Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Florida Passes Law That Bans Discriminating Against Pregnant Women In Public

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Bryce CovertLast week, the Florida legislature passed a bill banning discrimination against pregnant women at work as well as in public places like restaurants or hotels.

The bill amends the state’s Civil Rights Act by adding pregnancy to race, sex, and physical disability as protected classes. It got unanimous support in the state senate and near-unanimous passage in the House. It now heads to Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) desk, whose office didn’t return a request for comment on whether he would sign it.

Lawmakers introduced it to codify a ruling from the state’s Supreme Court last year in favor of plaintiff Peggy Delva, a front desk manager at a condominium building who sued her employer for barring her from covering other workers’ shifts after she became pregnant and firing her when she returned from leave. The court ruled that she was discriminated against on account of her pregnancy and that violated Florida’s law against sex discrimination, overturning lower courts who ruled against her.

Federal law, including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, is also supposed to protect pregnant women, but they still experience widespread discrimination. An estimated quarter million womenevery year are denied their requests for employers to give them accommodations at work so that they can stay on their jobs throughout their pregnancies, so they end up pushed onto unpaid leave or suffering health complications such as miscarriages if they stay. The United States Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of Peggy Young, who had sued UPS for refusing to give her light duty after she became pregnant, forcing her onto unpaid leave without benefits.

A number of women in a variety of industries have also sued their employers for firing them just after they disclosed their pregnancies.

At the same time, however, more and more women are choosing to work while pregnant. Today, two-thirds of first-time mothers work while pregnant, up from less than half in 1960. Of those who do, 80 percent keep working into their last month, compared to just a third in the ’60s. But past court cases show that employers often vilify or stereotype pregnant women, such as relying on the idea that they’ll just end up leaving after they have their babies, to justify firing them.

Some states have taken further action to protect pregnant employees, passing Pregnant Worker Fairness Acts to require employers to give them accommodations to stay on the job. A similar law has been introduced at the federal level but hasn’t moved forward.

Florida’s law should also protect women who say they have been barred from entering bars because they might appear to be pregnant.

This article originally appeared in thinkprogress.org on April 27, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

$357 Billion: The Clock Ticks

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

ericJust a moment to pause and update everyone: going back to 1968, workers have lost more than $357 billion because of the robbery due to the stagnant minimum wage.

Did you ever wonder what the minimum wage would be worth if it kept its value going back to 1968? Well, it would over $20-an-hour. And thanks to our friends at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, we can watch the loss tick by literally every second, counting the dollars lost by workers since 1968 because of the sinking value of the minimum wage.

This clock shows how “many dollars America’s minimum wage workers have lost since July 24, 2009 if the minimum wage had instead been raised to its 1968 level and then kept pace with inflation since then,” CEPR says (and if you’re reading this after it was posted, the clock will keep ticking and likely be above $358 billion…and more):

And every minutes, hour, day that goes by, the robbery continues.

This article originally appeared in workinglife.org on April  22, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author:  Jonathan Tasini on any given day, I think like a political-union organizer or a writer — or both. I’ve done the traditional press routine including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Business Week, Playboy Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. One day, back when blogs were just starting out, I created Working Life. I used to write every day but sometimes there just isn’t something new to say so I cut back to weekdays, with an occasional weekend post when it moves me. I’ve also written four books: It’s Not Raining, We’re Being Peed On: The Scam of the Deficit Crisis (2010 and, then, the updated 2nd edition in 2013); The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves and The Looting of America (2009); They Get Cake, We Eat Crumbs: The Real Story Behind Today’s Unfair Economy, an average reader’s guide to the economy (1997); and The Edifice Complex: Rebuilding the American Labor Movement to Face the Global Economy, a critique and prescriptive analysis of the labor movement (1995).

The Words of Dead Workers

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Leo GerardTo give voice to 35 workers killed on the job over the past 35 years at a massive refinery in Texas City, hundreds of surviving family members, co-workers and friends gathered there last month to erect white crosses marked with their names.

They conducted the ceremony on the 10th anniversary of an explosion that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170, including townspeople.

