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The Unlikely Agitator

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

 

The ‘Justice for Janitors’ firebrand on the struggle to unionize: ‘I’m not invisible anymore. I’m never going to be.’

Monica Martinez-Vargas

Monica Martinez-Vargas knows what it’s like to be invisible.

For much of her career, she worked two shifts in downtown Denver – one cleaning hotel rooms and the other cleaning office buildings.

In the mornings, she’d report to work in her maid’s dress and apron, pushing her housekeeping cart up and down a hotel hallway where she had eight hours to clean 16 rooms regardless of how many clothes were strewn across the floor or how much ketchup needed to be scraped off a lampshade. The goal was to be as quick and inconspicuous as possible stripping beds, changing sheets, replacing towels, vacuuming the carpet, dusting furniture, scrubbing the tub, disinfecting the toilet, scouring the sink and folding the end of each bathroom tissue roll into a crisp, neat triangle – all between the time a businessman left for breakfast at 7:15, say, and returned to his room for a conference call at 8 a.m..

The hotel guests would pass Martinez-Vargas in the hall. Some would nod. Some would ask for “more towels, please, gracias.” And some didn’t seem to notice her at all.

She was even more invisible in the office buildings where she worked at night. Long after white-collar hours, she’d empty trashcans, dust window blinds and sweep crumbs from the cubicles of people for whom she was out of sight and out of mind, as if their offices were tidied somehow by magic.

By the mid-1980s, when Martinez-Vargas had moved to Denver from Mexico by way of California, most small companies that cleaned office buildings had been elbowed out by big janitorial contractors that typically hired Central American workers for minimum wage and no benefits. It was dirty work, literally and figuratively. Most janitors were undocumented immigrants who lived in fear of losing their jobs and being deported, or even noticed, for that matter.

Invisibility had its soul-sucking loneliness. But as a form of survival, it was the safest way to work.

“It was dehumanizing, working alone, in shadows. I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know my rights. I didn’t have any connections. That made us vulnerable to the things they did to us, the humiliations. You could see the injustice. But you felt like you couldn’t do anything to stop it,” she says, interpreted from Spanish by Lauren Martens, state council executive director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in which Martinez-Vargas, 69, is still active six years after retiring.

SEIU represents janitors, security officers, health care workers and state employees.

This blog post continues at the Colorado Independent.

This article originally appeared in the Colorado Independent on April 21, 2014, followed by SEIU on April 22, 2o14. Reprinted with permission.

Author: Susan Greene/COLORADO INDEPENDENT

Striking Workers Shame Prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital Over Low Pay

