rating continues to dip, and there probably isn’t a trained replacement workforce that could easily be implemented like there was in 1981. Additionally, there are tens of thousands more TSA employees than there were air-traffic controllers, and air travel is a much bigger part of the country’s economy, which would increase the potential leverage that a work stoppage could generate.

McCartin, who wrote the definitive book on the PATCO strike, published a piece in The American Prospect on January 14 calling on TSA workers to participate in a spontaneous sickout that would force the government to act. McCartin doesn’t believe that such an action would need to be nationwide to have an immediate impact. “This partial shutdown can continue only as long as hundreds of thousands of federal workers cooperate with it by working without pay, and often having to do more because many of their colleagues have been furloughed,” writes McMartin.

In addition to the AFGE lawsuit, the National Treasury Employees Union sued the govermnent in an attempt to excuse federal employees from working. On January 15, a Washington, D.C. judge ruled that government employees are still legally obligated to go to work even if they aren’t being paid.

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 22, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

Martin Luther King Jr. Was a Union Man

Monday, January 21st, 2019

If Martin Luther King Jr. still lived, he’d probably tell people to join unions.

King understood racial equality was inextricably linked to economics. He asked, “What good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can’t buy a hamburger?”

Those disadvantages have persisted. Today, for instance, the wealth of the average white family is more than 20 times that of a black one.

King’s solution was unionism.

Convergence of needs

In 1961, King spoke before the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest and most powerful labor organization, to explain why he felt unions were essential to civil rights progress.

“Negroes are almost entirely a working people,” he said. “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs – decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”

My new book, “Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area,” chronicles King’s relationship with a labor union that was, perhaps, the most racially progressive in the country. That was Local 10 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, or ILWU.

ILWU Local 10 represented workers who loaded and unloaded cargo from ships throughout San Francisco Bay’s waterfront. Its members’ commitment to racial equality may be as surprising as it is unknown.

In 1967, the year before his murder, King visited ILWU Local 10 to see what interracial unionism looked like. King met with these unionists at their hall in a then-thriving, portside neighborhood – now a gentrifiedtourist area best known for Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39.

While King knew about this union, ILWU history isn’t widely known off the waterfront.

Civil rights on the waterfront

Dockworkers had suffered for decades from a hiring system compared to a “slave auction.” Once hired, they routinely worked 24 to 36 hour shifts, experienced among the highest rates of injury and death of any job, and endured abusive bosses. And they did so for incredibly low wages.

In 1934, San Francisco longshoremen – who were non-union since employers had crushed their union in 1919 – reorganized and led a coast-wide “Big Strike.”

In the throes of the Great Depression, these increasingly militant and radicalized dockworkers walked off the job. After 83 days on strike, they won a huge victory: wage increases, a coast-wide contract and union-controlled hiring halls.

Soon, these “wharf rats,” among the region’s poorest and most exploited workers, became “lords of the docks,” commanding the highest wages and best conditions of any blue-collar worker in the region.

At its inception, Local 10’s membership was 99 percent white. But Harry Bridges, the union’s charismatic leader, joined with fellow union radicals to commit to racial equality in its ranks.

Originally from Australia, Bridges started working on the San Francisco waterfront in the early 1920s. It was during the Big Strike that he emerged as a leader.

Bridges coordinated during the strike with C.L. Dellums, the leading black unionist in the Bay Area, and made sure the handful of black dockworkers would not cross picket lines as replacement workers. Bridges promised they would get a fair deal in the new union. One of the union’s first moves after the strike was integrating work gangs that previously had been segregated.

Local 10 overcame pervasive discrimination

Cleophas Williams, a black man originally from Arkansas, was among those who got into Local 10 in 1944. He belonged to a wave of African-Americans who, due to the massive labor shortage caused by World War II, fled the racism and discriminatory laws of the Jim Crow South for better lives – and better jobs – outside of it. Hundreds of thousands of blacks moved to the Bay Area, and tens of thousands found jobs in the booming shipbuilding industry.

Black workers in shipbuilding experienced pervasive discrimination. Employers shunted them off into less attractive jobs and paid them less. Similarly, the main shipbuilders’ union proved hostile to black workers who, when allowed in, were placed in segregated locals.

A few thousand black men, including Williams, were hired as longshoremen during the war. He later recalled to historian Harvey Schwartz: “When I first came on the waterfront, many black workers felt that Local 10 was a utopia.”

