Posts Tagged ‘labor’
Saturday, November 28th, 2015
Vietnam is already snubbing the unenforceable labor provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Voice of America reports, in “Vietnam Beating Case Highlights TPP Labor Rights Issue“:
A Vietnamese labor activist has accused authorities of beating and detaining her after she talked with fired workers in southern Long An province.
Long-time labor rights advocate Do Thi Minh Hanh, once imprisoned for helping organize labor strikes, said she was held Monday for “13 hours without being given any reasons.”
… Hanh, co-founder of Free Viet Labor Federation, and another activist, Truong Minh Duc, said they came to give support and advice to dozens of workers who maintained they had been unlawfully fired by a foreign-owned company.
What is going on here?
Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said last week that Vietnam appeared to “play nice during TPP negotiations, but now that the agreement has been signed, it is taking steps to tighten government control over critics.”
Right. Now that the unenforceable agreement has been signed, there is no need to “play nice.”
To be fair, Vietnam is raising their minimum wage,
The monthly minimum wage for Zone 1 will increase from the current VND3.1 million ($138) to VND3.5 million ($155.8), and that of Zone 2 will rise from VND2.75 million ($122.4) to VND3.1 million.
For Zones 3 and 4, the monthly minimum wages will go up from VND2.4 million ($106.8) and VND2.15 million ($95.7) to VND2.7 ($120.2) million and VND2.4 million, respectively.
Got that? After the raise workers in Vietnam will be starting at $155 a month. That’s as little as $6.45 a day for Vietnamese working the standard six-day, 48-hour workweek. And that’s the top minimum. Others will be getting $95.70 a month, as little as $3.99 a day.
So you have “foreign-owned companies” illegally firing workers who will be making less than $7 a day. Workers are harassed, arrested and beaten if they try to do something to improve their lives.
And TPP is being sold as a “job creator” here in the U.S. Right.
Unenforceable Labor, Environment, Other Provisions
TPP has special provisions for enforcement of provisions that benefit corporations, while the already weak labor, environmental and other provisions that protect other “stakeholders” get no special enforcement mechanisms. Corporations can bring their own cases to a special corporate court that sits above governments, where corporate attorneys adjudicate. But violations of TPP’s labor, environmental and other provisions depend on governments to decide to bring the cases. And these cases do not go before panels friendly to labor or environment or other aggrieved parties. Our own government won’t even enforce labor rules inside our own country, never mind filing trade cases.
Slavery In Malaysia Ignored So TPP Can Pass
To make matters worse, the “fast track” trade promotion authority clearly specifies that the U.S. cannot enter into a trade agreement with countries designated as participating in human trafficking (slavery). Malaysia was designated as a human trafficking country. So to grease the skids for TPP our own government reclassified Malaysia, even though Malaysia had changed nothing. A Reuters investigation reported that the State Department downgraded Malaysia for political reasons. House Democrats and “stakeholder” groups are demanding an investigation.
A more recent Reuters report, “As Obama heads to Malaysia, human trafficking stance questioned,” describes what Malaysia’s trafficking victims endure,
…he was cooped up in a filthy, overcrowded detention center near Kuala Lumpur’s international airport, squatting or sleeping on the floor in a hall with scores of other men. During his fourth month, wardens ordered them not to move or talk, he says, and beat them with belts if they did.
“There was no rest. You couldn’t sit or lie down without touching someone else,” he said, pointing to a welt on his forearm that he says he received when a guard beat him for arguing with another detainee over space.
This Reuters report describes the Obama State Department’s changes to Malaysia’s trafficking status,
… senior officials instead in July upgraded Malaysia to the Tier 2 Watch List, freeing the country from potential sanctions and international condemnation, and paving the way for the ambitious 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. If Malaysia remained a Tier 3 country, the Obama administration would have had to exclude it from the deal under the fast-track negotiating authority it had from Congress, potentially torpedoing the agreement.
Starkly worded criticism of Malaysia was excised from the final report, according to internal documents seen by Reuters that have not been previously made public.
… The analysts were overruled by senior American diplomats at the State Department, according to sources with direct knowledge of how the report was compiled. By the time the report was published, much of the tougher criticism of Malaysia’s detention facilities was removed.
I discussed this in a “Malaysian Slavery & the TPP” segment of “The Zero Hour with RJ Eskow” last August.
Friday, November 6th, 2015
As early afternoon shoppers strolled sidewalks outside a Whole Foods market in an artsy, eclectic section of Washington, D.C., dozens of labor activists broke mid-day monotony by loudly calling attention to alleged injustices 2300 miles away in Washington state. “If they’re abusing workers in one place than they will abuse workers in another. An injury to one is an injury to all,” says Maria Parrotta, a young bespectacled brunette who enthusiastically joined protesters on the busy city block. “You must be concerned because they’re people just like you. You need to understand the broader picture.”
The picket was organized by the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, a self-described militant tinged labor union with outspoken socialist views that was founded in 1905. The organization says it’s extremely concerned about the treatment of Mexican guest workers who are currently deadlocked in a labor dispute with management at Sakuma Brothers Farms in Washington state. The laborers there, a tightknit group of 400 berry pickers who call themselves Familias Unidas por la Justicia (United Families for Justice), became an independent union in 2013. But according to the IWW, managers at the farm have used hardball tactics to intimidate the fruit pickers, and thus, upending contract talks. “The negotiations ended up breaking down and Sakuma Brothers sent armed security guards to forcibly breakup the labor camps where the union supporters were staying, as well as their families,” says James Colgan, an energetic 27-year-old man wearing a newsboy cap, who serves as a communications representative with the Industrial Workers of the World. “They have been the subject of racist harassment, sexual assault in the fields and very serious labor conditions by working very long hours for very little pay.”