Thursday, April 24th, 2014
Bruce VailSome 2,000 union workers went out on strike Wednesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in a protest aimed primarily at exposing low wages at Baltimore’s second biggest employer and one of the nation’s most prestigious hospitals.
Members of 1199SEIU United Health Workers East hit the picket lines at 6:00 a.m. April 9 for a three-day strike provoked by a stalemate in negotiations for a new contract to cover the union workers. The previous contract expired March 31, and renewal talks earlier this week stalled on the key issue of raising wages, according to 1199SEIU spokesperson Jim McNeill.
Hospital executives had received a ten-day warning of the strike, says 1199SEIU Vice President Vanessa Johnson, so there was ample time to ensure that patient care would not be adversely affected. Union members are primarily in maintenance and food service, with some technical workers such as surgical techs. Operations at the enormous Hopkins medical complex are reported to be near-normalwith non-union nurses, administrators and temporaries filling in for the unionized strikers. Hopkins spokesperson Kim Hoppe would not respond to repeated inquiries for additional information from Working In These Times.
Labor trouble at Hopkins has been brewing for some time. A year ago, the union signed an unusual one-year contract with the hospital as a stop gap as negotiators wrestled with difficult wage and healthcare issues.
More broadly, the 1199SEIU-Hopkins conflict reflects Baltimore’s yawning racial divide, with the predominantly African-American union members receiving few of the benefits, as Hopkins’ well-paid physicians and administrators prosper. That economic divide was thrown into sharp relief Wednesday with low-paid 1199SEIU picketers demonstrating at the entrance to the hospital’s huge new medical building, which cost the hospital some $1.1 billion to construct.
“Hopkins says they don’t have the money [to lift union wages] but they own most of the community,” charged union member Michelle Horton at an April 9 solidarity meeting of strikers and local supporters. Horton’s comment touched on another raw spot in Hopkins’ relationship with Baltimore’s African-American community: The hospital and related institutions are currently engaged in a long-term effort to re-develop and gentrify the low-income residential neighborhoods that surround the hospital, prompting charges of racial discrimination and unfair dislocation.
Those issues notwithstanding, the focus of the solidarity meeting at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church on Wednesday night was squarely on the issue of higher wages. 1199SEIU Vice President Johnson said that nearly 1,400 of the 2,000 union members currently earn less than $14.92 an hour, the level at which a single parent with one child will qualify for food stamps.
“Johns Hopkins and [hospital President] Ron Peterson should be ashamed of themselves,” because some Hopkins workers require public assistance like food stamps or Medicaid, emphasizes veteran hospital worker Yvonne Brown. According to a 2010 report in the Baltimore Sun, Peterson earns about $1.9 million a year.
The union initially asked a minimum wage of $15 an hour, consistent with the demands of other SEIU campaigns such as Chicago’s Fight for 15 initiative, Johnson says. Currently, negotiators are discussing a five-year contract, and the union is pushing to get a minimum of $14 for all workers by the final year, and a minimum of $15 at that point for  workers with 15 years or more of experience . The expired contract had the lowest-paid workers starting at $10.71 an hour, with the best-paid earning as much as $27.88.
Hopkins can easily afford the $15 minimum, Johnson says. The union estimates the raise would cost Hopkins less than $3 million in annual payroll expenses, while the non-profit hospital reported a $145 million surplus last year.
Dr. Benjamin Oldfield, a resident physician at Hopkins who led a group of non-union Hopkins doctors, medical students and nursing students to the Wednesday solidarity meeting, agrees with Johnson. “[As medical professionals], we know that financial insecurity leads to bad health outcomes,” he told the group at the St. Wenceslaus hall.. “For a place like Hopkins, which has plenty of money, I’m surprised that they haven’t gotten this one right yet.”
Hopkins, however, is adamant in negotiations that the $15 minimum wage is not affordable, according to Johnson, who says the offers put on the table thus far have been paltry. The most recent would see the minimum rise to only $12.25 in the fifth year of the contract, an offer that prompted the strike action this week, according to Johnson.
That’s just not good enough, adds Wiley Rhymer, a member of the union’s negotiating team. “We’re trying to get our members out of poverty, not keep them in it,” he tells Working In These Times.
This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on April 20, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’sDaily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Jewish and Labor Leaders Flock To Defend Teachers at Perelman Jewish Day School

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Bruce VailOn the eve of the Jewish high holy days of Passover, union leaders and Jewish labor activists in Philadelphia and beyond are ramping up efforts to defeat a plan by one of the area’s small private religious schools to bust its teachers union. Both groups are outraged at the school’s implicit claim that there’s a conflict between Judaism and workers’ rights.

The issue erupted late last month when the board of the Perelman Jewish Day School notified the school’s roughly 60 teachers that it would no longer negotiate with their long-established labor union. Instead, the board proclaimed, each teacher must make individual arrangements with the school administrators for the conditions of future employment. The union busting was justified, thePerelman teachers were told, as a measure to advance the religious objectives of the K-5 school, and was legally supported by court rulings reaching all the way to the Supreme Court. The school was likely referring to the high court’s 1979 ruling in NLRB v Catholic Bishop of Chicago that religious schools were exempt from some labor law.

“Everybody feels that we were disrespected, and undermined” by the school board decision, says Lisa Richman, president of the Perelman Jewish Day School Faculty Association Local 3578, a unit of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). “Everybody [on the faculty] is petrified, or scared, or angry,” she says.

But the fight back is now officially underway. Last week, teacher representatives filed an unfair labor practice charge against Perelman at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), says Barbara Goodman, communications director for the statewide umbrella union AFT Pennsylvania. The charge asserts that Perelman broke the law “when it threatened employees, telling the teachers they would be without jobs in September if they did not waive their rights” under the National Labor Relations Act “and accept the board’s withdrawal of union recognition,” according to an AFT statement.

And Perelman was also wrong in denying the union the right to represent its members, the union charges. The Perelman board “violated federal labor law further when it offered teachers jobs for next school year without negotiating or consulting with the union; when it refused to negotiate with the union; and when it denied union members representation by their AFT Pennsylvania staff representatives during meetings where the board discussed terms of employment with teachers,”the  AFT says.

