Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘labor’

The Supreme Court Just Rejected A Wage Theft Suit Against Amazon. What Does It Mean For Other Workers?

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Retail warehouses don’t have to pay workers for the time they spend in security screenings to make sure they’re not stealing, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a unanimous decision that reverses a lower court’s finding that workers must be paid for that time.

The ruling is a blow to wage theft claims by the poorly paid workers who fill orders for Amazon.com and similar online retailers in punishing conditions with little job security. It effectively ends 400,000 workers‘ hopes of recouping hundreds of millions of dollars in back pay from the company in 13 different class-action suits.

But an employment law expert tells ThinkProgress that workers who are bringing a host of other prominent wage theft cases in other industries have nothing to fear.

“It says absolutely nothing about whether other pay practices violate the Fair Labor Standards Act,” said Prof. Catherine Keck, who teaches employment and labor law at the University of California Irvine School of Law. “I don’t think you can read this decision as anything but a very narrow interpretation of a particular portion of the law.”

The case targeted Integrity Staffing Solutions (ISS), a temp agency that Amazon pays to staff its warehouses. The warehouses require staff to clock out prior to lining up for mandatory security screenings, which workers say take up to 25 minutes to complete because the company won’t invest in setting up enough metal detectors to turn the process into a quick, simple pause on the way out of the building.

A 1947 law called the Portal-to-Portal Act exempts employers from having to pay workers for the time they spend on activities “that take place before and after the workday proper,” the New York Times explains. Workers can’t demand wages for the time it takes to walk from their car to the time clock, for example, or for the time they spend commuting. How you read on-site security screenings in the context of that law, Keck said, is a judgment call.

“There’s truth in both points of view on this. This is not like commuting,” Keck said, and “essentially the employer’s choice about how it wants to run its business and its unwillingness to invest in a security system means it is wasting a lot of its employees’ time.” But the Portal-to-Portal Act specifically says companies don’t have to pay workers for anything they do after the end of their principal work duties.

“I think that language could be construed both to include the security screenings and to exclude them. And the court chose one plausible interpretation, which is that their principal job is to put stuff in boxes in a warehouse and [not] the searches to make sure they’re not stealing stuff,” Keck said. Solving the problem requires either a change to the law from Congress to clarify how mandatory security screenings relate to existing labor law, or a decision by Amazon to spend the money it would take to make the screenings efficient enough that they don’t trap workers on site after their shift’s end.

A series of high-profile wage theft suits against McDonald’s from last spring could prove crucial to the long-running, increasingly rowdy campaign to force the fast food industry to stop paying poverty wages and start letting workers unionize. But while those suits also pivot on allegations that a corporate giant systematically deprived its most exploited employees of money they should have been paid for time they spent on site, the nature of the allegations is so different from those in the Amazon case that worker advocates have nothing to fear from Tuesday’s ruling.

McDonald’s allegedly uses a computer system to police cash flows at its stores in real time, giving managers an incentive to monitor the ratio of cash register revenue to staff wage costs from moment to moment. Workers allege that managers respond to that information by forcing them to clock out but continue working, or clock out but not go home, or otherwise manipulate their time cards and deprive them of their due pay — something multiple former managers have confirmed.

Such timesheet abuses are “clearly illegal and there’s no argument on the other side,” Keck said. “That’s a totally different issue, it arises from a totally different part of the statute.”

This blog originally appeared in Thinkprogress.org on December 10, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/12/10/3602000/amazon-wage-theft-ruling/

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.

 

City Passes Historic Retail Workers Bill Of Rights

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

On Tuesday evening, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the Retail Workers Bill of Rights, the country’s first-ever legislation aimed at improving life for retail employees.

The new rules will require retail chains that have 11 or more locations across the country and employ 20 or more people in San Francisco to provide advance notice of schedules, improve the treatment of part-time employees, and give current workers the opportunity to take on more hours before hiring new people. Employers will have to give their workers at least two weeks’ advance notice of their schedules, and if they fail to do so they will have to give those workers additional “predictability pay.” Workers also get paid if they’re required to be on call but their shifts are canceled. Employers will have to give part-time employees the same starting wage as those working full time in the same position and access to the same benefits.

The bill’s passage comes at a time when erratic schedules are increasingly wrecking havoc on people’s lives, particularly in retail. Nearly half of part-time workers and just under 40 percent of full-time ones only find out their schedules a week or less in advance. In a survey of more than 200 retail employees in New York City, nearly 40 percent said they don’t get a set minimum of hours they’ll work each week and a quarter are required to be on call for shifts, often finding out just hours ahead of time that they’ll have to go to work. Many say schedules are posted on Saturdays for workweeks that start on Sunday.

Workers also show up just to be told to go home thanks to computer software that uses algorithms to determine if there are too many employees compared to sales volume — McDonald’s employees have sued the company over its use of exactly this technology.

At the same time, workers often struggle to get enough hours to survive. There are 7 million people in the country working part time who want to be full-time, an increase from 4.5 million in 2008. Employees in retail note that getting more hours or full-time status is treated like a reward, and docking hours is used as a punishment. Employers also keep workers just under what would qualify as full-time hours to avoid having to give them benefits.

Bills similar to its Retail Workers Bill of Rights are being pushed in Milwaukee, New York, and Santa Clara, California. Federal lawmakers have taken notice as well. In July, Reps. George Miller (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the Schedules that Work Act. It would require all the country’s employers to give at least two weeks’ notice on schedules, give employees an hour’s pay for each shift changed within 24 hours, and pay them some wages if they get sent home before the end of their shifts or call in but aren’t given one. Workers would also have the right to request their own schedules.