IWW chose to picket Whole Foods market because the grocery chain sells berries that are grown and picked by workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms. Once harvested, the sweet fruit is shipped to Driscoll Berries and then sold on shelves at Whole Foods. “We’re hoping that this information picket will raise awareness to the liberal customer base and get them to be sympathetic to the worker’s plight and hopefully urge businesses to drop the sale of the berries,” says Colgan. Armed with homemade signs, demonstrators marched in a circular motion on the sidewalk and chanted: “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now,” as a curious onlookers sipped coffee and stared at the scene. “Farm workers are often the most poorly treated workers in the United States. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration,” says Colgan.
In response to the labor dispute, senior management at Whole Foods says the company is committed to a pro-working class culture and expects its supply chain to comply. “We seek supplier partnerships that share our concern for social responsibility and the environment.” Down the labor ladder, Sakuma Brothers Farms says it’s committed to ending the dispute. “We both want stability, we both want all employees to have the legal right to work, and we both want a fair wage and a positive work environment,” according to a Sakuma family spokesperson. Management at Driscoll Berries have adopted a similar position and says: “It is our commitment that people are treated with consideration and respect, that their workplaces are clean and healthy, and that employment within the Driscoll’s system provides income opportunities that meet or exceed the local standards.”
But the Industrial Workers of the World stands by its strong accusations of worker abuse at Sakuma Brothers Farms and pledges support for Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Colgan says the IWW plans to keep the heat on the berry supply chain by continuing to place public pressure on the farm’s managers, Driscoll Berries and Whole Foods. “Our organizing committee will reconvene and decide next actions,” says Colgan. “We will probably have larger pickets and bigger actions.”
This article was originally printed on Examiner.com on October 28, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: John Lett. Since 1996, John Lett has worked as a news reporter and field producer for several local broadcast stations around the United States. He currently serves as a web video producer covering labor news for an AFL-CIO affiliated union headquartered in suburban, Washington, D.C. On weekends he routinely manages production of archival footage that focuses on geopolitical rallies and protests in the District of Columbia. Some of his most recent assignments include Arab American protests of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, international HIV activism on the National Mall and local immigrant outrage over African political unrest.
Saturday, October 10th, 2015
Setting the stage for The White House Summit on Worker Voice, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) today introduced The Workplace Democracy Act. According to Sanders’ office, this legislation “would make it easier for workers to join unions and bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions.”
The Workplace Democracy Act allows the National Labor Relations Board to certify a union if a simple majority of eligible workers sign valid authorization cards, also called “card check.” Companies must begin negotiating within 10 days after certification. If no first contract is reached after 90 days, either party can request compulsory mediation. After 30 days of mediation, the parties will submit the remaining issues to binding arbitration.
From the Workplace Democracy Act summary:
According to data released in early 2015 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers’ wages are 27 percent higher than for nonunion workers. 79 percent of unionized workers receive health insurance from their employers, compared to only 49 percent of nonunion workers. 76 percent of union workers have guaranteed defined-benefit pension plans, compared to only 16 percent of nonunion workers, and 83 percent of union workers receive paid with sick leave compared to only 62 percent of nonunion workers.
The Workplace Democracy Act is similar to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that had majority support but was filibustered by Republicans in 2007. It was dropped in 2009 after “centrist” Democrats would not support it, thereby ensuring the success of another Republican filibuster, again despite majority support.
The White House Summit on Worker Voice
With labor under increased attack from the corporate right, the White House convened an all-day “summit” Wednesday, called “The White House Summit on Worker Voice.” (Note the choice of “voice,” not “power.”)
For the summit, the Council of Economic Advisors released an issue brief titled” Worker Voice in a Time of Rising Inequality,” that begins:
The rise of wage and income inequality in the United States over the last 40 years has been well-established. However, the factors that may have contributed to the fall of earnings at the bottom of the wage distribution relative to the top continue to be the subject of research and debate.
Research suggests that one important factor may be institutional changes in labor markets, perhaps the most notable being declining union density. … in the middle of the 20th century, as union membership rose and remained high, lower-wage workers earned a larger share of total income. However, in recent years this trend has reversed, with union membership falling and the share of income going to the top 10 percent increasing at the expense of lower- and middle-income groups. In the 21st century, the decline in the number of unionized workers has coincided with overall rising inequality.
The brief cites research showing that union members get higher pay, have better working conditions, job training and higher safety standards, are much more likely to get benefits like health insurance and that these gains spill over to nonunion workers in the same workplaces.
The summit continues through the day and can be viewed online here.
In honor of today’s White House summit, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka penned an op-ed, “No PR campaign will save Walmart from being ‘exhibit A’ of bad worker policies“:
Americans are increasingly fed up with an economy that rewards wealth over work, a message that’s made it all the way to the top. That’s why when the White House hosts a Summit on Worker Voice on Wednesday to highlight the power of working people standing together to demand better jobs and better lives, one notable corporation has been excluded – Walmart.
Walmart is the embodiment of our broken economic system. The company pays poverty wages, has discriminated against women and minorities, harms our environment, wreaks havoc on the global supply chain and continues to lead a race to the bottom where workers are treated like numbers on a balance sheet instead of human beings with families to sustain. Walmart’s motto: “Save Money. Live Better” seems only to apply to its heirs, who haveamassed more wealth than 42 percent of the poorest American families combined.
Trumka listed some of the things Walmart is still doing to suppress worker rights, including closing stores for “plumbing issues” when workers in those stores begin organizing. Trumka called this just “the latest in a long line of incidents to silence the voices of workers.”