The case has galvanized the AFT’s 1.5 million-member national organization. AFT President Randi Weingarten issued a statement April 10:

As a Jew who grew up in the Conservative movement and a union leader, I’m appalled at what has transpired at the Perelman Jewish Day School. Management has taken it upon itself to strip the educators of their voice and their union, in direct violation of core tenets of our faith honoring the treatment of our workers and our teachers. The rights to association and to organize are fundamental to a just and democratic society. What message does it send to our students and their parents when a Jewish day school violates these precepts by destroying a union that’s been in place for four decades?

No doubt the Perelman school will assemble its students for a Passover seder to tell the communal story of the journey from oppression and slavery in Egypt to liberation. I call on the Perelman school to change its own Passover story and, instead of oppressing its teachers, to reverse its decision to strip teachers of their union.

Weingarten’s statement was met with enthusiasm at a Pennsylvania AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh April 10, Goodman reports. The convention delegates unanimously passed a resolution in support of the Perelman teachers.

Weingarten’s references to her Jewish heritage resonate deeply in this labor fight, says Lynne Fox, Chairwoman of thePhiladelphia Jewish Labor Committee (JLC). The Jewish community in the area has been shocked by the events at Perelman, she says, and there is strong support for the teachers union.

The JLC issued a statement in support of the teachers:

The Philadelphia JLC stands firmly with the teachers and their union as they fight for their collective bargaining rights, and also in alignment with tenets of Conservative Judaism.

By dismantling the union and denying employees the power of collective bargaining, the Perelman Jewish Day School is acting in opposition both to major halakhic authorities and to the official position of the Conservative Movement.

Less formally, Fox comments, “It’s difficult to wrap your head around this whole thing. The Perelman board took all the steps against the union in secret, yet it says that it is was done for the benefit of the students. If the goal is to benefit the students, why wouldn’t you do this in the open, so the parents and teachers could be part of the discussion?”

Fox says that Jewish labor activists from around the country have been rallying to the side of the Perelman teachers. She says that these activists have all echoed the sentiment expressed in the Philadelphia JLC’s statement: “Jewish tradition has been clear and consistent – the treatment of workers and their right to organize are among the basic underpinnings of a just society.”

Attempts by Working In These Times to reach Perelman board vice president Aaron Freiwald for comment were unsuccessful. Freiwald, of the Philadelphia law firm Layser & Freiwaldhas identified himself as one of the authors of the plan to eliminate the union at school.

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

The Paul Ryan Budget - Déjà vu All Over Again

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

seiu-org-logoThe House of Representatives today passed Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) fiscal year (FY) budget resolution. Introduced last week (on April Fool’s Day), the Ryan budget is as extreme as the proposals he offered last year and the year before.

As in previous budgets, Ryan seeks to cut the deficit on the backs of the elderly, low-income and vulnerable Americans, while the wealthy and corporations are once again exempt from paying their fair share.

Unsurprisingly, low-income and vulnerable Americans do not fare well in Rep. Ryan’s budget.

Among the $5.1 trillion in cuts he proposes are reducing funding for and block-granting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, at a time when there is record poverty. Cuts to SNAP would end benefits to some 3.8 million low-income people in 2014 alone.

The Ryan budget proposes to end Medicaid as we know it and instead provide fixed block grants to states. This would destroy the historic state-federal relationship underlying this safety net program and shift huge costs to the states.

The budget proposal also cuts Medicare. For people younger than 55, the budget would privatize Medicare by converting it to a system under which those who are enrolled in Medicare would receive a capped voucher to purchase private insurance in a specialized Medicare marketplace. This would mean less care and higher costs for millions of Americans.

As for the wealthy and corporations, they do quite well in this proposal, lowering the top income tax rate for the very rich from 39.6 percent to 25 percent and slashing the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. These tax cuts would cost about $5 trillion over ten years. Ryan suggests that these tax breaks will be offset by closing loopholes, but the budget does not name a single loophole that he’d eliminate.

To top it off, the Ryan budget would result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the Ryan budget resolution would, on net, result in 1.1 million jobs lost in FY 2015 and 3 million jobs lost in FY 2016. If the economy remains sluggish at that point, large job losses could continue into FY 2017 and beyond.

