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American Workers Are Not Happy

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

Americans are not happy. And for good reason. They continue to suffer financial stress caused by decades of flat income. And every time they make the slightest peep of complaint about a system rigged against them, the rich and powerful tell them to shut up because it is all their fault.

One percenters instruct them to work harder, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop bellyaching. Just get a second college degree, a second skill, a second job. Just send the spouse to work, downsize, take a staycation instead of a real vacation. Or don’t take one at all, just work harder and longer and better.

The barrage of blaming has persuaded; workers believe they deserve censure. And that’s a big part of the reason they’re unhappy. If only, they think, they could work harder and longer and better, they would get ahead. They bear the shame. They don’t blame the system: the Supreme Court, the Congress, the President. And yet, it is the system, the American system, that has conspired to crush them.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, unemployment is low and the stock market is high. But skyrocketing stocks benefit only the top 10 percent of wealthy Americans who own 84 percent of stocks. And while more people are employed than during the Great Recession, the vast majority of Americans haven’t had a real raise since 1979.

It’s bad out there for American workers. Last month, their ranking dropped for the third year running in the World Happiness Report, produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a U.N. initiative.

These sad statistics reinforce those in a report released two years ago by two university professors. Reviewing data from the General Social Survey, administered routinely nationally, the professors found Americans’ assessment of their own happiness and family finances has, unambiguously, declined in recent years.

But if Americans would just work harder, everything would be dandy, right?

No. Not right. Americans work really, really hard. A third of Americans work a side hustle, driving an Uber or selling crafts on Etsy. American workers take fewer vacation days. They get 14, but typically take only 10. The highest number of workers in five years report they don’t expect to take a vacation at all this year. And Americans work longer hours than their counterparts in other countries.

Americans labor 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more than Brits, and 499 more than the French, according to the International Labor Organization.

And the longer hours aren’t because American workers are laggards on the job. They’re very productive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that the average American worker’s productivity has increased 400 percent since 1950.

If pay had kept pace with productivity, as it did in the three decades after the end of World War II, American workers would be making 400 percent more. But they’re not. Their wages have flat lined for four decades, adjusting for inflation.

That means stress. Forty percent of workers say they don’t have $400 for an unexpected expense. Twenty percent can’t pay all of their monthly bills. More than a quarter of adults skipped needed medical care last year because they couldn’t afford it. A quarter of adults have no retirement savings.

If only Americans would work harder. And longer. And better.

Much as right-wingers have pounded that into Americans’ heads, it’s not the solution. Americans clearly are working harder and longer and better. The solution is to change the system, which is stacked against workers.

Workers are bearing on their backs tax breaks that benefited only the rich and corporations. They’re bearing overtime pay rules and minimum wage rates that haven’t been updated in more than a decade. They’re weighted down by U.S. Supreme Court decisions that hobbled unionization efforts and kneecapped workers’ rights to file class-action lawsuits. They’re struggling under U.S. Department of Labor rules defining them as independent contractors instead of staff members. They live in fear as corporations threaten to offshore their jobs – with the assistance of federal tax breaks.

Last year, the right-wing majority on the U.S. Supreme Court handed a win to corporatists trying to obliterate workers’ right to organize and collectively bargain for better wages and conditions. The court ruled that public sector workers who choose not to join unions don’t have to pay a small fee to cover the cost of services that federal law requires the unions provide to them. This bankrupts labor unions. And there’s no doubt that right-wingers are gunning for private sector unions next.

This kind of relentless attack on labor unions since 1945 has withered membership. As it shrank, wages for both union and nonunion workers did too.

Also last year, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can deny workers access to class-action arbitration. This compels workers, who corporations forced to sign agreements to arbitrate rather than litigate, into individual arbitration cases, for which each worker must hire his or her own lawyer. Then, just last week, the right-wing majority on the court further curtailed workers’ rights to class-action suits.

In a minority opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the court in recent years has routinely deployed the law to deny to employees and consumers “effective relief against powerful economic entities.”

No matter how hard Americans work, the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court has hobbled them in an already lopsided contest with gigantic corporations.

The administrative branch is no better.  The Trump Labor Department just issued an advisory that workers for a gig-economy company are independent contractors, not employees. As a result, the workers, who clean homes after getting assignments on an app, will not qualify for federal minimum wage (low as it is) or overtime pay. Also, the corporation will not have to pay Social Security taxes for them. Though the decision was specific to one company, experts say it will affect the designation for other gig workers, such as drivers for Uber and Lyft.

Also, the Labor Department has proposed a stingy increase in the overtime pay threshold, that is, the salary amount under which corporations must pay workers time and a half for overtime. The current threshold of $23,660 has not been raised since 2004. The Obama administration had proposed doubling it to $47,476. But now, the Trump Labor Department has cut that back to $35,308. That means 8.2 million workers who would have benefited from the larger salary cap now will not be eligible for mandatory overtime pay.

It doesn’t matter how hard they work, they aren’t going to get the time-and-a-half pay they deserve.

Just like the administration and the Supreme Court, right-wingers in Congress grovel before corporations and the rich. Look at the tax break they gave one percenters in 2017. Corporations got the biggest cut in history, their rate sledgehammered down from 35 percent to 21 percent. The rich reap by far the largest benefit from those tax cuts through 2027, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center. And by then, 53 percent of Americans – that is workers not rich people – will pay more than they did in 2017 because tax breaks for workers expire.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers predicted the corporate tax cut would put an extra $4,000 in every worker’s pocket. They swore that corporations would use some of their tax cut money to hand out raises and bonuses to workers. That never happened. Workers got a measly 6 percent of corporations’ tax savings. In the first quarter after the tax cut took effect, workers on average received a big fat extra $6.21 in their paychecks, for an annual total of a whopping $233. Corporations spent their tax breaks on stock buybacks, a record $1 trillion worth, raising stock prices, which put more money in the pockets of rich CEOs and shareholders.

That’s continuing this year. Workers are never going to see that $4,000.