During the war, when white foremen and military officers hurled racist epithets at black longshoremen, this union defended them. Black members received equal pay and were dispatched the same as all others.

For Williams, this union was a revelation. Literally the first white people he ever met who opposed white supremacy belonged to Local 10. These longshoremen were not simply anti-racists, they were communists and socialists.

Leftist unions like the ILWU embraced black workers because, reflecting their ideology, they contended workers were stronger when united. They also knew that, countless times, employers had broken strikes and destroyed unions by playing workers of different ethnicities, genders, nationalities and races against each other. For instance, when 350,000 workers went out during the mammoth Steel Strike of 1919, employers brought in tens of thousands of African-Americans to work as replacements.

Some black dockworkers also were socialists. Paul Robeson, the globally famous singer, actor and left-wing activist had several friends, fellow socialists, in Local 10. Robeson was made an honorary ILWU member during WWII.

Martin Luther King, union member

In 1967, King walked in Robeson’s footsteps when he was inducted into Local 10 as an honorary member, the same year Williams became the first black person elected president of Local 10. By that year, roughly half of its members were African-American.

King addressed these dockworkers, declaring, “I don’t feel like a stranger here in the midst of the ILWU. We have been strengthened and energized by the support you have given to our struggles. … We’ve learned from labor the meaning of power.”

Many years later, Williams discussed King’s speech with me: “He talked about the economics of discrimination. … What he said is what Bridges had been saying all along,” about workers benefiting by attacking racism and forming interracial unions.

Eight months later, in Memphis to organize a union, King was assassinated.

The day after his death, longshoremen shut down the ports of San Francisco and Oakland, as they still do when one of their own dies on the job. Nine ILWU members attended King’s funeral in Atlanta, including Bridges and Williams, honoring the man who called unions “the first anti-poverty program.”

This article appeared at In These Times on January 21, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and is currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a Research Associate in the Society, Work and Development Program (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has published extensively on labor history and politics. He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.

New Jersey to get $15 minimum wage

Thursday, January 17th, 2019

Since New Jersey shed itself of Chris Christie, things have been looking up. And now around a million of the state’s low-wage workers will be getting a raise. Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders reached an agreement on $15 minimum-wage legislation, something Christie had previously vetoed.

Under the plan, most workers would get a $15 minimum wage in 2024. The first raise will come July 1, to $10 from the current $8.85, then rise by a dollar a year until it reaches $15. Once it reaches $15, it will be adjusted for inflation annually. The tipped-worker minimum wage will rise gradually from $2.13 an hour to $5.13 an hour.

Exceptions to $15-in-2024 include workers at businesses with five or fewer employees and seasonal workers, who will take longer to reach $15, and farm workers, who will get to $12.50 in 2024 and then be at the mercy of state officials to decide whether they should eventually reach $15. Because … farm work isn’t hard enough to be worth $15 an hour? There sure are always people lined up to demand crappy concessions on worker-friendly bills. But one key attempt at undermining the policy was defeated, and teen workers will get the full $15 in 2024.

As is so often the case, it’s imperfect but a huge step forward. And coming the same week as congressional Democrats introduced a $15 minimum-wage plan, it reinforces that the country, if not the Republican Party, is on the right path on this issue.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on January 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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

Shutdown forces federal workers to consider career changes just to make ends meet

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

Federal workers and contractors are growing increasingly weary with the partial government shutdown as they begin to feel the financial squeeze, leading many to reconsider government work.

Last Friday, many federal workers missed their first paychecks since the shutdown began on December 22 over demands from President Donald Trump that Congress fund a $5 billion wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. On Saturday, the shutdown became the longest in U.S. history, currently stretching into its fourth week, at 26 days.

ThinkProgress spoke with federal workers and contractors who are making tough choices about whether or not to look for other jobs, or stay in the federal government even if they are able to get back to work soon. The employees quoted in this story asked not to be identified by their actual names out of fear of retaliation.

“It has just been a nightmare”

Drew, a federal worker within the Department of Agriculture, said the shutdown is particularly difficult for them as they’re in their 20s and in the beginning of their career. When asked what they’re doing to stay afloat financially, Drew said they’re not going anywhere or doing anything that requires spending money. They have cancelled any unnecessary regular spending.

“I covered bills for this month but it’s a question of next month of whether I will be able to make it because I do unfortunately live paycheck-to-paycheck and my savings are rather limited,” Drew said. “It’s been terrible for my economic situation. It’s been terrible for my personal life. It has just been a nightmare.” 