This article originally appeared in Thinkprogress.org on November 26, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/11/26/3597287/san-francisco-retail-bill-of-rights/

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

U.S. Pressure Needed to Make Honduran Elections Free and Fair

Friday, November 15th, 2013

On Sunday, Nov. 24, Hondurans will vote in national elections for president, legislators and local governments. The last elections in Honduras, in November 2009, were run by the de facto government that took office after the June 2009 coup and the electoral process was tainted by severe limits on civil liberties and low levels of participation. Candidates from diverse parties withdrew before the election, stating that the ruling party made fair campaigns and elections impossible. As a result, many Honduran and international groups questioned the legitimacy of the elections and the government that took office in early 2010. Numerous governments in Latin America explicitly rejected these elections.

Since the 2009 coup, those who resisted the coup have built a progressive alliance in which unions are a key partner and one of the founders of the resulting LIBRE party. Its candidate for president, Xiomara Castro, has been leading in the polls for more than nine months. Labor has presented numerous LIBRE party candidates, including one for vice president. At the same time, LIBRE members, activists and candidates have suffered violent attacks, threats and intimidation when attempting to exercise their rights and build a movement for social justice. Eighteen LIBRE candidates and immediate family members of candidates were murdered between May 2012 and Oct. 19, 2013, and 15 more suffered armed attacks. Countless more members of LIBRE have been victims of this violence, which observers say has been both increasing and more focused against the LIBRE party. U.S. citizens and taxpayers should insist that the U.S. government play a positive role in the Honduran elections, advocating for full rights and democratic freedoms for all Hondurans.

At the 2013 AFL-CIO Convention, delegates passed a resolution to support free and fair elections in Honduras by having local labor councils ask their members of Congress to insist that the U.S. Embassy call on the Honduran authorities to run the elections free of threats, coercion or intimidation of candidates, their supporters or voters. As the resolution urged, the AFL-CIO is sending a delegation to witness the elections, along with regional unions from Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere in Central America that are also affiliated to the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas.

Since the 2009 coup, the ruling government has failed to respect human rights, advance economic development or provide security to citizens. In this context, labor rights in Honduras have been violated consistently and recent reforms have reduced job stability and workers’ income. As a result, the AFL-CIO filed a complaint in 2012 under the terms of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). In March 2012, 94 members of the House of Representatives wrote to the U.S. State Department to insist that U.S. policy follow laws that link foreign assistance to respect for human rights. Meanwhile, poverty, unemployment and inequality all have increased over the past four years. Lastly, Honduras remains one of the most violent countries in the world outside of war zones.

While some members of the U.S. Congress have properly expressed concern recently about the role of the United States in Honduras and strong concerns about the upcoming elections, the State Department and its embassy in Honduras have not sent a sufficiently clear and public message denouncing the violence faced by opposition candidates and their supporters. Along with others, the United States has called on the current government to respect the democratic process, yet more vigilance will be needed to defend the rights of all Hondurans in the upcoming elections. The Nov. 24 election presents a great opportunity for Honduran citizens and workers to change course toward a more just and peaceful society. They must be allowed a chance to exercise their rights and seize that opportunity in free, fair and fully inclusive elections.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on November 15, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brian Finnegan is a Global Worker Rights coordinator for the AFL-CIO.

Labor Day 2013: Things Have Never Looked Worse for Workers—Or Brighter

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

 

David MobergFour young men breakdancing on the Federal Plaza last week in downtown Chicago say a lot about why this Labor Day provides occasion for both celebration and protest.

 

The dancers—black, white, Latino, all of them putting on a spectacular show—were fast food and retail workers on strike for the day for $15 an hour pay and the right to form a union without retaliation. They were among about 400 low-wage workers from more than 60 stores convening for a celebration after a day of delivering their key demands—with specific additional grievances tailored to each workplace—to their employers, who, from McDonald’s to Sears, make up a  Who’s Who of brand-name fast-food and retail companies.

 

It was the third strike for many of the workers. The strike wave began last November in in New York, with Chicago holding protest marches late last year as well, and it spread in July to five other traditional union strongholds. On Thursday—just after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—thousands of workers from a total of approximately 60 cities joined a national day of action, the largest yet. Strikes cropped up in the South, in cities such as Raleigh, N.C. and Memphis, Tenn., and in smaller Northern cities, such as Bloomington and Peoria, Ill. In tiny Ellsworth, Maine, a community-labor group demonstrated support for higher pay fast food workers even though none went on strike. In some cases, workers appear to have organized themselves after hearing about the earlier actions, calling whomever they could contact and asking how they could take part in the next strike.

 

The dark side of this jubilant surge of activity is the many reasons why it is needed—weak job growth, underemployment, flat or declining wages, feeble labor standards, a stalled union movement, an occupational structure shifting toward more low-wage service jobs, growing inequality, and widespread abuse of power by the very rich.

 

The decline in the official unemployment rate masks the degree to which American workers face a very grim world of work. Much of the improvement in the unemployment rate simply reflects a growth in the number of discouraged or “marginally attached” workers (people who want a job but have given up looking). The share of the workforce working part-time involuntarily has risen as well.

 

Such slack in the demand for labor, along with the declining power of unions and the cuts in pay demanded by both private and public employers (often accompanied by outsourcing or, at public employers, privatizing), holds down—or pushes further down—wages that had improved little even from 2000 to 2007, when the recession began. Between 2007 and 2012, even as productivity grew by 7.7 percent, wages declined for the bottom 70 percent of the workforce, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute report by Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz.