Budgets are not just a bunch of numbers on papers. They are blueprints that reflect our priorities and our values. Rep. Ryan’s budget does not reflect the priorities or values that most Americans hold dear. It’s important that we all know exactly where Rep. Ryan’s priorities and values lie. Sadly, his budget proposal tells us just that.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on April 10, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: SEIU Communications

It’s Time to Clean Up the Los Angeles Garment Industry’s Dirty Secret

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Kevin Kish 1On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan. Today, we know our clothes are still often sewn in lethal conditions in foreign factories.  Last year’s disastrous Rana Plaza collapse and a series of deadly factory fires resulted in much hand-wringing over how to improve safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry. But 103 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, we still have our own dirty garment secret, much closer to home.

There are some 5,000 garment manufacturers registered in Los Angeles County where an estimated 50,000 workers make clothes. The true numbers are almost certainly higher since many businesses do not report their employees, pay taxes, or carry insurance. Some L.A. garment factories are safe and decent workplaces where skilled employees make high-end denim, swimwear, and other products for elite brands. But in many others, where clothes are sewn for the “fast fashion” industry, the conditions are similar to those in New York sweatshops over a century ago or to those in Bangladesh today.

Bet Tzedek, the public-interest law firm where I practice, has represented hundreds of L.A. garment workers over the past decade, and their stories are sobering. Workers earn as little as two cents per completed garment. The pay, predictably, falls far below minimum wage, sometimes less than $200 for workweeks of 65 hours or more. Even in factories where breaks are permitted, piece-rate pay encourages workers to stay at their sewing machines for unbroken stretches. Musculoskeletal pain and related health problems are common. Over 100 years after workers were unable to escape the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory because the doors were locked, some of our clients have worked in factories without access to fresh water or functioning bathrooms, where bales of fabric block fire exits, and where owners lock workers in the building during overnight shifts.

Statistics bear out our clients’ testimony. According to research conducted by UCLA, over 90% of garment workers in L.A. experience overtime violations, and more than 60% are not paid minimum wage. The federal Department of Labor (DOL) found violations in 93% of the 1,500 inspections of garment factories it has conducted since 2008.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In January 2000, a landmark law went into effect in California with the intention of eradicating garment sweatshop labor. Before passage of the law, known as AB633, factories that often had no assets other than a few sewing machines would close, move, or reorganize under a different name in response to legal claims, leaving workers empty handed. AB633 established an administrative process in which companies that contract with sweatshops can also be liable for a share of workers’ unpaid wages.

In response, the industry reorganized. Over the past decade, thousands of middleman companies sprang into existence to funnel orders from retailers to factories. These subcontractors create a buffer between workers and the fashion houses that profit from sweatshop conditions. Not coincidentally, this is the same subcontracting structure that now prevails in the garment industry around the world, surprising brands like Walmart and Sears when their production documents are recovered from places like the rubble of Rana Plaza or the ashes of the Tazreen factory.

While we assume that U.S. garment factories are well-regulated, my clients know better: their bosses simply lock the doors to workrooms when potential inspectors are seen approaching. And paying citations is a relatively minor cost of doing business in an industry where the vast majority of workers, many of whom are Asian or Latina immigrant women, are too afraid to file a complaint.

In response to the tragedies in Bangladesh, some companies have entered agreements to inspect and monitor the factories there. Here at home, there is no such movement. When the DOL found garments allegedly destined for Forever 21 stores being sewn by workers in L.A. making less than minimum wage, Forever 21 fought the agency’s subpoena in federal court, arguing that it shouldn’t be forced to disclose sensitive information such as where it makes clothes or what systems it has in place to monitor compliance with the law.

There is little incentive for the law-abiding sector of the industry to get involved. Fashion houses paying fair wages for domestic labor are not competing for the same customers as the companies using sweatshop labor. And organizing a low-wage, immigrant workforce on an industry-wide scale requires investments of time and money that have not been forthcoming.

What else can be done? Paying workers less than minimum wage is theft, and criminal prosecutions of factory owners could cause many to rethink their business models. Aggressive investigations by government agencies could begin to unpeel the layers of subcontracting that protect the reputations of retailers and keep the sweatshop system humming.

The simplest solution would be a law clarifying that retailers are liable to workers who prove they sewed garments sold in stores, regardless of who signed the contract with the factory or how many subcontractors were involved. Such a law would swiftly clean up supply chains. But it would also likely mean fewer inexpensive clothes for shoppers and could send more garment jobs overseas if we aren’t willing to pay more.

