Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

It's Equal Pay Day, and men's responses to a new poll show why the problem isn't going away

April 2nd, 2019 | Laura Clawson

Women make an average of 80 to 81 cents for every dollar a man makes, which makes April 2 Equal Pay Day—the day women have made as much since January 1, 2018, as men made in 2018 alone. But that’s not the only number showing how far the U.S. has to go on pay equality.

First, that 80 cents an hour is an average. White women, black women, Native American women, and Latinas all make less, with just Asian women outstripping the average, at 85 cents. (That’s in comparison to white, non-Hispanic men.) That means women make an average of $406,760 less over a 40-year career than men do, but for Latinas, that lifetime cap is more than $1.1 million, and for both black and Native American women it’s nearly $1 million.

Pay isn’t the only inequality, though. One way women respond to discrimination is to go into business for themselves—but women get smaller loans than men, by about 31 percent. The list goes on: “women continue to face workplace hardships such as fewer promotionsless support and implicit bias. They experience pregnancy discrimination, exclusion from the so-called ‘boy’s club’ and sexual harassment.”

And the insult on top of the injury? According to a new poll, 46 percent of men agree that the pay gap “is made up to serve a political purpose.” Just 48 percent of men agree that it’s very unfair for women to make less than men for similar work, while 58 percent say that obstacles to women getting ahead are “largely gone.” Men haven’t met themselves, apparently.

This article was originally published at DailyKos on April 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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

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Federal judge blocks Arkansas and Kentucky Medicaid work requirements

April 1st, 2019 | ThinkProgress Staff

A federal judge struck down Medicaid work requirements in Arkansas and Kentucky on Wednesday, temporarily blocking one of the Trump administration’s most consequential health policies.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled that the federal government did not properly justify the need for the work requirements given the number of people who would lose health coverage.

This is the second time Boasberg blocked Kentucky’s Medicaid work requirements. In June 2018, he said the administration didn’t adequately consider the significant coverage loss if Medicaid eligibility was conditioned on reported work. In response, Kentucky officials resubmitted a nearly identical waiver.

Boasberg ultimately agreed with advocacy groups that sued on behalf of Medicaid enrollees, and ruled that the state and federal administration had not done enough to differentiate between the two waivers.

“The Court cannot concur that the Medicaid Act leaves the Secretary so unconstrained, nor that the states are so armed to refashion the program Congress designed in any way they choose,” wrote Boasberg in his Kentucky decisionWednesday. “As a consequence, once again finding the reapproval was both contrary to the Act and arbitrary and capricious, the Court will vacate it and remand to HHS for further review.”

The judge cited coverage loss in Arkansas as further proof.

Over 18,000 low-income Arkansans lost health coverage last year because they didn’t meet the work and reporting requirements. Of these 18,164 residents, only 8 percent have reapplied and regained coverage in 2019. Thousands more were on track to lose coverage this year if they didn’t report hours for three consecutive months. Kentucky’s revised work requirements were supposed to be implemented April 1.

Boasberg called Arkansas’ waiver “arbitrary and capricious because it did not address — despite receiving substantial comments on the matter — whether and how the project would implicate the ‘core’ objective of Medicaid: the provision of medical coverage to the needy.”

Advocacy groups that sued on behalf of Medicaid beneficiaries were pleased with the decision.

“Medicaid is federal and state program designed to provide health care, it is not and never has been a program intended to encourage work,” Jane Perkins, legal director of the National Health Law Program, said in a statement. “The law is about providing health care services to low-income individuals and families and underserved populations. It is nonsensical and illegal to add obstacles to Medicaid for large groups of individuals who are already working or full-time health care providers for family members or suffering chronic health matters that prevent them from work.”

Advocacy groups are also suing the Trump administration for approving Medicaid work requirements in New Hampshire.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Amanda Gomez covers health policy. She previously worked at the PBS NewsHour.

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Maryland workers to get a $15 minimum wage by 2025

March 29th, 2019 | Laura Clawson

The Maryland legislature overrode Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto Thursday to pass a $15 minimum wage law. The state is, the Washington Post reports, the first state below the Mason-Dixon line to pass such a law, and the sixth overall. It’s also the third state this year, which looks a little something like momentum—or the aftereffects of a blue wave.

Hogan’s veto was easily overridden, despite his attempt at a compromise of an ultimate minimum wage of $12.10 by 2022. The new law isn’t without its compromises, though: Tipped workers will still get a drastically lower minimum wage, and businesses with fewer than 15 employees will have until July 2026 to reach $15.