 

The weakness of the labor movement, especially in growing, low-wage sectors like retail and fast food, accounts for much of the decline, but the diminishing value of the minimum wage plays a big role. According to another recent EPI study, by Sylvia Allegretto and Steven C. Pitts, if the federal government restored the minimum to its peak value in 1968, the minimum wage would be $9.44 today in inflation-adjusted dollars, not $7.25. And if it matched in real terms the $2.00 minimum wage demanded 50 years ago by the March on Washington, the minimum wage would be $13.39—not far from the striking fast food workers’ demand and not far from the minimum in many advanced countries (approximately $12 an hour in France and $15 an hour in Australia, for example). If the minimum wage had risen as much as worker productivity since 1968, it would be $22 an hour.

 

Any rise in the federal minimum would especially help people of color and women, Allegretto and Pitts report. Contrary to stereotypes of low-wage workers as teenages, a raise would help many adult, family-supporting workers. In a report for EPI published in March, David Cooper and Dan Essrow calculated that with even the modest $10.10 minimum proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the average age of low-wage workers whose pay would likely increase is 35. Eighty-eight percent are over 20 years old, and 35.5 percent are 40 or older. In addition, 44 percent of the beneficiaries would be workers with some college education, and 28 percent with children.

 

The plight of low-wage workers is becoming a much more acute problem as the nation’s occupational structure, that is, the kinds of jobs being created or retained, has changed. According to Daniel Alpert of the Century Foundation, 70 percent of the jobs created in the second quarter of this year were low-wage, like retail and hospitality work, about twice the percentage of such jobs in the overall workforce. And about 50 percent of all new jobs in the first half of 2013 were part-time.

 

Wages have risen for the top 5 percent, however, especially for the very richest. The top 1 percent—mainly executives and financial managers—captured 121 percent of the nation’s new income during the first two years of the recovery, according to University of California, Berkeley economist Emanuel Saez. How do they do that? Essentially, they direct all national income gains to themselves while simultaneously taking more away from the 99 percent.

 

Looking more closely makes the picture even uglier. The success of the very rich often involves large elements of chicanery, fraud and exploitation of public resources, according to a new study, “Bailed Out, Booted, Busted,” the 20th annual Labor Day edition of the Executive Excess reports from the Institute for Policy Studies. The researchers compiled data from 20 years of their studies, which relied on annual Wall Street Journal surveys of CEO pay.

 

Their final survey covered 500 CEOS—the 25 highest-paid CEOs each year for the two decades. IPS reports that 38 percent of these CEOs had performed extremely poorly as executives of their firms. Of those poor performers, 22 percent of the top pay winners led their firms into bankruptcy or bailout; 8 percent were fired (but got golden parachutes worth $38 million on average); and 8 percent were found guilty of fraud.

 

Then there are simply the super-excessively paid, making over $1 billion during their tenure, and other executives who fed at the “taxpayer trough,” collecting top pay while their companies profited as major government contractors.

 

Any move towards equality will have to hold down the excess at the top as well as raise the bottom. But beyond basic fairness, society would reap additional benefits—faster and more stable growth (and therefore a speedier, more robust recovery); less crime and social tension; a stronger democracy; and better health, longer life and lower medical expenses, to mention a just few. (See Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level.)

 

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus was not speaking rhetorically, but quite practically, when she told strikers in Chicago, “These workers are among thousands and thousands of low-wage workers around the country, who have a really reasonable and simple request, and that is that they be paid a living wage. …These are the makers; they are the takers. I want to thank these brave workers who walked out. They are doing it for themselves and they are doing it for America.”

 

And it seems the strikers are doing it their way, with people volunteering and reaching out to other workers to spread the word. Most events include raps composed by strikers about their work, and protest strategies reflect their decisions. For example, in Chicago, the strikers this time wanted actions at every store where someone walked out, not just a couple of highlighted targets, as in the July strike. And they wanted a celebration at the end. If the fast food fight succeeds, it will be a result of that insurgent sentiment.

 

The spirit was there in the breakdance—introduced in Spanish and English, as all the program was before the crowd of comfortably mixed ethnicities, performed under a banner reading, “Fight for 15, Valemos Mas.” Dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” two stands-in for CEOs in mock-suits faced off against two workers from Potbelly’s.

 

The workers won. It wasn’t Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers singing “Roll the Union On.” But I’m sure Pete would have approved

This article was originally published on Working In These Times on September 2, 2013.  Republished with permission. 

About the Author: 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. .

Why Unions Are Essential to Tackling the Technology Challenge to Good Jobs

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Image: Richard KirschNew technology is keeping more and more workers stuck in low-wage jobs, and it’s society’s responsibility to make sure those jobs still have dignity and fair wages.

With robots taking over factories and warehouses, toll collectors and cashiers increasingly being replaced by automation and even legal researchers being replaced by computers, the age-old question of whether technology is a threat to jobs is back with us big time. Technological change has been seen as a threat to jobs for centuries, but the history tells that while technology has destroyed some jobs, the overall impact has been to create new jobs, often in new industries. Will that be true after the information revolution as it was in the industrial revolution?

In an article in The New York Times, David Autor and David Dorn, who have just published research on this question, argue that the basic history remains the same: while many jobs are being disrupted, new jobs are being created and many jobs will not be replaceable by computers. While there is good news in their analysis for some in the middle-class, their findings reinforce the need to organize workers in lower-skilled jobs to demand decent wages.