The question is whether we want sweatshops in our backyard. It took more than 1200 dead bodies for the Bangladesh agreements to be proposed. What will it take here?

This article was originally printed on CELA Voice on March 25, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kevin Kish is the Director of the Employment Rights Project at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, in Los Angeles. He leads Bet Tzedek’s employment litigation, policy and outreach initiatives.

Ohio Extremists Next Target? College Athletes

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallNot content to only go after collective bargaining rightspensions andvoting rights, the extremists in Ohio are targeting a new group of their state’s residents, attempting to pre-empt any attempt by college athletes to organize and express their rights. After the National Labor Relations Board ruled that players at Northwestern University were employees of the school, and could thus form a union, Ohio’s right-wingers took action to tryto stop athletes at Ohio colleges and universities from following suit, proposing a bill that would specify that college athletes aren’t employees in Ohio.

There haven’t been any reported discussions of athletes in Ohio attempting to follow in the Northwestern players’ footsteps and the bill has a way to go before it could become law, but maybe the audacity of these people will inspire college athletes at schools like Ohio State to stand up for their rights before the legislature and Gov. John Kasich (R) can take them away.

In a press release, Ohio AFL-CIO President Tim Burga said:

Once again, Republicans in the Ohio House of Representatives are spending time trying to engineer punitive proposals instead of working to move Ohio forward, create jobs and improve our struggling economy. This time they are attempting to pre-empt athletes at public colleges and universities from being declared employees. Is this really what Ohioans are worried about? This a labor law matter, which may or may not become an issue, and should it become one there will be plenty of public debate. If Republicans in the House feel compelled to address this matter, they should try to engage in a productive way by dealing with the real concerns of fairness and safety where the players and university leaders have expressed common themes for change. A good place to start a public discussion would be to allow athletes who get injured in their sport to qualify for workers’ compensation benefits under the law.

Mike Gillis, a spokesperson for the state federation, added:

There’s millions being made off the work and also blood, sweat and tears that these athletes endure. They should be offered every protection that employees enjoy, if not more, especially because they are not paid.

Meanwhile, the Colorlines points out Shabazz Napier, a senior on the University of Connecticut men’s basketball national championship team, often goes to bed “hungry.” Read more from the Colorlines.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on April 8, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

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

Avoiding NAFTA’s Job-Killing Mistakes

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Image: Mike HallThe North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) turns 20 this year. Some 700,000 jobs have been lost, income inequality, the U.S. trade deficit and environmental and other problems have grown because of NAFTA in the past two decades. On Thursday, a panel of trade experts will hold a Capitol Hill briefing on NAFTA’s failed trade model and how to avoid the mistakes of the past in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

The 11 a.m. meeting in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Room 201, is open to congressional staffers. If you wish to attend but don’t have a congressional ID, you may RSVP to Andrew.linhardt@sierraclub.org.

The briefing is sponsored by the AFL-CIO, the Institute for Policy Studies, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and the Sierra Club.

Read “NAFTA at 20” here.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on March 31, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

Is Perelman Jewish Day School the Hobby Lobby of Union-Busting?

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Bruce VailA small group of teachers in Philadelphia are finding their union rights under attack on questionable religious grounds, much the same way that women across America found their right to healthcare assaulted this week in the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case.

Some 55 teachers at the Perelman Jewish Day School, which has two K-5 campuses in the Philadelphia suburbs with some 300 total students, were stunned March 24 to be notified that the school’s board had decided to cease recognizing their union. The teachers were told that the current union contract will be allowed to expire and they will be required to negotiate individual one-year contracts with school administrators. Normally, revoking union recognition would be considered a blatant violation of collective bargaining law. But board vice president Aaron Freiwald says the action is justified by a Supreme Court decision. The case he’s likely referring to is the obscure 1979 NLRB v. Catholic Bishops of Chicago, in which the Supreme Court found that religious schools are exempt from certain provisions of the National Labor Relations Act.

The teachers, some of whom are observant Jews themselves, are not going to meekly allow their union to be dissolved, says Barbara Goodman, the communications director for the AFT Pennsylvania, the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the union with which the Perelman Jewish Day School Faculty Association Local 3578 is affiliated.

Members held an emergency meeting March 27, Goodman says, and unanimously passed a resolution to fight for their union. It read:

We categorically reject the terms and conditions in the materials that were handed to us, and we authorize all of our local, state and national officers to pursue all legal means to have this action reversed and to return to the bargaining table, where we can negotiate in good faith a contract that is good for the students and the teachers.