Around 573,000 Maryland workers will get a raise, according to the National Employment Law Project. Maryland follows California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. And none of those states would have taken this step if fast-food workers hadn’t gotten out in front and organized and demanded something more than was considered politically realistic.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on March 28, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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A Blow But Not Fatal: 9 Months After Janus, AFSCME Reports 94% Retention

March 28th, 2019 | Heather Gies

The labor union in the crosshairs of the right wing-led effort to gut public sector unions through a landmark Supreme Court case released new membership data Wednesday showing a decline that experts say could mark the beginning of larger losses, but is far shy of a fatal blow.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees(AFSCME) reported a 6 percent loss last year, down from 1,411,877 members, agency fee payers and retirees in 2017 to 1,329,594 in 2018.

The numbers offer the first concrete picture of the preliminary fallout from last year’s Janus v. AFSCME decision that eliminated public sector unions’ ability to collect agency fees—also known as “fair share” dues—from workers who do not sign up for full membership in the union but still benefit from its representation.

Many predicted the case, bankrolled by a network of conservative billionaires and think tanks, could put the nail in the coffin of public sector unions by encouraging workers to opt out of paying dues in favor of becoming “free riders.”

AFSCME’s numbers, part of its annual Department of Labor filing, show one of the largest public sector unions has managed to dodge a worst case scenario in the immediate wake of Janus, due in no small part to its preparation for the decision, which focused on retaining rank-and-file members.

Since unions braced for revenues from agency fee-payers to evaporate when the Janus decision came down, a 6 percent decline in membership—less than the total number of “fair share” workers AFSCME represented last year—was an anticipated loss.

However, AFSCME’s member sign-ups since the Janus decision outpace member opt-outs at a rate of 8 to 1. The union reported an increase of 18,638 dues-paying retirees and 9,097 dues-paying members, though it is not clear whether those members are new hires or former fee-payers who got on board as full members.

AFSCME previously told In These Times that nearly 200,000 fee-payers joined as full union members ahead of the Janus decision as part of a one-on-one union-building strategy it says marked a “major culture shift.” In 2017, 112,233 of the 1,411,877 workers it represented were “fair share” fee-payers.

“In overwhelming numbers, AFSCME members have blunted the attacks of the wealthy special interests and chose to stick with their union,” AFSCME president, Lee Saunders, said in a statement Wednesday.

But experts Robert Bruno and Frank Manzo, who released a reportforecasting the impacts of Janusahead of the Supreme Court decision last year, warned that AFSCME’s preliminary 6 percent membership decline could still put the union on track to suffer the losses their research projected.

“A loss of 82,000 is nothing to brush aside,” Manzo, policy director of the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, told In These Times.

“These data show that public sector union membership has dropped, and they suggest that it may be on track to decline dramatically over time,” he said. “But, they also show that the labor movement can take concrete steps to avoid that fate.”

In their report, Manzo and Bruno predicted a loss over three to five years of 726,000 members in unions representing state and local government employees—and a 3.6 percent drop in wages. They see AFSCME’s membership contraction, representing 11 percent of their total forecast for the sector, as consistent with their long-term outlook.

Manzo said that while the labor movement should be “encouraged” by AFSCME’s 94 percent retention rate, it should also be “concerned” about the losses, noting that reduced organizing budgets could have a “cascading effect” in years to come. “The union needs to take steps, and frankly policymakers should consider taking steps, to correct that loss,” he said. For now, AFSCME plans to expand its organizing resources.

The membership data comes on the heels of an onslaught of well-funded right-wing efforts targeting public sector union members with opt-out campaigns in attempts to chip away at membership in the wake of Janus.

“This has to be measured against the resources that have been marshaled by anti-worker, anti-union organizations,” Robert Bruno, professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations, told In These Times of AFSCME’s membership levels. Despite the net loss, unions’ ability to attract members—whether by converting former fee-payers or recruiting new hires—while facing aggressive anti-union campaigns is notable, Bruno said.

An AFSCME representative told In These Times the reduction represents the loss of former agency fee-payers. However, the national data doesn’t offer a detailed picture of who is opting out, including a break down of which of the 23 states where agency fees were previously allowed are bearing the brunt of the losses, or if any workers who previously paid full membership dues have deserted.

Many variables could still shape the way Janus plays out in the long-term, including legislation to mitigate the impacts, as well as any further court decisions that could imperil the future of public-sector unions.