No wonder they’re unhappy. The system is working against them.

This article was originally published at Our Future on May 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Leo Gerard, is the International President of the United Steelworkers (USW) union and is the second Canadian to head the union. He is also a vice president of the AFL-CIO. Gerard is co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute.

Why May Day Continues to Capture the Hearts and Imaginations of Workers

Thursday, May 2nd, 2019

May 1 has an energy that is palpable across the globe. On this day, every year for more than a century, workers across the world gather for International Workers Day, also known as May Day. These marches have inspired everyone from retired mechanics to immigrant fast food workers to high school students to take the streets in honor of labor—and in a show of respect for the power of a strike. Amid the Trump administration’s egregious assaults on the lives of workers and immigrants, showing up for a day that asserts the dignity of workers from all backgrounds is more important than ever.

“May Day serves as a reminder to all working people around the world that we are facing a common struggle, and that we are still the majority,” Joel Faypon, a member of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 1008, tells In These Times. “And that we still have the power to drive world politics to a direction that would best serve us.”

The history of May Day

May Day was born in Chicago in 1886. During the late 19th century, workers, tired of 10- to 16-hour days and little pay, began to organize along socialist and anarchist principles. Whether in formal unions, political parties or cultural groups, working-class people in the United States were motivated by their dismal conditions and the hope they found in anti-capitalist ideas. With discussion about unfair working conditions spreading like a fever, the 1884 convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) concluded with a declaration that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” Both the FOTLU and the Knights of Labor would support strikes and demonstrations to achieve it.

In a history of the events leading up to the first May Day, Industrial Workers of the World member Eric Chase notes that between 1884 and 1886, “an estimated quarter million workers in the Chicago area became directly involved in the crusade to implement the eight-hour work day.”

When May 1 finally arrived, 40,000 workers went on strike in Chicago, and over 300,000 workers across the United States walked off their jobs. For two days, rallies and demonstrations ensued without violence, but on May 3, police attacked and killed picketing workers at the McCormick Reaper Works Plant. Labor leaders called for a public meeting to protest the deaths, set for the evening of May 4 in Haymarket Square. The events that ensued at Haymarket are fuzzy: A chaotic scene of protesters and police became the site of a bomb explosion (whose source has never been proven), followed by gunshots. When things were quiet, the scene left nearly a dozen dead (the exact numbers are disputed, but the Illinois Labor History Society states that seven policeman and four workers were killed).

Despite having no hard evidence on their side, the police placed blame on eight people they believed to be anarchists: Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Louis Lingg. These charges were rooted in not only anti-anarchist and communist sentiment of the time, but also deeply-entrenched xenophobia. Much of the labor force was made up of immigrants, and so anarchists, communists, immigrants and workers became easy scapegoats.

Six of the eight defendants were immigrants, and seven of the eight men were found guilty and sentenced to death. Two of the men’s sentences were changed to life in prison, one was exonerated and five remained to be hanged. Louis Lingg was found dead in his jail cell before the execution. And so, on November 11, 1887, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Albert Parsons and August Spies were hanged. May Day celebrations are meant to honor the lives of these people and the movements from which they emerged.

A Day of Action for immigrants, queers and workers

Armando Robles, the President of UE Local 1110 who was part of the historic Republic Windows and Doors occupation, centers this history as a reason to keep honoring May Day. “People sacrificed their lives fighting for eight hours,” he explains, “and in Chicago and around the world, this day means something important because of that.”

Just like in the late 1800s, Robles argues, “we have to fight a lot of battles all over the country with this administration’s policies against immigrants. So, we have to not only celebrate and march, but also hold workshops, meetings and tell the government we are not in favor of this treatment.”

In 2006, labor movement and immigrant justice leaders worked to center immigrant labor in that year’s May Day marches. In the face of the Sensenbrenner bill—a federal bill introduced in 2005 which would have criminalized assistance to undocumented immigrants who were seeking food, housing or medical services—May Day organizers proclaimed the march “A Day Without Immigrants.”  The bill passed in the House but failed in the Senate, thanks in part to mass resistance. Still, comprehensive immigration reform has yet to be upheld, and the connection between and overlap among immigrants and workers continues to be an integral theme of May Day rallies.

Today, with the Trump administration’s constant assault on immigrants, May Day’s commitment to uphold the value and dignity of immigrants is vital. Maximillian Alvarez is a graduate student at the University of Michigan, a member of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (American Federation of Teachers Local 3550), and the son of an immigrant worker from Mexico. He tells In These Times, “People understand that the easy way out is to blame immigrants—to punch down and find some other desperate group of people to kick off the life raft, without doing the harder task of understanding the mechanisms of global capitalism are ultimately the reason they will never achieve the sustainable happiness they were promised as hardworking people. And I think this speaks to the imperative of May Day, the spirit of international worker solidarity. It’s a spirit of solidarity that fundamentally understands that capital wins by dividing us, and by pitting us against each other.”

Similarly, queer workers—including queer, immigrant workers—are in a particularly precarious time in the United States, with right-wing policy makers working to roll back existing protections and to prevent new protections from being enacted. There are no explicit and consistent federal protections for LGBTQ workers, and existing protections provided through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and judicial interpretation are on their way to the Supreme Court, where they may be overturned by next summer. This makes union contracts an incredible asset to queer workers, who can fight for healthcare, job protection and partner benefits through contract negotiations.

Be Marston, a shop steward for UNITE HERE Local 8 in Portland, Oregon, says she shows up to May Day mobilizations to help remind people that queer and trans workers are fighting economic injustice alongside their fight against trans and homophobic treatment. “Being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I want to show everyone we are in this fight,” Marston notes. “May Day is a day when we all pull out of our trenches and remind ourselves of the great power we have when we all come together.”

Kris Brown, a union worker with the Inlandboatman’s Union in San Francisco echoes that May Day is more than just a celebratory march. “Labor Day in the U.S. is a day of rest for those workers who are fortunate enough to have holidays off, and May Day is a day of action,” he says.