Equally offended by the board action is Jesse Bacon, whose daughter is a student at the exclusive private school, where tuitioncan be as high as $20,000 a year. Bacon tells In These Times that he’s firmly on the side of the teachers and regards any claim to religious legitimacy for the board’s high-handed action as bogus and offensive. “This is just rank hypocrisy. … It makes my blood boil,” he says.

Hypocritical or not, the teachers just may have a real legal fight on their hands, says Dan Kovalik, who is on the legal staff at the Pittsburgh headquarters of the United Steelworkers (USW). The little-known Catholic Bishops decision does allow religious schools to claim exemption from the NLRA, he says, although it is not clear that it would apply to the Perelman school. The USW is fighting a Catholic Bishops case right now, he adds, as the union attempts to organize the part-time faculty at the Duquesne University, a Catholic school in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. And there are a number of other cases where religious schools have successfully used the Catholic Bishops defense to fend of unionization of the faculty, he says. Indeed, labor lawyers are closely watching a National Labor Relations Board decision right now in a case involving Pacific Lutheran University, which may clarify the law.

The claim of religious exemption doesn’t mean much to the AFT’S Goodman. “Perelman School has been unionized for 38 years. I’m Jewish myself and I can tell you for sure that nothing about Judaism has changed in the last week to justify” attacking the teachers union, she says.

Nor does it hold much water with Bacon. He tells In These Times that his great-grandmother became a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union while a seamstress in New York City a century ago. There is a proud tradition in his family of progressive Jewish unionism —some were lifetime members of the socialist-leaning organization Workman’s Circle—and any attempt to justify union-busting with Judaism is offensive, he says. He also notes that the board at the Perelman school chose to move against the union on the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the tragedy that helped catalyze the unionization of Jewish workers in New York’s garment district.

Pennsylvania AFT President Ted Kirsch said the full resources of the union are being marshaled to defend the teachers. “You wouldn’t believe the calls I’ve gotten from around the country. This is just so against the Jewish tradition that people can’t believe Perelman is trying to get away this this,” he says.

Freiwald, a Philadelphia lawyer, turned down requests from In These Times for a phone interview but invited queries by email. He declined to answer most of the e-mailed questions, but did however identify himself as the chairman of a special board task force that recommended the vote against the union and stated that the vote was unanimous. He provided a press release and aprepared FAQ sheet [PDF] as the school’s only public comment.

This matter exploded the same week that the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Hobby Lobby case, in which an employer argued that his religious convictions against birth control trumped the healthcare rights of his workers. Bacon sees a clear parallel between the two: “That seems like phony religion to me. So does this.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on March 28, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

The End of Jobs?

Monday, March 24th, 2014

sarah jaffeIn a major victory for a long-running campaign,  port truck drivers at Pacific 9 Transportation in California have won the right to be considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act, and to form a union.

That ruling, by Region 21 of the National Labor Relations Board, that the truckers had been misclassified as “independent contractors”   comes after months of sustained actions, including strikes, by port truckers.  It comes in an industry where union jobs were the standard until deregulation turned all workers into “free agents.” Free agency, they quickly found, didn’t come with much freedom, as they still had their hours and working conditions dictated by the company for whom they worked–but it came with a price tag. The cost of gas, truck maintenance and licenses landed on their shoulders instead of their employers’.

It’s in this context that I’m thinking about the “end of jobs as we know them.”

This Wednesday I attended a conference with that provocative title at the Open Society Foundation, and I’ve long been mulling the idea.

In 2011, I wrote at AlterNet that a future beyond jobs, where we all work less, used to be a major goal of the U.S. labor movement. More freedom, less production for its own sake, would actually create a more sustainable world. (Alyssa Battistoni compellingly made this argument recently at Jacobin.) Lowering the amount of hours worked by each person would help distribute jobs better among the people who still don’t have them, as economist Dean Baker has repeatedly argued.

But I noted that moving beyond jobs would necessitate tackling issues of inequality and concentration of power in the hands of the wealthy. At the moment, the “end of jobs” has meant sustained high unemployment and low wages, not more freedom. The disappearance of jobs in America has as much to do with the power of global capital to move where and when it wants and the ability, post-crisis, of businesses to squeeze more and more productivity out of the few workers they keep, as it does with technology making certain professions obsolete. And the rise of the “free agent” worker has at least as much to do with the desire of businesses to have an easy-hire, easy-fire, just-in-time workforce (as I wrote about in some detail recently) that absorbs—as the port truckers do—most of the labor costs, as it does with workers who simply enjoy the freedom of not having a boss. Power is as big or bigger a force as technology in shaping the labor landscape today.