Since Janus, conservatives in a number of states have launched efforts to force unions to pay back agency fees collected prior to the decision, which could defund these unions. So far, such efforts have fallen flat in Alaska, California, Illinois, Ohio, Oregon and Washington.

But Moshe Marvit, a fellow at the Century Foundation, warned the threat of these lawsuits “could be seriously damaging” despite their “dubious” arguments. “The theory in Janus never won before any judges, before it won at the Supreme Court,” he told In These Times.

Meanwhile, the Buckeye Institute—part of the State Policy Network of anti-union groups that funded Janus—has filed three cases taking aim at exclusive union representation. Janusallows union members to opt out of membership and paying dues, but the union still has a duty to represent all workers in the bargaining unit. The lawsuits, filed in Maine, Minnesota and Ohio, argue that automatic representation violates workers’ First Amendment rights.

Last month, an appeals court rejecteda similar challenge to exclusive representation brought by the Freedom Foundation and National Right to Work Foundation in Washington, finding union representation did not infringe on free speech rights.

Marvit dubbed these lawsuits a kind of “bait and switch” after Janus as anti-union interests seek new ways to “use the First Amendment to limit membership and limit funding of unions.” The Janus decision scrapped agency fees while keeping exclusive representation intact, finding the two “are not inextricably linked.” But Marvit doubted the Supreme Court would offer “any principled consistency other than a sort of anti-union animus” if it came to ruling on exclusive representation.

Increasing union movement-building and education will likely continue to be important responses amid anti-union hostility. This is especially true considering the unfavorable Supreme Court landscape facing union supporters hoping to undo Janus through litigation.

Marvit said that the free speech in logic in the Janus ruling—claiming that agency fees compel speech and violate the First Amendment—could create space for litigation aimed at carving out pro-union rights, though he admitted this would be an “uphill battle.”

“Unions for a long time in litigation have been on the defensive,” he said.” This has opened up and triggered a new desire to go on the offensive with lawsuits and see in what ways it can lead to an expansion of actual free speech, not just money as speech in the way that Janus did.”

But even as the right-wing groups behind Janus seek to smear public sector unions as unfairly dipping into workers’ pockets, approval ratings of labor unions are the highest they have been in 15 years, according to Gallup.

Ken Jacobs, chair of the Labor Center at the University of California Berkeley, told In These Times that Janus has coincided with a “huge shift” in public opinion toward the labor movement, boosted in part by the recent wave of historic teacher strikes. The recent government shutdown also offered “a reminder of what public workers do and how important they are,” he said.

Jacobs added that while it is still early to assess the impacts of Janus, how unions prioritize resources as they tighten their belts to adapt to the financial fallout from Janus will play a key role in defining their long-term capacity to withstand such an existential threat.

“One of the important things we have seen is a real increase in union activity in the public sector, especially among teachers,” Jacobs said. “That deep worker engagement will be essential for public sector unions going forward.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Heather Gies is a freelance journalist who has written on human rights, social movements and environmental issues for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, In These Times and National Geographic. Follow her on twitter @HeatherGies.

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187 Republicans vote against bill to close the gender wage gap

March 27th, 2019 | Casey Quinlan

The House on Wednesday voted 242-187 for a bill that would strengthen protections for female workers and help close the gender wage gap. The vote comes as Republicans are trumpeting themselves as the champions of women’s economic mobility — though only seven of them voted for the bill.

Iterations of this legislation have been debated by lawmakers for decades but have never actually been able to pass. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), seeks to boost women’s pay by prohibiting employers from seeking job applicants’ salary histories and preventing them from retaliating against workers for disclosing their wages. It also would require the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to collect wage data based on sex, race, and national origin to better determine whether employers are responsible for discriminatory practices. The House passed the bill on Wednesday despite Republicans’ opposition, but it now faces an uncertain future in the GOP-controlled Senate.

The House Education and Labor Committee voted to advance the legislation earlier this week. Every single Republican opposed moving the bill out of committee, with many saying the focus should instead be on providing more job opportunities for women.

Republicans often like to point to data showing that women gained 58 percent of new, private-sector jobs in 2018. Trump touted the figure in his State of the Union address in February, and Republicans in the Education and Labor Committee again brought it up when discussing the Paycheck and Fairness Act.