Time For Everyone To Get On Board For Labor
Labor is under attack by the corporations and the conservatives and Republican party they fund. It is important for all Democrats and progressives to get behind the Workplace Democracy Act, and not let it disappear without the public at least being fully informed of its benefits and who is blocking it.
This blog originally appeared in Ourfuture.org on October 7, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal comput
Thursday, August 27th, 2015
As Labor Day looms, more Americans than ever don’t know how much they’ll be earning next week or even tomorrow.
This varied group includes independent contractors, temporary workers, the self-employed, part-timers, freelancers, and free agents. Most file 1099s rather than W2s, for tax purposes.
On demand and on call – in the “share” economy, the “gig” economy, or, more prosaically, the “irregular” economy – the result is the same: no predictable earnings or hours.
It’s the biggest change in the American workforce in over a century, and it’s happening at lightening speed. It’s estimated that in five years over 40 percent of the American labor force will have uncertain work; in a decade, most of us.
Increasingly, businesses need only a relatively small pool of “talent” anchored in the enterprise – innovators and strategists responsible for the firm’s unique competitive strength.
Everyone else is becoming fungible, sought only for their reliability and low cost.
Complex algorithms can now determine who’s needed to do what and when, and then measure the quality of what’s produced. Reliability can be measured in experience ratings. Software can seamlessly handle all transactions – contracts, billing, payments, taxes.
All this allows businesses to be highly nimble – immediately responsive to changes in consumer preferences, overall demand, and technologies.
While shifting all the risks of such changes to workers.
Whether we’re software programmers, journalists, Uber drivers, stenographers, child care workers, TaskRabbits, beauticians, plumbers, Airbnb’rs, adjunct professors, or contract nurses – increasingly, we’re on our own.
And what we’re paid, here and now, depends on what we’re worth here and now – in a spot-auction market that’s rapidly substituting for the old labor market where people held jobs that paid regular salaries and wages.
Even giant corporations are devolving into spot-auction networks. Amazon’s algorithms evaluate and pay workers for exactly what they contribute.
Apple directly employs fewer than 10 percent of the 1 million workers who design, make and sell iMacs and iPhones.
This giant risk-shift doesn’t necessarily mean lower pay. Contract workers typically make around $18 an hour, comparable to what they earned as “employees.”
Uber and other ride-share drivers earn around $25 per hour, more than double what the typical taxi driver takes home.
The problem is workers don’t know when they’ll earn it. A downturn in demand, or sudden change in consumer needs, or a personal injury or sickness, can make it impossible to pay the bills.
So they have to take whatever they can get, now: ride-shares in mornings and evenings, temp jobs on weekdays, freelance projects on weekends, Mechanical Turk or TaskRabbit tasks in between.
Which partly explains why Americans are putting in such long work hours – longer than in any other advanced economy.
And why we’re so stressed. According to polls, almost a quarter of American workers worry they won’t be earning enough in the future. That’s up from 15 percent a decade ago.
Irregular hours can also take a mental toll. Studies show people who do irregular work for a decade suffer an average cognitive decline of 6.5 years relative people with regular hours.
Such uncertainty can be hard on families, too. Children of parents working unpredictable schedules or outside standard daytime working hours are likely to have lower cognitive skills and more behavioral problems, according to new research.
For all these reasons, the upsurge in uncertain work makes the old economic measures – unemployment and income – look far better than Americans actually feel.
It also renders irrelevant many labor protections such as the minimum wage, worker safety, family and medical leave, and overtime – because there’s no clear “employer.”
And for the same reason eliminates employer-financed insurance – Social Security, workers compensation, unemployment benefits, and employer-provided health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
What to do? Courts are overflowing with lawsuits over whether companies have misclassified “employees” as “independent contractors,” resulting in a profusion of criteria and definitions.
We should aim instead for simplicity: Whatever party – contractor, client, customer, agent, or intermediary – pays more than half of someone’s income, or provides more than half their working hours, should be responsible for all the labor protections and insurance an employee is entitled to.
Presumably that party will share those costs and risks with its own clients, customers, owners, and investors. Which is the real point – to take these risks off the backs of individuals and spread them as widely as possible.
In addition, to restore some certainty to peoples’ lives, we’ll need to move away from unemployment insurance and toward income insurance.
Say, for example, your monthly income dips more than 50 percent below the average monthly income you’ve received from all the jobs you’ve taken over the preceding five years. Under one form of income insurance, you’d automatically receive half the difference for up to a year.
But that’s not all. Ultimately, we’ll need a guaranteed minimum basic income. But I’ll save this for another column.
This post appeared in Our Future on August 24, 2015. Originally posted at RobertReich.org. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Robert B. Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century.
Monday, July 20th, 2015
While most liberals were celebrating the Supreme Court’s June rulings affirming both marriage equality and Obamacare, many labor leaders were already worrying about next year. They feared that the court might hear a case that many of them saw as potentially delivering a crippling blow to the union movement: Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. And at the last minute, the court announced it would.
If a majority of the Supreme Court justices back the plaintiff in the Friedrichs case, promoted by a variety of right-wing, anti-union organizations, they will likely overturn the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education court decision. The Supreme Court ruled in Abood that when a public employee union provided benefits, such as collective bargaining or grievance processing, to both members and non-members alike, the non-members could be charged a “fair share” or “agency shop” fee to cover an appropriate share of union expenses. Critics of the Friedrichs petition say that if justices agreed with its complaint, the Supreme Court’s action would have the effect of passing a national right-to-work law for all public employees (even though public employed collective bargaining rights are primarily matters of state law).
