Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Low wages’

With All Eyes on DACA, the Trump Administration Is Quietly Killing Overtime Protections

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

On September 5, the administration of Donald Trump formally announced that they won’t try to save Obama’s overtime rule, effectively killing a potential raise for millions of Americans. This disturbing development has largely slipped under the radar during a busy news week, marked by Trump’s scrapping of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Twenty-one states and a number of business groups sued the Obama administration last September, after the Department of Labor (DOL) announced the new rule, accusing the former president of overreach.

That lawsuit led to Amos Mazzant, a federal Obama-appointed judge in Texas, putting the rule on hold last November, shortly before it was set to become law. On August 31, Mazzant struck the rule down, and—less than a week later—Trump’s Department of Justice (DOJ) declined to challenge the District Court’s decision. In a court filing, a DOJ lawyer said that the administration would not appeal.

The Obama administration’s rule would have raised the overtime salary threshold considerably. The threshold hadn’t been increased by any administration to adequately reflect wage growth or inflation, which means that many workers only see overtime pay if they make less than about $23,660 a year. Obama had scheduled that number to be bumped up to about $47,476 after reviewing 300,000 comments on the subject.

“The overtime rule is about making sure middle-class jobs pay middle-class wages,” former Labor Secretary Tom Perez told reporters on a call after the rule was announced in May 2016. “Some will see more money in their pockets … Some will get more time with their family … and everybody will receive clarity on where they stand, so that they can stand up for their rights.”

While the overtime rule faced predictable opposition from Republicans and business groups, it also received backlash from some liberal advocacy organizations. In May 2016, U.S. PIRG, the popular federation of non-profit organizations, released a statement criticizing Obama’s decision. “Organizations like ours rely on small donations from individuals to pay the bills. We can’t expect those individuals to double the amount they donate,” said the group.

Critics of the statement pointed out that U.S. PIRG’s opposition suggests they have employees not being paid for overtime despite their low wages. The group was slammed by progressives for supporting a regressive policy when it benefited their economic interests.

The DOL claimed that the rule would mean a pay increase for about 4.2 million Americans, but the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) contends that the DOL’s figure is far too low. According to EPI, the DOL’s analysis fails to take the impact of George W. Bush’s overtime policies into account and relies heavily on statistics that were generated before he took power. EPI estimates that, because of changes to employee classifications in 2004, roughly 6 million workers had their right to overtime destroyed.

The EPI’s study of the overtime rule determined that about 12.5 million workers would have been impacted if it had been implemented. A wide range of workers would have potentially seen a pay increase, including 6.4 million women, 1.5 million African Americans and 2.0 million Latinos, the EPI concludes.

“Once again, the Trump administration has sided with corporate interests over workers, in this case, siding with business groups who care more about corporate profits than about allowing working people earn overtime pay,” Heidi Shierholz, who leads the EPI’s Perkins Project on Worker Rights and Wages, told In These Times.

The Trump administration’s move might be disappointing for workers’ rights advocates, but it’s hardly surprising. As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump vowed to kill the overtime rule if elected. “We have to address the issues of over-taxation and overregulation and the lack of access to credit markets to get our small business owners thriving again,” he said in an interview. “Rolling back the overtime regulation is just one example of the many regulations that need to be addressed to do that.”

While many pundits have focused on Trump’s unrelenting series of failures and scandals, his administration has quietly waged a fairly successful war on labor. In addition to nixing one of Obama’s most notable policy achievements, the Trump administration is also poised to stack the National Labor Relations Board with a pro-business majority, has proposed major cuts to the Labor Department and has rolled back safety protections for workers.

Last month, Bloomberg reported that Trump’s Labor Department had created an office specifically designed to reconsider government regulations. The office will be run by Nathan Mehrens, the anti-union lawyer who is also in charge of the department’s policy shop.