Marathon Petroleum Corp., which bought the refinery from BP two years ago, did its best to shut the mourners up. Marathon uprooted the crosses and tossed them in a box like trash within hours of the commemoration.

For years during contract negotiations, the United Steelworkers (USW) union has pressed ungodly profitable oil companies to improve safety. This fell mostly on deaf ears. On Feb. 1, USW refinery workers began loudly voicing this demand by striking over unfair labor practices (ULP). Ultimately 7,000 struck 15 refineries. Within six weeks, all but five oil corporations settled.  Marathon is a hold out. It wants to cut safety personnel. It does not want to hear about dead workers.

Yet the (ULP) strike is about dead workers. Over the past five years, at refineries nationwide that employ USW members, 27 workers have died – incinerated, gassed or crushed to death. And the peril of refineries spills into communities. In Texas City at the refinery owned by BP in 2005, flying glass from windows shattered in the explosion injured townspeople. In the first six weeks of this year, explosions occurred at three refineries, closing streets, raining eye-irritating white ash on neighborhoods and forcing residents to shelter indoors for hours.

As the USW strike over unfair labor practices drags on in Texas City at what is now called the Marathon Petroleum Corp. Galveston Bay Refinery, USW members feel Marathon’s demands for reduced safety measures indicate the corporation refuses to hear the cautionary tales of the facility’s deadly past. Brandi Sanders, treasurer for the local union there and a 10-year veteran maintenance worker, told me that it is as if Marathon believes the 2005 explosion and the 20 other deaths since 1980 don’t exist because they didn’t occur on Marathon’s watch.

“But the union does not want to go back. We lived through those experiences. And we learned from that history. And we should not be forced to repeat it,” Sanders said.

That was the reason for the candlelight ceremony on March 23. To make those deaths real for Marathon managers who did not experience them in the visceral way that co-workers and families and neighbors did.

The mourners marked each of the 35 crosses with the name of a worker killed at the nation’s fifth largest refinery since 1980, which is the year of the last nationwide strike at refineries. A bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” as the participants, holding candles aloft in the dark, marched two blocks from the local union hall to the refinery. They wanted to place the crosses on the site where the workers had lost their lives.

But police officers blocked their path. Marathon had called the cops. Marathon refused to acknowledge the tragic anniversary, even with a moment of silence at the refinery as BP had done annually. And it wouldn’t allow a commemoration by anyone else on its property either.

The officers permitted the mourners to erect the white markers in a median strip along the highway, as often is done by family and friends of car crash victims. The ceremony participants called out each name, tolled a bell and placed the marker. Tears flowed.

Just a few hours later, picketers saw managers leave the plant, descend on the memorial in the darkness and rip each of the 35 crosses out of the ground.

Larry Burchfield, a member of the USW’s National Oil Bargaining Policy Committee and a machinist at the refinery for 20 years while it was owned first by Amoco, then BP and now Marathon, told me that disrespect Marathon showed for the dead is the same disregard Marathon shows for the living.

If Marathon valued the lives of workers, the corporation wouldn’t try to save a couple of bucks by eliminating the safety measures put in place to preserve workers’ lives after the 2005 explosion, Burchfield said. “Marathon’s safety policies are called life critical policies,” he told me, “But your life is not so critical when it is going to affect Marathon’s bottom line.”

Marathon’s “it wasn’t me; it was BP” reasoning for downgrading safety just doesn’t cut it. Don Holmstrom, director of the Western Regional Office of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB),explained why in an interview with the Galveston County Daily News for a story on the anniversary of the 2005 blast.

“I think it is sad to report that not enough appears to have been learned, and the problem persists. It is not a BP problem. Although the incident occurred at (BP’s) Texas City refinery, there is an industry problem,” said Holmstrom, who was the CSB’s lead investigator into the 2005 blast.

Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) Assistant Administrator Jordan Barab said of recent refinery explosions, “each repeated a lesson that the industry should have already learned.”

Marathon is no outlier, operating in perfect safety. Numerous problems have occurred at the plant since Marathon took over. An explosion and fire at the refinery on Feb. 21 last year critically injured Oscar Garcia, who was employed by a company Marathon contracted to perform work on the site. Garcia has sued Marathon for negligence. The refinery released more than 128,000 pounds of silica and alumina oxide into surrounding communities in two incidents this year. Several fires have occurred since the strike began, including two within 24 hours witnessed by picketing workers.