The two big teachers unions (American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association) and the two biggest unions of other public employees (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees [AFSCME] and the Service Employees International Union [SEIU]), responded with alarm to the court’s announcement:
“We are disappointed that at a time when big corporations and the wealthy few are rewriting the rules in their favor, knocking American families and our entire economy off-balance, the Supreme Court has chosen to take a case that threatens the fundamental promise of America—that if you work hard and play by the rules you should be able to provide for your family and live a decent life.
“The Supreme Court is revisiting decisions that have made it possible for people to stick together for a voice at work and in their communities—decisions that have stood for more than 35 years—and that have allowed people to work together for better public services and vibrant communities.”
Whether celebrating from the Right or mourning from the Left, many observers saw the Supreme Court’s decision to take the case as another nail in the coffin of the labor movement.
There are good reasons to be concerned. A ruling in favor of Friedrichs would legally and morally permit some workers to be “free riders”—individuals who take advantage of what the union by law must provide them without paying for it. Perhaps more important, it would disregard the fundamental reasoning behind the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)-protected “union security clauses.” The law was intended to encourage collective bargaining, and if some workers could opt out of supporting collective bargaining, legislators reasoned, they would weaken the institution.
From a practical point of view, unions would lose income that they could be using to improve conditions for all workers, including organizing the unorganized (although only voluntary political contributions, not dues money, can be used for union political advocacy). And a ruling in favor of the plaintiff would be a symbolic blow, a legal slap in the face, to a movement which has endured many such blows in the past.
But there are many other reasons to think that, win or lose on this case, the labor movement may not be as seriously damaged as many now fear.
First, there is a chance that even with this very conservative court (whose conservative bloc split enough times to give the liberal bloc some unexpected victories this past term), a majority might vote against the Friedrichs plaintiffs. The Supreme Court has narrowed interpretations of Abood in recent related cases, such as Harris v. Quinn. In that case, the court ruled that home care workers paid by the state are not state employees and thus are exempt from fair share requirements. Conservatives typically argue that agency fee payers are forced to financially support speech with which they disagree, thus violating the First Amendment. They have even argued that collective bargaining constitutes political speech for public employees.
But surprisingly, as the union lawyers noted in their response to the Friedrichs petition, normally arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia has offered strong arguments in defense of the agency fee, going beyond the usual “free-rider” critique of people getting benefits without paying their cost.
“What is distinctive, however, about the ‘free riders’ who are nonunion members of the union’s own bargaining unit is that in some respects they are free riders whom the law requires the union to carry—indeed, requires the union to go out of its way to benefit, even at the expense of its other interests,” Scalia wrote in the case of Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association. Scalia would have to perform some pretty spectacular legal acrobatic maneuvers to move from that position to rejection of a “fair share” fee.
But even if unions lose the Friedrichs case, it need not be the end of the world. It might even prompt some change in strategy that would strengthen unions.
For starters, non-member workers who pay agency fees make up only about 9 percent of the public sector workers who are covered by union contracts, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. And though the “fair share” payment varies by union, local, region and other factors, it is always at least a substantial reduction from full public worker union membership fees. With union density more than five times as great in the public sector compared to the rate of unionization in private business, and with unions feeling pressed for money already, any loss of public union income hurts, but it may not be a “life or death” situation, as some fear.
Also, it is hard to gauge how much difference Abood has made in the growth of public unions since the decision was handed down in 1977. At that time, 33 percent of the public sector was unionized (nearly 5 million members), and 40 percent were under contract; in 2014, 36 percent were members, and 39 percent under contract, according to Union Stats. Membership peaked at 39 percent of public workers in 1994, the same year that 45 percent were covered by a contract, then dropped to around 35-36 percent membership recently. (The number of public sector members peaked at 8.7 million in 2009.)
So it seems that having the Abood union security protection may have helped the public sector unions keep pace with employment growth and avoid, until recently, setbacks from massive employer attacks. But the effect seems modest. An AFSCME spokesperson emphasized that the union grew to be powerful before fair share; the implication is that they could do it again.
But didn’t Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 lead to huge union membership losses as a result of eliminating fair share payments? Yes, there were great losses, as the Washington Post reported: “The state branch of the National Education Association, once 100,000 strong, has seen its membership drop by a third. The American Federation of Teachers, which organized in the college system, saw a 50 percent decline. The 70,000-person membership in the state employees union has fallen by 70 percent.”
But unions lost the right to bargain over almost everything, lost dues check-off, were forced to have representation elections ever year and suffered other assaults that led to members no longer paying dues. The loss of fair share payments played a small role in the overall union losses. Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels rescinded an earlier executive order from Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh granting union representation rights to state employees almost as soon as Daniels took office in 2005. Now Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is trying to wipe out a broad swath of worker rights. If a win on Friedrichs emboldens the right-wing Republicans in the scope of their attack, then it could lead to other measures that could be disastrous.
Fourth, as labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan writes in his recent book Only One Thing Can Save Us, no unions in Europe have the legal security protection U.S. unions have that permits a requirement that all workers either join or pay a fee to a recognized union in their workplace. Yet they have still fared relatively well. Of course, most European unions benefit even more from the laws that often extend the terms of union negotiated wages in an industry to all workers in the industry, whether they belong to a union or not. That would make an enormous difference in the U.S., well worth even giving up an agency shop fee in order to obtain it, as Geoghegan makes a case for (which is one reason why it is unlikely to happen).
Finally, unions have discovered that there are other ways to deal with workers who are not on their membership rolls. For example, for the first half of last year, AFSCME set out to organize as full members 50,000 of the fair share payers or other non-members in workplaces where they had contracts. They organized 90,000. Some cases were easy—such as workers who thought they were members but weren’t. Renewing the drive this year, the union has signed up 50,000 more, according to an AFSCME spokesperson. The National Education Association has signed up 13,000 fair share payers as members, and other public sector unions are undertaking similar campaigns.