Trump geared much of his campaign rhetoric toward the U.S. worker, vowing to dismantle exploitative trade agreements and bring back jobs. However, his administration has simply emboldened the anti-labor forces that have dictated economic policy for decades.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on September 7, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

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

Enormous, Humongous August Trade Deficit Prompts Trade Deficit Bill

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

dave.johnsonThe U.S. Census Bureau reported Wednesday that the August trade deficit rose 3 percent to $40.73 billion from July’s $39.5 (slightly revised). Both exports and imports rose, with imports rising more than exports. August exports were $187.9 billion up $1.5 billion from July. August imports were $228.6 billion up $2.6 billion.

The goods deficit was $60.3 billion, offset by a services surplus of $19.6 billion.

Imports from China increased 9.5 percent.

Is Increased “Trade” Good If It Really Means Increased Trade Deficits?

“Trade” is generally considered a good thing. But consider this: closing an American factory and firing its workers (not to mention the managers, supply chain, truck drivers, etc affected) and instead producing the same goods in a country with low wages and few environmental protections, then bringing the same goods back to sell in the same stores increases “trade” because now those goods cross a border. This is how “trade” results in a structural trade deficit. Goods once made here are made there, the economic gains move from here to there.

Offshoring production can be a good thing, but only in a full-employment economy. This is because with everyone employed companies can’t find people to do things that need to be done. Meanwhile workers in other countries need the jobs. The people there can afford things made here, and trade balances. Everyone benefits.

But since the 1970s the US has used “trade” and other policies to intentionally drive unemployment up and wages down, to the benefit of “investors” (Wall Street) and executives, who then pocket the wage differential. This pushes the economy’s gains to a few at the top, increasing inequality, which increases the power of plutocrats to further influence policy in their favor.

The US has run a trade deficit since the 1970s. Coincidentally, see this chart:

The stagnation of wages for working people just happens to correspond with the introduction of the intentional “trade” deficit. Again, “trade” in this case means deindustrialization: closing factories here, opening them there and bringing the same goods across a border to sell in the same stores.

Trade Deficit Reduction Act

This week Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) introduced a bill designed to identify and reduce our enormous, humongous trade deficits. RochesterFirst.com has the story, in Slaughter introduces legislation to reduce trade deficits,

On Monday, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter unveiled the Trade Deficit Reduction Act, which calls for a change in how we approach international trade in order to benefit our workers.

The legislation would put a government-wide focus on addressing the most significant trade deficits that exist between the United States and other countries. The U.S. has run trade deficits since the 1970s.

… “The last thing our community needs as we work to reignite our manufacturing base with advanced technologies like optics and photonics is to undo this progress by enacting another NAFTA-style trade deal. We need a whole new direction in our trade policy, which is why I am standing with workers from PGM Corp. today to unveil the Trade Deficit Reduction Act. This legislation will change how we approach international trade and make it benefit our workers and manufacturers,” said Slaughter.

The bill would require the administration to identify the countries with which the U.S. has the worst trade deficits.

The bill also directs the administration to develop plans of action to address the trade deficits with those countries, with strict deadlines and oversight from Congress.

The intentional trade deficit and other policies to drive up unemployment and drive down wages greatly enrich a few, but history tells us the consequences are dangerous to society. For example, the rising support for Trump and other far-right populists like him around the world.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on October 6, 2016. Reprinted with Permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

Low-wage jobs are taking over the American economy

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

Laura ClawsonWhat do you say if you’re opposed to raising the minimum wage, but don’t want to seem completely heartless? For many Republican lawmakers, the answer is some version of this: “The minimum wage is a starting wage. It’s how you gain the experience you need to move up to higher wages.” Problem is, pay rates that are too low to live on or raise a family on are not a just-starting-out phenomenon in the U.S., as a new report makes crystal clear. Low Wage Nation starts with a conservative definition of “living wage,” setting it at $15 an hour, even though that’s enough to live comfortably on in only a few states. Despite that:

  • A large proportion of workers are not earning living wages: Nearly two of five existing jobs pay less than $15 an hour.
  • Nearly half of new jobs are low-wage jobs: About 48 percent of projected national job openings do not pay $15 or higher. In analyzing individual states, that percentage ranges from 35 percent (Massachusetts) to 61 percent (South Dakota).
  • There are not enough living wage jobs to go around: Nationally, there are seven times more jobseekers than there are projected jobs paying $15 or higher, leaving workers seeking better wages with few options.