After the BP explosion, the CSB and others recommended refineries refrain from placing personnel in temporary facilities near volatile units, especially during shut downs and startups. Many of those killed in the BP explosion were in temporary trailers during a unit start up. Despite that, within the past year, Marathon erected three lunch tents during a repair cycle on the same ground where bodies and debris had been haled away after the 2005 blast.

Not one of the 1,100 USW members who work for Marathon has crossed the picket line. They’ve gone without pay for nearly three months because they know what’s at stake: their lives.

In another attempt to help Marathon hear that, workers replanted the 35 white crosses in a long line in front of the union hall. They managed to get them back from Marathon through the police department.

Today, on Workers’ Memorial Day, which commemorates those who have lost their lives on the job, the USW members will place a solar spotlight in front of each cross, to highlight the lives sacrificed when safety was compromised. Hopefully, that will open the eyes of Marathon managers who deliberately closed their ears to the words of dead workers.

This article originally appeared in ourfuture.org on April 28, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Leo W. Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

Get Ready for DC Labor and Film Fests

Saturday, April 25th, 2015

The second annual DC LaborFest begins Friday, May 1, and runs the entire month and includes the 15th annual DC Labor FilmFest, as well as labor arts, including music, theater, poetry, books, art and history. The DC LaborFest features one of the most well-established film festivals in the world dedicated to showcasing labor art and screening films featuring workers and workers’ issues.

The DC LaborFest includes more than 50 labor arts events from the labor films to concerts, walking and biking history tours, conferences and happy hours. Click here to download a detailed schedule of events andhere for LaborFest updates.

You also can click here for trailers of a dozen of the films that will be screened as part of the DC Labor FilmFest.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on April 25, 2015. 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.

Rana Plaza, 2 Years Later: Garment Workers Under Siege

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

Image: Mike HallApril 24 is the two-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,130 garment workers. The AFL-CIO Solidarity Center’s Tula Connell reports that in the months after the 2013 tragedy, global outrage spurred much-needed changes, including the closing of dozens of unsafe factories, the adoption of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and, most significantly, the formation and recognition of workers’ unions by the Bangladeshi government.

But in recent months, those freedoms are increasingly rare, say garment workers and union leaders….Despite garment workers’ desire to join a union, they increasingly face barriers to do so, including employer intimidation, threatened or actual physical violence, loss of jobs and government-imposed barriers to registration. Regulators also seem unwilling to penalize employers for unfair labor practices.

In addition, thousands of workers still toil in unsafe factories. In the two years since the fire at Tazreen Fashions, at least 31 workers have died in garment factory fire incidents in Bangladesh, and more than 900 people have been injured (excluding Rana Plaza), according to Solidarity Center data

Read the full story here, and on Wednesday be sure to check back with the Solidarity Center for stories from the survivors and about the lack of sufficient compensation for survivors and families of those killed.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on April 21,, 2015. 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.

11 Ways Big Banks Make Life Harder for Working Families

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

Kenneth QuinnellA new report from the Center for Popular Democracy examines the ways that large financial institutions are helping dismantle the middle class and making life more difficult for working families. The top 10 banks alone bring in some $100 billion in annual profits, and a significant amount of that revenue is generated from sometimes unethical and questionable tactics that working families have a hard time fighting back against.

Here are 11 ways the big banks are making life harder for working families:

1. While 27% of Americans have no or little access to financial services, the big banks are closing local branches, making the problem worse.

2. Banks are pressuring their workers to push customers to purchase services that use predatory banking practices instead of sound financial principles. Quotas drive the process rather than the needs of customers.

3. The large financial institutions are cutting wages, benefits and hours for workers, making it harder for them to serve customers and increasing work-related stress.

4. Core banking activities for the average worker, such as helping people open and manage accounts or plan for retirement or obtain a credit card, are considered low value services by the banks, and they are actively trying to avoid those services in favor of higher profit activities such as mortgages.