Internal organizing takes staff time and money, and some unionists fear that if the fair share requirement is dropped, not only agency dues payers but also current members may decide not to pay full dues or become full voting members. It is a risk, and the internal organizing adds new demands on already overstretched unions. But it also may lead unions to turn their membership into the active, educated force in the workplace and in the public arena that it already claims to be but all too often isn’t.
The biggest danger of a Supreme Court victory for anti-union forces in Friedrichs is the potential for encouraging more and more devastating legal and political attack on workers who want to organize. Bad as times are now, they could get worse. But the best defense—as well as the best offense to gain improvements—is a highly motivated, well-organized and politically savvy union workforce.
This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 15, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: The author’s name is David Moberg. 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 [email protected]
Thursday, July 9th, 2015
In its third season with Netflix, Orange Is the New Black has had a significant effect on America’s consciousness regarding: race, women and incarceration, and transgender issues. This season highlighted many character backstories, but personally, the most interesting plot-line was that of the security guards and their efforts to organize a potential union. We see labor issues in popular culture and television on occasion, and this example in particular shines light on issues that that arise when workers don’t have labor protection. In this instance, the security guards at Litchfield women’s prison were dealing with cut hours, a loss of benefits and job security, and how to protect themselves. The answer to that, in addition to having an ally in management, was to form a union. We’re not often exposed to unionization in mainstream media, so I want to take the opportunity to explain the importance of unionizing and what it takes to get the protection you need when it comes to labor.
A Little Bit of History
During the 18th century and Industrial Revolution in Europe, the influx of new workers in the workplace warranted regulations and conversations around worker protection. In the US, the founding of the National Labor Union in 1886 – though not largely successful – paved the way for unions in the US. Labor protection brought us things we see as customary now, like: the weekend, minimum wage, or national holidays. Without unions, and despite our economy veering towards entrepreneurship and fewer professional boundaries, many of us would be in danger of job loss. Think about what you see on OITNB, where the prisoners work without pay, are demeaned by the prison and are endangered at every moment. Now, imagine that was your job. Less than a century ago, Americans worked for poverty wages alongside their children in dangerous factories; the same factories where the bosses that degraded them also turned workers against other workers by exploiting racial and ethnic prejudices. Imagine that your death was just another cost of doing business, like the overhead and taxes.
This was America before the labor movement – before workers acted together to demand fair wages, safe workplaces and laws that reflected the values of the working class. Workers not only won things like the weekend, minimum wage and national holidays, but also the less-sexy (but equally important) rights to bargain collectively, to take collective action and to even just talk to your coworkers about your wages and working conditions. People died for these things. While we may live in a great democracy, it’s worth remembering that true progress is really made through the mobilization of people. After all, women didn’t get the right to vote by voting on it.
Should You Unionize?
For a long time, a powerful labor movement allowed all American workers the ability to share in economic prosperity and take advantage of what is now an anachronism: if you work harder, you’ll get more. Wages and productivity went hand in hand until the decline of union membership began to drop as a result of anti-union laws and well-funded corporate attack on organized labor. If the median household income had kept pace with the economy at a constant rate during the years of higher unionization, it would now be closer to $92,000 a year instead of just under $52,000. The fundamental purpose of a union is to balance the overwhelming power of the few people making huge gains in our economy.
Put another way: how many people can afford their own lobbyist to get a slice of that pie? That’s the big picture. The smaller picture is you and your job. You know how great the constitution is? Freedom of speech and assembly? The right to due process? Democracy? You can throw all that out when you enter the workplace. If you don’t have a union, you can be fired for any reason that’s not based on a relatively small list of protected classes. But let’s talk money: union members have wages that average 27 percent higher than their non-union counterparts, are more than 79 percent likely to have health benefits through their employers, and 60 percent more likely to have an employer-provided pension.
What it Takes to Build a Union
Solidarity. Practically speaking, it takes a small group of you and your co-workers who can first quietly assess how others in your workplace feel about their jobs. What matters most to you? Is it the low pay? The poor benefits? Safety? Lack of respect? Focusing on what really matters will be crucial to winning the right to collectively bargain. The labor union you contact will help shepherd you through the election process to a contract, but the most important thing that you and your coworkers can do is to educate yourselves and stick together. And always remember that the union is you and your co-workers, not the third-party intruder your bosses might suggest. It’s your union and you’re trying to fix issues that matter to you.
Why It’s Important
Despite common belief, unions aren’t just for factory workers and building trades, they’re for everyone who wants to make a better life for himself or herself and earn a fair wage for the work they do. When you have a union, hard work can once again equate to sharing in the benefits of your labor. Even a college degree hardly guarantees a good paying job like it once did; too many people with piled student loan debt have found themselves underpaid and struggling. At the end of the day, a union is about how you will provide for yourself and your family.
About the Author: The author’s name is Leslie Tolf. Leslie Tolf is the President of Union Plus. You can follow Leslie Tolf on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/ltolf.
Tuesday, July 7th, 2015
I’ve kind of laughed at the analysis percolating around that, oh, surprise, the Supreme Court is a liberal bastion…or not so conservative. Well, it was a great day when marriage equality became the law of the land. But, while everyone can now marry, the Supreme Court has a very clear five-vote conservative bloc when it comes to empowering business, enhancing class warfare and making it impossible to make a decent living…married or not.
And it is now gearing up to potentially destroy public sector unions.
The Court has now accepted for argument Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Essentially, the case is another one ginned up by right-wing, anti-union forces to eviscerate public sector unions by challenging the right of unions to collect dues and use them for the whole range of activities unions perform, particularly political lobbying.