The authors’ research found that while routine jobs are being replaced by computers, the number of both “abstract” and “manually intensive” jobs increased. In their article in the Times, the authors describe the new jobs:

At one end are so-called abstract tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity. These tasks are characteristic of professional, managerial, technical and creative occupations, like law, medicine, science, engineering, advertising and design. People in these jobs typically have high levels of education and analytical capability, and they benefit from computers that facilitate the transmission, organization and processing of information.

On the other end are so-called manual tasks, which require situational adaptability, visual and language recognition and in-person interaction. Preparing a meal, driving a truck through city traffic or cleaning a hotel room present mind-bogglingly complex challenges for computers. But they are straightforward for humans, requiring primarily innate abilities like dexterity, sightedness and language recognition, as well as modest training. These workers can’t be replaced by robots, but their skills are not scarce, so they usually make low wages.

As the authors conclude, “This bifurcation of job opportunities has contributed to the historic rise in income inequality.”

When it comes to addressing this attack on the middle class, the authors offer some hope, but not for those low-wage workers. They argue that a large number of skilled jobs, requiring specialized training—although not necessarily a college education—will not be replaceable by computers. These include people who care for our health like medical paraprofessionals, people who care for our buildings like plumbers, people who help us use technology (I was chatting online just yesterday to get tech support) and many others. Because these jobs do require higher levels of skills, they should be able to demand middle-class wages.

But what about those housekeepers, delivery truck drivers and fast-food workers, like those who are taking actions around the country today against fast-food chains to demand better pay. The authors do not offer a path to the middle class for them.

If history is an example here as well, we should remember that lower-skilled work does not have to come with low pay. The workers who stood on assembly lines in the 1930s did not have a college education or years of specialized training; they fought for the right to organize unions and demanded high enough wages to support their families.

This Labor Day, as more and more workers are stuck in the growing number of low-wage jobs, causing enormous stress for their families while keeping the economy sluggish, we need to look to the examples of new ways of organizing workers who can not be replaced by technology. There’s the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, who organized drivers to successfully win living wages and a health and disability fund. Or the successful boycott of Hyatt Hotels, leading to an agreement with UNITE HERE to not fight organizing campaigns in their hotels.

We need to support organizing by modernizing our labor laws to account for the large number of workers not currently or adequately protected, the new ways that work is organized and the global economy.

The lesson from the Autor–Dorn research is that technology doesn’t have to destroy the middle class. What will destroy the middle class is our failure as a society to provide dignity to all workers. That’s what fast-food workers and their community-labor supporters are fighting for across the country.

This article originally appeared in The Next New Deal Blog on August 29, 2013, and was cross-posed on AFL-CIO Now on August 30, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Richard Kirsch is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a senior adviser to USAction and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was national campaign manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

A Victory for Silica Dust Exposed Workers?

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Mike ElkToday, after a much-criticized delay on issuing a rule to limit workers’ exposure to cancer-causing silica dust, the Obama administration put forward a proposed rule for public consideration. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that once the rule is in effect, it could save 700 lives a year and prevent nearly 1,600 cases of silicosis annually.

In an OSHA press release, Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, commented, “Exposure to silica can be deadly, and limiting that exposure is essential. Every year, exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. This proposal is expected to prevent thousands of deaths from silicosis—an incurable and progressive disease—as well as lung cancer, other respiratory diseases and kidney disease. We’re looking forward to public comment on the proposal.”

Workplace safety advocates applauded the decision. In a press release issued by the non-profit National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, executive director Tom O’Conner noted that workers who are most exposed to silica tend to be those least able to advocate for themselves.

“Low-wage immigrant workers and temporary workers are disproportionally represented in the industries with silica exposure—and are the most vulnerable to retaliation should they report potential hazards, injuries or illnesses,” O’Conner said. “This new rule will help to pull them out of the shadows and make them safer at work. Everyone, regardless of immigration status, deserves a safe workplace.”

However, some in organized labor say the fight to enact the rule has just begun, as it will have to undergo a public comment period before it is issued. In his response to the news of the rule, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka cautioned:

But this rule is only a proposal–workers exposed to silica dust will only be protected when a final rule is issued.  Some industry groups are certain to attack the rule and try to stop it in its tracks. The AFL-CIO will do everything we can to see that does not happen. We urge the Obama administration to continue moving forward with the public rule-making process without delay. The final silica rule should be issued as fast as humanly possible, to protect the health and lives of American workers.

This article originally appeared in Working in These Times on August 23, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.  

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.

Strike in Colombia Highlights Free Trade Failure

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Dave JohnsonThere is a big strike in Colombia, and you probably don’t know about it. Farmers and others are protesting over a variety of grievances including the devastating effect of free-trade agreements, privatization and inequality-driven poverty. Corporate-owned American media is not covering it. These trade agreements make the really rich really richer while outsourcing jobs to places where people can’t object to the low pay and working conditions. This undercuts wages here. The end result is a race to the bottom.

The Strike

The BBC is reporting that 200,000 Colombian farmers are on strike in 11 of Colombia’s 32 provinces. They are blocking roads, cutting off the central province. The Economist reports that “Colombian miners, truckers, coffee growers, milk producers, public health-care workers, students and others” took to the streets on August 19.

Almost the only American outlet covering this strike is the Miami Herald. Last week the paper reported,

The agrarian strike, as it’s known, is broad-based and far-flung. Coffee, cacao, potato and rice farmers have joined ranks with cargo truckers, gold miners and others. Teachers and labor unions are also joining in. Their demands are equally ample, calling for reduced fuel and fertilizer prices, the cancellation of free trade agreements, increased subsidies and the end of a crackdown on informal mining operations, among others.