But many of the jobs gained by women are part time, and nearly 80 percent of them fell into just four categories: education and health services, professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, and manufacturing. In three of those industries, women make less than 80 cents for every dollar a man earns, or worse than the average national wage gap, according to a 2018 analysis by the Center for American Progress analysis. (Editor’s Note: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent newsroom housed at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)

Jocelyn Frye, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who focuses on work-family balance, pay equity, and women’s leadership, said, “It’s not to discount that women have received jobs and obviously want jobs but there is a disconnect. It’s not responsive to the question [of pay inequality]. The fact that you gave the jobs doesn’t change the fact that the jobs are underpaying women.”

Republicans, meanwhile, have been looking for ways to appeal to greater numbers of women voters, particularly since their support among women plummeted in the 2018 midterm elections.

In November, 59 percent of women voted for Democrats in the congressional elections, according to exit poll data. Only 40 percent of women voted for Republicans. There was no measurement for how nonbinary people voted across race or educational attainment. Black and Latina women overwhelmingly voted for Democratic candidates.

Although there was a roughly even split for how white women voted, 59 percent of college-educated white women and 56 percent of white voters ages 18 to 29 voted for Democrats. Experts say these shifts likely represent a long-term trend.

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Kelly Dittmar of the Center for American Women and Politics, part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said the shift likely isn’t about Trump alone, but about the broader Republican Party.

“My hypothesis at this moment is that it is actually a trend because there were signs of this trend before Donald Trump, it’s just that you saw it through an acceleration I think — the departure of these women,” Dittmar said. “I think you’ll continue to see it because these women who are particularly upset with how the party has dealt with Donald Trump, it certainly leaves a taste in their mouth about the party overall.”

She added, “If you put these women on a scale when it comes to immigration or guns or the environment, their positions on these issues are just not aligned with the current agenda and leadership in the Republican Party.”

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said that when looking at women who vote in the general election, college-educated and suburban women are identifying as more independent and Democratic. She said three major waves encapsulate that movement.

The Republican Party’s position on social issues — including birth control, Title IX, and sexual harassment and violence — led to some women moving away from the Republican Party in 2016. The second wave emerged as voters reacted to Trump’s racist and sexist behavior, as well as how he governs.

“The third wave, which is more recent, is a sense that the country is going in the wrong direction, that the priorities are wrong, that we are not dealing with everything from health care to climate change,” Lake said.

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Lake said that for female voters, including Republican women, equal pay is high on the list of concerns, along with domestic violence programs. The reauthorization and expansion of the Violence Against Women Act is on the House agenda this session. But Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) is the only Republican in the House who is cosponsoring the bill and the only Republican who has shown support for the bill by attending its introduction.

“There’s a very high correlation between concerns about sexual harassment and concerns about domestic violence and concerns about equal pay.” Lake said. “And equal pay is still the most salient of the three with women overall. And it’s particularly salient with Republican women who are very adamant about equal pay and that it remains a problem.”

Dittmar said that across gender, voters are concerned about economic stability and the well-being of their families. But they are divided over who is responsible. She explained that college-educated women who identify as Democrats tend to say the government plays a role but Republicans tend to say it’s up to businesses to address equal pay.

Broadly I think there is pretty high popularity for wanting to address equal pay but it’s in the how where you see the disparity both among legislators as well as the public,” she said.

Ariane Hegewisch, program director of employment and earnings for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said these measures are necessary to ensure workplace fairness.

“What the Equal Pay Act recognizes and what the Paycheck Fairness Act is trying to update 50 years on to more current circumstances is that there is discrimination in the labor market and if you just rely on what people are paid now, you are going to pick up discrimination and import it into your organization,” she said. “You have to pay people the same if they do the same job and have similar education, experience and performance. You can qualify their personal performance but it has to be fact based.”

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, it will take until 2059 for women to reach pay parity if change continues at the current pace. Black women would have to wait until 2119 for equal pay, and Latina women until 2224.

“After what I would call a wave election in 2018 where women were elected to historic numbers in Congress, people have very high expectations of what they are going to get from lawmakers and it is not acceptable simply to say I support equal pay but I have nothing to show for it,” said Frye.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering gender and sexuality. Their work has also been published in The Establishment, Bustle, Glamour, The Guardian, and In These Times.

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Fast food workers declare victory after McDonald’s withdraws opposition to minimum wage hikes

March 26th, 2019 | Alan Pyke

After six years of strikes, lawsuits, and damning public scrutiny of how the fast food business model relies on taxpayer-subsidized poverty wages, McDonald’s formally withdrew from efforts to block a federal minimum wage hike on Tuesday.

The chain will also stop working against minimum wage increases at state and local levels, its executives told lobbying partners at the National Restaurant Association in a letter.