Fast forward to 2014. The economy has improved only slightly. Unemployment remains high, and the jobs that do exist are often low-wage and part-time. Since 2011, we’ve seen not only Occupy but the rise of a movement of Walmart and fast-food workers demanding better wages and, often, more hours, so they can take home a full-time paycheck. A shorter hours movement has not materialized, nor has a meaningful jobs program, despite the promises of a bipartisan clutch of politicians. The minimum wage has risen in some states and cities, but workers are still struggling, and the long-term unemployed have seen their benefits cut off by a Congress that continues to squabble about whether or not they deserve to be able to pay bills.

Jobs have not yet ended or become obsolete. Yet, without question, they are changing. Research from Kelly Services (which, being a temporary agency, certainly has a vested interest in the subject) finds that 44 percent of workers in the U.S. classify themselves as “free agents.” According to the Freelancers Union, 42 million people are freelancers. The full-time job itself is only a fairly recent development in human history, spanning a couple hundred years or so, and the attendant expectation that a job be “good,” paying a living wage and providing healthcare and retirement benefits, with a union and some security, is a peculiar historical development of the New Deal era in the United States—an era that is almost without question over.

Power created that era—the power of organized workers in unions demanding better conditions. But the bosses, it’s worth noting, never stopped trying to dismantle the deal. Since the Taft-Hartley Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, conservatives have been pushing to limit the power workers were granted by the NLRA in 1935, and the conversion of decent jobs into no-security temp gigs should rightly be seen in that context. The port truck drivers at Pacific 9 and elsewhere realize that despite the promises of freedom and liberation, they have more power when their relationship with the boss is explicit and when they can come together as a union.

We should carefully consider what comes next, whether that be high-end freelancers hopping from gig to gig, disdaining a full-time job, or more likely, the further fragmentation into piecework that we see happening in digital spaces like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and the conversion of formerly full-time union jobs such as port trucking or auto manufacturing into low-security independent contracting or temp labor. Moshe Marvit wrote at The Nation of Amazon’s human “crowdworkers” who perform the tiny tasks that are “helping to power the parts of the Internet that most of us take for granted” and who are paid a pittance for their work.

Technology is often blamed for displacing workers and eliminating jobs. Those doing the blaming are sometimes correct, as when supermarkets move to automatic checkout or ports move to automated cargo hauling. And yet the story of the Mechanical Turkers is a good cautionary tale for those who assume that all jobs are disappearing into the mechanical ether. One doesn’t have to be a Luddite to point out that many jobs—including ones, like those done by Turkers, that we think are fully automated—are still being done by people, either because we don’t have the technology to do them yet, or because those people remain cheaper than machines. Whether jobs are disappearing for good reasons—because they simply aren’t socially necessary anymore—or because they are being fragmented, made temporary or shifted to freelancers, these are not processes that are happening outside of human control, but rather because of it.

Carl Benedikt Frey of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology was a keynote speaker at Wednesday’s event. His recent study, with Michael Osborne, found that nearly half of U.S. jobs are “at risk of computerization.” These include positions in a wide variety of sectors, from transportation to the service industry.

The positions that are least likely to be automated, this study found, were those that relied on “creative and social intelligence”—for example, preschool teaching. It concludes, “For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.”

What is social intelligence but another word for what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild called “emotional labor”? And that emotional labor has been devalued and indeed not considered a skill at all, largely because it has been done by women. One study found that “interactive service jobs,” which include care work and service work, get paid less even if you control for education levels, rate of unionization, cognitive and physical skill, and the amount of women doing the job.

If those social-skilled jobs are the only ones that will be left to us, will we learn to value them more? Or will this just be another excuse to pay workers less? The question, like the question of what is a skill in the first place, is one of power.

The end of jobs doesn’t have to be a dystopian nightmare. There is some truth to the rosy picture painted by Kelly Services about the “free agent” workforce. I once left a full-time job to be a freelancer, and I enjoyed the experience: writing for a variety of outlets, learning from new editors, sharpening different styles, working when I wanted. The pleasure came to a grinding halt, though, when a client who owed me what amounted to more than two months of my rent didn’t pay for several months, and I had few other financial options. I needed a way to pay the bills if the work didn’t come through, and our current so-called social safety net didn’t offer one. It remains designed, as Sara Horowitz of the Freelancers’ Union points out, for a workforce that has full-time jobs with benefits. And that was never everyone, to begin with.