Reasons For Strike

Stone throwers clash with riot police as Colombian farmers demanding government subsidies and greater access to land block the road in La Calera, Cundinamarca department, on August 23. (EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)

According to the Herald report free-trade agreements are part of the reason for the strike. “Javier Correa Velez, the head of a coffee-growers association called Dignidad Cafetera,” … “High fuel prices, expensive agrichemicals, government neglect of rural areas and free trade agreements — without adequate safeguards — have made it impossible for farmers to compete, he said.”

Miami Herald report the next day also says that the strikers are demanding an end to free-trade agreements.

Common Dreams has more, in Colombia Nationwide Strike Against ‘Free Trade,’ Privatization, Poverty. Common Dreams reports, (click through for links)

“[The strike is a condemnation] of the situation in which the Santos administration has put the country, as a consequence of its terrible, anti-union and dissatisfactory policies,” declared the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), the country’s largest union, in a statement.

[. . .] Meanwhile, the Colombian government is handing out sweetheart deals to international mining companies while creating bans and roadblocks for Colombian miners. Likewise, the government is giving multinational food corporations access to land earmarked for poor Colombians. Healthcare workers are fighting a broad range of reforms aimed at gutting and privatizing Colombia’s healthcare system. Truckers are demanding an end to low wages and high gas prices.

Labor Murders In Colombia

Labor “strife” is not new to Colombia. In February, 2012 AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka sent a letter asking President Obama to delay the implementation of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, because of continuing murders of labor activists.

The letter states that through January, one union member was killed by Colombian troops, a second was shot to death along with his wife, a third worker was “brutally murdered” and a fourth union member employed by the National Industry of Sodas (Coca-Cola) was “murdered by gunfire.”

Over 2,900 union members have been murdered in Colombia over the last 25 years…

The Common Dreams report drives this home,

Colombia is the deadliest country in the world for union activists, according to the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, and 37 activists were murdered in Colombia in the 1st half of 2013 alone, leading news weekly Semana reports.

Effect Of US-Colombia Agreement

The US-Colombia Trade Agreement went into effect May, 2012. A year later The Nation carried the story, The Horrific Costs of the US-Colombia Trade Agreement describing the consequences on Colombia’s poor and farmers. The new agreement forces Colombian farmers “to compete against heavily subsidized US products” and an Oxfam report estimates “that the average income of 1.8 million grossly under-protected small farmers will fall by 16 percent.” “The study concludes that 400,000 farmers who now live below the minimum wage will see their incomes drop by up to 70 percent and will thus be forced out of their livelihoods.”

And the threats and murders continue. According to a May Public Citizen report on the effects of the recent Korea, Colombia and Panama trade agreements,

In the year after the launch of the Labor Action Plan, union members in Colombia received 471 death threats – exactly the same number as the average annual level of death threats in the two years before the Plan. At least 20 Colombian unionists were assassinated in 2012 according to the data relied upon under the Labor Action Plan, while the International Trade Union Confederation reported the assassination of 35 unionists. … In addition, violent mass displacements of Colombians increased 83 percent in 2012 relative to 2011, when the U.S. Congress passed the FTA, adding to the five million Colombians who have been displaced in the world’s largest internal displacement crisis.

The Colombian trade agreement is hurting Colombia’s small farmers and they are reacting. They are pitted against America’s giant, industrialized, government-subsidized farms and losing the battle. And in America these giant, corporate farms largely only enrich the 1%, providing low wages for the rest and forcing smaller American farmers out of business as well.

Korea Free-Trade Agreement Already Costs 40,000 American Jobs

Our free-trade agreement with Colombia is not the only recent agreement that is not going so well for 99% of the people involved. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reported in July that the US-Korea free trade agreement has already costs the US 40,000 jobs and increased our trade deficit by $5.8 billion. Already.

The tendency to distort trade model results was evident in the Obama administration’s insistence that increasing exports under KORUS would support 70,000 U.S. jobs. The administration neglected to consider jobs lost from the increasing imports and a growing bilateral trade deficit. In the year after KORUS took effect, the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea increased by $5.8 billion, costing more than 40,000 U.S. jobs. Most of the 40,000 jobs lost were good jobs in manufacturing.

NAFTA Wiped Out Small Mexican Farmers, Sending Them North

This is similar to the after-effect of the NAFTA agreement that allowed US-subsidized corn into Mexican markets, wiping out many small farmers and sending them north desperately looking for work. NAFTA forced at least 4,000 pig farms under, losing 120,000 jobs. (China being the beneficiary, now buying American pork-producer Smithfield.) It helped increase rural poverty from 35% to 55%. Tobacco and coffee farmers also went under.

A Wilson Center report says NAFTA “Subsidized Inequality,” displacing “many hundreds of thousands of small-scale corn producers.” A McClatchy report estimates the number of Mexican corn-farming jobs lost at 2 million, worsening illegal migration.

Then U.S. corn imports crested like a rain-swollen river, increasing from 7 percent of Mexican consumption to around 34 percent, mostly for animal feed and for industrial uses as cornstarch.

Meanwhile NAFTA didn’t turn out so well for American workers, either. Estimates are that NAFTA has cost 700,000 American jobs, and a quick look at 1989?s Roger & Me shows what it did to cities and regions. Many of Detroit’s auto jobs have moved to Mexico, for example.