Workers and organizers involved in the six-year campaign of walk-outs, demonstrations, and litigation, dubbed the “Fight for $15,” immediately celebrated the about-face and pressed their advantage.

“It’s also time the company respect our right to a union. Since day one, we’ve called for $15 and union rights and we’re not going to stop marching, speaking out, and striking until we win both,” Kansas City McDonald’s worker and prominent Fight for $15 leader Terrence Wise said in a statement. “McDonald’s decision to no longer use its power, influence and deep pockets to block minimum wage increases shows the power workers have when we join together, speak out, and go on strike.”

Wise’s mix of praise and warning reflects some murkiness attending the company’s decision. McDonald’s hasn’t renounced its membership in the “other NRA,” just forsworn corporate support for an ongoing lobbying effort funded in part through its own dues payments to the group. And it’s unclear if the company now welcomes the $15 wage floor workers have consistently sought since 2012, or if it merely accepts some smaller increase is inevitable.

The details of how minimum wage hike policies come together are always tricky, as business organizations fight to carve out certain sizes of business and to slow the phase-in period of a wage hike beyond what workers and progressive economists say is reasonable. The nation’s first $15 hourly wage floor deal was the product of months of vigorous negotiations where “everybody left… a little bit of blood on the floor,” as Seattle Hospitality Group leader Howard Wright told ThinkProgress after that city brokered the first low-wage labor peace of the conflict-oriented era workers like Wise created.

Despite Tuesday’s letter, McDonald’s is also continuing to fight a federal labor board’s finding that its franchise business model does not protect the corporate parent from liability for how its franchisees operate their stores. That dispute over whether or not “joint employer” legal doctrines apply to the franchise models common to the fast food industry likely presents a more fundamental threat to McDonald’s ability to funnel money to its shareholders and CEOs than do wage floors.

But if the war between McDonald’s and workers like Wise isn’t exactly over, it’s radically reshaped by Tuesday’s letter, which was first reported by Politico.

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Retail and service workers paid at or near the legal minimum have become a staple of the stock price-obsessed modern U.S. business world. Congress’ multi-generation failure to hike the federal minimum pay has meant that corporate reliance on low-wage work steadily eroded the traditional social contract in which having a job meant being able to afford a decent standard of living. Instead, as people who work substantial hours found themselves impoverished anyhow, government programs funded by taxpayers stepped into the gap — effectively subsidizing the profits McDonald’s and its peers reaped from their low-wage business models.

Stark partisanship within federal government coincided with the rapid, coast-to-coast spread of Fight for $15 strikes and protests, preventing legislative action in response to the mounting labor strife for years. A bill to gradually raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 was among the first legislative proposals Democrats introduced after taking the House in last year’s midterm elections.

The same month, Chamber of Commerce officials announced they’d entertain some pay hike provided Democrats were willing to negotiate some flavor of concessions. Like the chamber’s announcement, Tuesday’s high-profile maneuver from McDonald’s carries major symbolic weight but leaves lingering unanswered questions about just how far major corporate interests that have taken publicly-subsidized wage serfdom for granted for decades are now willing to move in the name of economic justice.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Alan Pyke is a reporter for ThinkProgress covering poverty and the social safety net.

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GM poured billions into stock buybacks then closed plants

March 25th, 2019 | Laura Clawson

Donald Trump is blaming the UAW for General Motors’ Lordstown, Ohio, plant closing. A Republican blaming a union for a massive company’s actions is not so surprising, but Trump is claiming that union dues are responsible, which is both strange and ignorant. Union dues are paid by workers to their union; they don’t come from the company. But a new report from Hedge Clippers and the American Federation of Teachers offers a better idea of who to blame for the Lordstown plant closing.

And guess what! GM, the company that decided to close the plant, says it needs to make $4.5 billion in cuts—through layoffs and plant closings—to survive. But “GM has given over five times as much money—$25 billion—to Wall Street hedge funds and other investors in the past four years, including over $10 billion in controversial stock buybacks.”

So, yeah. GM has money for stock buybacks, but not to keep its plants open and its workers employed.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on March 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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

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Anchor brewery workers unionize

March 22nd, 2019 | Laura Clawson

There are plenty of reasons the professional-managerial class should be interested in unions—it’s always been the plan that the bosses will come for you guys next, after they crush the working class—but over the past decade or so it’s struck me that culture is one of the things creating the gap between highly educated professional workers and unions. And I don’t mean culture in the hackneyed sense of “union workers drink six-packs and professionals drink fine wines.” I mean that the products made by union workers are all too often themselves seen as inferior—mass-produced, not interesting, not cool.