A 2017 CareerBuilder report that polled 2,000 managers and more than 3,000 full-time employees found that 78 percent of full-time workers said they lived paycheck to paycheck. Drew added that it’s particularly tough that they can’t help cover expenses for their group house, which affects everyone else they live with.

Anne, a contractor who works with the Bureau of Lands Management, has started filing for unemployment. Contractors did not receive backpay during the 2013 shutdown and it isn’t expected that they will receive backpay after this one, unlike federal workers. Even the process of filing for unemployment reminded her that she isn’t considered as affected by the shutdown as federal workers. One of the questions she had to answer was whether she was a federal employee affected by the shutdown, but since she’s a contractor she was told to answer that she had been laid off due to lack of work.

“We have to be careful and not spend money, or make trips, or eat out, or go to movies as much, but I have some coworkers who are a lot more worried. They have kids, and in some cases supporting their entire family,” she said. “We have some savings, enough to cover me for probably a month, but if not, I’ll join up with some of my other coworkers and start looking for another job, which sucks but I am not there yet.”

Drew and Lee, a federal worker at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said that they believe the shutdown may result in a wave of federal workers leaving their government jobs.

“I think most workers on the federal level think if we stick around long enough [President Trump] will be out of office and this whole thing will blow over and I am seriously reconsidering that approach,” Drew said. “I think everyone I know has been trying to stay there to be a force of good or consistency in whatever agency they’re working for and a month-long period to reconsider what you’re doing with your life and your place in the federal government is more than enough to make some people feel like they want to seriously change their mind.”

Drew said they think a lot of people who have worked for the government for a decade or longer will either leave through early retirement or by changing jobs. They added that a lot of people have already started looking for new jobs, which means the government could lose considerable talent and consistency in agencies.

Lee said the administration has been “hostile” to government workers since it began.

“There’s already a Baby Boomer brain drain and retirements in federal government due to Clinton and Bush administration hiring freezes,” Lee said. “This will just expedite that.”

Workers blame Trump and Republicans

Most of the federal workers and contractors who spoke with ThinkProgress said they put at least some of the blame on Trump, as well as Republican members of Congress. A majority of Americans share their views. According to a CNN poll conducted by SSRS, a market and survey research firm, 55 percent of people surveyed said Trump is more to blame for the shutdown than Congressional Democrats. President Trump’s approval rating has also dipped five points since last month.

“I’d put the blame 90 percent on Trump because his leadership is not good,” Anne said. “He’s not playing the game well. He’s drawing a line in the sand and he is not willing to cross it. He’s not even negotiating at this point. That’s what politics is about it’s about negotiation and he’s not doing that. He’s failing.”

Lee, a federal worker at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is worried that the media coverage has been centered only on House Democrats and the president.

“There’s an entire other legislative body. People should be pressuring [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)] to at least let the Senate vote up or down,” he said.

Drew said the blame should be shared by President Trump and Republicans in Congress. 

“This could have been avoided by the Congress that was leaving and they could have negotiated something earlier on when they had a full Republican house and Senate. Something could have gone through,” they said. “I assign blame for wall funding and wall funding was a tactic used by Trump to explain a very complicated issue. It has blown itself up into this one issue he has overwhelming support on and he is trying to stay behind it and it’s just not working.”

Most of the workers and contractors who spoke to ThinkProgress said they felt their communities were aware of how the shutdown affected workers, but when Anne visited family in New York for the holidays, she said they didn’t seem aware that she wouldn’t get paid.

“They were like, ‘oh yeah you’re going to get paid right?’ So I had to explain that a lot. Like, ‘no I’m not getting backpay,’” she said.

Her grandfather, who is conservative, appeared to feel differently about the shutdown once he knew how it would affect her, she said.

“He was like, ‘Oh who cares, shut it down.’ But when I explained to him how I was affected, he got kind of quiet and didn’t say anything. By the time we had to say goodbye, he said, ‘I hope you get back to work soon.’ So I think the awareness is not great, but it’s definitely growing.”

Lee said a conservative family member “changed his mind about the Republican Party” after the 2013 shutdown.

Workers say they are also exasperated that they are unable to continue projects that would benefit Americans, particularly marginalized groups. Anne noted that the Bureau of Land Management has recreational land that they are unable to keep safe and clean. Migration corridors, which maintain wildlife populations, for instance, are going to be delayed. Drew said that the USDA is unable to follow up with organizations on grant work, while Lee expressed concern about how people served by HUD will be affected by the shutdown.