China Trade

The Alliance for American Manufacturing has a state-by-state map of jobs lost to China (don’t forget the more than 50,000 factories), with the introduction, “The growth of the U.S. trade deficit with China since that country entered the World Trade Organization in 2001 has had a devastating effect on U.S. workers and the domestic economy. Between 2001 and 2011, 2.7 million U.S. jobs were lost or displaced.”

Our trade deficit with China drained $26.9 billion from our economy just in the month of June. And that was actually down from 27.9 billion the month before.

No Jobs From Trade Deals

In No Jobs from Trade Pacts EPI’s Robert Scott explains that the appeal of these job-killing trade deals is the job killing nature of the deals,

FTAs and other trade agreements make it enormously profitable to outsource production to countries such as South Korea and China that use currency manipulation, dumping, and other unfair trade practices to undercut production and wages in the United States. U.S. MNCs, including Apple, Boeing, Dell, Ford, GE, GM, and Intel have also profited enormously from outsourcing to Mexico, China, and other low-wage trade partners under the protection of FTAs and the WTO. The end result is a race to the bottom in wages and working conditions for most members of these agreements.

These trade agreements make the really rich really richer. They outsource jobs to places where people can’t object to the low pay and working conditions. This undercuts wages here. The end result is a race to the bottom, while the 1% get richer and richer.

Promises, Promises

Free-trade proponents always promise jobs and prosperity, then later we get the bill. The promises sound great but the record is that only a wealthy few benefit at the expense of the rest of us.

The Korean and NAFTA free-trade deals and China’s entry into the WTO led to terrible job losses (and millions of Mexicans pressured to migrate north), our trade deficit accelerated, factories were closed and entire regions of our country were devastated. Just look at Detroit, Flint, and similar cities.

But the promises … In 2011 the Koch brothers’ Cato Institute promised, in Trade Agreement Would Promote U.S. Exports and Colombian Civil Society,

[T]he U.S.-Colombia trade agreement would eliminate barriers to billions of dollars of U.S. exports. Colombia is home to 45 million consumers and is one of the largest economies in Latin America, and a major market for U.S. exports in the Western Hemisphere. …

Anytime trade barriers can be lowered anywhere, at home or abroad, Americans benefit from greater competition and specialization. …

The Colombia trade agreement would extend investor protections and guarantees of equal treatment to service providers in a broad range of sectors. …

Gains in market access would be especially strong for the U.S. financial sector. …

Cato offered promises for Colombia as well,

The FTA with the United States would boost the Colombian economy and complement other important market reforms carried out in that country in the last decade. …

After a decade of substantial improvements in the areas of security and the economy, Colombia stands to benefit from a free-trade agreement with its most important partner. By approving this FTA, the United States would contribute significantly to Colombia’s economic development at a crucial point in the country’s history.

And so on. This is typical of the promises we hear every time a new free-trade deal is brought before the Congress for approval.

Last year the Heritage Foundation looked at our trade relationship with China (which has cost millions of jobs and drained trillions from the economy). Heritage explained why the loss of jobs and massive trade deficit are good for us, because this means prices are low, and the owners of American (and Duth and Korean) corporations make out like bandits, we go further into debt with them, and then they buy our companies and land,

Every day we buy things made in China, though they may be made there by American or Dutch or Korean corporations. China buys a lot of our government’s debt and lately it has been buying small pieces of American companies and land.

Heritage goes on to say that if our government did something about it, that would make us “less free” and “would pick winners and losers” and that “comparative advantage” means China should do this work. Because their “comparitive advantage” is that no democracy, no unions, no environmental protections means they can make things for less so giant corporations have higher profits.

This, by the way, is a different way of saying what I wrote above, “These trade agreements make the really rich really richer. They outsource jobs to places where people can’t object to the low pay and working conditions. This undercuts wages here. The end result is a race to the bottom, while the 1% get richer and richer.”

Beware

Yes, free-trade agreements can increase exports. Corn to Mexico, for example. Raw materials to China. But if they increase imports even more, it is still a net loss for jobs and the economy. (No, by “imports” I do not mean the mass migration north of desperate Mexican agricultural workers wiped out by giant, government-subsidized US agricultural corporations.)

huge new trade deal is coming up soon. This is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), called by some the “mother of all free-trade deals” and by others the “Corporate Deathstar.” It is a job-loss runaway train that is coming straght at us. The corporate lobbyists are asking Congress to give up their Constitutional duty to scrutinize and amend this agreement by passing “Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority. Call your Senators and Representative today and tell them you oppose “Fast Track” — and tell everyone you know to do the same.

This article originally appeared OurFuture.org on August 26, 2013.   It can also be found on AFL-CIO NOW blog.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dave Johnson is Dave Johnson  is a Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future, writing about American manufacturing, trade and economic/industrial policy.

Twelve arrested in protest of Walmart firings and retaliation against activists

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

Laura ClawsonBeginning shortly after the early June strike by around 100 Walmart workers, 20 of the strikers were fired and another 50 were disciplined in retaliation; Walmart basically treated their absences as if they’d been playing hooky rather than engaging in legally protected concerted activity. Now, in a protest against that retaliation, 9 former and one current Walmart workers and two allies have been arrested in planned acts of civil disobedience outside a Washington, D.C., Walmart office Thursday afternoon. The workers are setting a deadline of Labor Day for Walmart to reinstate fired workers and raise wages or face an escalation of worker activism.