May Day organizers plan more than marches. The Worker Solidarity Networkhas proposed that May 1 should mark the start of global “solidarity days,” which would involve “actions in the streets, organizing at workplaces, and building assemblies of workers.” Similarly, the Boston May Day Coalition has meetings year-round and is active in organizing and supporting immigrant justice actions.

Around the globe, trade unions and other worker justice groups plan marches and other events in honor of the Haymarket martyrs, as well as various labor actions and strikes in their respective countries. The Yellow Vests, a complex economic justice movement that began in France in November of 2018, will spend its first May Day in the streets, re-asserting demands for fair wages and higher taxes on the rich. In Cuba, which is home to some of the largest May Day demonstrations in the world, workers and students take the streets in supportsocialism and against harsh U.S. blockades. South Africa has long celebrated International Workers Day, and in 1950, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) called for a May Day strike in support of workers and in opposition to the apartheid government. That strike ended in state-sanctioned violence, leaving 18 dead. Every May Day since has in part honored the lives lost in the struggle for worker justice and self-determination.

Reviving the strike

May Day is also a strike. Most marches ask us to walk off work, in honor of the 1886 history, and as a reminder of the necessity of keeping this labor tactic alive. Author and organizer Jane McAlevey explains in her book No Shortcuts that, particularly now, we can’t count on courts or politicians to protect workers. Instead, we must fight and build power in the “the economic arena” in order to transform society.

As Trump administration attacks on workers get worse, the U.S. has seen a dramatic increase in the number of strikes: teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado, North Carolina and California; nurses in Vermont; Marriott Hotel workers in various locations; food service workers at Harvardand Tufts; and the recent 11-day Stop and Shop strike in New England. In all of these cases, the powerful act of ceasing work resulted in wins for workers that they hadn’t been able to obtain through other means. The strike reminds us all that it is workers who create wealth, who have the power, and who deserve fair contracts.

Jessica Salfia is a member of the West Virginia teachers union, and was a key player in the 2018 strike that resulted in a 5% pay increase. For her and her fellow teachers, the strike was a tool they knew they had to use for their and their student’s survival. Salfia explains that after years of workplace setbacks—slashed salaries, increased class sizes and the loss of classroom resources—the teachers knew they had to take serious action. “For me, it was death by a thousand cuts,” says Salfia. “And when they said we were gonna have to deal with bad health care and a pay cut, teacher’s said this time, ‘no, this is it, we’ve had enough.’”

Danielle Manning, a public school teacher and co-chair of United Teachers Los Angeles, says that history played an important role in her union’s ability to go on strike in January of 2019.  “A few of our teachers were on strike in the ‘89 strike. And knowing the history of striking—that it’s possible—is important.”

Joe Jarmie, a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 371, also went on strike this year, walking off his job as a meat cutter at Stop and Shop where he’s been working for 33 years. Joe says the solidarity from other unions and the community helped keep their spirits up during the 11-day negotiations.

“We got overwhelming support from unions and the community. The first day we had boxes of 15 pizzas, 10 cases of water, 30 dozen donuts, 70 boxes of coffee,” he said, adding, “I kept track, I wanted to make sure who I should send thank you notes to. So if that’s not community support, I don’t know what is.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on May 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Raechel Anne Jolie is a writer, educator and media maker based in Minneapolis. She holds a PhD from the University of Minnesota, and has been published in numerous academic journals and popular press sites. She covers labor, prisons and LGBTQ justice, and her memoir Rust Belt Femme is forthcoming from Belt Publishing. Follow her on Twitter @reblgrrlraechel.

 

You Can Be Fired for Not Showing Up to Work During a Hurricane

Monday, September 17th, 2018

Ahead of a natural disaster like Hurricane Florence, politicians and safety officials tell the public to evacuate early and not wait until conditions get bad. We all know that you can lose your home and your belongings, but politicians never talk about the fact that during a disaster, many people can lose their jobs as well.

Even when there are mandatory evacuation orders, many businesses insist that employees still show up for work. Many more won’t pay employees for time missed ahead of, during and after a storm. This forces many to make an impossible choice between protecting their lives or protecting their jobs.

In September 2017, Hurricane Irma wrecked vast portions of Florida. In its wake, Irma left many Floridians without power, shelter or essential belongings. Worse, the impact of the storm meant many people did not know how they would earn their next paycheck. Some lost their jobs because they couldn’t make it into work during the storm, while others were left unemployed after businesses had to shut down for repairs. After hearing about employer threats against people who were evacuating instead of going to work during the hurricane, Central Florida Jobs With Justice conducted a survey to determine how widespread the practice of requiring employees to show up to work in the middle of a Category 4 hurricane really was.

What they found was striking. More than half of those who responded to the survey said they faced disciplinary action or termination if they failed to show up to work during the storm. Others didn’t have to show up to work, but weren’t paid if they couldn’t make it during the evacuation, putting similar pressures on them to show up even in the worst conditions.

To put it bluntly: Even in the middle of a hurricane, many businesses still put their own profits over the well-being of their employees.

But this isn’t the way things have to be. In the wake of Hurricane Irma, the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners passed an ordinance prohibiting employers from retaliating against employees who comply with evacuation orders during a state of emergency, and some employers are taking the initiative to put “climate leave” policies in writing. However, the number of communities and companies with such policies is small and likely will remain so until working people are able to band together to demand protection from the increasing threat of hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters. And while federal programs already exist that provide assistance to people put out of work due to disasters, they need to be strengthened and expanded at the state and local levels.

As our climate changes, we can expect stronger hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters. Recent hurricanes like Harvey, Irma, Maria and now Florence have impacted millions of people, disrupting lives, destroying communities and killing thousands. The struggles that individuals face before, during and after a major event like Irma or Florence are already great enough without adding the stress of losing your job or wondering when you’ll get your next paycheck.