5. Workers who can’t fill their quotas for pushing mismatched or predatory products and services are threatened with termination or had their paychecks docked for the amount they fell short of their quotas.

6. Since 2011, 17 lawsuits have been settled by the financial services industry for alleged illegal and unethical business practices. The banks have paid out nearly $46 billion.

7. At least three banks are accused of charging people of color higher interest rates or fees than white borrowers.

8. The big five banks are accused of steering people of color into dangerous subprime mortgages.

9. Two banks have, in the past, maximized their profits off of overdraft fees by posting charges in order of the largest dollar amount first, increasing the likelihood that not only are customers more likely to overdraft their accounts, but more likely to do so multiple times.

10. Three financial institutions were charged with forcing homeowners to buy overpriced property insurance.

11. Nearly one-fifth of employees at the biggest banks reported that more and more jobs had been moved from full-time to part-time.

This blog originally appeared on aflcio.org on April 21, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Author’s name is Kenneth Quinnell.  He is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


Caterpillar’s CEO Just Got A Big Raise, And It Explains What’s Wrong With American Capitalism

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

AlanPyke_108x108Heavy machinery manufacturer Caterpillar gave its CEO a 14 percent raise last year, in a $17.1 million package of cash, stock, and other compensation that is hard to justify in light of the famed brand’s actual performance.

CEO Douglas Oberhelman’s big raise came despite a decline in Caterpillar’s sales. The company justified its decision to Crain’s by pointing out that Oberhelman oversaw a good year for the company as measured on a per-share basis. Those accounting metrics benefited from the company’s decision last year to buy back a bunch of shares to make Caterpillar look better on a per-share basis, the Wall Street Journal notes.

Caterpillar is hardly unique in finding creative ways to justify paying CEOs. Therules for performance pay are broken across all industries. Fortune 500 CEOs are now paid hundreds of times what the typical worker makes, up from the healthier 30-to-1 ratio that was typical in the long middle-class boom that followed World War II.

Oberhelman has been paid nearly $18 million per year on average since assuming the company’s top office. The $17.1 million package for 2014 is a hefty percent raise from the $15 million Caterpillar paid Oberhelman in 2013. That year’s package was portrayed as a significant cut from his 2012 earnings of $22.4 million, but critics in 2013 argued that even that down year was still a severe overpayment for the CEO’s performance. The way the company’s performance-based compensation systems are designed, the CEO got a $2 million performance bonus for a year when sales fell by 16 percent.

The company is a perennial favorite when politicians and journalists need something to stand in for middle-American moxie and blue-collar striving. Profiles of both Caterpillar and Oberhelman tend to play up the firm’s roots in Peoria, Illinois, a town rendered synonymous with Real America by the cliched old test of an idea’s marketability: “Will it play in Peoria?”

Caterpillar earned its associations with American grit and ingenuity in its early decades of success, but its modern behavior is testament to the financialization of even the blue-collar segments of the U.S. economy. Modern-day Cat does what is best for the share price even if that means squashing its actual production workers in contract talks and moving their jobs across the state lineif they object too loudly to the new treatment.

Identifying Caterpillar’s success with humble midwestern values is a lie, at this point in the company’s history. Oberhelman and his shareholders make gobs of money from a wink-nudge arrangement in Switzerland. A Swiss subsidiary claims to be the final destination for much of the cash that Cat brings in. Caterpillar paid $55 million to wish that Swiss branch into being about 80 years after its founder opened his first factory in Peoria.

The scheme has avoided $2.4 billion in U.S. tax payments since 2000.

The deal is also entirely legal, much like the highly technical profit-shifting arrangements that tech giants use to keep their profits away from the Internal Revenue Service. Caterpillar gets all the public relations gloss that comes with being from Peoria while ducking the taxes that fund roads and fire departments and houses that people can afford to buy in central Illinois.

Caterpillar’s Swiss swindle is especially useful to shareholders and people like Oberhelman whose pay is determined more by stock tickers than by what happens on the factory floor. The company’s stock price benefits from engineering a flow of company cash that leaves more overall value on the books, even if the books are Swiss and the stocks trade in Chicago.