The fastest-growing occupations are low-wage jobs that contribute to this trend: “Among the top 10 occupations with the most projected job openings, just one has a median wage greater than $15 an hour. The four occupations with the greatest projected number of job openings are in retail and food service, with median wages ranging between $8.81 and $10.16 an hour.” The upshot is that the vast majority of people looking for work aren’t going to find jobs that pay a living wage because those jobs do not exist.

This is just one of the reasons it’s not enough to say “I want people to have something better than the minimum wage” while opposing an increased minimum wage. The American economy is like a game of musical chairs, and there will be nowhere near enough good-job chairs to go around as long as chair availability is determined by corporate CEOs. That’s why the government needs to step in to improve the situation dramatically.

This blog originally appeared in dailykos.com on January 27, 2015. Reprinted with permission

About the Author: Laura Clawson is Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

D.C. Strikers Demand “More Than The Minimum” For Federal Workers

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

Dave JohnsonShould our government be for good jobs with good wages and benefits – the things most of We the People want in our lives? Or should it be for bad jobs, low wages, no benefits – the very things that a wealthy few (who like to call themselves “job creators”) have become known for, just so they can pocket that pay difference for themselves?

In other words, who is our government for? The broad masses of regular, working people or a very few already-wealthy people?

President Obama has used executive orders to boost the minimum wage and raise workplace standards for employees of federal contractors.

Campaign for America’s Future, Progressive Congress, Good Jobs Nations, and a coalition of progressive organizations have released a “More Than The Minimum” plan calling on President Obama to use Executive Actions to make the federal government a “model employer” by further raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour with decent benefits, and giving federal contract workers the right to collectively bargain.

Please sign this Good Jobs Nation Petition:

Join Progressive Congress, Good Jobs Nations, and a coalition of progressive organizations, calling on President Obama to use more Executive Action to help federal contract workers by raising the minimum wage to $15/hr and giving workers the right to collectively bargain.

A Strike Drives The Point Home

As Laura Clawson reported at Daily Kos, several hundred government contract workers in Washington held a strike Thursday to protest their low wages. Led by Good Jobs Nation, they are calling for a higher minimum wage and allow the workers to unionize.

Five members from the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) joined government contract workers who shared their struggles to make ends meet on their hourly salaries to call for a higher minimum wage and allow the workers to unionize.

??Joseph Geevarghese, director of Good Jobs Nation, said:

“In red states, and blue states alike, Americans voted to pass ballot measures to raise wages and improve working conditions. Brothers and sisters, our president kicked off the national movement to raise wages when he signed the executive order to raise wages for low wage workers. Before the ink on the order was dry, CEOs from companies like the GAP, IKEA and Disney followed the president’s example and raised pay for their workers. Not only that, but the mayors of cities such as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia followed the executive order to raise wages for their contract workers.”

“Is $10.10 enough to raise your family? Is $10.10 enough to chase the American Dream?”

Thomas Jones, a worker in the Capitol said,

I’m a contract worker for the US Capitol. I cook meals for congressmen, lobbyists, and the workers upstairs. but the workers in the basement live in poverty. i’m going on six years [at this job] and struggling to get by on $12 an hour. I have a dream of getting married and raising a family. I’ve done all the right things. Mr President, we are calling for good jobs and a union.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said,

We need to raise the minimum wage and we need to do it now. $10.10 is not enough. Minimum wage? Do you want a minimum marriage? Do you want a minimum coat in the winter time? Would you like minimum transportation? A minimum car means you might get there, you might not. Better than nothing, but not good enough. We need a livable wage, and we need union representation, collective bargaining. Because workers need to be able to say to the people on the other side of the table ‘we are the people that keep this place clean, we keep this place safe, without us this place does not work. If the CEO does not show up, nothing happens, if we don’t show up, this place stops.”

I heard you when you said you want something better for your children. What’s wrong with that? We are standing at the Capitol, and it’s a stain on us all, the members of congress, that you do not have enough pay to meet your basic necessities, even though you work hard.

People talk about job growth. ‘Oh we have this much job growth, we have this many months of job creation.’ That’s good. I know there’s a number of jobs out there, I know people that have three of them.

