Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

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Sorry to Bother You: Worker Wins

Thursday, July 18th, 2019

Our latest roundup of worker wins begins with big victories for working people in the Minnesota legislature and includes numerous examples of working people organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life.

Minnesota Legislative Session Yields Victories for Working People: As the legislature finished up its work for the current session, several bills that will benefit working people were passed. Among the bills pursued as part of Minnesota AFL-CIO’s Legislative Agenda of Dignity, Justice & Freedom for Working Minnesotans that passed are making wage theft a criminal felony offense, eliminating the sunset provision on the health care provider tax that funds care for hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans and expanding the Working Families Tax Credit for unreimbursed work expenses. About the legislation, Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy (UNITE HERE) said: “Despite being one of only two states with divided government, the 2019 legislative session yielded big wins for working Minnesotans, including the strongest law in the nation to combat wage theft. We applaud Governor Walz and the House majority for putting working people at the center of their legislative priorities this year.”

Inspired by Rapper and Filmmaker Boots Riley, Salt Lake Film Society Staff Unionize: Front-of-house staff at the Salt Lake Film Society were inspired by Boots Riley’s film “Sorry to Bother You” to reach out to the Utah AFL-CIO who connected them with an organizer from IATSE. After doing the hard work to organize the new unit, the staffers got more than 80% to sign cards in favor of unionizing. The drive got a boost from Riley himself when he sent the organizers a video message. Riley said: “So much of what you do is getting stories to people. And the thing about what happens when people come together and fight, especially when they do that on the job, is it starts to tell a story to other people…it’s about the story that is being told to millions of other people that will be finding out about what you are doing….What you’re doing is very important, and I’m inspired by you.”

Vox Media Staffers Secure First Collective Bargaining Agreement: After 14 months of negotiations and a one-day walkout, staffers at Vox Media have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract. The bargaining committee tweeted: “We are thrilled to announce we have reached a tentative agreement with Vox Media for our first-ever collective bargaining agreement. Our unit still needs to ratify our contract, but we are proud of what we have won in this agreement and can’t wait to share the details.”

Nevada Governor Signs Bill Extending Collective Bargaining Rights to 20,000 Working People: Gov. Steve Sisolak recently signed S.B. 135 into law. The legislation expands collective bargaining rights to more than 20,000 Nevada state employees. About the legislation, AFSCME President Lee Saunders said: “This bill is about respect for state employees who make their communities stronger every day. By signing this bill, Governor Sisolak demonstrates his understanding of the importance of giving working people a seat at the table and the voice on the job they deserve. Americans are looking for an answer to a rigged economy that favors the wealthy, and it’s clear that they are turning to unions in growing numbers. It is time to make it easier all across the country for working people to join in strong unions.”

Fiesto Rancho Casino Workers Vote to Join Culinary Union: After 85% of the nearly 150 workers who voted said they were in favor of unionizing, the Fiesta Rancho Hotel & Casino becomes the sixth Station Casinos property in Las Vegas to unionize since 2016. Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union, said: “Workers are standing up and fighting! Two Station Casinos’ properties have voted to unionize by a majority this week. We call on Station Casinos to immediately negotiate and settle a fair contract for the workers at Fiesta Rancho, Sunset Station, Palms, Green Valley Ranch, Palace Station and Boulder Station.”

Radio Station Employees at Santa Monica’s KCRW Join SAG-AFTRA: More than 90 public media professionals at radio station KCRW voted to be represented by SAG-AFTRA. The workers delivered a petition signed by more than 75% of staffers with a request to form a union. SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris said: “On behalf of SAG-AFTRA members, I am thrilled to welcome KCRW to our union family. KCRW is a one-of-a-kind radio station that produces some of Los Angeles’ most dynamic and diverse programming, and we’re excited to make sure everyone’s voice is heard through the collective bargaining process.”

Stagehands Ratify Collective Bargaining Event with DNC Venue: Stagehands working at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee have ratified a contract with the venue, which will host the Democratic National Convention in 2020. IATSE Vice President Craig Carlson said: “This agreement illustrates that both parties believe in the dignity of hard work, the honor it instills and the respect it commands. Our agreement rewards all workers with safe working conditions, fair wages and meaningful benefits. I commend Fiserv Forum’s Management and [IATSE] Local 18 for putting together an agreement which will lead to the future success of both workers and management. We look forward to a wonderful relationship.”