The Court’s conservatives have been pining away for a case to destroy public sector unions. In June 2012, The Court essentially invited a huge challenge, in a ruling in Knox v. Service Employees International Union. As the incomparable Linda Greenhouse wrote:
But Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for a five-member majority that included Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas, went beyond the confines of the case to suggest strongly that the decades-old accommodation between union members and non-members in public workplaces violates the First Amendment rights of the non-members.To avoid the problem of “free riders,” agency-shop provisions require that those who object to joining the union nonetheless pay a fee that represents the portion of union dues that goes to the collective bargaining activities from which all employees benefit. The non-members, at their request, are entitled to be excused from contributing to the union’s political activities. Since the non-members must affirmatively exercise this “opt-out” option, this system tends to favor the union; as students of default rules well understand, inertia inevitably keeps some people from bothering to assert their rights.
The opt-out system “represents a remarkable boon for unions,” Justice Alito wrote in his majority opinion characterizing the arrangement as one the court had endorsed haphazardly and without adequate thought. He went on to challenge the basic agency-shop structure, calling it “an anomaly.” Compelling nonmembers to pay any portion of their dues to a union with which they don’t care to be associated is a substantial impingement on the First Amendment right to be free from compelled speech and association, Justice Alito said, adding: “Our cases to date have tolerated this impingement and we do not revisit today whether the court’s former cases have given adequate recognition to the critical First Amendment rights at stake.”
In case he hadn’t made it sufficiently clear that 60 years of Supreme Court precedents are now hanging by a thread, Justice Alito continued: “Our prior decisions approach, if they do not cross, the limit of what the First Amendment can tolerate.” As for the special dues assessment at issue in the case, he concluded, the opt-out system was constitutionally insufficient, and the objecting employees were free of any obligation unless they chose to opt in.[emphasis added]
Then, came Harris v. Quinn–and an almost fatal blow to public unions. It was bad:
The petitioners in Harris were several home-care workers who did not want to join a union, though a majority of their co-workers had voted in favor of joining one. Under Illinois law, they were still required to contribute their “fair share” to the costs of representation — a provision, known as an “agency fee,” that is prohibited in “right to work” states.The ability of unions to collect an agency fee reflects a constitutional balance that has governed American labor for some 40 years: Workers can’t be forced to join a union or contribute to its political and ideological activities, but they can be required to pay for the cost of the union’s collective bargaining and contract-administration activities.
The majority in Harris saw things differently. Making workers pay anything to a union they oppose is in tension with their First Amendment rights — “something of an anomaly,” in the words of the majority. But the real anomaly lies in according dissenters a right to refuse to pay for the union’s services — services that cost money to deliver, and that put money in the pockets of all employees.
While a majority declined to strike down agency-fee arrangements for “full-fledged” public employees, as the petitioners had requested, and as unions had feared, the majority makes clear that such fees now rest on shaky constitutional ground, at least in the public sector, and are vulnerable to broader attack in the future.
What the Court did not do was strike down a 1977 case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which really is the basis for the framework for public sector unions being able to charge fees to pay for the costs of operations–particularly, the costs that go into collective bargaining. The only reason the conservatives did not destroy Abood in the Harris decision was because Justice Alito said that home healthcare workers were not actually “full-fledged” public employees, so putting a stake into Abood was not necessary.
That, however, is what the Court will attempt to do with this new case, which will be heard in the coming term, and likely be decided in 2016. The issue is clear:
Whether Abood v. Detroit Board of Education should be overruled and public-sector “agency shop” arrangements invalidated under the First Amendment; and (2) whether it violates the First Amendment to require that public employees affirmatively object to subsidizing nonchargeable speech by public-sector unions, rather than requiring that employees affirmatively consent to subsidizing such speech.
I am not optimistic.
This blog was originally posted on Working Life on June 30, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: The author’s name is Jonathan Tasini. Some basics: I’m a political/organizing/economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years; my goal is to find the “white spaces” that need filling, the places to make connections and create projects to enhance the great work many people do to advance a better world. I’m also publisher/editor of Working Life. I’ve done the traditional press routine including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Business Week, Playboy Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. One day, back when blogs were just starting out more than a decade ago, I created Working Life. I used to write every day but sometimes there just isn’t something new to say so I cut back to weekdays (slacker), with an occasional weekend post when it moves me. I’ve also written four books: It’s Not Raining, We’re Being Peed On: The Scam of the Deficit Crisis (2010 and, then, the updated 2nd edition in 2013); The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves and The Looting of America (2009); They Get Cake, We Eat Crumbs: The Real Story Behind Today’s Unfair Economy, an average reader’s guide to the economy (1997); and The Edifice Complex: Rebuilding the American Labor Movement to Face the Global Economy, a critique and prescriptive analysis of the labor movement (1995). I’m currently working on two news books.
Tuesday, July 7th, 2015
Organized labor’s recent “victory” over President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade initiative, was short-lived, as “fast track” was passed by Congress shortly after it had been denied him earlier in the month. But labor’s strong opposition to the deal is worth examining a bit more closely, as the fight was more than an uncommon rift between the administration and one of the Democratic Party’s steadiest and most powerful constituency groups. Labor’s opposition to the TPP is a dramatic sign of the transformation of popular opinion on a vintage issue of American public policy since World War II.
That the TPP could so easily be linked by its critics to the job-killing, wage-reducing interests of the “one percent” reflects deep and changing understandings of how the global economy works (or rather all too often doesn’t) for ordinary Americans. On this issue, the AFL-CIO, rather than reflecting narrow, let alone petulant comeuppance, is speaking with the wizened voice of collective experience after two terms of relative presidential neglect.