Walmart wants to turn this into an argument about labor law, claiming that the workers’ actions constitute “intermittent strikes” that aren’t protected by law. However, Josh Eidelson reports:

Asked in June about Walmart claims that workers were fired for threatening customer service by violating attendance rules, former Obama-appointed NLRB Chair Wilma Liebman said, “the case law doesn’t sustain that as a valid defense” against the charge of illegally punishing strikers. As for the lack of legal protection for “intermittent strikes,” Liebman told The Nation, “I think it would be hard on the facts so far to say that the conduct constitutes intermittent striking.”

By turning this into a dispute about the specifics of labor law, Walmart can both drag things out for months or years before potentially being forced to reinstate the workers and can try to shift the conversation from Walmart’s own rampant abuse of workers and damage to the economy. They’d like to shift the conversation from the workers’ voices, while letting workers who haven’t yet joined the protests and strikes know the cost of doing so:

Another of the fired workers arrested today, Brandon Garrett, yesterday told The Nationthat his termination had taken a toll in his Baker, Louisiana, store: “When we came back from striking and we wasn’t fired right away, even more associates wanted to join the organization. But I guess Walmart got a sense of that, and when they terminated me, they kind of scared a lot of them off.” Now, said Garrett, “they’re still behind us,” but “a lot of them are scared to be retaliated against. So that’s another reason I’m standing up like I am.”

These efforts to change the subject and silence workers are why it’s important to hear what the workers had to say at Thursday’s protest:

Jovani ‘Virtually impossible to go to school with #walmart schedules. We should all be able to pursue our dreams’ #walmartstrikers
— @ForRespect

Pam from CA ‘I am here taking a stand for every Associate too afraid to speak out.’ #walmartstrikers
— @ForRespect

Lucas, gay, out and proud, faced discrimination at #walmart and was fired for speaking out. ‘Today I take a stand.’
— @ForRespect

Tell Walmart and the Walton family to respect workers and pay a real wage.

 

This article originally appeared on Daily Kos on August 22, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

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

Caring for Workers Who Care for Our Loved Ones

Monday, August 19th, 2013

Michelle ChenFor many seniors, growing older means facing new kinds of stress—such as fragile health, a tight budget on a fixed income, or the travails of living alone.

And for the people who care for the aging, the stress can be just as severe. When her client is going through a rough time, one domestic worker says she lives through every minute of it, too: “Sometimes we stay there for five days…and we don’t know what’s outside…You cannot leave the job.”

Stories like this one, recorded as part of a survey of New York’s care workers, form the invisible pillar of an evolving industry that is making the private home the center of public health, and in the process, reshaping our relationships of family, work, community and social service. Yet the home care workforce, which is driven largely by poor women of color, mirrors inequities embedded in the low-wage economy. At work, caregivers manage the lives of our loved ones while often facing exploitation and abuse, and after a long day of delivering comfort to vulnerable clients, many struggle themselves to cope with ingrained poverty their communities.

To open a conversation about the economics and ethics of caregiving, ALIGN (Alliance for a Greater New York) has partered with the national advocacy campaign Caring Across Generations, along with various community and labor groups, to study New York City’s more than 150,000 home care workers. The surveys and investigations published by ALIGN reveal structural problems in the industry and identify potential for reforms that work for those who give and those who receive care.

In New York, the home care industry is booming as more seniors opt to live at home rather than in institutions. Thousands across the city earn their living by taking care of seniors and people with disabilities. Overall, according to the study, the sector “will be the single biggest driver of employment in the city in the coming years.”

On a typical day in New York, these workers, mostly women of color and immigrants, act as both therapists and companions, managing medications, bathing and feeding, and helping seniors feel dignified even on the days they can’t get out of bed. On top of this, the workers have to negotiate with stressed families about hours and pay–and typically take home low wages that keep them and their families mired in poverty.

And yet it turns out that consumers and providers of care want the same things. ALIGN’ssurveys of New Yorkers, including both caregivers and care “consumers,” show strong concern about decent pay for workers, along with retirement and healthcare benefits. These labor conditions are many cases dictated by insurance companies and Medicaid, not by the families receiving care.

The fact that consumers and caregivers both recognize that labor should be fairly valued “really does challenge this zero-sum notion that good jobs and affordable care can’t coexist,” says ALIGN policy analyst Maya Pinto. “And it suggests that people understand the connection between the quality of care and the quality of jobs.”

The converse is also true: When workers are miserable, it shows up in their work. Nearly 40 percent of people receiving care complained that the quality of services was “fair” to “very poor.”

But from a workers’ standpoint, this is the consequence of a job that treats them poorly. One worker described her situation bluntly: “It is a very difficult job at times because there are patients who think the home care workers are slaves.” Workers reported being subject to verbal and physical abuse, sometimes racial slurs, on the job.

Nonetheless, many care workers feel deep devotion to their job—they just want to their labor to be appreciated and duly compensated. “I do my work well…and the person I care for is very satisfied with my work,” said one worker. “It is very dignified work but it needs to be paid better.”

A priority across all respondent groups was providing appropriate training and monitoring–indicating that workers, contrary to stereotypes, are not instinctively resistant to greater accountability and oversight, and that all stakeholder groups realize the depth and complexity of responsibilities involved in caring for vulnerable seniors.

One area of divergence between consumers and workers was the importance placed on career advancement. The issue was a higher priority for caregivers, especially domestic workers who serve seniors but lack the official credentials of “formal sector” workers—a category that includes certified “home health aides” and “home attendants,” and who are generally employed through an agency. Lacking the formal qualifications associated with specialized, better-paying positions, domestic worker-caregivers (who are disproportionately low-income immigrant women, both documented and undocumented) often remain stuck in the most grueling, precarious jobs.