Moves that hurt workers but benefit investors threaten to become a defining pattern in the American business world. Years of hostile takeovers in the 1980s and 1990s helped create a fascination with short-term indicators of shareholder value, as Steven Pearlstein explains, and that fascination is now part of the curriculum in business schools. Executive compensation shifted more and more from cash to stock, giving the people in charge of the largest firms in the U.S. economy a huge incentive to chase short-term on-paper valueat the expense of the long-term, concrete business success. Because that shift benefits people wealthy enough to own stock at the expense of working people, the financialization of the American business world has naturallyexacerbated inequality.

Opposing the sheer size or inequity of modern CEO compensation doesn’t do much to address the roots of the problem, no matter how loud the objections. Restoring the traditional link between work and economic mobility means reversing the financialization of companies like Caterpillar — causing them to focus on the long-term and consider interests that aren’t gauged in stock prices. Ideas for changing corporate behavior include greater profit-sharing for lower-level employees and closing tax loopholes that make stock-based CEO pay deductible.

Last year, such ideas featured prominently in the work of an international working group of left-of-center policymakers that some pundits expect will serve as the basis for Hillary Clinton’s economic platform in her run for the White House. If the 2016 cycle stops through Peoria, as so many previous politicians have done to use Caterpillar production facilities as a backdrop for speeches and glad-handing, the company may find itself cast in a very different kind of story about the American economy.

This blog originally appeared in Thinkprogress.org on April 21, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org. He previously worked as an organizer on various political campaigns from New Hampshire to Georgia to Missouri. His writing on music and film has appeared on TinyMixTapes, IndieWire’s Press Play, and TheGrio, among other sites.

Maryland Agency Deliberately Paid Female Workers Less Than Men For Equal Work, Lawsuit Claims

Monday, April 20th, 2015

Bryce CovertLast week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against the Maryland Insurance Administration, which regulates the state’s insurance companies, for willfully paying female employees less than men who were doing the same work.

The lawsuit claims that since the end of 2009, the agency has paid Alexandra Cordaro, Mary Jo Rogers, Marlene Green, and a group of other women who worked as investigators or enforcement officers less than men at the agency for “substantially equal work” in similar roles.

The suit says the agency’s actions violate the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibits paying men and women differently for equal work unless due to seniority or systems that pay based on the merit, quantity, or quality of work. It seeks to get the agency to end the different pay practices, institute equal employment policies for women, and pay back wages for the three women and other female employees who were potentially discriminated against.

In response to the lawsuit, a spokeswoman with the agency said, “The Maryland Insurance Administration strongly disputes the allegations. The case will be vigorously defended.”

American women still make less than men in virtually every job, on average earning 78 percent of what men earn when they work full time, year round. While many factors go into the wage gap, such as the fact that women often have to take time out of their careers to care for family members and they tend to be clustered in lower-paying jobs, economists who study the gap consistently come up with a portion that can’t be explained by such factors, which could indicate bias or discrimination. Nearly a third of American women say they would be paid more if they were a man.

But it can be very difficult to prove that discrimination is motivating lower pay. One big obstacle is that about half of all employees say they are either banned or discouraged from talking about pay with their coworkers, even though they have a legal right to do so, which means many women may not be able to find out whether they are being paid less than men.

It can also be hard to prove that pay differences are due to bias. Francine Katz, formerly the highest-ranking woman executive at Anheuser-Busch, sued the company for allegedly discriminating against her by paying her less than the man that had her job before her and for paying all women on a lower tier than the male executives paid at the top tier. But she lost her case, and the jury foreman said “the evidence was not enough to single out gender.” The experience is common: employees alleging pay discrimination have only wonabout a third of equal pay claims over the last decade.

Meanwhile, U.S. law may require equal pay for equal work, but it doesn’t require equal pay for similar work in different jobs. Yet in the states that experimented with such requirements and with regular audits of payscales in the 1980s, the wage gap dropped significantly.