No one was a bigger champion of free trade at the end of World War II than the AFL-CIO, along with New Deal Democrats to whom the labor federation attached its deepest political loyalties. From a critique of controlled trade and top-down economic manipulation most notoriously associated with Japanese zaibatsu and German cartels like the I.G. Farben chemical empire, American liberals stressed the importance of both the free flow of commerce and workers’ freedom to organize. Only unencumbered access to markets and raw materials, such a view suggested, could assure the continuing growth of the American as well as worldwide industrial order.
In fulsome support of the Marshall Plan and surrounding international capitalistic institutions like Bretton Woods, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, the labor movement—having expelled its own Communist-linked affiliates by 1948—was often more anti-communist than the State Department itself during the Cold War years. In an era when strong unions claimed up to 80 percent of workforce representation in basic industries, it was not surprising that labor leaders would identify their own members’ welfare with that of the free-enterprise economy in which they were employed. Indeed, Philip Kaiser, assistant secretary of labor for international affairs under President Truman, later recalled the suspicion that the American labor liberals originally faced in Europe among those who could not “[see] the difference between American competitive capitalism and their own national monopoly capitalism built on old feudal structures.”
More than mere freedom from government or employer control, open markets were linked to a period of economic growth and rising incomes that publicist Henry Luce anticipated as “the American Century” and that, in retrospect, also heralded a relatively egalitarian social structure. Thus for good reason—with the exception of garment and textile unions who first felt the sting of a new order of international wage competition—U.S. unions long endorsed “free-trade” unionism. Not until the NAFTA debates of 1993-1994, when the threat to American-sited factories from what maverick presidential candidate Ross Perot had popularized as the “giant sucking sound” of jobs leaving the U.S. and going to Mexico, did the labor federation first seriously reverse course, albeit ( in a standoff with another Democratic President, this time Bill Clinton) in a losing cause.
But changing attitudes came too late to effectively redirect social policy. In an increasingly competitive world market, the link between corporate profit margins and worker welfare had become increasingly frayed. In the name of “social partnership” or “social dialogue,” America’s Cold War allies generally found ways to shield themselves from the worst of free-market competition and/or to blunt its impact for their own labor forces.
The European Common Market, for example, with stringent initial protections for European farmers and auto makers, was, according to historian Judith Stein, “really a customs union that violated [the core principles of] the GATT.” In addition, by various forms of “industrial policy,” or strategic subsidy of selected economic sectors and worker training, Japan and West Germany leaped ahead of the U.S. in key sectors of economic development, while even smaller states like Israel and Singapore blossomed thanks to outright state investment in the private sector or openly protectionist trade policy.
American workers realized little or none of such benefits, even when their preferred representatives presided over Congress and the White House. The unions watched, meanwhile, while their memberships dropped precipitously, from a high of 35 percent of the workforce in the mid-1950s to a paltry 11 percent today (including a mere 7 percent in the private sector). With the strike weapon now often a nearly suicidal non-option, American workers have watched their living standards decline, even as in the legislative realm, trade union rights, especially in the public sector, have become ever more restricted.
In an ever-more-expansive world economy, some Americans have prospered as never before, but the middle (where collective-bargaining contracts once reigned) has all but been wrung out of an hourglass economy. But for a few impotent side agreements to major free-trade treaties, workers have simply not been cut into the ‘deal’ of free trade.
All this is why American unions saying “Enough!” in the face of President Obama’s fast-track authority and attempt to pass the TPP and coming T-TIPP is such an important shift for American unions. The interesting question is not why they adopted the position they did, but what took them so long?
This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 6, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: The author’s name is Leon Fink. Leon Fink is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas.
Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015
All-Star NBA point guard Kevin Johnson is now the mayor of Sacramento, California—and the destroyer of the 40-year-old National Conference of Black Mayors. At Deadspin, Dave McKenna details how Johnson first tried to take over the group, and then, when that failed, went to war against it while starting his own black mayors group, the African American Mayors Association. So why am I writing about this as a labor issue? Because Johnson, who is married to corporate education reform star Michelle Rhee, was trying to use the NCBM to promote charter schools:
[East Orange, New Jersey, Mayor Robert] Bowser says that Johnson, before his coup, had proposed a resolution saying NCBM endorsed the charter-school movement.“We took a vote and said, ‘Hell no!’ to his resolution,” Bowser says. “The black mayors are not buying the charter schools, period.”
During his takeover attempt of the NCBM, Johnson also tried to turn a civil rights event, the commemoration of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, into a charter-boosting event.
Then there’s Ballard Spahr. During the takeover, Valarie J. Allen, a partner in Ballard Spahr’s Philadelphia offices, sent a missive to the NCBM’s general counsel, Sue Winchester, threatening to report her to “the California Bar” if she didn’t comply with Johnson’s dictates. It turns out that Allen’s prime role with the firm is to run its charter school portfolio. And that’s a big job. “In the past 10 years, Ballard Spahr has helped more than 60 charter schools … secure more than $676 million in tax-exempt bond funding,” reads the sales pitch Allen makes to charter schools operators on the firm’s website. Allen goes on to boast that Ballard Spahr handles “more than 10 percent” of all charter-school financing nationwide.
Surprise, surprise, Johnson’s new African American Mayors Association is holding a charter-dominated education panel at its convention this year.
This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on May 30, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: The author’s name is Laura Clawson. Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. She has been a Labor editor since 2011.
Friday, March 20th, 2015
Workers who get cheated out of their due pay in central Florida will have a much easier time recovering what they’re owed after Osceola County approved a tough new wage theft law, making it the latest in a string of local governments to take on increased responsibility for enforcing federal wage and hour laws.