There are lots of great union-made products out there, but because of the patterns of unionization in recent U.S. history, it tends to be the case that the newer a product is, the less likely it is to be made by union workers. Budweiser yes, craft beer no.

Which is why it feels really significant that to see Anchor brewery workers unionize this week, with a 31 to 16 vote, and with workers at the affiliated Anchor Public Taps still to vote separately. Worker pay at Anchor not only hasn’t kept up with inflation, but was cut at one point, among other cuts including to health care, paid lunch breaks, sick leave, and 401Ks.

Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of great ways to get your union-made drink on, and you can pair that with Boar’s Head, the best of all the deli meats. Want your sandwich grilled? Do it in an All-Clad pan and serve it up on some retro-cook Fiestaware. But nonetheless, it is good to see unions making headway in the craft beer world, and may other bastions of semi-hipness follow.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on March 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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

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“We Demand Food for Thought”: UIC Grad Workers On Strike for Living Wages and Respect

March 21st, 2019 | Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

In front of the historic Jane Addams Hull-House Museum on March 19, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) graduate workers began an indefinite strike. The union is joining a national movement of higher education employees demanding livable wages and better working conditions in the often-unstable field of academia.

The strike is the result of more than a year of negotiations between UIC Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) Local 6297and the university administration. Since September 2018, over 1,500 teaching and graduate assistants have worked without a contract. An overwhelming 99.5 percent of UIC GEO members authorized a strike last month as part of a wave of educator work actions, from public school teachers in Los Angeles and West Virginia to faculty at Rutgers University and Wright State University. Jeff Schuhrke, co-president of the UIC GEO and labor history Ph.D. candidate, said the strike exemplifies the vital labor graduate students provide.

“The University of Illinois system just seems to not care about its employees and is always very hostile to collective bargaining and to unions,” Schuhrke told In These Times. “They just try to lowball us and they disrespect us. We’re fed up with it, obviously.”

UIC graduate employees make a minimum salary of $18,065 for two semesters of 20-hour work weeks, with $13,502 in fee and tuition waivers. Schuhrke said this doesn’t account for the amount and quality of labor, which can include teaching classes for up to 60 students. He said since the union was recognized by the university in 2004, “modest” raises haven’t accounted for increasing university fees, which cut into graduate employees’ salaries. Currently, UIC GEO is seeking a 24 percent pay increase over three years, with the university offering 11.5 percent.

“They can give us raises all they want,” he said, “but as long as they can just introduce new fees any time they feel like it or increase the fees, that just serves as a back door pay cut.”

In recent years, the university has boasted record-high enrollment and projects to improve existing infrastructure and invest in academic expansions, including recently acquiring the John Marshall Law School. Schuhrke said, “The reason students come here is for an education, not the shiny new buildings, and we’re the ones providing that education.”

The strike is already having an impact on campus with some classes canceled. On the sunny Tuesday afternoon outside the bustling UIC Student Centers, hundreds of graduate students and allies picketed with clever signs like, “We Demand Food for Thought,” and classic protest chants, such as, “This is what democracy looks like.” A giant inflatable Mother Jones representing the iconic socialist labor organizer watched over the crowd. UIC GEO also organized a GoFundMe to cover strike costs and potential docks in salary, which Schuhrke said the university might use as a scare tactic.

Many striking students said they don’t make enough to pay for living expenses and rely on food aid and other assistance. A Ph.D. student in the biology department who prefers to remain anonymous said he’s working on getting Medicaid for his young child, as he can’t afford campus health care, even with a waiver.

“Better salaries is an important step: lower fees, lower tuition,” he said. “Those things really impact us because we don’t have huge salaries, so every small amount that we can save is a huge help.”

International students who, according to Schuhrke, make up a little under half of the GEO UIC members, are also central to bargaining. They face an additional fee each semester, as well as work limitations, particularly during the summer.

Dominican Republic-native Natalia Ruiz-Vargas came to Chicago to complete a Ph.D. in biology, but said the financial strains can be alienating for people who are not U.S. nationals. “If you have family back home and you’re alone over here and someone gets sick, you can’t really find the money to go back, so it can be a little lonelier,” she said. “We can’t apply for any financial aid outside of what we already have from the university.”