“I have fielded a call from resident in HUD’s housing choice voucher program that needed a reasonable accommodation due to her disability,” Lee said. “Her housing authority wasn’t accepting her medical documentation and I needed colleagues in the field to help her file her fair housing complaint and potentially reach out to the housing authority to resolve the issue informally.”

He added, “She’s probably homeless right now.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 16, 2019. 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.

When Your Boss Locks You Out for Nearly 6 Months and Cuts Off Your Healthcare

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019

Shortly before National Grid locked out 1,250 gas workers across Massachusetts in June 2018, David Monahan, a National Grid residential service technician for more than 9 years, was diagnosed with a cancerous bladder tumor.

“They cut off my health insurance at the beginning and my unemployment doesn’t even begin to cover the cost to continue our health insurance,” Monahan said of the lockout, which the company imposed as a tactic during new-contract negotiations with the United Steelworkers (USW). Monahan, who is also caring for a toddler and a pregnant wife, told In These Times his union has helped pay his bills. But it has still been a struggle to deal with health problems and make ends meet on unemployment benefits. For Monahan, COBRA insurance, a health insurance plan offered to workers who lose their job-based insurance, costs more than $2400 a month.

“It didn’t need to happen,” added Monahan. “We have all offered to continue working under the same guidelines and parameters we all did before as we continued negotiating because that’s what happened in previous contract negotiations. It was National Grid’s choice and all of us workers are the ones suffering.”

National Grid continued the lockout for nearly six months, undermining workers’ abilities to live a normal life and properly take care of their families. Workers were left in limbo, with no sense of when they would be able to return to their jobs, with full pay and benefits restored. On January 2, the USW and National Grid reached a tentative agreement to end the lockout that union members will vote on by January 7. A ratified agreement would end the lockout.

John Doherty said he has worked for National Grid for 32 years. “Financially, it’s a huge setback for all of us,” he told In These TImes. “Psychologically, there’s a lot of anger out on the picket lines and even a feeling of depression. Myself and many of my coworkers have been working here since the company was Boston Gas. For National Grid to lock us out is the ultimate betrayal.”

Lawmakers in Massachusetts introduced a bill in July 2018 to force National Grid to continue offering health insurance to employees during the lockout, but the bill has yet to be voted on in the State Senate after it passed in the House in early December 2018. The State House also passed a bill to continue unemployment benefits to locked out National Grid workers, which will be paid by their employer and includes language to prevent the costs of the unemployment program to be passed down to consumers. The State Senate passed that bill on Christmas Eve and it was signed into law on New Year’s Eve.

Though the unemployment bill provides workers with some temporary relief, they have been left to struggle without the health insurance and income they received before the lockout began.

“The National Grid lockout has placed every working man and woman at risk of having their next bargaining session end in a lockout, which poses a threat to our workers,” said the author of the National Grid healthcare bill, State Rep. James O’Day (D), in an email to In These Times. “This lockout sets a precedent to future bargaining agreements and gives companies leverage by using health insurance and paychecks as a bargaining tool in these negotiations.”

The lockout lasted for nearly six months as the United Kingdom-based multi-billion dollar utility company, National Grid, continued contract negotiations with Locals 12003 and 12012 of USW. National Grid opted to hire temporary replacement workers rather than accept an offer from the unions to extend the current contract until a new one is agreed upon.

Lockouts are work stoppages increasingly used by corporations as leverage against labor unions over contract negotiations. Lockouts represented under 4 percent of all work stoppages in 1990 but gradually grew to more than 10 percent by 2015, while labor strikes have experienced declines. The Boston Globe reported that when a work stoppage occurs, it is now twice as likely to be a lockout than a strike compared to just a decade ago.

The unions say National Grid was pushing a new labor contract that removes several benefits for new hires, including revoking medical for retirees and switching to non-traditional, less supportive pension plans. According to the union, the company was also trying to cut employee life insurance, sick time, disability pension and bidding rights for different positions within National Grid.

“They basically want a two-tiered benefit system, one for current employees and one for new employees,” said USW Local 12012 President John Buonopane in an interview with In These Times. “They told us that night on June 25, the union committee, that if we couldn’t unanimously recommend their proposed contract they were locking us out that night. They told us they weren’t going to give us an opportunity for the membership to vote on it.”