Now is the time to write new rules to ensure working people can protect themselves and their livelihoods before, during and after big disasters. We know that the climate crisis is already hurting poor people more severely than the wealthy. There’s no need to exacerbate this inequality and force people to lose a paycheck or their job due to our man-made climate crisis.

This piece was originally published at Jobs with Justice and the AFL-CIO on September 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Joel Mendelson is a Communications Specialist at Jobs with Justice, where he is responsible for the development and execution of communications strategies, monitoring news and editorial coverage of core issues, and drafting content for campaigns, research publications, and other projects.

U.N. Special Report: U.S. Workers Restricted in Exercising Basic Union Rights

Friday, October 21st, 2016

12189524_10154256555228098_5790056854214410429_nA new report finds that the United States fails to uphold the most basic rights of workers, particularly in the South, where some states “support or collude with employers to infringe upon workers’ rights to peaceful assembly and association.” The report cited examples such as Tennessee officials’ opposition to unionization at a Volkswagen plant and the “government of Mississippi [which] touts the lack of unionization as a great benefit when courting potential employers.”

Maina Kiai, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and author of the report, stated that while governments are “obligated under international law to respect, protect and fulfill workers’ rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association,” many fail to enable, protect or enforce these fundamental rights, “disenfranchising millions of workers.”

u-n-special-report-u-s-workers-restricted-in-exercising-basic-union-rights_blog_post_fullwidthKiai, a Kenyan lawyer and human rights activist, spent more than two weeks in several U.S. cities researching workers’ rights. He met with Nissan workers in Canton, Mississippi; United Steelworkers (USW) members at Novelis in New York, and Asarco in Arizona; Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU)-member carwash workers in New York City; UNITE HERE hotel workers in New York and Arizona; and AFT-member teachers in Louisiana.

Kiai experienced firsthand the many obstacles our nation’s workers need to overcome to organize and bargain for a better life. He made clear that the United States needs to do more, both domestically and in the global supply chains of our companies, “where some of the worst abuses of freedoms of association and peaceful assembly are found—and where migrant workers are often concentrated.”

As the report found: “The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are…key to the realization of both democracy and dignity, since they enable people to voice and represent their interests, to hold governments accountable and to empower human agency.” Unfortunately, the United States is a long way from meeting this standard.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on October 21, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Aaron Chappell writes for AFL-CIO about the right to unionize and collective bargaining.

New Report: 90 Percent of the World’s Domestic Workers Lack Social Security Protection

Friday, April 15th, 2016

elizabeth grossmanNinety percent—or 60 million of the world’s estimated 67 million domestic workers, some 80 percent of whom are women—labor without any basic social security protections, says a new International Labor Organization (ILO) report. Developing countries have the biggest gaps in coverage but wealthier nations are not immune to this problem.

According to the report, 60 percent of domestic workers in Italy are outside the country’s social security system, as are 30 percent of domestic workers in France and Spain. And here in the U.S., domestic workers—housekeepers, house cleaners, nannies, child and elder care providers among others—are not covered by many of the basic workplace protections that most employees take for granted.

“I would like that we stop being invisible to society,” says Maria Esther Bolaños, who works as a housekeeper in Chicago. Domestic workers “want to be respected and valued,” says Magdelena Zylinska, a domestic worker, also in Chicago who’s been cleaning homes since 1997. “That’s so little really, just to be treated with respect,” says Zylinska. “Everybody who works wants that. We’re not asking for anything extraordinary.”

Historically, most U.S. domestic workers have been excluded from labor protections granted other workers, explains Zylinska. But “we are normal people with children and financial responsibilities,” she says. “That’s why I think it’s important that people recognize us as workers in general and give us more support and rights just as regular workers.”

Both Bolaños and Zylinska are working with groups that are part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance for passage of an Illinois state law that would extend basic employment protections to domestic workers. Among these provisions are written contracts, schedules that specify work hours, meal and other breaks and coverage by state laws that guarantee minimum wages, one day of rest in seven and those of the Illinois Human Rights Act.

If passed, the Illinois bill—known as the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (HB1288)— would be the seventh such U.S. state bill. So far only California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon have comparable laws.

Nationally, U.S. domestic workers are covered by Social Security but not by the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Nor do they receive benefits of the Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. And until 1974, when Congress extended the Fair Labor Standards Act to cover domestic workers, U.S. workers employed directly by households were without minimum wage and overtime protections. In 2013, a new Department of Labor rule revised regulations to better cover domestic caregivers under the Fair Labor Standards Act, but leaves U.S. domestic workers without many basic employment protections.

“We have no basic benefits like sick leave,” explains Sally Richmond, who has worked for years providing child care and is a community organizer with the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment (AFIRE).

Poor working conditions, long hours and low wages

As described by the ILO report, “Domestic work has traditionally been characterized by poor working conditions, long hours, low wages, forced labor and little or no social protection. In other words, domestic workers are exposed to conditions that are far from the concept of decent work promoted by the ILO. This situation largely reflects the low social and economic value societies usually place on this activity. This is often reflected by the absence of adequate laws and the lack of effective enforcement of those that do exist.”

While domestic work is some of the lowest paid and least protected in the world—in some places earning no more than half the average wage—so many people do this work that, according to the ILO, “if all domestic workers worked in one country, that country would be the world’s tenth largest employer.” Domestic workers also have some of the longest and most unpredictable work hours of any employees.

Add to this, the fact that most of the world’s domestic workers are women, makes this workforce socially and economically vulnerable to additional discrimination, says the ILO. Extending basic social protections to domestic workers is key to fighting poverty and promoting gender equality, said Philippe Marcadent, Chief of the ILO’s Inclusive Labour Markets, Labour Relations and Working Conditions Branch in a statement. The ILO report also points out that many of the estimated 55 million women engaged in domestic work around the world—a number that is likely an undercount—are also migrants, which adds to their vulnerability to discrimination and unfair labor practices.

“Most of us are immigrants and come from really poor countries,” says Zylinska. There are many domestic workers that are supporting “not only their families here but also families in their [home] countries.” Language differences and concerns about immigration status add to the daily employment uncertainties for many domestic workers, say Bolaños and Zylinska.