Some of New York’s privately employed home care workers benefit from a recently enacted domestic workers’ “Bill of Rights” that provides stronger workplace protections and wage standards than does federal labor law. However, domestic workers overall, who include nannies and housekeepers as well as direct caregivers in private households, still suffer from poverty, discrimination and exploitation. According to ALIGN’s survey of caregivers’ household incomes, about nine in 10 domestic workers earn less than $25,000 annually, compared to six in 10 formal sector workers. That is, despite the strides that domestic workers made with the Bill of Rights, in material terms, they still lag behind those employed through agencies or with more formal credentials.

ALIGN recommends several reforms to ensure dignity for both caregivers and people receiving care. More training and certification options–such as programs equipping domestic workers with emergency medical skills–would expand workers’ access to more formal and higher-paying positions and lift up standards for the workforce overall. On a policy-making level, the report calls for a expansion of publicly funded insurance programs so care workers, many of whom cannot afford medical coverage, can safeguard their own health as they care for others.

Since so many families struggle to pay the cost of community-based elder care, especially if they fall outside the income-eligibility bracket for Medicaid, the report recommends a more comprehensive publicly supported insurance program as an alternative to private long-term care plans. Noting that the current rollout of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid overhaul present an opportunity for fudamental reforms in home care funding, ALIGN suggests creating a broadly accessible long-term care benefit that would be funded through payroll contributions, like Social Security.

The report also highlights why workers need not just laws but organization and collective bargaining power. In recent years, SEIU and the National Domestic Workers Alliance have organized tens of thousands of workers to win fairer contracts for workers and to press for reforms to extend labor protections for care workers. Meanwhile, some workers are changing how care is delivered in their communities by forming their own cooperatives.

ALIGN cites the worker-owned cooperative model as a system that can empower caregivers, by enabling them not only to share in the ownership and profits of the enterprise but also to access training, negotiate better working conditions, and “improve compensation for workers while keeping the cost of care relatively low.” One impressive case study is New York’s Cooperative Home Care Associates, one of the country’s leading cooperatives with about 2,000 workers, half of whom own a part of the business.

Despite the sometimes harsh conditions, Vilma Rozen, a 52 year-old home care worker, remains unshakably devoted to her job and embraces the challenges. “If you want to take care of elderly people, you have to keep your feelings very in touch [with] the person, because the elderly people in some cases are very alone and very depend[ent],” she says. At the same time, she adds, many seniors “suffer so much, because the home-carers, they have a very sad life, very underpaid… They don’t have happiness.” Rozen, a native of Costa Rica, says that if Americans want to place their elders in the care of attentive, dedicated people, “they need to change the system.”

Whether they give or receive care, everyone wants dignity–both seniors and their aides want to look forward to seeing each other every day in a relationship of mutual respect. The labor issues in senior care show the consequences of neglecting shared needs, but also open space for creating a fairer system of care, by making the home a more welcoming workplace.

This article originally appeared on Working in These Times on August 17, 2013.  Re-posted with permission. 

About the Authory: 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.

Civil rights champion Thomas Perez being nominated for labor secretary

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Laura ClawsonPresident Obama’s nomination of assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez for labor secretary becomes official today after more than a week of increasingly solid rumors. Perez has headed the civil rights division of the Justice Department since 2009; previously, he has been secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, a member of the Montgomery County Council, director of the civil rights office at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under Bill Clinton, and a special counsel to Sen. Ted Kennedy.

If confirmed, Perez will be the only Latino member of Obama’s second-term cabinet. He will also be a notable progressive voice in a cabinet containing or expected to contain several members less than friendly to workers and worker organizing, such as Hyatt Hotels heiress Penny Pritzker, the likely commerce secretary nominee.

Perez has a noteworthy record on both civil rights and labor issues; during his time there, the Justice Department “opened a record number of civil rights investigations into local police departments accused of brutality and/or discrimination,” challenged restrictive voter ID laws, gotten major fair-housing settlements, and more. Both in his time in Maryland and at the Justice Department, Perez has sought to strengthen and enforce worker protections:

Pushed for labor protections for domestic workers: Millions of domestic workers in the United States make low wages because they aren’t protected by labor law, a problem Perez sought to address while serving on Montgomery County’s City Council, where he pushed for contractual labor law protections and a minimum wage for such workers. After three years of debate, and after Perez had left the council, those protections became law in 2008 and gave domestic workers contractual labor rights they still lack in most of the United States.Protected immigrant workers from losing pay: Perez would take over the Dept. of Labor in the middle of Obama’s push for immigration reform, and he has experience dealing with immigration and labor issues. While serving in the Justice Dept., Perez investigated claims that employers were using Alabama’s new immigration law to avoid paying immigrant workers. “We continue to be concerned that certain employers may be using HB56 as an excuse not to pay workers,” he said, adding that he would “throw the book” at employers who weren’t paying workers. “We’re here. We will prosecute you. That is impermissible, period.”

Republicans are already teeing up their series of objections to Perez, from whether he accurately represented the role of political appointees in decisions about the New Black Panther Party case (not whether he politicized decisions, mind you, but whether he unknowingly was inaccurate about things that happened before he arrived in the Justice Department) or a Minnesota fair housing case that has Sen. Chuck Grassley upset. So we can likely expect a lengthy confirmation process, if not another outright filibuster. But if and when he’s confirmed, Perez looks likely to be a real champion of working people.

This article was originally posted on the Daily Kos on March 18, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

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

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