When reached for comment, the university sent a press release that highlighted the union’s right to demonstrate, but stated, “We believe that this work stoppage is not in the best interest of the University, or our students.” While striking graduate assistants aren’t completing instruction, mentoring and coursework revision, many of their students are expressing solidarity.

English and political science undergraduate Joseph Strom is part of the UIC Student and Worker Advocacy Network. A resident assistant on campus, Strom said the strike is an opportunity to educate students about labor issues instead of pairing co-eds against their educators. He said some of his professors are expressing support by giving online work so they don’t have to cross the picket line. The UIC United Faculty union is also currently in negotiations, having worked without a contract since last fall.

GEO Co-President Schuhrke said, “We talked to a lot of our students beforehand and let them know why we’re doing this, that our working conditions are their learning conditions.”

Members of GEO University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in Southern Illinois are coming to Chicago to increase demonstration numbers, as they go up against the same administration. In February 2018, the UIUC GEO led an almost two-week long strike for higher salaries and guaranteed tuition waivers. The plastic buckets that provided a soundtrack to their picket are now being used by UIC students. UIUC GEO treasurer Allan Axelrod, who studies agricultural and biological engineering, is spending spring break making multiple trips with fellow graduate students.

“We understand all the issues that are going on there, especially things like the higher incidence of mental health issues that is a product of the poor working conditions of graduate employees,” said Axelrod. “When we show solidarity, we actually are paving the path toward improving our own working conditions because we’re under the same threat each bargaining cycle.”

For Axelrod and others, this extends beyond the public university system. A 2016 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision granting private university students employee status has galvanized student workers to organize through collective labor. Only a few miles from UIC’s Near West Side campus, University of Chicago graduate students have fought since 2007 for recognition of their Graduate Student Union (GSU). Last fall, they participated in one of their school’s biggest demonstrations in recent years, a response to their overwhelming vote in favor of unionization despite administrative pushback.

GSU brought its case to the NLRB, but withdrew along with Yale University and Boston College, worried that under President Trump, a business-friendly Republican majority would overturn the 2016 precedent. Further, last year’s Janus Supreme Court decision prevents public sectors unions from collecting dues from nonmembers. Co-President Schuhrke said they saw a slight membership decrease following Janus, but it “made them more militant and more angry.” No matter how long the UIC strike lasts, graduate students are clearly using it as a teachable moment.

“This [university] administration has a great responsibility,” said Schuhrke. “We hope our students are learning by participating in this and watching this how to stand up for your rights, stand up for justice and organize.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Atlas Obscura, Bitch Media, the Columbia Journalism Review, JSTOR Daily and Paper Magazine, among others.

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Low-wage federal workers still want their shutdown pay, please

March 20th, 2019 | Jessica Goldstein

It will take Lila Johnson months to rebound from the financial hit she endured earlier this year, going for weeks without pay during the federal government shutdown.

A contracted custodian who has worked for the past 21 years at the Department of Agriculture, Johnson still has not been reimbursed for her lost income, and her rage at President Donald Trump — who forced the shutdown in a bit to procure funding for his border wall — continues to grow. “It was just ridiculous for him to act the way he did as a leader,” Johnson told ThinkProgress.

“He punished the people, held us hostage because of something that he promised his voters. He promised his voters that he was going to build the wall. He’s the one who promised Mexico was going to pay for the wall,” she said.

“And when he couldn’t get his way, he was like, ‘I’m going to shut everything down.’ And that is not leadership of running the United States.”

A great-grandmother in her seventies, Johnson cleans bathrooms four hours per night, five days a week. Two months ago, for 35 days — the longest U.S. government shutdown in history — she went without pay.

The hit on her income has left Johnson in a financially precarious position, scraping, scrimping, struggling more than ever to get by. She is holding out now for her tax refund. “Maybe that will pull me up more than I am now,” she said.

While 800,000 federal workers were either furloughed or forced to work without pay, Trump held a nation captive over his border wall, the construction plans for which read like scribbles from his dream journal: it is to be a “powerful wall,” perhaps a “steel barrier,” or maybe, actually, a “smart wall” utilizing drones and sensors.

Needless to say, the wall has not arrived, in any form. Nor, for federal contractors like Johnson, has back pay. Although federal employees were eligible for and ultimately received back pay, the federal contractors who were also affected by the shutdown have not. (Since they are privately hired, estimates about just how many federal contractors there are range pretty widely, with some estimates putting the number nationwide at more than a million.)

The government pays third-party companies for contractor work, which means contractors don’t get paid unless their services are actually used.