ILO agreement on domestic workers rights—not ratified by the U.S.

As part of its efforts to improve working conditions and labor protections for domestic workers, in 2011 the ILO adopted what’s called the Domestic Workers Convention that requires countries that ratify the agreement to ensure that domestic workers labor rights are no “less favorable” than those of other workers—including with respect to social security protection and maternity protections. The Convention outlines basic labor rights to include working hours, wage, occupational health and safety, child and migrant workers protections. It also underlines the importance of organizations that represent both domestic workers and those who employ them. But so far, only 22 countries have ratified the Convention. The United States is not among them.

Unlike those employed by more formal workplaces—those outside private homes—around the world, domestic workers typically lack comparable enforceable policies on working hours, occupational health and safety protections, maternity leave, workplace inspections and access to information on labor rights—including the right to organize and form unions.

Many domestic workers “are afraid to complain for fear of losing their job,” says Richmond. “My hope is for this work to be professionalized,” she says. Working with the Union Latina, helps “teach us how we can protect ourselves against abuse and wage theft and how we can take sick days,” says Bolaños. “We don’t have contracts, today I have a job, tomorrow I don’t have a job. It’s a very unregulated business,” explains Zylniska.

But all these basic workplace and labor protections are feasible and affordable, says the ILO report—even for middle and low-income countries. Yet while it documents increasing social security coverage for domestic workers worldwide, these policies often exclude migrant workers who make up at least one-sixth of this global workforce. While fixing these problems can’t be accomplished by one single policy model, said senior ILO economist Fabio Duran-Valverde in a statement, “mandatory coverage (instead of voluntary coverage) is a crucial element for achieving adequate and effective coverage under any system.”

While U.S. law provides protections for domestic worker not guaranteed in other countries, this household-based workforce still lacks coverage provided to other American employees. And given the nature of the domestic workplace ensuring change even when policies shift can be difficult.

“The laws on the books are one thing, but we’ve always been really aware that conditions for domestic workers don’t automatically change when a bill is signed into law,” says National Domestic Workers Alliance campaign director, Andrea Mercado. To make these changes, “It’s going to require a culture shift and a public conversation around domestic work and care work and why we should value it,” she says. “That’s kind of our struggle,” says Zylinska.

The Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights now has 21 Senate and 33 House sponsors. A spokesperson for lead sponsor state Senator Ira Silverstein said the bill is expected to be reintroduced this month and could move swiftly toward a vote.

This blog was originally posted on inthesetimes.org on April 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

After Contract Talks Break Down, Nearly 40,000 Verizon Workers Set To Strike Tomorrow

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

Leaders of the unions representing nearly 40,000 Verizon telecommunications workers in big cities and small towns from Maine to Virginia announced today that their members would be going on strike at 6 a.m. Wednesday without “a major change in direction” in contract talks now underway, according to Communications Workers of America (CWA) president Chris Shelton.

The unions—CWA and IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers)—are fighting to keep high-quality working class jobs in the United States.

Jobs in the two major categories of work pay relatively well—about $60,000 a year for call center workers and about $85,000 to $90,000 a year for technicians who install and service the telecom network, according to Bob Master, assistant to the CWA New York area vice-president Dennis Trainor.

Verizon is flush financially. It earned $18 billion in profits last year and about $1.8 billion a month so far this year. Last year it spent about $13 billion in buying back its stock, a dubious strategy to enrich stockholders. Now it is trying to buy Yahoo!, a long-shot target for a $35 billion speculative bet.

With the salaries that their union contract provides and the skills they learn, Verizon workers can provide their communities and families stable and supportive leadership. It will be harder to play that role with the lower wages, lesser benefits and less stable work routines that Verizon’s proposals would provide.

For example, Dan Hilton, a cable splicer from Roanoake, Va., who has been with Verizon for 20 years, often is sent out to provide cable service for an entire community or to restore service after disasters. The company has become addicted to such flexibility, but it means that its employees can not be at home when their family needs them.

“My wife had back surgery last year and needed my help, and I want to enjoy time with my grandkids,” he says. “We want to do a good job, go home and spend time with our spouses. … We’re just ordinary working people, doing our job, hoping for our company to succeed. That’s what life’s all about.”

But his job—and the company’s success—also involves serving people like himself in his community. He wants Verizon to expand FiOS, the company’s bundled Internet access, telephone and television service, in his home area, something he is not available to do when he is dispatched far away for long times. But he and CWA vice-president Ed Mooney see the company’s failure to build out fiber optic networks or to explain why they are adopting such a policy as representing Verizon’s disinterest in caring for needs of long-term customers.

Workers like Hilton and union leaders think that Verizon is narrowly focused on profit maximization, not the long-term well being of the company, the community or its employees. In the current negotiations over a contract that expired last June, Verizon wants lower health care costs regardless of the consequences. For their part, union negotiators have offered some changes to save some money, such as encouraging more use of preferred providers. But the unions are resisting pension cutbacks that Verizon demands.

The telecom industry has undergone decades of tumultuous change. Now even Verizon, a traditional land line telephone service provider, is ditching as much as it can of the land line business as possible and emphasizing cell phone service. It is no coincidence that Verizon has also been most intensively fighting recognition of unions in its cell phone operations.

“Our major issues involve contracting out of work,” says Trainor. That practice accounts for much of the 40 percent loss of jobs over the past decade, according to Master. The technicians, for example, not only feel pressure to work away from home for long periods but also the threat that if they do not, Verizon will turn to non-union subcontractors to do their work. On the other hand, call centers workers face the prospect of Verizon closing more of their centers and moving the work to Mexico or the Philippines.

Telephone strikes can be tough battles, with managers trying to handle much of the immediate service and repair work in central facilities as they can. But Verizon workers have some experience preparing for strikes and for ways to make their case to customers that the workers and the union are on their side, even more than Verizon itself.