Under the new rules, workers will be able to file cases with the county and employers who are accused of wage theft could end up having to repay triple the amount they stole from employees if they fight a case and lose. Workers in Miami-Dade County have so far recovered about $1.8 million since that wage theft law came online in late 2010.
Osceola’s law adds an important, tougher element to the basic model laid out in Miami-Dade. Companies that fight a wage theft claim and lose can have their business license revoked by the county.
Efforts to combat wage theft at the local level appear to be spreading, according to Tesedeye Gebreselassie of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). “It’s clear that existing laws and resources on fed state level are insufficient, and we’re starting to see more cities and counties take action in any way that they can,” she said. “There’s a growing trend to figure out what can be done on the local level now that everybody’s acknowledged that wage theft is a huge problem.” Propagating enforcement systems that work will be especially important if low-wage workers are to actually realize the economic benefits that should come from a rash of state and local minimum wage increases around the country, as the NELP argues in a new report.
There is no perfect deterrent, since a business owner willing to ignore wage laws in the first place is often going to choose to go out of business rather than dole out back pay. And the prevalence of low-wage, low-skill jobs in the American economy has helped create a sort of race to the ethical bottom among employers who are more interested in cutting corners than giving honest pay for honest work. As David Weil, the top federal official in charge of enforcing wage and hour laws for the Department of Labor, told the New York Times in 2014, “We have a change in the structure of work that is then compounded by a falling level of what is viewed as acceptable in the workplace in terms of how you treat people and how you regard the law.”
“I have a very close relative that had this happen to him,” Osceola County Commissioner Michael Harford (D) told ThinkProgress. “It was very difficult for him to understand how he was getting paid.” Harford gradually realized that wage theft was relatively common among his constituents, and helped push the law through this spring after voters elected four Democrats and one Republican to the commission last fall.
Harford’s reforms not only increase the consequences of wage theft for employers who get caught, but also make it easier for workers to find legal help. If the new adjudication process finds a company liable for wage theft, it must pay treble damages for the withheld pay and also cover the legal fees incurred by the workers who brought the allegation. “If we had more of an incentive for representation in these cases, we’d see hopefully the same effort to vindicate workers’ rights that we see to vindicate the rights of the injured in personal injury cases,” Rep. Alan Grayson (D) told ThinkProgress.
There’s no reason other localities can’t follow Osceola and Miami’s lead. Jeanette Smith, executive director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice and a key member of the coalition that researched the wage theft question for two years before bringing a legislative proposal in Miami-Dade, told ThinkProgress she thinks the model ought to be easily transferred even beyond the state line.
“I tell people not to just change the name on it, make sure it works,” Smith said. “But in general I think this kind of process is portable, as long as you’ve got a division of your government that can pick it up and administer it, and you have the political will, and frankly that you have responsible businesses that speak up.” Partly that’s because the laws don’t require business owners to comply with any new regulations and they don’t require local governments to hire new enforcement officers. “These ordinances do not put new regulations in place. Nothing at all. It’s simply offering a venue where the workers can go,” Smith said.
The real cutting edge of a law like Osceola’s comes well before a lawyer would ever get involved, in a pre-hearing process called conciliation. After a worker notifies the county of a wage theft allegation and provides evidence for the claim, the county contacts the employer and invites him to address the complaint voluntarily. Conciliation has produced a little over half of the $1.8 in recovered wages and damages under Miami-Dade County’s law and 53 percent of cases brought under the law were resolved at that early stage, according to Smith.
“There’s a big emphasis on conciliation, because the idea is that these are predominantly low-wage workers and they need to get their money right away. These are people who can’t go to court and wait all that time,” Smith said. By creating a two-stage process and giving employers immunity from the damages provision of the law as long as they resolve a legitimate wage violation in the conciliation stage, these laws give employers an incentive to be responsive to complaints. “There is gonna be that smaller group of completely unscrupulous employers that just completely disappear, often people who never even had a business license to start with,” Smith said. But even if workers for such employers never get made whole under this new process, the law still discourages willful violators from setting up shop in the area.
Wage theft steals more money from American workers each year than the combined haul from every robbery and heist nationwide. The term refers to violations of federal wage and hour protections, and that federal jurisdiction is part of the reason that local protections like the ones just passed in Osceola County are rare. Workers who think they’re being cheated by the boss can file a suit anywhere, regardless of local ordinances, and they have done so at a rapidly increasing clip in recent years. Workers have won court settlements from retail logistics firms, trucking companies, strip clubs, and fast food companies. They’ve also lost one significant case before the Supreme Court, though it only narrowly curtailed the types of employer policies that can be considered wage theft.
But going to court is expensive, in both dollars and time, and Osceola is the most recent place to erect a more worker-friendly system for addressing the complaints. Wage theft laws intended to help workers recoup wages without getting tied up in court have come into effect in Chicago, Houston, andColorado in recent years.
Lowering the local barriers to recovering stolen wages is a good start, Grayson said, but it does not address the various other ways in which workers have been pitted against one another by recent attacks on union solidarity on the job. “The right to organize has been frustrated and in many cases defeated by business groups. That’s left a disorganized low-wage labor base that can be exploited at will by unscrupulous employers, so the problem increases over time,” Grayson said. Right now, “crime does pay if you’re cheating your employees. And we have to stop that.”
This blog originally appeared in Thinkprogress.org on December 10, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org. He previously worked as an organizer on various political campaigns from New Hampshire to Georgia to Missouri. His writing on music and film has appeared on TinyMixTapes, IndieWire’s Press Play, and TheGrio, among other sites.