Geevarghese also said:

This strike is fundamentally about the type of democracy that we want to have. Do we want to have an economy that the handful, the few, rake in all the wealth and leave people like Dawn struggling to keep food on the table and shelter over their heads. That’s the choice that’s in front of us, what kind of country are we going to have? Today, as taxpayers we are demanding that our taxpayer dollars go to create good jobs and help these workers live the life they are called to live.

This blog originally appeared in OurFuture.org on November 14, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://ourfuture.org/20141114/dc-strike-drives-home-the-point-more-than-the-minimum-for-federal-worke

About the Author: Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

Seattle Mayor and Sea-Tac Airport Worker Urge American Cities to Lead the Fight to Raise Wages

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

seiu“Please take what we did in Seattle and export it across the country,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray told a crowd Wednesday during a panel discussion on the minimum wage at the Center for American Progress.
Also speaking at the CAP event was SeaTac Airport worker Socrates Bravo. He says the national minimum wage debate is about more than finances; it’s about families.

As a ramp agent for SeaTac subcontractor Menzies Aviation, Bravo has to work more than 20 hours of overtime per week to try to make ends meet. His hectic schedule means sacrificing valuable quality time with his 2-year-old daughter.

“She is asleep when I get home and still sleeping when I leave for work,” he says. “It’s very sad but missing our children growing up is the reality for me and other co-workers.”

Bravo discussed the impact of big businesses using bad contractors to hold down wages and benefits in cities across the nation at Wednesday’s panel which included SEIU Executive Vice President Valarie Long, SEIU Healthcare 775NW President David Rolf, CAP Action Fund President Ted Strickland, UCLA Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Michael Reich, and Nick Hanauer of Second Avenue Partners.

Bravo also told how airport workers in partnership with the community have fought successfully to pass Proposition 1 in SeaTac.

Although the bill to increase SeaTac’s minimum wage is being fought in the courts, airport workers have helped build momentum among workers and elected officials in Washington. Earlier this year, Seattle City Council passed its $15 minimum wage bill. Just last week, 33,000 Washington home care workers won a new union contract with hourly wages above $14 and a retirement plan.

Bravo hopes these victories will inspire other cities and Congress to take action to address the challenges mothers and fathers face while working hard to provide for their families.

Low wages are especially unfair for airport ramp workers like Socrates who put their lives on the line every day. Since 2006, four Menzies workers have died following accidents at US airports. Last week, and American Airlines contract worker died in Detroit.

“The fight at SeaTac airport that spread to Seattle is not just about receiving a $15 an hour minimum wage. It’s about fairness, dignity and respect,” Bravo said. “It allows a voice to the voiceless. It allows us to live a life. As parents, we just want to give our children an opportunity to live a better life than we lived.”

“This blog originally appeared in the SEIU Blog section on September 12, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://www.seiu.org/2014/09/seattle-mayor-and-sea-tac-airport-worker-urge-amer.php

Why Port Truckers Are Striking: 12-Hour Shifts, Noxious Fumes and $12.90 Paychecks

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

sarah jaffe“We are on strike today to have respect and dignity at work,” says Walter Melendez, one of approximately 40 Los Angeles port truck drivers who walked off the job at 5a.m. morning in protest of alleged unfair labor practices. The strikes featured the rolling “ambulatory pickets” that the truckers have excelled at—chasing down trucks as they leave the port and setting up picket lines in front of them.

Melendez works for California’s Green Fleet Systems, a company that moves freight from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to nearby distribution hubs. The drivers have filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board charging that the company retaliated against them for pushing forward with a drive to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The push continues even as, according to Melendez, the company does its best to intimidate workers: pulling them into one-on-one meetings to dissuade them from unionizing, and even following and photographing them engaging in organizing activities outside work. Melendez believes that more Green Fleet drivers would have joined the strike this morning, had they not been deterred by these tactics.