Buonopane said most employees showed up to work the next morning with the gates locked, and National Grid implemented a contingency plan to replace union workers. The unions fielded over 200 complaints with the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities over unsafe activity by replacement workers, according to Buonopane.

As an example, Buonopane cited an incident in Woburn, Massachusetts this past October when a replacement worker accidentally over-pressurized a neighborhood with about 300 homes. State officials issued a moratorium on all non-emergency, non-compliance work in response to the incident, as a similar pipe over-pressurization error caused gas explosions in Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts in September 2018, though under a different utility company. In that incident, one person was killed, and 21 were injured in the explosions that damaged 131 buildings.

“They are using people who don’t have the experience in the field like our people do. That’s a problem, and the potential for another disaster is real,” added Buonopane. He noted in cold weather, safety risks increase due to frost caps and the increased use in home appliances that raise the potential for more leaks and carbon monoxide issues.

State officials and politicians in Massachusetts  increasingly sided with the union to end the National Grid lockout.

“We call on National Grid to end their lockout immediately and allow the workers to get back to work now.  We believe the two parties can continue negotiations – and they must continue negotiations – while allowing these families to put food on their table, take care of their children’s pressing health needs, and enjoy their holidays together,” said Massachusetts State Senate President Karen E. Spilka & Senate Minority Leader Bruce E. Tarr in a joint statement on December 10. “This process has gone on long enough, and the Senate is prepared to take action if needed.  For the New Year, we hope that these workers get their one wish: to go back to work.”

The unions  offered to meet with National Grid on a daily basis starting December 17, until an agreement was reached.

In an email, a National Grid spokesperson told In These Times, “National Grid always endeavors in bargaining fair contracts that balance the needs of our employees with the interests of our customers. But, ultimately, it is our ratepayers who pay the cost of our employees’ wages and benefits, and the Company must be mindful of the direct impact that employee compensation has on the rates charged to our customers.”

For David Monahan, the lockout has had a profound impact on his life.

“We all thought we had careers at National Grid and they pulled the rug out from under us,”Monahan added. “It’s totally taken my life and flipped it upside down. It hasn’t been a good experience. Not knowing when it’s going to end or when life will get back to normal has been stressful.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 3, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Sainato is a journalist based in Albany, NY. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1

Stop the Shutdown

Tuesday, January 1st, 2019

The government shutdown is now in its 12th day, meaning some 800,000 federal employees are still without a paycheck because President Donald Trump refuses to sign a federal budget that doesn’t include $5 billion for a border wall. Working people—and their livelihoods—should never be used as political pawns. 

Despite the shutdown, roughly 420,000 federal employees, from law enforcement and corrections officers to Transportation Security Administration agents, are still working and putting their lives on the line without collecting a paycheck. That doesn’t include about 380,000 workers who are currently furloughed, or sent home without pay.

That’s why AFGE filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration for illegally forcing federal employees to work without pay.

“Our members put their lives on the line to keep our country safe,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. “Requiring them to work without pay is nothing short of inhumane.”

To make matters even worse, Trump actually suggested that federal employees don’t want to work and then canceled a 2.1% pay increase for this year.

Our AFGE brothers and sisters take home an average of $500 a week. Losing this pay is devastating.

The shutdown began Dec. 22 after Trump demanded more than $5 billion for a wall along the southern U.S. border.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on January 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

Government workers worry about shutdown continuing into the new year

Monday, December 31st, 2018

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which handles human resource issues for government workers, has advice for the roughly 800,000 people who won’t receive their paychecks as scheduled during the partial government shutdown: get a lawyer and barter your services if you can’t make ends meet.

On Thursday, in an attempt to assist employees facing mounting bills and rent payments, OPM officials tweeted out sample letters for workers to send to creditors, mortgage companies, and landlords. One such letter, intended for an employee’s landlord, reads, “I will keep in touch with you to keep you informed about my income status and I would like to discuss with you the possibility of trading my services to perform maintenance (e.g. painting, carpentry work) in exchange for partial rent payments.”

While the letters have been used in the past for other shutdowns — and though employees say they are sometimes effective — many workers still worry they may not be enough.

“Car payments, insurance payments, rent, storage, etc., they build up quick,” Chris, an employee at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), whose last name has been withheld, told ThinkProgress this week.

If the current shutdown, which began December 21, lasts longer than two weeks — which it’s currently expected to do — “that’s when I would start worrying,” he added.