This article originally appeared in thinkprogress.org on April 20, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

Alleging Labor Abuses, U.S. and Mexican Workers Call for Boycott of Driscoll’s Berries

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

in these timesDriscoll’s may be the U.S.’s most recognizable brand name on strawberry, raspberry, blueberry and blackberry cartons. Its conventional and organic berries can be found year-round everywhere from Sam’s Club to Whole Foods. To keep its berries stocked far and wide, the company uses a vast supplier network stretching from Canada to Argentina.

But some of those suppliers are coming under fire for allegedly abusing workers, in the U.S. and Mexico. One Driscoll’s grower has spent weeks embroiled in a major farmworker protest, while a nearly two-year boycott against another grower recently intensified. Workers in both disputes have called for a boycott against the company.

Poverty wages in Baja

While Driscoll’s is a family-owned company, it’s no mom-and-pop operation. According to its website, over 40,000 people are involved in its berry production worldwide. The company has a code of conduct for its suppliers, called the “Promise for Workforce Welfare,” which includes obeying minimum legal requirements and avoiding egregious labor violations like human trafficking and conditions “posing immediate risk to life or limb.” Driscoll’s says it is committed to hiring suppliers that “show a sincere commitment” to such principles.

But Bonifacio Martinez questions whether those requirements are enough. Martinez picked strawberries and blackberries destined for Driscoll’s boxes for 10 years. Now he’s a leader in the farmworker movement that erupted last month in the fields of San Quintin, in the Mexican state of Baja California. Thousands of farm laborers picking multiple crops stopped work for nearly two weeks, demanding higher wages and legally required benefits, among other protections.

“The principal demand is for [growers] to actually respect the workers’ rights,” says Martinez. He wants them to honor labor laws that are, at the moment, he says, just “dead words.” Those include health benefits and freedom from sexual harassment.

Many of the San Quintin protesters are indigenous people from some of Mexico’s poorest states, like Oaxaca and Guerrero. Indigenous people make up more than half of Mexico’s agricultural workers.

The striking pickers initially wanted wages increased to 300 pesos a day, then lowered the demand to 200 pesos, about $13. Most of them earned $7 to $8 a day before the strike.

Protests turned acrimonious when demonstrators threw rocks at government vehicles and police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, reported the Los Angeles Times. Workers also blocked 56 miles of the Trans-Peninsular Highway. By April, the strike had effectively ended after growers signed agreements raising wages 15 percent—far less than the pickers demanded.

The leaders of the movement rejected the meager increase, saying the unions that signed those agreements, which are affiliated with the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which held power for nearly three-quarters of the 20th century and has strong connections to many unions throughout the country, do not represent workers. The workers continue protesting even as many have returned to the fields.

Although the dispute involved various crops and growers, a primary target of the strike was BerryMex, one of Driscoll’s largest suppliers in the region. Last week, on the anniversary of the death of agrarian revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, the farmworkers called for a boycott against Driscoll’s and “all the companies that make a profit by exploiting our labor.”

According to statements by Driscoll’s and BerryMex, following the strike BerryMex increased the “earning opportunity” for its more than 4,000 workers to $5 to $9 an hour—well above the strikers’ demands and the growers’ concessions. “This pay increase means that each individual now has an average earning potential of six to 10 times of Mexico’s minimum Federal wage and as much as 16 times for higher performing workers,” the statements read.

“This is a terrible lie,” says Martinez. He says BerryMex has raised its wages more than some of its peer growers, but only to 180 pesos a day, about $12. That’s a far cry from $5 to $9 dollars an hour. Others familiar with the protests expressed skepticism of the calculation as well. Pickers are paid based on how much they pick, not by hour. That means hourly rates for fast pickers under optimum conditions can far exceed average rates. In that case, the “earning opportunity” will not be the earning reality for most laborers.

BerryMex is not just any Driscoll’s supplier. It is part of Reiter Affiliated Companies (RAC), which says it is “the largest fresh, multi-berry producer in the world.” Driscoll’s is RAC’s only customer. And RAC’s CEO, Garland Reiter, is the brother of Driscoll’s CEO Miles Reiter.

From San Quintin to Skagit County

Driscoll’s responded swiftly to the BerryMex fracas. But it was not as quick to act to resolve a dispute that escalated while the San Quintin protests raged: a bitter labor fight in Burlington, Washington.

Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), which says it represents over 400 berry pickers, has been locked in a labor struggle with Driscoll’s supplier Sakuma Brothers Farms since 2013. FUJ has long held a boycott against Sakuma berries and its largest customers, Driscoll’s and Häagen-Dazs. On March 24, it doubled down on the boycott when the fair trade advocacy organization Fair World Project sent a letter to Driscoll’s, signed by nearly 10,000 consumers, asking it to suspend buying from Sakuma Brothers until the dispute is resolved. The signatories pledged not to buy Driscoll’s berries until then.

FUJ’s list of complaints is long: poor wages, squalid labor camps, firing and retaliating against workers for organizing and hiring guestworkers from Mexico to replace FUJ’s members. The H-2A guestworker program Sakuma Brothers participated in is meant to be used only when there aren’t enough workers domestically. FUJ says it had plenty of willing workers, but that Sakuma Brothers used guestworkers to avoid hiring back FUJ’s members.

“The only thing we want is a fair contract for both of us,” says FUJ president Ramon Torres.

Sakuma Brothers denies that FUJ represents the berry pickers, calling them “outside agitators” who “have attempted to fabricate the impression that this is a worker movement.” Danny Weeden began his tenure as the company’s CEO just this year and says FUJ’s campaign is hard to understand.

“We’re really doing everything and more than what they’re asking, but they just continue to misrepresent the facts,” he says.

Weeden says that starting this season, the company will pay workers $10 an hour plus a generous bonus for each pound of berries picked. He says the housing is continually upgraded and that the company does suffer from a labor shortage.

After nearly two years of deadlock, the Fair World Project and its nearly 10,000 consumer signatures finally prompted Driscoll’s to respond. In a statement, the company said it had hired “an independent, leading worker welfare organization” to audit Sakuma Brothers, and that the final audit showed that the company had “properly addressed any potential claims” of worker mistreatment.

Felimon Pineda, FUJ’s vice president, doubts the audit’s accuracy. “If it’s true that people from Driscoll’s came to check Sakuma farms, the first thing they should have done was ask the farmworkers,” he says. “Because they’re the ones who feel the pain. They’re the ones who know the working conditions.

Pineda, who is from Oaxaca, is a link between San Quintin and Burlington. For him, the connection between them runs deeper than boycotting Driscoll’s. He got his start picking strawberries at the age of 13 in a town in Baja California right next to the current protests. “I’m in solidarity with these people because they’re my people,” he says.

Like many of the Baja workers, Pineda is indigenous. “The valley of San Quintin is full of people from Oaxaca and Guerrero who speak Mixteco like me,” he says, referring to an indigenous language spoken in the region. He says his own brother is part of the protests in Mexico. “I remember my people because I also suffer from the company. … It didn’t seem right that the folks in San Quintin would be on strike and I would just be quiet.”

The connection makes sense, says Gaspar Rivera, a binational advisor to the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales and researcher at the UCLA Labor Center. Indigenous people have a history of picking berries, one of the hardest and least desirable farm jobs. Once they acquired berry-picking know-how in Mexico, many migrated all the way up to Washington to do the same work.

“They’re working on both sides of the border for this international company,” Rivera says. “Driscoll’s has managed to develop a production system that extends from Baja California all the way to Washington to be able to supply the U.S. market, and other markets, with strawberries all year round.”

Workers on both sides of the border are now leading boycotts against Driscoll’s, but it’s unclear whether the company’s actions will go beyond issuing statements. Although Driscoll’s requires its suppliers to commit to the Promise for Workforce Welfare, it says it will not intervene in labor negotiations.

“Driscoll’s does not have a role in any labor negotiations between farmers and farmworkers,” the company says. “Our focus and responsibility is on worker welfare and ensuring legal compliance is adhered to by all our independent growers.” The company says it has never terminated a supplier for labor violations.

Rivera thinks Driscoll’s hands-off approach is disingenuous.  “It’s more like the Walmart model of shifting the risk to these growers,” he says. “This has been Driscoll’s line, [that it is] not responsible about the working conditions. Which is partially true but partially false. Ultimately they have a lot of power over these growers because they can say, Hey, if you don’t shape up and employ workers in a fair way, we’re going to stop buying.”