Women, black workers and immigrants were mostly left out of that design in the first place; what’s happened is that the conditions in the sectors where they typically work (temporary work, no labor protections, informal workplaces) have caught up with the rest of us. This means instead of clinging to a safety net that was designed for white male breadwinners in manufacturing jobs, we need a system designed for workers who are doing less work, doing it from home or the neighborhood coffee shop, and where the human resource in demand is care as much as it is cognitive skill or brute strength.

The subject of a universal basic income is coming up a lot these days; former Labor Secretary Robert Reich endorsed it last week in a talk at San Francisco State University, calling it “almost inevitable” in the face of technologically-induced job loss. A basic income would serve as something more than a safety net in troubled times—it would be a firm line below which no one, employed or unemployed, skilled or unskilled, could fall. Perhaps most importantly, it would help workers who do retain jobs (or gigs) increase their bargaining power by giving them the option of leaving rather than clinging to a job out of desperation.

That’s a large redistribution of income, of course, and it will take a lot of political power to make such a thing a reality. Political power for working people has come in the past and will come in the future through worker organizing—particularly, as has been the case with the port truckers, organizing outside of the old NLRB framework. It took workers coming together to challenge their bosses’ idea of “freedom” to win fair pay at the ports, and it will take workers coming together on a massive scale to really get workers some freedom.

Along with that idea of freedom, it’s time to consider a call for shorter working hours—a redistribution of work and leisure to go along with the redistribution of wealth. There will always to be some work that cannot be automated away, and much of that work, as Frey and Osborne found, will likely rely on social skills that have been presumed to be women’s domain. If we don’t want a world where women do most or all of the work for little pay, we’ll have to start valuing those social skills more, and ensuring that the jobs that requires them are done by all.

But most importantly, we should be working to ensure that a future without jobs is a future where we all get to enjoy the benefits of free time.

This article was originally printed on Working in These Times on March 21, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.

Town Hall Unites Adjunct Faculty, Launches Network

Monday, March 24th, 2014

seiu-org-logoAdjunct faculty joined SEIU president Mary Kay Henry and House Education and Workforce Committee Ranking Member George Miller (D-CA) to launch the Adjunct Action Network and talk about the future of adjunct faculty organizing at a town hall at Georgetown University today.

“Imagine if brick-by-brick adjuncts work to build a new model,” Henry said as she led a discussion about how the growing adjunct organizing victories from Los Angeles to Boston can be leveraged into even larger movement both online and offline.

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Though adjunct faculty often lack physical meeting space on the campuses where they work, adjuncts have formed a virtual network that crosses cities and campuses. The Adjunct Action Network’s toolset, which gives users the ability to create petitions, host events, build email lists and create online discussion groups, is designed to elevate those connections to concerted action. Click here to sign up to the network and watch a recorded version of the town hall.

Adjunct faculty in attendance described how collective action by contingent faculty has given them a larger voice in the fight to roll back the corporatization of higher education and refocus it on education and students. “I think we can really rumble and quake the higher education ground,” said Tiffany Kraft, an adjunct from Clark College who spoke on the panel at the town hall. “We are not passive victims in our marginalization,” she added.

“There’s plenty of money in higher education. It’s just not being directed at front-line teaching,” Henry noted.

Rep. Miller said the growing influence of adjunct faculty is altering the power calculus in politics and higher education back towards students and instruction, and urged adjuncts to continue to organize and engage. “Bring your lunch,” and stay for the fight, he said to applause.

The town hall comes as adjuncts continue to organize across the country. In late February, adjunct faculty at Lesley University in Boston voted overwhelmingly to form a union. In the last few months adjuncts at Seattle University in Washington state, Howard University in DC, Maryland Institute College of Art, and Northeastern University in Boston have filed election petitions with the National Labor Relations Board to hold union elections.
Tufts University part-time faculty voted to join SEIU in September 2013 and are currently bargaining their first contract, and in December, adjunct faculty at Whittier College in Los Angeles voted to form a union.

For a compilation of live reaction to the town hall, follow #AdjunctNetwork.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on March 24, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Mariah Quinn

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