OPM officials suggested workers “consult with [their] personal attorney” if they have trouble navigating especially tricky situations or are concerned about pressing issues. As some have noted, however, many middle income workers don’t have ready access to a personal attorney and may find themselves in an unwanted situation as a result.

Some workers simply can’t spare the extra cash for an attorney, because it’s being used for more important purposes. Chris, for example, moved back home to his parent’s house after his father suffered a stroke and is helping his father with the mortgage.

“I do not have an attorney nor do I plan on getting one,” he said, though he noted the letters to creditors and landlords had helped him “in past shutdowns” and would likely “prove useful again if the shutdown continues.”

In Chris’ case, if the government’s lapse in funding isn’t resolved soon, he may have to take out a retirement plan loan or cancel upcoming travel. That includes an overseas trip his family has planned at the end of January for his grandmother’s funeral.

About 380,000 federal workers will be furloughed without pay and 420,000 federal workers will continue to work without pay if the shutdown, which began after Republicans and Democrats were unable to reach a consensus on funding for President Trump’s proposed border wall, continues into 2019, according to a fact sheet assembled by Senate Democratic staffers earlier this month, NBC News reported.

Many departments and agencies, such as the office of Food and Nutrition Services that oversees the Child Nutrition, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), saw staffing slashed to nearly zero, with related programs only operational “based on available resources,” CNN noted.

Now on its seventh day, the shutdown has been a nightmare for affected federal workers. It has also hit contractors, who typically are not paid retroactively as regular employees are, said Susan Moser, a partner at the Cherry Bekaert law firm, whose clients have been affected in the past, in a recent interview with HuffPost.

Those struggles are unlikely to end anytime soon. The shutdown impasse is expected to last until at least January 3 when the new Congress is seated. Lawmakers told Politico they were concerned the shutdown might persist longer than that, well into January.

Credit unions that serve federal employees are currently offering loans to workers to stave off financial hardship, and nonprofits such as Coast Guard Mutual Assistance are also providing financial support. But many employees say they’re already living paycheck to paycheck and that temporary support means nothing if a long-term solution is not reached.

After Trump told reporters on Tuesday that “many” federal workers supported the shutdown, several of them fired back on social media.

“My husband is a federal worker,” Theresa Garcia tweeted. “[W]e need our paycheck next week to pay our mortgage.”

Another federal worker tweeted at Trump, “We live paycheck to paycheck. Who will pay my mortgage January 1st? You?”

On Thursday, the president suggested that “most of the people not getting paid are Democrats,” suggesting that Democrats were hurting themselves by not agreeing to his demand for wall funding, which currently stands at a proposed $5 billion. Democrats have roundly rejected that offer.

Chris countered that assertion, saying he knows many federal workers affected by the shutdown who are Republican — including those working for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and TSA, who support Trump’s policies.

“I can definitely say that most federal workers are not Democrats. But I can say that most federal workers are good people,” he said.

He added, “I am hoping there will be resolution — and not just for me, but for all 800,000 federal employees.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on December 28, 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.

No OSHA Head This Session

Friday, December 28th, 2018

Barring a last minute Christmas miracle on Capitol Hill, the odds of having an Assistant Secretary for OSHA this year have gone from slim to pretty much none, according to Politico: “A deal to push through a slate of labor nominees appeared all but dead Thursday as lawmakers raced to avert a shutdown.”

As we’ve written before, the confirmation of Scott Mugno to head OSHA, as well as several other Labor Department appointees, remains mired down in a fight between HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) and Republicans who don’t want to confirm Democratic nominees for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC.) Utah Republican Mike Lee continues to refuse to confirm Chai Feldblum for the EEOC, calling her “an [LGBT] activist intent on stamping out all opposition to her cause.”  Lee previously stated that he fears Feldblum would “use the might of government to stamp out traditional marriage supporters.””

Republicans also oppose the re-appointment of Democratic nominee Mark Pearce to the NLRB.

Meanwhile, Daniel Gade, who has been caught in the fight and had been waiting for confirmation as EEOC Commissioner for 16 months, has withdrawn his name from consideration.

If a Christmas miracle is not forthcoming, President Trump will have to renominate everyone, and they will then have to be re-approved by the HELP Committee and confirmed by the Senate. But will things get any better in a new year, while Republicans continue to hold the Senate? Does Scott Mugno still want the job? Will Loren Sweatt continue her lonely existence atop OSHA?

Stay tuned.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on December 21, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

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