This article originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on April 18, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rachel Luban is a writer living in Maryland. She contributes to Full Stop and her work has appeared on Jezebel, The Rumpus, and In Our Words. Follow her on Twitter: @rachelcluban.

Adjunct Faculty Around the Country Join Fight for 15 Protests

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

Rebecca BurnsAfter speaking to an adjunct instructor participating in yesterday’s massive low-wage worker protests, I thanked her for her time and walked away. Another adjunct, who had been listening on the sidelines as my interviewee talked about her 12 years piecing together part-time work at five different Chicago colleges, approached and introduced herself. “I just wanted to make sure we connected today,” she said to my interviewee before adding knowingly, “It sounds like we have a lot in common!”

A key component of any union drive is workers’ recognition that their problems on the job are shared rather than unique ones, and that they therefore must be solved by collective action. Organizers involved in the growing effort to unionize contingent faculty say that this is often an especially difficult realization for highly educated, low-wage workers who are trained to pursue individual success by putting their noses ever harder to the Ivory Tower’s grindstone.

But that appears to have changed as of yesterday’s walkouts and rallies in more than 200 cities nationwide, in which adjuncts joined fast-food, homecare and other low-wage workers in what organizers say was the largest such protest in history. The day’s actions marked a new phase of the “Fight for 15,” which will head to colleges as contingent faculty press for union representation, a wage bump and greater job security.

Earlier this year, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which backs both adjunct and fast-food worker organizing, announced a new campaign called “Faculty Forward,” which will demand a minimum compensation of $15,000 per college course taught, plus benefits. That would be a staggering increase over adjuncts’ current median pay of just $2,700 per course nationwide, but it complements the bold demand of a $15 minimum wage that fast-food workers have been advancing since 2012.

“This is the time to be heard for all low-wage workers,” said Alyson Paige Warren, an adjunct who has worked at Loyola University Chicago and other Chicago-area schools for 12 years, sometimes making as little as $100 per weekly class.

Chicago is one of the most recent cities where SEIU is hoping to organize adjuncts citywide, following considerable success in the Boston, San Francisco and Washington, DC metro areas. While the city’s major public school and several community colleges already have active faculty unions, there are approximately 8,000 part-time and contingent faculty members across the city that remain non-unionized, including at private universities such as Loyola and DePaul.

Ahead of yesterday’s main Fight for 15 protest in Chicago, a group of about 50 adjuncts, students and full-time faculty supporters rallied at Loyola on the city’s far North Side. Carrying signs that read, “Invest in instruction, fight for $15K” and “No more profs in poverty,” the group marched across campus before boarding buses to join an estimated 6,000 demonstrators calling for a living wage.

The group of adjuncts also delivered a petition with 500 signatures to Loyola administrators, urging them to live up to the school’s Jesuit values of social justice by granting instructors fair benefits, fair wages and the right to unionize. Adjuncts at Loyola are not formally demanding $15,000 a course, but they say their current rate of between $4,000 and $4,500 isn’t enough to make ends meet.

They’re not alone. A study released this week by the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education finds that a full 25 percent of part-time college professors rely on some form of public assistance to supplement their wages. That’s not as high at the 48 percent of homecare workers who received assistance from programs including Medicaid, food stamps, welfare payments or the Earned Income Tax Credit, or the 52 percent of fast-food workers who do so. But it’s a stunning statistic that flies in the face of the assumption that higher education is a path to prosperity.

Paige Warren believes that it’s also a basis for solidarity with other workers, something that adjuncts are increasingly attuned to. “If someone who serves my coffee before I go to teach my students is struggling to make ends meet,” she said, “it’s my job to be concerned about his plight, just as he should be about mine.”

This article originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on April 16, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Rebecca Burns is an In These Times assistant editor based in Chicago, where she also covers labor, housing and higher education. Her writing has also appeared in Al Jazeera America, Jacobin, Truthout, AlterNet and Waging Nonviolence. She can be reached at rebecca[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog