Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘labor’

Freelancing Ain't Free

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

When is the moment in time for a freelance writer that a late payment becomes wage theft, and what do you do about it?

 For A.J. Springer, who recently moved to the District of Columbia, the line was April 27, 2017, when he went public in a Chicago Tribune news story about the $1,755 owed him at the time for pieces he wrote for the magazines Ebony and Jet.

It’s hard to step forward as a freelance writer, and publicly demand payment. “A lot of people were uneasy or afraid to speak out. There are no protections for freelancers, and a lot of people are afraid of losing future work,” Springer said.

The Establishment first broke the nonpayment story, which spurred Larry Goldbetter, president of the National Writers Union (NWU)/UAW Local 1981, to start emailing and calling writers to say his union could help.

The NWU has a long history of fighting for freelance writers, filing suit against media companies in the 1990s to win back pay for those whose works had been sold and resold to databases. (Some writers actually received checks in the mail, out of the blue. As a freelance writer at the time in Boulder, Colorado, I was one of them.)

When Goldbetter reached Springer, he immediately joined the NWU, and so did other unpaid Ebony and Jet freelance writers.

Goldbetter says the list has been growing week by week since the campaign to get Ebony and Jet to pay hit the mainstream.

Six writers had come forward in early May. After Labor Day, the NWU filed a lawsuit against Ebony Media Operations and its parent company, Clear View Group, for allegedly violating the contracts of 37 freelance writers, editors and others who are collectively owed more than $70,000. The case was filed in Cook County, Illinois.

“Oftentimes, freelancers are at the mercy of the publications they write for,” Goldbetter said. “They often lack union protections other workers have and many are afraid of being blackballed for speaking up about nonpayment.”

Earlier in August, the National Association of Black Journalists presented Ebony with its Thumbs Down award, and unpaid Ebony writers attended the conference for free.

The decision to go public has paid off, at least in part, for Springer. He received about $1,100. He’s one of the writers suing the magazines.

Early in his journalism career, when Springer was still a high school student in Las Vegas, he learned of the power of the press. He interviewed the new school superintendent, who used a racial epithet. When the story broke, the superintendent was fired.

Now, with a master’s degree and more than a decade of paid writing and radio work behind him, Springer is thoughtful about a different kind of power—the kind you build together, through communication.

“When this issue came up, I was in a position to speak loudly and boldly,” he said. And so he did. “I knew if I lost any potential work, I’d be OK. It was important to organize and to speak out.”

As Media Focuses on Russia Collusion, Trump Is Quietly Stacking the Labor Board with Union Busters

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

It might not get as much press coverage as other Donald Trump administration calamities, but the U.S. president is set to appoint a known union buster to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), push the body to a Republican majority and reverse Obama-era protections that rankle Big Business.

On July 13, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held hearings on Trump’s two NLRB selections and his deputy labor secretary pick. All three of these men are expected to be confirmed.

William Emanuel, one of Trump’s NLRB appointees, is a management-side attorney and a member of the conservative Federalist Society. He is also a shareholder of Littler Mendelson, an infamous union busting firmthat was most recently brought in by Long Island beer distributor Clare Rose to negotiate a contract full of pay cuts.

After being selected, Emanuel disclosed 49 former clients and declared he would recuse himself for up to a year if any of the companies found themselves in front of the NLRB. The list included multiple businesses that have clashed with the labor board, including JPMorgan Chase Bank, MasTec Inc, Nissan and Uber.

Uber’s ongoing skirmishes with the NLRB have, perhaps, been the most publicized. At the end of 2016, the ride-share company battled with the NLRB after the agency sent out subpoenas aimed at gleaning information about whether Uber drivers were statutory employees.

In 2016, Emanuel authored an amicus brief that defended class-action waivers in employment contracts. Workers often depend on class actions to fight sexual and racial discrimination, and their existence is an important part of upholding wage laws. The NLRB ruled that such waivers were illegal under Obama.

Emanuel was asked about Littler Mendelson’s anti-union work by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. “You have spent your career at one of the country’s most ruthless, union-busting law firms in the country,” she said. “How can Americans trust you will protect workers’ rights when you’ve spent 40 years fighting against them?”

In response, Emanuel claimed that he would be objective whenever making decisions for the agency.

Emanuel is not the only appointee raising concern among workers’ rights advocates. Marvin Kaplan, another Trump nominee to the NLRB, is a public-sector attorney and current counsel to the commissioner for the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. The Kaplan pick excites business executives and their advocates, who envisioned him helping overturn Obama-era labor regulations.

At the time of the announcement, Kristen Swearingen, chair of the anti-union group Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, declared that “Marvin Kaplan will begin to restore balance to an agency whose recent and radical decisions and disregard for long standing precedent have injected uncertainty into labor relations to the detriment of employees, employers and the economy.”

The excitement is well-founded. Kaplan served as counsel for Republicans on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The New York Times reports, “The committee held hearings during his tenure scrutinizing prominent NLRB actions in which the witnesses skewed toward business representatives and other skeptics.” Kaplan also helped develop the The Workforce Democracy and Fairness Act, legislation that would kill a labor board rule that shortened the amount of time between when the board authorizes a workplace unionization vote and when the vote actually takes place. Since 2014, the number has been set at 11 days. But this act would increase it to at least 35, thus allowing more time for union efforts to be squashed. The legislation hasn’t passed in congress yet.

Concerns do not stop at the NLRB. Trump’s Labor Department nominee is Patrick Pizzella, a Federal Labor Relations Authority Member who was grilled by Minnesota Senator Al Franken on his ties to the infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Pizzella worked with Abramoff during the 1990s to exempt the Northern Mariana Islands from federal labor regulations.

The Senate has only been in session for 10 days since the Pizzella and Kaplan nominations, and only four days since Emanuel’s. A group of civil rights and labor organizations sent the committee a letterasking for the hearings to be postponed. During her opening remarks, Sen. Patty Murray called Trump’s attempt to jam through the nominees without proper oversight “unprecedented.”

Roughly 10 workers representing the pro-labor organization Good Jobs Nation stood up during Thursday’s hearing, put blue tape over their mouths and walked out of the room in silent protest. Groups like Good Jobs Nation are concerned about a pro-business majority in the agency amidst Trump’s proposed cutsto the Labor Department.

Trump is putting the NLRB in the position to undo a number of important Obama-era labor decisions. His NLRB could potentially reverse rulings that made it easier for small groups of workers to unionize, established grad students as employees, put charter school employees under NLRB jurisdiction, and held parent companies jointly liable for with franchise operators who break labor laws. Writing about the imminent anti-union crackdown on this website in May, Shaun Richman wrote, “Unions and their allies should be convening research teams to plot out a campaign of regulatory and judicial activism. That work should begin now.”

Early in the hearing, Washington Senator Patty Murray asked Emanuel if he had ever represented a union or a worker. Emanuel explained that he worked exclusively for management for his entire career. “You just don’t do both,” he told her. “It’s not feasible.”

This piece was originally published at In These Times on July 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

As Universities are Gutted, Grad Student Employee Unions Can Provide a Vital Defense

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

The exploitation of academic workers has simmered for decades. Now, buoyed by a National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate employees at private universities have the right to unionize, a new generation is organizing unions across private universities—defying a wave of pushback from administrations. Some students win (Columbia, Loyola). Some withdraw (Duke). Some get caught in a limbo of university appeals (Yale).

But all of these efforts are integral to the U.S. labor movement, as graduate workers challenge their own exploitation and the neoliberal decimation of the higher-education institutions that employ them.

I’m a graduate worker at Vanderbilt University and a member of the committee organizing to unionize 1,200 graduate employees. I attend graduate school out of a passion for learning, writing and teaching young people. I came here to critique Western intellectual history by analyzing social, economic and political issues. These matters impact my life and the lives of loved ones; they are not academic hobbies or intellectual fancies. Even lecturing is no mere academic exercise: Higher education is what fosters democratic citizenship. It cultivates capacities for critical self-reflection, engagement in public discourse and thoughtful participation in a rapidly changing world. We need these pursuits now more than ever.

I did not come to graduate school to spend thousands of dollars out-of- pocket to fulfill professional obligations while watching my institution insidiously cut funding opportunities for faculty and graduate workers. I did not come to graduate school to listen to administrators rebrand us as students gaining ‘experiential education opportunities’ rather than as employees teaching introductory classes, executing research programs, or building scholarly communities. Most importantly, I did not come to graduate school to bolster a system that abuses its workers, ignores academic rigor, overlooks sexual harassment allegations against distinguished (male) faculty, engages in unlawful labor practices and disregards the needs of its staff and faculty.

And yet, this system demands that I participate by providing constant intellectual, physical and emotional labor, despite minimal job security.

Many scholars have already exposed the decline of education and the poor labor conditions of university educators. In his 2011 The Fall of the Faculty, Benjamin Ginsberg published a devastating analysis of the decline of faculty power. More recently, Elizabeth Anderson’s 2015 Tanner Lectures at Princeton, published as Private Government, chronicled dictatorial employment practices. And last month, University of Michigan dual-Ph.D. candidate Maximillian Alvarez penned “Contingent No More,” a manifesto criticizing the laissez-fare academic culture that perpetuates the “neoliberization of higher education.”

These writers illuminate the struggles of a new generation of faculty and graduate workers in academia. Burdened by insurmountable student debt and confronted by the machinery of U.S. capitalism, we fight just to survive.

Recent struggles in higher education are part of a long history of economic exploitation and domination over workers, problems that have pervaded U.S. society since its racist, genocidal and profit-driven founding. Whereas in the 1970s almost 80 percent of faculty were full-time, universities today have shifted to a contingent employment model. Non-tenure track faculty now compose 70 percent of the academic labor force, 41 percent of whom are part-time. Graduate workers are 13 percent of the academic labor force, almost 5 percent more than full-time, tenure-track faculty.

Why? Because contingent labor is cheap, and no tenure means we’re expendable. This allows universities to slash salaries for faculty while expanding bureaucratic administrations that obstruct grievance processes and legal redress.

In fact, Business Insider reveals that tuition has increased by 260 percent since 1980, compared to the 120 percent increase in consumer items over the same period. So, where is that money going, if not to faculty and graduate employee salaries? It is going to university administrators, whose employment has increased by 221 percent from 1975 to 2008. In contrast, faculty employment has increased by only 3.5 percent.

All the while, faculty and students are left in the dark as to how university revenue is spent. The Illinois State Senate’s 99 Percent General Assembly 2015 Report on Executive Compensation notes that “tuition increases have coincided with a dramatic increase in administrative costs, including the size of administrative departments and compensation packages for executives.” Vanderbilt University’s Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos was cited by Forbes as the fifth-highest- paid university president in 2012, with an annual salary of $2.23 million. He and 35 other university presidents across America made over $1 million that year. Nearly 40 percent of university presidents are eligible for financial bonuses for increasing statistics like graduation rates, at the expense of faculty resources for research and conference travel.

For the administrative university, undergraduates—our students—have gone from ‘future leaders’ to ‘commodities.’

The generation of capital, rather than free and critical thought, is increasingly becoming the purpose of higher education. Deans see themselves as micro-CEOs, while provosts and chancellors view the university as a money-making venture. We instructors are the face of the university and provide the classroom education that students pay for, yet revenue we bring in doesn’t pay for our security. Instead, we are told that admission to a doctoral program is a gift, that our employers are benevolent, and that quiet gratitude is the only appropriate response to our conditions. They pretend this is enough to ignore watching us sink below a living wage, struggle with mental health with little support, and work ourselves to exhaustion.

This piece was originally published at In These Times on July 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sabeen Ahmed is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is interested in social and political philosophy and critical phenomenology. She is currently working to analyze refugee discourses through a critique of Western intellectual history.

A Day in the Life of a Day Laborer

Friday, June 16th, 2017

Come sunrise, the men fill the street corner, among them Luis, quietly sitting by himself, nurturing hopes for work today.

There was no work yesterday, nothing the day before and nothing for weeks.

Still, the 50-year-old Guatemalan, who didn’t want his last name used, waits in the growing heat, saying he has no other choice.

He waits even though he hates day labor work, because he says it is sometimes dangerous, barely enough to live on, and some of the men on the street corner have bullied and hurt him on the job.

The factory where he worked for almost a decade shut down a few years ago, he can’t find any work as a caregiver, and, he says, the factories aren’t hiring or they are shutting down.

He says he has papers to show he is a legal resident in the United States, but he suspects that many of the men standing around him don’t have that status.

That’s not the case for Carlos Sanchez, 70, and Gustavo Almaraz, 28, who are standing nearby. Carlos says he is Puerto Rican and Gustavo says he was born in the United States.

But they say that many workers lack papers and so they suffer. Often, the contractors who hire the men off the street corner “automatically think you don’t have papers,” explains Almaraz. And that’s a problem, because they want to take advantage of you. “Some of the people here (doing the hiring) are mean,” he adds.

The two also say they know how to take care of themselves.

Sanchez says he knows how to do a lot of jobs and how to deal with people, starting out decades ago as a migrant worker earning 35 cents an hour. And Almaraz says he has picked up enough skills that he can virtually take every job offered on the street corner.

“It’s all on you,” Almaraz explains. “You see a car coming in and you have to go up and say, ‘Hey boss, what do you need?’”

The secret is finding a good boss and somebody who needs you for a long time, he says. It also involves knowing, he says, when to walk away from someone who abuses you. “I had a good-paying job with an electrician, but he started to become disrespectful. He started to yell and insult me.”