This blog originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on April 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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

T-Mobile’s Dirty Secrets Exposed: Unfair Firings, Deceiving Customers and More

Thursday, March 10th, 2016

dougfoote

Last week, award-winning labor and business reporter Steven Greenhousepublished a comprehensive article on T-Mobile’s disgraceful labor and consumer practices.

T-Mobile is currently the golden child of the telecom industry, with a media-friendly CEO and high profits. But, as Greenhouse writes, the company faces allegations of the law in nearly every part of its operation:

On top of all of this, T-Mobile continues to be one of the most aggressively anti-union companies in the industry.

Joshua Coleman was one of the top performers at the T-Mobile call center in Wichita, Kansas—the company even awarded him a free vacation to Puerto Rico. But when they discovered Coleman was a union supporter, they not only canceled his vacation, but fired him. When the NLRB dinged them for unlawful dismissal, T-Mobile settled for $40,000 without admitting wrongdoing.

And if workers at any company need a union, it’s T-Mobile. In contrast to the company’s laid-back, “un-carrier” image, employees in T-Mobile call centers are subject to high-stakes metrics that take into account everything from number of seconds on a call to when they go to the bathroom. Severe anxiety and panic attacks are common.

Greenhouse interviewed former customer service rep Julia Crouse, who reported vomiting from stress before work and that her manager “often ordered employees who had the worst sales numbers or longest average call times to wear a dunce cap.”

Help might soon be on the way. The organization T-Mobile Workers United has brought together employees from all over the country to support each other and push to change T-Mobile’s policies. This week,TU became an organizing local with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), with none other than fired worker Joshua Coleman as one of its leaders.

This article originally appeared on aflcio.org on March 10, 2016.  Reprinted with permission

Doug Foote is the Social Media and Campaign Specialist at Working America. He joined Working America in 2011 after serving as New Media Director for the successful 2010 reelection campaign of Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).

Trump Las Vegas hotel is not letting up on its fight against its own workers

Friday, February 26th, 2016

Workers at the Donald Trump co-owned Trump International Hotel Las Vegas voted to unionize. When hotel management challenged the union vote, the National Labor Relations Board rejected the challenge. But the Trump Organization fights on—to deny its workers their right to organize. The claim, of course, is that the big bad union intimidated the workers into voting to unionize:

“We will continue our fight to ensure a fair election for our valued associates, many of whom vigorously oppose union representation,” said Jill Martin, an attorney for The Trump Organization, in a statement to reporters. “The hearing officer’s recommendations erroneously disregarded the severe misconduct undertaken by Union agents, which clearly impacted an incredibly close election.” Trump management has until next week to formally challenge the NLRB recommendation, and then the Board’s regional chapter will determine whether or not to certify the union. Even if the local board backs the workers, Trump can further delay by appealing their ruling to the federal board in Washington, D.C.

That intimidation claim is what the NLRB’s local hearing officer already rejected. There is good reason, though, to believe that the vote was fraught with intimidation and retaliation … coming from management:

For some workers, like Donato, that wait is especially painful. After three years working at the hotel, Donato was suspended and then fired shortly after the union election, which he thinks was retaliation for his open support for the union. He is desperately hoping to win his job back as part of the bargaining process, and says he is mostly worried for his elderly mother and siblings in the Philippines, who depend on the money he sends them.

That wasn’t the first time the Trump hotel management went after a worker for exercising their legal right to organize. But even if all of management’s claims that the union harassed workers into voting yes are thrown out in the end, they can delay the final recognition of the union and delay a contract for months, at least, inflicting pain on the workers who’ve already risked so much to fight for a better workplace.

This blog originally appeared in dailykos.com on February 24, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and Labor editor since 2011.

 

 

Paid sick leave coming to a fifth state: Vermont

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

Vermont is about to become the fifth state in the U.S. with a paid sick leave law. The state House, which had previously passed a sick leave bill, this week passed the state Senate’s version of the bill, described as “somewhat more business-friendly.” That usually means “somewhat less worker-friendly,” but it’s still a major advance:

The measure calls for employers to provide workers three paid sick days a year for the first two years that the law would be in effect and five thereafter.

It does not cover employees working fewer than 18 hours a week or 21 weeks a year.

The bill is headed to the desk of Gov. Peter Shumlin, who supports it. Vermont will join Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, and Oregon as states with paid sick leave laws. A number of other American cities and towns—many of them in New Jersey—have similar laws. And, of course, most other countries in the world have this basic, common-sense policy.

This blog originally appeared in dailykos.com on February 18, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and Labor editor since 2011.

 

 

Uranium Mine and Mill Workers are Dying, and Nobody Will Take Responsibility

Monday, February 15th, 2016

To talk to former uranium miners and their families is to talk about the dead and the dying. Brothers and sisters, coworkers and friends: a litany of names and diseases. Many were, as one worker put it, “ate up with cancer,” while others died from various lung and kidney diseases. When the former workers mention their own diseases, it’s clear, though unspoken, that they’re also dying. Some don’t wait for the disease to take them: “Poor guy says he don’t wanna be in a diaper,” says one worker of his brother-in-law, a former miner with lung disease who was facing hospice. “He got a gun and shot himself.”

Women who worked in the mines and mills also bore the risk of reproductive disorders and babies with birth defects. “[Supervisors] told me … as long as I could do the job, there was no reason to worry about my baby,” says Linda Evers, 57. Both of her children had birth defects. Her daughter was born without hips.

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Linda Evers, who worked in a uranium mill in the 1970s, says, “Every day, they told us we were doing our part for the Cold War effort.” (Photograph by Joseph Sorrentino)

I spent a week interviewing former uranium workers (those who worked in the mines and the mills and, sometimes, both) and their families in the towns of Grants and Church Rock, N.M.: ground zero for uranium mining from the mid-1950s until the early 1980s. Years, sometimes decades, after laboring in the mines and mills, workers exhibit diseases associated with uranium exposure. The federal government, under a program called the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), has paid more than $750 million in restitution to uranium workers on nearly 8,000 claims. But in order to receive compensation, workers have to have been employed before 1972—the year the federal government stopped purchasing uranium for its nuclear arms build-up. The workers I spoke with are part of a group of thousands who worked in uranium mines or mills after December 31, 1971, and have diseases linked to uranium exposure, but, so far, cannot get compensation from RECA.