Working People at Ikea Distribution Centers in Illinois Vote to Join IAM: Nearly 200 distribution center workers employed at Ikea have voted to be represented by the Machinists (IAM). The organizing campaign is part of a larger IAM campaign to unionize workers at Ikea distribution and fulfillment centers throughout the world. Dennis Mendenhall, who led IAM’s campaign in Illinois, said: “These hardworking men and women are proud to work at Ikea and do tremendous work for this company. Yes, joining the IAM gives them the opportunity to negotiate on wages, benefits and work rules. But this campaign was mostly about fairness and a voice on the job, as well as ensuring that the profits they create also benefit their families and communities.”

AT&T Workers in the Midwest Reach Tentative Agreement on Contract: Technicians and Installers who work for AT&T and are represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), reached two tentative agreements with the telecom giant. Some 8,000 employees are covered by the agreements, which have to be approved by the union’s membership. CWA District 4 Vice President Linda L. Hinton said: “I am incredibly proud of our AT&T Midwest bargaining teams and our members. We did not back down and our agreement reflects the priorities we brought to the bargaining table on jobs, health care and employment security.”

Guggenheim Museum Staffers Join Local 30 of the Operating Engineers: Art handlers and facilities staff at the Guggenheim Museum in New York have voted to join the Operating Engineers (IUOE). The union will represent about 90 workers at the museum. An anonymous art handler, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “It’s incredibly exciting. Workers were able to unite behind a movement despite extensive attempts to exploit divisions by Guggenheim management. It signals a future ability to create a strong contract that benefits all of us equally.”

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on July 18, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

Despite Violence, Cambodian Workers Vow To Continue Their Fight

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Michelle ChenThough Cambodia’s days of colonialization, war and genocide may be over, the country is still wrestling with political turmoil. At the start of the new year, when workers massed in Phnom Penh to demand a fair minimum wage, the government responded with a spray of bullets.

A major garment worker strike in December capped a recent groundswell of protest in the country’s capital. After deeming insufficient the government’s proposed hike of the minimum wage to $95, labor leaders aligned with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party to shutter factories and bring large crowds into the streets, concluding a year of labor agitation that saw more than 130 strikes.

Newly reelected Prime Minister Hun Sen—a former Khmer Rouge official whose legitimacy has been questioned amid accusations of rigging last summer’s election—took the protests as an opportunity to suppress both the pro-democracy and labor movements with one fierce blow. On January 3, police responded to protesters’ bottles and petrol bombs with live ammunition, killing five and injuring dozens. More than twenty were detained, and some are reportedly still being held incommunicado.

On January 4, the government then forcibly cleared a major protest encampment in the city center; many workers have since returned to their jobs. Factories have also started to reopen after temporarily shutting down out of safety concerns. In the wake of the unrest, a coalition of rights groups, including Clean Clothes Campaign and International Labor Rights Forum, has called for an “immediate end to all violence and intimidation against workers and their representatives,” release of detained protesters and no charges against the strikers. Meanwhile, activists are continuing to push for the minimum wage to be raised to $160 a month.

Cambodian garment and shoe producers employ roughly 600,000 people in about 800 factories, and their business is eased by neoliberal trade policies with Western nations, particularly the United States. Yet these fashion powerhouses pay workers a pittance—generally as low as about $80 a month—compared to the profits they reap.

David Welsh, a Phnom Penh-based organizer with AFL-CIO’s international arm, the Solidarity Center, says the $160 minimum wage demand is the very least the garment industry could offer, especially considering some advocacy groups estimate that a living wage would be more than triple workers’ current pay. The Solidarity Center has been facilitating talks with the Labor Ministry and campaigning with local civil society groups for the detained activists. Along with other labor groups, the Solidarity Center has also raised concerns about a trend toward placing workers on so-called fixed-duration or short-term contracts, which tend to restrict job security for workers who came to factories seeking steady livelihoods.

According to Welsh, big retail brands foster a common media narrative that claims labor costs must be kept low to meet market demand. He explains that companies use the threat of pulling out of Cambodia if unions demand too much as a way to “discourage workers, to sort of say, ‘Do this or you’ll be out of the job.'”

Realistically, though, Welsh says, “The amount of work that is being put into creating an incredible supply chain internationally … with foreign investors that are getting off like bandits, frankly, off the backs of impoverished Cambodian workers—the dynamic cannot continue.”

In addition to low wages and precarious employment, activists have also recently highlighted the Cambodian garment sector’s abysmal working conditions. A recent report by the U.K.-based Labour Behind the Label campaign revealed that many garment workers are clinically malnourished from being unable to afford adequate food (which costs roughly US $2.50 per day). Labour Behind the Label also reported a mysterious phenomenon of workers fainting en masse on the job—perhaps due to chemical fumes at workplaces, perhaps due to overall poor health or psychological distress. One worker quoted in the report explained, “We are constantly at the point of fainting. We are tired and we are weak. It takes only a few small things to make us faint.”

After tragedies like the Rana Plaza factory collapse last year, the public has started heavily urging companies to advocate for workers in their overseas supply chains. In Cambodia, the suppression of protesters has heightened that pressure even further. Joining the global chorus of condemnation from unions and the UN, several Western brands, including Gap and Adidas, have publicly criticized the government crackdown and expressed support for minimum-wage reforms “based on international good practices.” H&M also recently announced a plan to negotiate a “fair living wage” for Cambodian and Bangladeshi workers—but with the caveat that the company would first pilot the pay system in just three “model factories” and work toward full implementation by 2018.

Such progress would not be unprecedented. As we reported last year, workers at the Kingsland factory in Phnom Penh revolted after their factory was suddenly shut down without paying owed back wages. Workers partnered with the Solidarity Center and local activists to broker a $200,000 settlement with the owners and their multinational clients—demonstrating that there is a labor infrastructure in place that could serve as an model for organizing and collective bargaining in Asia’s garment workforce.

Ultimately, however, labor advocates argue that piecemeal reforms will not satisfy demands for justice across a global manufacturing chain: All foreign investors must stop chasing profit margins in places with low wages and few safety regulations. Instead of this “race to the bottom”, Welsh says, brands should commit to “remaining in an industry where trade unions are allowed to operate … without reprisal, without legal suits, without detention.”

Today, he says, modern international investment still clusters in countries “where the rule of law is incredibly weak, and where people are in such dire economic straits that they find themselves forced to work under [almost] any conditions.”

This oppressive environment doesn’t just erode labor rights; it also dissolves civil society as a whole. Although December’s protests were focused on the exploitation of garment workers, Cambodians were simultaneously revolting against the multiple social injustices they have endured under authoritarian rule. Consequently, the protest rallies brought out activists representing various social sectors: trade unionists, factory laborers, sex workers, various pro-democracy demonstrators, housing rights advocates and even radical monks. Using social media to spread messages via mobile networks, these activists stirred public support for the emerging populist movement.

As Kun Sothary of the Messenger Band, a collective of women garment workers representing workers across many industries, told Asian Correspondent, “We learned of the common problems of garment workers, sex workers and farmers through our field visits … poverty, exploitation and human right violations … We are all the same victims of a free trade system and development that is not ethical.”

Overall, reorienting the ethics of Cambodia’s economy will be key to ensuring the liberty of its citizens. Though Cambodia’s strikes may be subdued for now, the turnout in the streets has shown that the driving force behind the country’s industry is people power—not brand names.

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

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

This Week in the War on Workers: Supreme Court Case Could Sharply Restrict Union Organizing

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

Laura ClawsonUnion organizing campaigns run up against the fact that labor law enforcement, wealth, and power in the workplace are all stacked against workers, and if bosses fight a union with everything at their disposal, it is damn hard for workers to win. That environment could get a lot worse, though, with the Supreme Court hearing a case this week that challenged the legality of a key organizing tool.

As Labor Notes’ Jenny Brown explains:

Neutrality agreements create rules for union and employer behavior during organizing drives. Often an employer signs such an agreement only after years of targeted union pressure. The employer promises not to try to sway workers’ opinions, allowing them some breathing room when labor law is mostly on management’s side.

For their part, unions may offer the employer some promises—for instance, that they will avoid strikes. But in the case the Supreme Court heard this week, a federal appeals court ruled that neutrality agreements may violate a provision of the Taft-Hartley Act prohibiting employers from giving unions “anything of value.” According to the appeals court, the fact that Mardi Gras gaming gave UNITE HERE access to its facilities and the names and addresses of employees could count as something of value.

The paragraph is designed to keep employers from bribing unions with money, jobs, loans, or other inducements, said Massachusetts labor lawyer Robert Schwartz.“No employer would think to bribe a union by making it easier for the union to organize,” noted UNITE HERE in a press release.

The Supreme Court hearing a case that could seriously limit union organizing efforts is a terrifying prospect. There were some promising moments during questioning:

Justice Elena Kagan said that the argument from Mulhall’s lawyer, William L. Messenger, could mean that employers would never be able to do simple things like invite union representatives on their property to talk to their employees without running afoul of the law.”So this is to say that the National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from providing access to their premises, from granting a union a list of employees, or from declaring itself neutral as to a union election?” Kagan said.

Messenger agreed, prompting a reaction from Justice Anthony Kennedy. “Do you acknowledge that your answer to Justice Kagan is contrary to years of settled practices and understandings?” Kennedy said.

But still. This is not a pro-worker Court, and it’s going to be a nervous wait for the decision.

This article was originally printed on Daily Kos on November 16, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

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

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