Almaraz says he won’t work for less than $15 an hour, but surveys indicate laborers often earn minimum wages or less, and sometimes nothing. “Nobody can live on less than $100 a day,” Almaraz says.

Near them is a 65-year-old Mexican: a short, stocky, balding man, who says he has been doing day labor ever since coming to the United States without papers 12 years ago.

He hasn’t been able to find work and so he says he will take less than the others. “Sometimes they don’t pay. It’s very difficult. There is no work and everything is expensive,” he says in Spanish.

Time passes, and the men disappear from the street corner. Some are off to work, getting into the trucks and vans that pick them up.

As soon as someone pulls up onto the gasoline station’s street corner, the men rush them, huddling by the vehicle’s windows, bargaining furiously as they tout their skills. And some just wander off.

Not Luis. He sits waiting. Some jobs he won’t take.  “I have friends who were injured doing roofing, and they went home (to Guatemala) handicapped,” he says.

Not too long ago, he took a moving job with another worker. It was supposed to be an easy three-hour job. But the items they moved were so heavy, he sat at home for three days afterward, his hands shaking.

“A lot of people will do this work. They don’t speak the language so they have to. But I don’t have to,” he says.

He waits along with more than 100,000 others who gather daily on dozens of street corners across the United States, according to figures from 2006. It is a world, where workers are often cheated out of their wages, injured on the job and then left without medical care, according to a 2006 survey. Where workers who complain often suffer retaliation by employers who fire them, suspend them, or threaten to call immigration officials.

As the hours pass, Luis huddles in the scorching sunlight, watching out for anybody looking for a worker and a job he can do.

Most of the men are gone, but not him.

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on June 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East. He can be reached via e-mail at freedomwrites@hotmail.com.

This is Why Labor Should Care About Virginia’s Gubernatorial Primary

Wednesday, June 14th, 2017

Last year, I wrote about the open shop referendum in Virginia, calling it the most important election for the labor movement in 2016. While Virginia has been a “right-to-work” state since 1947, supporters of the referendum argued that a constitutional amendment was necessary to prevent Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring or future Democratic legislative majorities from overturning the statute.

In a year where the election of an anti-labor president coincided with votes in Alabama and South Dakota that affirmed the open shop, Virginia gave labor its brightest victory: Almost 54 percent of voters across the Commonwealth rejected the constitutional amendment. And the “no” vote was spread out across the Commonwealth, with places as disparate politically as urban Arlington and rural Accomack voting against the measure, which was bitterly opposed by Virginia’s labor movement.

Much like the open shop referendum last year, this year’s gubernatorial election in Virginia is significant for labor. It’s a chance to contest the open shop in a region that has long seemed closed to any pro-labor advances on the issue. The primary vote is set for Tuesday and the labor movement would do well to make its presence felt.

Spread of the open shop

Politically, the open shop has been something of a settled matter in most of the South.

One of the first open shop statutes passed in Florida in 1944. As Gilbert Gall recounts in his Labor Studies Journal article, leaders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) were slow to respond to the calls from its state affiliates for assistance in defeating the measure:

“…..President Green affirmed that the AFL wanted to help, but, he added, ‘it is expected that the Florida labor movement will do its part.’ He then chastised (Florida labor leader W.E.) Sullivan for the recent defeat of a liberal Florida Congressman, stating that he could not ‘understand why labor in Florida did not make a better showing.’ If it had, Green argued, it would have had ‘a tremendous moral effect’ against the coming Right to Work amendment, though exactly how he did not say.”

Floridians would go on to approve the measure with about 55 percent of the vote. While the open shop would end up spreading to places like Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa over the next three years, it was the South where the concept really took hold. By the end of the 1950s, nearly all of the southern states would have right-to-work legislation on the books.

A chance for change

Given that history, it may not come as much of a surprise that the political support for Virginia’s status as an open shop state has been bipartisan. The current governor, Terry McAuliffe, gave a speech to business leaders pledging his full-throated support for the law during his 2013 gubernatorial run and has stated that he would not seek to change it as governor.

This brings us to the Democratic gubernatorial primary this year, which features a race between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello.

Northam, a former state senator and erstwhile potential party-switcher, began the race as the favorite after Herring decided to forgo a run for governor and seek re-election as attorney general. He lined up the endorsement of McAuliffe as well as a fundraising advantage of about half a million dollars. Perriello, who upset arch-conservative U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode in the 2008 congressional election, has closed the gap by turning the election into a referendum on Donald Trump.

But here’s the reason why this election is so important to labor: Perriello has taken a strong stance against the open shop. In an article outlining his campaign’s “Plan For Working Families”, Perriello states that:

“Too often, workers in Virginia don’t get the protections they need to earn their rightful pay and maintain consistent hours. Wage theft, the denial of benefits, and reduced bargaining powers are all side effects of a long, sustained attack on workers’ rights in Virginia. Workers do better when they have strong unions, and the decline in union membership is a major reason why wages have effectively flat-lined since the 1970s. That’s why I oppose so-called ‘right to work’ laws that kneecap unions from helping workers bargain for higher wages.”

He has defended this stance in gubernatorial debates as well, noting that he would fight for a repeal of the law even though it is unlikely to pass through a General Assembly that is dominated by Republicans. Northam, on the other hand, has called for Democrats to focus on other labor issues such as sick leave and an increased minimum wage instead of “pick(ing) fights that we perhaps can’t win right now.”

Sick leave and a minimum wage increase are important, for sure, but without a strong labor movement, it is hard to get the popular groundswell needed to prod legislators to make positive moves on those issues, either. Democrats should be united in their opposition to a policy that drains resources from labor unions and seeks to undermine the growth and stability of the movement as a whole.

Another major victory for the labor movement in Virginia could have major implications for the AFL-CIO’s strategy in the South further down the line. We should ensure that such a big opportunity is not missed.

This article was originally published on Inthesetimes.com on June 12, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Douglas Williams is a doctoral student in political science at Wayne State University in Detroit, where his research centers around public policy, disadvantaged communities and the labor movement. He blogs at The South Lawn.

Hints of Progress for Labor in the United States

Friday, June 9th, 2017

With Donald Trump sitting in the White House and right-wing Republicans controlling Congress, there is not much for labor to cheer about on the American national political scene. In addition, the overall prospect for union organizing does not look very good. Republicans are pursuing policies at both the national and state level to further erode union membership. But with all the bad news, there have been some important victories at the state and local levels that can perhaps lay the groundwork for gains nationally in future years.

The most important of these battles has been the drive for an increase in the minimum wage. The national minimum wage has been set at $7.25 an hour since 2009. In the intervening eight years, inflation has reduced its purchasing power by almost 17%. Measured by purchasing power, the current national minimum wage is more than 25% below its 1968 peak. That is a substantial decline in living standards for the country’s lowest-paid workers.

However, the situation is even worse if we compare the minimum wage to productivity. From 1938, when a national minimum wage was first put in place, until 1968, it was raised in step with the average wage, which in turn tracked economy-wide productivity growth. If the minimum wage had continued to track productivity growth in the years since 1968, it would be almost $20 an hour today, more than two and a half times its current level. That would put it near the current median wage for men and close to the 60th percentile wage for women. This is a striking statement on how unevenly the gains from growth have been shared over the last half century.

The Obama administration tried unsuccessfully to make up some of this lost ground during his presidency. While it may have been possible in his first two years when the Democrats controlled Congress, higher priority was given to the stimulus, health care reform and financial reform. Once the Republicans regained control in 2010, increases in the minimum wage were off the table. Needless to say, it is unlikely (although not impossible) that the Trump administration will take the lead in pushing for a higher minimum wage any time soon.

Although the situation looks bleak nationally, there have been many successful efforts to increase the minimum wage in states and cities across the country in recent years. This effort has been led by unions, most importantly the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose “Fight for $15” campaign is pushing to make $15 an hour the nationwide minimum. The drive gained momentum with its endorsement by Bernie Sanders in his remarkable campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination last year. While Sanders was of course defeated for the nomination, his push for a $15 an hour minimum wage won the support of many voters. It is now a mainstream position within the national Democratic Party.

However, the action for the near term is at the state and local levels, where there have been many successes. There are now 29 states that have a minimum wage higher than the national minimum. The leader in this effort is California, which is now scheduled to have a $15 an hour minimum wage as of January 2022. With over 12% of the US population living there, this is a big deal. Washington State is not far behind, with the minimum wage scheduled to reach $13.50 an hour in January 2020. New York State’s minimum wage will rise to $12.50 an hour at the end of 2020 and will be indexed to inflation in subsequent years.

Several cities have also jumped ahead with higher minimum wages. San Francisco and Seattle, two centers of the tech economy, both are set to reach $15 an hour for city minimums by 2020. Many other cities, including New York, Chicago and St. Louis have also set minimum wages considerably higher than the federal and state levels.

What has been most impressive about these efforts to secure higher minimum wages is the widespread support they enjoy. This is not just an issue that appeals to the dwindling number of union members and progressive sympathizers. Polls consistently show that higher minimum wages have the support of people across the political spectrum. Even Republicans support raising the minimum wage, and often by a large margin.

As a result of this support, minimum wage drives have generally succeeded in ballot initiatives when state legislatures or local city councils were not willing to support higher minimums. The last minimum wage increase in Florida was put in place by a ballot initiative that passed in 2004, even as the state voted for George W. Bush for president. Missouri, which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in this century, approved a ballot initiative for a higher minimum wage in 2006. South Dakota, Nebraska and Arkansas, all solidly Republican states, approved ballot initiatives for higher minimum wages in 2014. In short, this is an issue where the public clearly supports the progressive position.

These increases in state and local minimum wages have meant substantial improvements in the living standards of the affected populations. In many cases, families are earning 20-30% more than they would if the minimum wage had been left at the federal minimum.

In addition, several states, including California, have also put in place measures to give workers some amount of paid family leave and sick days. While workers in Europe have long taken such benefits for granted, most workers in the United States cannot count on receiving paid time off. This is especially true for less-educated and lower-paid workers. In fact, employers in most states do not have to grant unpaid time off and can fire a worker for taking a sick day for themselves or to care for a sick child. So the movement towards requiring paid time off is quite significant for many workers.

This progress should be noted when thinking about the political situation and the plight of working people in the United States, but there are also two important qualifications that need to be added. The first is that there are clearly limits to how far it is possible to go with minimum wage increases before the job losses offset the benefits. Recent research has shown that modest increases can be put in place with few or no job losses, but everyone recognizes that at some point higher minimum wages will lead to substantial job loss. A higher minimum wage relative to economy-wide productivity was feasible in the past because the US had a whole range of more labor-friendly policies in place. In the absence of these supporting policies, we cannot expect the lowest-paid workers to get the same share of the pie as they did half a century ago.

The other important qualification is the obvious one: higher minimum wages do not increase union membership. The SEIU, the AFL-CIO and the member unions that have supported the drive for a higher minimum wage have done so in the best tradition of enlightened unionism. They recognize that a higher minimum wage can benefit a substantial portion of their membership, since it sets a higher base from which they can negotiate upward. Of course, it is also a policy that benefits the working class as a whole. For this reason, unions collectively have devoted considerable resources to advancing the drive to raise the minimum wage.

However, this has put a real strain on their budgets at a time when anti-union efforts are reducing the number of dues-paying members in both the public and private sectors. This will make it more difficult to sustain the momentum for raising minimum wages and mandating employer benefits. For this reason, the good news on the minimum wage must be tempered. It is a rare bright spot for labor in the United States in the last decade, but it will be a struggle to sustain the momentum in the years ahead.

This blog was originally published at CEPR.net on June 7, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:  Dean Baker co-founded CEPR in 1999. His areas of research include housing and macroeconomics, intellectual property, Social Security, Medicare and European labor markets. He is the author of several books, including Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer. His blog, “Beat the Press,” provides commentary on economic reporting. He received his B.A. from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Michigan

Veteran Organizer Gives Inside Look at the First $15 Minimum Wage Campaign

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

Back in 2011, as the Occupy Wall Street movement was still spreading through the country, a smaller standoff was unfolding at Sea-Tac, the international airport in the small, eponymous town between Seattle and Tacoma that serves both cities. Along with some of her coworkers, Zainab Aweis, a Somali Muslim shuttle driver for Hertz car rental, was on her way to take a break for prayer, when her manager stepped in front of the doorway.

“If you guys pray, you go home,” the manager said.

As devout Muslims, Aweis and her fellow staff were dedicated to praying five times a day. Because it only takes a few minutes, their employer had previously treated the prayers like smoke breaks—nothing to worry about. Suddenly, the workers were forced to choose between their faith and their jobs.

“I like the job,” Aweis thought, “but if I can’t pray, I don’t see the benefit.”

As she and others continued to pray, managers started suspending each Muslim worker who prayed on the clock, totaling 34.

The ensuing battle marked a flashpoint in what would eventually be the first successful $15 minimum wage campaign in the country. The story of these Hertz workers, and the many others who came together to improve their working conditions, is recounted in Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement, a new book by Jonathan Rosenblum, a leading organizer of the campaign.

As the labor movement finds itself in a state of crisis, Beyond $15 is both a timely history of a bold campaign’s unlikely victory and an inspiring call for a flexible, progressive and power-building vision of labor organizing.

The decades-long decline of union power and the recent rise of anti-union legislation have made organizing workers in even the best of conditions an uphill battle. At Sea-Tac, one might have thought it impossible. While organizing even a single workplace is a challenge, Rosenblum and others were hoping to organize many. Decades of restructuring and union busting in the airline industry meant that many low-wage workers at Sea-Tac worked for various contractors rather than the airlines themselves. Though many of the employees worked alongside each other and shared grievances, they did not necessarily have the same boss.

Worse than that, Sea-Tac airport workers weren’t guaranteed most federal rights to union activity because those rights do not fully cover contractors or transportation workers. Due to an antiquated law called the Railway Labor Act (RLA), airport workers are all but prohibited from striking and so-called disruptive activity in the workplace. And, if all of that wasn’t bad enough, many of the workers wanted nothing to do with a union. Some had already had bad experiences with unions and did not trust them, while others were refugees who wanted no part in anything that might attract the government’s attention.

That Rosenblum and his colleagues were able to achieve victory under such circumstances, alone, makes Beyond $15 an instructive read. The book’s detailed portraits of organizers, workers and their actions are a testament to bold and creative maneuvers, which were executed so well that they made a seemingly invincible corporation feel threatened by a united front of cabin cleaners and shuttle drivers. Rosenblum’s coalition of faith leaders and a team of worker organizers, closely tied to the community, led picket drives on luggage carts, co-opted shareholder meetings with defiant prayers and songs, made a successful bid to demand union recognition and launched a citywide ballot initiative that narrowly beat its concerted conservative opposition (and I mean narrowly–the initiative passed by 77 votes, a 1 percent margin).

But more than just a collection of war stories, Rosenblum’s purpose in Beyond $15 is to persuade other advocates to follow his lead. The book uses Sea-Tac’s success to argue for a “social movement union” approach to organizing that grounds labor advocacy in moral terms, challenges the existing economic and political order and broadens the definition of union organizing to include a wide swath of community groups and faith leaders rather than union members alone.

“Today’s expectation among most union leaders …. is that the organization providing the most dollars and staff get to call the shots,” Rosenblum writes. “But community allies bring other assets, like relationships, credibility, or cultural competence, which can’t be measured monetarily but are just as vital.”

To be sure, Rosenblum’s vision for labor organizing is not exactly new. Many progressive union leaders, particularly younger ones, would find his recommended principles obvious. Even the most powerful and ostensibly hierarchical union leaders would likely agree with many of his points. And while this kind of progressive vision is important, there are practical conundrums that cannot be resolved by Rosenblum’s call to “aim higher, reach wider, build deeper”—namely, a history of industrial segmentation, automation and the large number of workers in sectors where traditional models of union organizing simply aren’t feasible. Even when union heads fully prioritize grassroots organizing, coalition building and collaborating with faith leaders, as AFL-CIO head John Sweeney did in the 1990s, this strategy is not a panacea.

With Republican control of every branch of government, the rising popularity of “right-to-work” legislation and the increasing number of preemption bills that allow conservative states to nullify laws like the one passed at Sea-Tac, these challenges are only multiplying. It’s with that in mind that Beyond $15 may be exactly the inspirational fodder that organizers need. There may not be an easy fix for the tensions between grassroots organizing and newer forms of worker advocacy, but Rosenblum can attest that the problem need not be resolved to plod ahead. As he shows in his book, progressive organizing and coalition building can work alongside ballot initiatives and big unions, and victories can still be won—now.

 This article was originally published at Inthesetimes.com on June 2, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 
About the Author: Jonathan Timm is a freelance reporter who specializes in labor and gender issues. Follow him on Twitter @jdrtimm.

Civil Rights and Labor: Two Movements, One Goal

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

“A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.”

— A. Philip Randolph
One of our most celebrated labor leaders, A. Philip Randolph, an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, knew the connection between the labor movement and the civil rights movement was key to a truly inclusive democracy. He stood for access at the ballot box as well as to economic security—ideally through a good job with decent benefits and a union. Today, we find ourselves back in a place where our civil, economic, political and social rights are under constant attack. The violence we see against black youth—the heart-wrenching killing of Trayvon Martin, the homicide of Jordan Davis–the passage of “right to work” laws in states like Michigan, Missouri and Iowa that have deeply racist and divisive roots, and the constant attack on immigrant communities by the current administration affirm we still have work to do.

As trade unionists, labor leaders, parents and civil rights activists, we have dedicated our time, talent and resources to advancing the agenda for people who are simply working for a better life. We believe there has never been a more critical point in our nation’s history when it is so crucial for us to reconnect deeply the movement for working people with the movement for civil and human rights. We cannot forget that the March on Washington was about freedom, economic equity and good jobs. The intersection of human rights, civil rights and workers’ rights has always been a part of our struggles for independent power both here and abroad. We must continue to uplift those movements in an intersectional way to ensure we are able to win justice at the workplace and the ballot box to make a difference for those we serve.

This summer, one of the oldest and largest civil and human rights organizations, the NAACP, will come to the city of Baltimore for its annual convention. The NAACP has stood as a coalition partner to the labor movement since 1909. There are many organizations we as a movement value and partner with through shared program and the NAACP remains one of those core allies, despite the shifts that happen in the world around us. We have great leadership within both the labor movement and the NAACP. We have seen how powerful it is when leaders like AFT’s Lorretta Johnson stand shoulder to shoulder with the Rev. William Barber, leader of the NAACP North Carolina State Conference. We know our journey together must continue as we fight to assure that “the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.”

We must expand our vision by creating solidarity without borders so that working people will be treated with the respect we are due. Thus our history and our very purpose demand that we be in the forefront of the struggle to assure first-class citizenship to all people, of all colors, and all creeds without regard to sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. Our struggles are one; our hopes are one; our dreams are one. The past is not dead, it’s not even past.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on May 25, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: James Settles Jr., also known as Jimmy, serves as a vice president and member of the Executive Board at the UAW. He is a national board member and Labor Committee vice-chair of the NAACP. Robin Williams serves as the national vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). She is a national board member and Labor Committee vice-chair of the NAACP. Richard Womack Sr. is the emeritus assistant to the AFL-CIO president and former director of the AFL-CIO Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Department. He is a national board member and Labor Committee chair of the NAACP.

This week in the war on workers: Teacher pay is falling behind

Tuesday, August 16th, 2016

Laura ClawsonOh, those overpaid teachers:

  • Average weekly wages (inflation adjusted) of public-sector teachers decreased $30 per week from 1996 to 2015, from $1,122 to $1,092 (in 2015 dollars). In contrast, weekly wages of all college graduates rose from $1,292 to $1,416 over this period.
  • For all public-sector teachers, the relative wage gap (regression adjusted for education, experience, and other factors) has grown substantially since the mid-1990s: It was ?1.8 percent in 1994 and grew to a record ?17.0 percent in 2015.

Pay is just one symptom of a broader problem in how teachers are valued, though. Increasingly—promoted by standardized testing-driven education and the corporate education policy movement—teachers aren’t respected as professionals, as experts on what goes on in their classrooms. That shows up in pay levels but it also shows up in anti-teacher rhetoric and in curricula that force them to paint by numbers rather than exercising independent judgment.

  • Richard Trumka has done a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg’s Josh Eidelson. There’s lots there, including this on how to see union density rise again:

We went from being totally embedded in the community to being isolated and hunkering down and trying to hold on to what we had. Now we’re back, embedded in the community. And when we’re embedded in the community, unionism starts to flourish and grow, and you can’t be assailed, because you can’t assail the entire community and still survive. Scott Walker, who gives Wisconsin’s surplus away to corporations, now has a deficit and says, “See these workers? It’s their fault.” He won’t be able to get away with that, because we’re so ingrained in the community.

Pablo worked in the fields of Virginia for 18 years. Then in 2009, he was sent to work in North Carolina, an experience he will never forget. “The grower was violent,” he recalls, “he screamed at us, and everyone was afraid of him.” It was common knowledge that the grower kept a gun in his truck, and while he never openly threatened anyone with it, the message was clear: do your work and don’t complain.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on August 13, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011. Laura at Daily Kos

This week in the war on workers: Five million workers a step closer to overtime pay

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

President Obama’s long-awaited increase in overtime pay eligibility has taken the next step to being a reality—a reality that would mean five million American workers would get overtime pay if they worked extra hours:

The Department of Labor (DOL) has sent its finalized changes to the rule expanding who is covered by overtime laws to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), ThinkProgress has learned, one of the final steps before it can take effect.

President Obama announced an executive order in early 2014 to update the labor regulations that require employers to pay time and a half for working more than 40 hours a week. It took a bit more than a year, but in June of 2015 the DOL announced its proposed rule to increase the salary threshold to $50,440, more than doubling it from where it stands now, thus ensuring that anyone who makes that much or less will be covered. It also proposed updating other exemptions to narrow how many people could be denied overtime because they qualify as highly compensated or as an executive or professional worker. […]

But by releasing the final rule now, the DOL avoids the risk that it would get delayed even further by a Congressional “resolution of disapproval,” which would be an option after May 18. Once the rule is approved by OMB, it will likely go back to the DOL to be put into effect.

Affected workers will either get the same pay and more free time, or work the same hours and get more pay. And affected companies will lose a way to exploit their workers.

This blog originally appeared in dailykos.com on March 19, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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

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