Spouses of former workers also suffer health effects, even though they may have never set foot in a mine or mill. The Post ’71 Uranium Workers Committee, an advocacy organization cofounded by Linda Evers, surveyed 421 wives of uranium workers and found that 40 percent reported miscarriages, stillbirths or children with birth defects. One vector of contamination may have been laundry brought home from the mines. Cipriano Lucero, 61, worked in the Anaconda mill, where uranium was processed into yellowcake, a toxic substance. “[His clothes] were stinky and yellow and no matter how much bleach, they would never come out, they were still yellow,” says his wife, Liz, adding, “I would wash his clothes with our clothes.”

Liz was diagnosed with tumors in her ovaries when she was 28 and had to have a hysterectomy. She says the doctor told her it was uranium-related. Liz and Cipriano cofounded the Post ’71 Uranium Workers Committee with Evers.

So who’s to blame?

Uranium mining has long been known to be dangerous work. As early as 1546, in Schneeberg, Germany, it was noted that large numbers of uranium miners were dying from lung disease. The first scientific report linking uranium mining and lung disease was published in Germany in 1879, and that disease was shown in 1913 to be lung cancer. More scientific articles in the 1930s and 1940s seemed to indicate that radon and “radon daughters,” byproducts of uranium decay, were the primary cause.

But, driven by the Cold War push for nuclear arms, uranium mining continued unchecked with “little attention… paid to the health of uranium miners,” according to a Department of Labor historian.

In 1950, an Irish-Navajo sheep herder named Paddy Martinez found a bright yellow rock of uranium ore near Haystack, N.M. That set off a mining boom in the Four Corners (where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet), providing sorely needed jobs.

“[The men] wanted to provide for their families, and the [mining] companies came in and said, ‘Hey, you guys are gonna make good money, have good benefits,’ ” says Liz Lucero. When she and Cipriano first got married, in 1976, he was working in a gas station for $3.85/hour. He took a job at the Anaconda mill the next year in order to get benefits and more money; about, he figures, $6 an hour. “Had to,” he says. “Had to support our family.”

Companies also lured workers with patriotism. “Every day, they told us we were doing our part for the Cold War effort,” says Linda Evers. “They’d tell us, ‘We won the Cold War because of you guys.’”

As the boom took off, Grants declared itself “The Uranium Capital of the World.”

Workers like Evers say they didn’t understand the dangers of uranium exposure, in part because the diseases take years to manifest. “When I was working, no one had been getting sick,” says Evers.

During the 1960s, Navajos working in uranium mines, few of whom smoked cigarettes, started experiencing high rates of lung cancer. Advocates and workers pressured the federal government—the sole purchaser of uranium from 1948 until 1971—for remedies. In 1979, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced the first bill to compensate uranium workers and others for diseases attributable to radiation exposure, but it wasn’t until 1990 that RECA became law. With RECA, the government recognized its responsibility for the harm done to uranium miners and apologized “on behalf of the nation.” A 2000 bill expanded RECA to cover uranium mill workers, ore transporters and above-ground miners. Workers with diseases such as lung cancer, pulmonary fibrosis and silicosis are eligible for $100,000 in restitution. But the act only covers workers who were employed before 1972.

The Four Corners mining boom continued, however, thanks to nuclear power. It didn’t slow until 1979, when a glut of uranium on the world market led to a steep price drop, and layoffs began. By 1989, the last conventional uranium mine in New Mexico had closed.

All of the dozen former workers interviewed for this article worked after 1971 and are therefore denied RECA benefits. Tommy Reed, who worked in the mines until 1983 and has a constant cough, as well as skin and lung problems, finds this untenable. “We did the same work, have the same diseases, but we’re not covered,” he says. “What’s the rationale behind that?”

According to Chris Shuey, who directs the Uranium Impact Assessment Study at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, the government reasoned its responsibility ended in 1971 when it stopped purchasing uranium. Many Congress members, he adds, believe the new standards on radiation exposure passed in 1969 protected uranium workers. Yet, post-1971 workers are still dying. Something didn’t work.

A failure to regulate

Health and safety protections for uranium workers were, for many years, spotty at best and negligent at worst. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Mines (BOM), established in 1910 to reduce accidents, had little regulatory authority and was also tasked with “mineral resource development.” State laws were piecemeal: In 1958, for example, New Mexico instituted a policy to “clear all areas” of mines that exceeded safe levels of radon, but “there was limited enforcement,”according to a 2002 National Institutes of Health paper by Doug Brugge and Rob Goble.

Federal responsibility for mine safety was reshuffled twice in the 1970s. The Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration(MESA) took over for the BOM in 1973 due to concerns about conflicts of interest. In 1978, the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) replaced MESA as part of the sweeping reforms of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act. MSHA also assumed responsibility for uranium mills.

MSHA’s motto is “Protecting Miners’ Safety and Health Since 1978.” Former uranium workers interviewed—all of whom worked at mines and mills from the mid-1970s through 1982 or 1983— don’t believe it did a very good job.

Radon is “one of the most potent carcinogens known,” according to Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. But during the 1970s, government regulations didn’t mandate regular federal inspections to measure radon levels at uranium mines. Neither MSHA nor the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (which inherited some of the BOM’s responsibilities) could provide In These Times with confirmation that the government conducted inspections for radon levels at that time. Companies were supposed to self-monitor, and if they detected high levels of radon, implement safety measures.

By 1981, MSHA was supposed to be checking radon levels at the mines annually. Several workers remember inspections, but told In These Times that when inspectors were coming, supervisors had workers barricade the unsafe areas. When the inspectors left, the barricades came down and the workers went back in. At mills, “[inspectors] never got out of the trucks,” says Evers. “Maybe they did, but I never saw them.”

One effective way to reduce exposure to radon is through ventilation. All underground mines are supposed to be well-ventilated, and according to 1973 guidelines, uranium mines specifically had to have “an adequate quantity of good-quality air” in working areas so as to keep radon levels below the threshold. But in a survey of 1,302 post-1971 workers conducted by the Post ’71 Uranium Workers Committee in 2009, only 14 percent said their work areas had adequate ventilation; 36 percent said no and almost half answered “sometimes.”

The ventilation guidelines didn’t extend to uranium mills, despite exposure hazards there as well. At mills, uranium ore is refined into yellowcake, which is 80 percent to 90 percent uranium oxide. When inhaled, it can become embedded in the lungs, increasing the risk of pulmonary fibrosis, which can be fatal. When ingested, it can damage the kidneys.

Cipriano Lucero worked in uranium mills from 1977 to 1982. He has pulmonary fibrosis, and one of his kidneys failed when he was 48, necessitating a transplant. He uses a continuous positive pressure airway machine at night and uses an oxygen tank during the day. Asked whether there was proper ventilation in the mills where he worked, Lucero simply replies, “Not really.” Linda Evers says the dust was so bad in mills that she sometimes couldn’t see. “They had exhaust fans,” she says, “but it wasn’t anything different than an oversized box fan. They just moved [the dust] around.

“We were allowed one dust mask a month, a paper dust mask,” she continues. “After one shift, they were clogged, so we just wore bandanas, or nothing.”

Lucero agrees: “We had masks but they were useless … paper masks only. Sometimes you wouldn’t even have a mask, breathing in all that dust.” Workers often coughed up black soot.

Given the dangers of working with uranium, it would seem that companies should have provided extensive training on radiation hazards—but they did so at their own discretion. “We had a class, lasted about an hour or two,” said Lucero. “Mostly about first aid, if you hurt yourself, how to wrap it.” They didn’t talk about radiation. Larry King, who worked in the mines, mainly as a surveyor, for eight years, said he had only one safety meeting and that was when he started work.

“No one told us of the hazards of radiation, uranium or radon,” he says. Seventy-nine percent of the workers questioned in the Post ’71 survey believed that safety measures—including information and equipment—were inadequate.

Surrounded

Church Rock is located in the Navajo Nation, 55 miles west of Grants. Nestled in red rock hills, the town gets its name from a formation that looks like a steeple. Local Navajo were drawn to the mines, like the residents of Grants, because of the well-paying jobs. Because Navajo miners often worked within walking distance of their homes, their risk of exposure was heightened.

Larry King, who is Navajo, lives about five miles from the entrance to Church Rock Mine, off a gravel road just past a hand-painted “Old Church Rock Mine Road” sign. In addition to the overwhelming likelihood of uranium exposure at work in the mine, there’s a strong chance he was, and may still be, exposed at home. His house is a short distance from where, on July 16, 1979, a tailings pond dam broke, releasing 93 million gallons of radioactive water. It was, by volume, the largest single release of radioactivity in the United States.

King is a sturdy-looking 58-year-old, but he suffers from respiratory problems that leave him fatigued and short of breath when he works on his property, which includes 13 cattle. “I used to do quite a bit of work several years ago, and now I’m limited,” he says.

Five miles north of where King lives is the home of Edith Hood, also a Navajo former mine worker. She worked as a probe technician in the Kerr McGee mine for a total of six years. A quiet 64-year-old, she’s still energetic despite having been diagnosed with lymphoma in 2006. Her front yard is less than half a mile from the abandoned mine where she once worked. Just a short distance away is a buried tailings pile—mine waste that contains uranium and may still be giving off radon. “Since we live and work here,” she says, “it’s a double whammy.”

Waiting

In 2015, bills to amend RECA to include post-1971 workers were introduced in the House and Senate, spearheaded by three Democratic New Mexico legislators: Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Rep. Ben Ray Luján.

It’s the fourth attempt since 2000. Keith Killian, a private attorney in Grand Junction, Colo., who is fighting to get compensation for post-1971 workers, sees reason for “guarded” optimism. “There are bipartisan sponsors,” he says. “That’s really good. In the past we didn’t have a lot of Republicans interested.”

Still, no bill has received a hearing and nothing is scheduled. Neither Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) nor House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte responded to requests for comment.

Cipriano Lucero, a soft-spoken man of few words, did what he was told when he worked in the mills. He, like many other uranium workers, said if he complained about working conditions, he risked losing his job. One of his tasks, washing uranium off air filters, required him to stand in foot-deep water containing uranium runoff. Doctors, he says, told him radiation exposure had made his left leg brittle; it broke three times and eventually had to be amputated. Now he has a prosthesis, with a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe on it. Lucero has trouble walking and usually uses a cane or, when he gets too tired, a motorized wheelchair.

“Some days are terrible,” he says. “I can barely get out of bed. I just wonder how I’m gonna die…suffocate or whatever.” He’s only 61.

“It’s haunting us,” says Jerry Sanchez, who worked as both a miner and miller. “If you worked there, you got it coming. If you don’t have it, it’s coming.”

Grants is the quintessential boom town, post-boom. Now, the best jobs are in the prisons. Along its main street, a stretch of Route 66, there are almost as many weed-infested lots as there are occupied buildings. A half-mile stretch contains six payday loan companies—four in one block. A few large neon signs beckon people to buildings that no longer exist. An abandoned gas station has a large sign advertising Marlboro for $1.69 a pack. Lucero says that in its prime, Grants had “lots and lots of people. … The restaurants were full all the time, people [were] buying cars and houses.” But the streets are mostly deserted now. Asked if his friends and family have moved away, he answers, “No. Most of them died because of cancer.”

Eli Massey contributed research to this article.

This blog originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on February 15, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Joseph Sorrentino is a writer and photographer. He has been documenting the lives of agricultural workers on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border for 12 years.

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