Last month, Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) introduced a bill to ensure back pay for federal contract workers: the Fair Compensation for Low-Wage Contractor Employees Act, which “aims to help low-wage federal contractor employees—including janitorial, food, and security services workers—who were furloughed or forced to accept reduced work hours as a result of the recent government shutdown.”

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Since it was engineered for low-wage workers, the bill had its limits: payments would be capped at $965 per worker per week. But Trump refused to sign a spending package that included back pay for contractors.

“It’s not fair for the American people to live the way they’re living because [Trump] is selfish,” Johnson said. “He only thinks about what he wants. That’s the mind of a child, to me. That’s not leadership.”

“There is an important piece of unfinished business from the past government shutdown that we still need to resolve: providing back pay for the employees of federal contractors who lost over one month’s pay,” Smith said in a statement to ThinkProgress.

“These thousands of Americans work shoulder to shoulder with federal employees for all of us — many as security guards, cafeteria workers, and people who clean office buildings—and they must be made whole. Several of my Republican colleagues and the entire Democratic caucus supports this effort, so we should be able to find a solution.”

During the shutdown, stories about these contractors — who overwhelmingly are immigrants and people of color —  made headlines. There was a Smithsonian museum security guard whose car was repossessed, another who rationed her children’s asthma medicine, still others applying for food stamps and fearing eviction. The shutdown’s financial toll on contractors lingers like a hangover the country can’t shake.

In a statement, Jaime Contreras, a vice president at 32BJ SEIU, the guild which represents over 600 federally-contracted workers, said the union “will not rest until federal agencies pay the men and women who clean and secure federal buildings the back pay they deserve and need for bills they still can’t afford to pay.”

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These workers “live paycheck to paycheck and faced eviction, power shut off and hunger among many hardships during the Trump shutdown,” Contreras said.

Among them is Julia Quintanilla, who has been working as a custodian at the Department of Agriculture for 28 years. Along with other contracted workers, she cleans about 60 offices a day. Quintanilla remembers the shutdown during President Barack Obama’s tenure as just “a little bit” of a problem.

The 35-day shutdown under Trump “was a disaster,” she told ThinkProgress through a translator. Even with assistance from her church, her union, and her family, she was “scraping by” without her paycheck. By the time the shutdown was over, it had completely wiped out her savings.

“It was thousands and thousands of people who were affected — and actually devastated, that’s the right word,” she said. “We were devastated by this.”

For the month or so she was out of work, Quintanilla alternated attending protests with her union, which helped collect donations and distribute gas coupons, and going to churches to get free food, “just trying to get by,” she said.

She lives intermittently with her son and permanently with her mother and her three-year-old grandson, who has severe muscular and developmental disabilities; he cannot walk or speak.

Her mother “needs medicine and that’s very expensive,” Quintanilla said. “So we’re still feeling the pain of the money that we lost.” She also has outstanding debt with family members who lent her money to tide her over during the shutdown.

The entire experience has left her rattled and anxious. “This makes you think about it all the time,” she said. “So when you hear about possible future shutdowns, it weighs heavy on your mind, in a way that it might not have before.”

Like Quintanilla, Johnson is the primary caretaker for her family. She’s raising two great-grandsons, ages 6 and 14, and has since they were babies. Even with money she gets from the government for being their legal guardians, a foster care stipend of $850 per child per month, Johnson relies on her income from her contract work. After taxes, she typically takes home $756 every two weeks. Once the shutdown was over, “I had to work for a whole month before I even got a decent check.”

Johnson, too, “was basically blessed as far as people reaching out to me, helping. My family helped as much as they can, but they have their own life to live, so I basically just did the best I could.” She also had some assistance from church and friends “that carried me through.”

For many of her bills — car note, credit card — she asked that companies be lenient giving her time to pay what she could, and “they were pretty reasonable.” Support came from just about everywhere, it seems, except for the federal government, which employed these contractors — and initiated and prolonged the shutdown — in the first place.

“I still have those moments when I thought about, not only myself, but I thought about everyone else,” Johnson said. “Because my heart went out to other people, too. If I was going through what I was going through, I can imagine the pain that other people have that didn’t have nothing… That was very stressful, just to see those people trying to take care of their families,” she said.

“Some had to sell their cars. Some couldn’t pay their bills and didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. Some didn’t even have money to pay for their childcare,” she said.

“It was just more stressful to see other people going through what I was going through.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jessica M. Goldstein is a reporter for ThinkProgress covering culture and politics.

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