In total, some 100 port truckers from three different companies—Green Fleet, American Logistics International and Pacific 9 Transportation—walked off the job today in a coordinated effort to raise working standards. Unlike the truckers at Green Fleet, who are employees, the workers from Pacific 9 Transportation are considered independent contractors. They argue that this is an illegal misclassification because they have none of the benefits of real independence—such as being able to set one’s own hours or work for different companies. Meanwhile, their bosses deduct operating costs from their paychecks, something that would be illegal if they were indeed employees. More than 50 Pacific 9 drivers have filed claims with the California Labor Commissioner alleging that this practice has robbed them of more than $7 million in wages. According to the labor federation Change to Win (which is backing much of the port trucker organizing), hundreds of similar claims filed in recent years by port truck drivers have all resulted in “substantial penalties” for the employer.

“They’ve taken from us everything that a human being needs to have a decent life,” says Daniel Linares, who’s worked for Pacific 9 for seven years as a so-called independent contractor.

Linares says that he and his colleagues marched to Pacific 9 management offices today and attempted to deliver a letter collectively explaining why they were on strike, but no one would come out to meet them. Eventually, Linares says, one worker was allowed to go inside to deliver the letter.

Los Angeles is not the only port where drivers are speaking out. Militancy has increased in recent months among port drivers around the country, whether classified as employees or independent contracters. Last month, a self-organized coalition of port truckers held a wildcat strike to protest the costs of new environmental regulations for the Port of Oakland being dumped entirely on their shoulders. Savannah, Ga., port truckers recently crashed a City Council meeting to ask for the city government’s support for their efforts to improve their jobs, and last summer, drivers at ports in New York and New Jersey became the latest port truckers to join the Teamsters.

As I wrote this summer, a report from the National Employment Law Project and Change to Win likened the situation of the independent contractor drivers to “sharecropping on wheels,” because the drivers have to pay for their own trucks and maintenance costs. In return, they are paid only by the load—meaning that time that they spend sitting in line at the port awaiting another load, breathing the fumes from their own trucks, is time unpaid.

Paula Winicki, a research and policy analyst for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy,breaks down the costs that Pacific 9 deducted from a single contractor’s paycheck: $125 a week for the lease of the truck, $530.05 in fuel, $50 for repairs, other miscellaneous deductions for parking, insurance, permit and license fees, and more, that with fuel, repairs and lease add up to $962.90. The paycheck for one week after the deductions was $12.90. Winicki notes that these issues are endemic to port trucking companies, so leaving wouldn’t help much. And in any case, once they sign a long-term lease for a truck with Pacific 9 or another company , “They’re tied to the company. … If they walk away, they lose a truck— and maybe get sued for breaking the lease agreement.”

Even the Green Fleet workers, who are actual employees, face the problem of piecework at the ports. Says Melendez, “When we started they told us [we’d get paid] by the hour, and then when we started working they’re like, ‘We pay you guys by the truckload.’ It’s like they pay us how they want to pay us.”

That means constant pressure to work harder and for longer hours. One of the things Melendez wants to change is the 12-hour shifts he’s pulling. “After ten hours you get tired working in the trucks, our bodies and our eyes and everything get tired, they don’t understand us, they say ‘Keep going, keep going.’ ”

2009 study [PDF] from nonpartisan think tank Demos, authored by David Bensman, Professor of Labor Studies and Employer Relations at Rutgers University, looked at the roots of the crisis in port trucking: the Federal Motor Carrier Act of 1980. This piece of deregulatory legislation shifted costs onto workers and, Bensman argues, the public, leaving taxpayers to pay for increased pollution, at risk of traffic accidents caused by unsafe trucks, and picking up the health bills of workers who have no health insurance. Goods for companies like Walmart, Forever 21 and Skechers shoes are made cheaply overseas thanks to low-wage labor and then moved cheaply through the ports thanks to drivers shouldering much of the costs.

Bensman says that the way deregulation ”destroyed” the port trucking industry “speaks volumes about the neoliberal labor markets of our time.” He concludes:

The deregulation of the port trucking industry, which began in 1980, has achieved some of its goals of increasing competition and driving down freight rates, but the public cost of this success is now clear: Ports compete for business by abdicating responsibility for air quality, chassis and container safety, and labor standards. Logistics firms benefit directly from lower freight rates, but suffer indirectly from a broken, unreliable, inefficient drayage system, which cannot share business information in a transparent and timely manner.

Drivers like Melendez would love to have safer, cleaner trucks to drive, but when the cost of updating the trucks comes out of their wages, they have to choose between breathing and eating. This is a problem around the country—drivers in Savannah made the same complaints, as I reported before.

In other words, the workers aren’t the enemy when it comes to dirty air around the ports—they’re victims of a thankless system. The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports aims to take into consideration the workers’ issues alongside the environmental impact of the trucks—an impact that is usually felt in low-income communities that are nearest the ports—and includes labor groups such as the Teamsters and Change to Win as well as community organizations such as Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The support of community groups is key for short-term strikes by non-union workers, a tactic that has grown in popularity since Wal-Mart and fast-food workers took to it over the past year. Without a union contract, the best protection workers have against increased retaliation by the bosses is the watchful eyes of supporters who show up to join the picket lines and then walk them back to work the next day.

And as workers from different companies strike together in coordinated fashion, they multiply the impact they can have on their whole industry. “The companies are a little scared because it’s not [only] Pac 9, in the area, that is getting organized,” Linares says. “This is a general movement now.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on November 18, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belaboredpodcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.

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.

Fast Food Strikes Catch Fire

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

David MobergEarly this morning, fast food workers in New York, St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo. launched strikes demanding both a wage increase to $15 an hour—from a median of $8.94—and the right to form unions without employer interference.

Later this week, workers in Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and Flint, Mich., will also go out on strike, expanding the reach of the movement of fast food workers (and, in Chicago, retail workers) that started with protests in New York and Chicago last year and grew into a series of one-day strikes throughout 2013. In Flint and Kansas City, strikes are taking place for the first time; in other cities, strikes will expand to target new franchises.

Organizers anticipate that thousands of fast food workers will join in the strikes, which coincide with heightened public awareness of wage stagnation and economic inequality. Some strikers may stay out longer than a single day.

The fast food strikes are part of a broader movement by low-wage workers for higher pay and union representation that has caught fire over the past year.

Targets include a range of employers, including Wal-Martfederal subcontractorswarehousesretail stores and car washes. Workers have typically formed loose local organizing committees that, with financial and logistical support from unions and community groups are growing into national networks, most prominently OUR Walmart.

This low-wage service and retail worker movement has tapped into a vein of discontent. But it has also created hopes for change through the fledgling campaign’s remarkable success with imaginative tactics.

“I’ve always dreamt about a moment like this,” says Terrance Wise, a 34-year old fast food worker and father of three in Kansas City. “But what am I going to do by myself? There’s strength in numbers. It’s a beautiful thing, a positive thing, that’s going to change this country. … My job should be a good job.”

Although he works long hours at his two part-time jobs—8 years at Burger King (now for $9.35 an hour) and 2 years at Pizza Hut (for $7.45)—and his wife also has a low-wage job as a home healthcare aide, Wise struggles to make ends meet. He recently lost his house to foreclosure and had to move in with relatives.

Overall conditions in the industry have not changed as a result of the movement, but some workers have won improvements. In Chicago, organizers say, workers at some McDonald’s and Macy’s locations received modest pay increases after the April strike. Dock worker Andrew Little, 26, said that managers raised pay from $9 to $11.26 an hour for him and his coworkers after they participated in the Chicago strike.

“I was honestly shocked,” he said. “We told ourselves it wouldn’t happen overnight. My first thought was the strike really did have an effect.”  But Little remains focused on his “main goal”: to form a union. “We want both a raise and to sit down with management and talk about how we can better serve the store and the store can better serve us,” he says.

As happy as he is with his raise, he is especially pleased that no striker was fired or disciplined. “That’s the best part,” he said.  Like other strikers, he returned to work accompanied by supporters—a dozen community representatives, clergy and organizers—who insisted that he should not suffer any retaliation. Workers have a real fear of being fired, Little says, but that can be prevented “if enough of us all stand up and demand respect.”

Not all employers responded positively, at least not at first. After strikes in St. Louis in May, some participating workers lost hours, pay, shifts or promised transfers, according to Jobs With Justice leader Rev. Martin Rafanan. But Jobs With Justice delegations went to the restaurants and talked with managers, corporate representatives or even, in one case, the corporate general counsel. “All of the cases were resolved in favor of the workers by the well-coordinated responses of community leaders,” he says.

There’s only one documented case of a striker being fired during this year’s wave of fast food job actions: Greg Reynoso, from a Brooklyn Domino’s. Fast Food Forward, the New York branch of the movement, responded by making his employer the first target of the current strike. On Friday, organizers report, 14 of 15 Domino’s delivery drivers did not show for work, effectively shutting down the operation on its busiest night. Meanwhile, roughly 60 supporters, including U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), gathered outside the Domino’s to protest Reynoso’s dismissal.

The actions come at a time when issues of inequality and the minimum wage have taken the national stage. President Obama is on tour giving high-profile speeches on economic inequality, and a Hart Research poll shows that 80 percent of the public supports the proposal by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.35 to $10.10 in three steps.

Fast-food workers’ poverty wages were spotlighted last week when everyone, from Stephen Colbert to The Atlantic, made sport of McDonald’s for unintentionally debunking its own claims that it provides a living wage. A model budget McDonald’s created for its workers recommended holding two jobs (which is tricky with fast-food jobs, which require workers to be available on-call) and included nothing for heating, far less for health insurance than the cheapest McDonald’s plan, and other fantasies. Implicitly, the budget showed what strikers know: it’s hard to make ends meet on less than $15 an hour.

This article originally appeared on Working in These Times on July 29, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times, and has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976.

One In Four American Workers Will Be In Low-Wage Jobs For The Next Decade

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

waldron_travis_bioThe share of the economy made up by low-wage jobs has grown since the Great Recession, and according to one new study, it won’t shrink in the future even as the economy continues to recover. The number of Americans working in low-wage jobs — those that pay wages equal to or below the poverty line — will remain steady over the next decade, according to the Economic Policy Institute, as CNNMoney reports:

Some 28% of workers are expected to hold low-wage jobs in 2020, roughly the same percentage as in 2010, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute.

The study defines low-paying jobs as those with wages at or below what full-time workers must earn to live above the poverty level for a family of four. In 2011, this was $23,005, or $11.06 an hour.

The study is the latest to detail the growth of low-wage occupations in the United States. A recent report from the National Employment Law Project found that more than one in four private sector workers now make less than $10 an hour, an even lower threshold than was used in the EPI study. The five industries that are comprised mostly of low-wage workers, meanwhile, are growing faster than the overall American economy.

While the number of low-wage jobs has increased, so has the gap between low-wage workers and the executives who employ them. The federal minimum wage would need to be raised by more than $3 an hour to match the buying power it had in 1968, and overall wages in the U.S. have been virtually stagnant for decades, even as pay for chief executives has risen exponentially. At the 50 companies that employ the largest number of low-wage workers, chief executives made an average of $9.4 million last year.

This blog originally appeared in Think Progress on August 2, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Travis Waldron is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Travis grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and holds a BA in journalism and political science from the University of Kentucky. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he worked as a press aide at the Health Information Center and as a staffer on Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway’s 2010 Senate campaign. He also interned at National Journal’s Hotline and was a sports writer and political columnist at the Kentucky Kernel, the University of Kentucky’s daily student newspaper.

Hotel Workers Stiffed Millions In Wages, Lawsuit Alleges

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Dave JamiesonMore than a dozen low-level hotel workers in Indianapolis have filed a class-action lawsuit against ten of the city’s hotels and a labor staffing agency, claiming they were routinely cheated out of pay with the knowledge of hotel management.

The workers — most of them Hispanic immigrants employed as housekeepers, dishwashers and bussers — say they were forced to work off the clock and through their unpaid breaks, sometimes pushing their earnings below the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The suit could potentially involve more than a thousand workers and millions of dollars in claims, according to the hotel workers union UNITE HERE, which is organizing workers in Indianapolis.

The employees named in the suit worked for a labor agency called Hospitality Staffing Solutions (HSS), which provides lower-rung workers to hotel companies like Hyatt on a temporary basis in cities across the country. On its website, HSS declares itself a client’s “secret weapon for improving service while cutting costs — 12% annually, on average.”

A HuffPost report in August chronicled how the outsourcing of work to HSS has led to a two-class system within certain hotels, as lesser-paid agency workers toil alongside better-compensated direct hires. Several Indianapolis hotel workers told HuffPost then that the agency shorted them on their wages and threatened them with dismissal if they couldn’t finish their work in the allotted time. The CEO of HSS said at the time that any instances of unpaid wages were honest mistakes and that the company took the allegations seriously.

Management at Georgia-based HSS could not immediately be reached for comment. This isn’t the first time the company has been sued by workers. A former manager in Pittsburgh once filed a lawsuit claiming he was fired because he stood up for housekeepers who weren’t being paid what they were owed. The company has also been criticized for an advertisement it ran in a hotel trade publication that showed tiny workers inside a vending machine, apparently ready for purchase.

The HSS-staffed hotels named in the Indianapolis lawsuit include Embassy Suites, Marriott, Westin, Hyatt, Holiday Inn and Omni properties.

Martha Gonzalez, 28, one of the workers now suing, tells HuffPost she worked at Hyatt and Marriott properties as an HSS employee earning the minimum wage. She says that she was required to come in early and prepare her housekeeping cart before punching in, and that she often wound up working through her lunch break or clocking out to finish work at the end of the day, to avoid being punished. She says she quit last summer.

“I was sick of getting a check that didn’t meet my family’s needs,” Gonzalez, who’s from Mexico, says through a translator. “Every check was just too small. I was so tired of working in a place under pressure, getting calls from the manager, ‘Are you finished? Are you finished?'”

Plaintiff Anastasia Amantecatl, who worked for HSS as a housekeeper at a Marriott, claims that she was compelled to show up two hours before her shift actually started each day. “This was necessary for her to complete her required number of rooms for the day,” the lawsuit states. “She was not compensated for this time nor was she paid the required overtime premium for this time.” The lawsuit alleges that between 20 and 25 housekeepers found themselves in a similar situation at the hotel.

Many hotel workers in Indianapolis have told HuffPost that their workloads have increased in recent years as their wages have remained flat or even gone down. Workers and their advocates partly blame the outsourcing of previously in-house jobs for deteriorating work conditions.

A hotel company can save money by shifting some of its workforce to a company like HSS, since it would no longer be responsible for providing costly worker benefits. But workers employed by labor agencies are technically temps, sometimes going years on end without receiving health coverage or pay raises. Similar temp outsourcing has become widespread in the warehousing and logistics industries, where many workers blame the temp model for their low wages and lack of benefits.

Officials with UNITE HERE argue that the outsourcing at hotels has hidden costs for the city and state, such as the taxpayer-funded health care that many agency workers’ families end up using. “I don’t think the taxpayers of Indianapolis should be the ones to subsidize these workers because these corporations don’t want to [provide] living wages and benefits,” Becky Smith, a union organizer, told HuffPost last summer.

Salvador Perez, a 38-year-old father of two from Mexico, is also named in the hotel lawsuit. He says that he worked for HSS for the last few months of 2011, earning the $7.25 minimum wage as a dishwasher. He claims he would regularly work a 40-hour week but end up being paid only for 35. He says he’s suing with his colleagues to recover back wages and “end the exploitation that’s happening at hotels downtown.”

“We struggled to pay for diapers for our baby,” Perez says. “We had to go to food pantries and churches to feed our families. They always said, ‘It’ll come with the next check, it’ll come with the next check.’ But it didn’t.”

This article appeared in The Huffington Post on January 9, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Jamieson is the Huffington Post’s workplace reporter.Before joining the D.C. bureau, Jamieson reported on transportation issues for local Washington news site TBD.com and covered criminal justice for Washington City Paper. He’s the author of a non-fiction book, Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, and his stories have appeared in SlateThe New RepublicThe Washington Post, and Outside. A Capitol Hill resident, he’s won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and the Hillman Foundation’s Sidney Award.

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