Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘unions’

Inside the Case That Could Hold McDonald’s Responsible for Union-busting

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

Andrew ElrodThe National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) complaint for unfair labor practices against the McDonald’s corporation inched forward in a Manhattan courtroom last month.

Lawyers representing the company, its franchisees, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the government met to discuss the future of a case that could lay the groundwork for union representation and collective bargaining at the country’s largest fast food brand.

McDonald’s “entire business model is put at risk” by the litigation, Jones Day’s Willis Goldsmith told Administrative Law Judge Lauren Esposito during the three-hour hearing. If Esposito finds that the company’s oversight and workforce management policies make it a “joint employer,” as the charging parties contend, it could be held responsible for the working conditions in its franchised stores. Nation-wide, 90 percent of McDonald’s stores are owned by franchises.

During the hearing Esposito required McDonald’s to deliver over 700 documents relating to the structure of the corporation to the government and the union.

“The evidence will show that McDonald’s directed or helped direct how to deal with employees at the franchised facilities in response to protected activities,” said Jamie Rucker, General Counsel for the NLRB.

If the judge found coordination that established joint-employer status, the Board would be able to hold McDonald’s liable for illegally retaliating against workers who engaged in activity protected by the National Labor Relations Act in the Fight for 15 protests and organizing campaign, and eventually to be named as a party in collective bargaining for those stores.

But before that can happen, the board must prove that both McDonald’s and the owners of its franchised stores “share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment” or “meaningfully affect” employment issues such as hiring, firing, discipline, supervision and direction of work. The Board believes it can prove joint employer status with information from the shift scheduling software the company provides to its stores, as well as communications between company and individual locations. Evidence and testimonials are to be presented beginning May 26.

“McDonald’s is a complicated company”

While forcing McDonald’s to produce information about the management of its franchised stores, Judge Esposito did revoke subpoenas for information about a corporate-owned restaurant in Illinois. The Board and SEIU had sought the information to compare with management practices at franchised stores, where the company says corporate directives are considered “optional.” If management at both the franchised and non-franchised stores were sufficiently similar, Rucker argued, the “optional” suggestions from McDonald’s could be shown to establish joint-employer status.

Asked about the exact relationship between McDonalds Illinois, the subpoenaed store, and McDonalds USA, the national company, Goldsmith explained that “McDonald’s is a complicated company.”

The Board and the unions also requested details about McDonald’s USA’s corporate structure. But Jonathan Linas, also of Jones Day, explained that finding that information would not be so easy. “There’s no one organizational chart,” Linas said.

“The entire organizational structure of McDonald’s USA will not be produced,” he said. “I don’t know [if] it exists. We’ve been looking a long time and we don’t have one.”

Credible Allegation

The stakes of the proceedings are high and McDonald’s has hired the law firm Jones Day, which oversaw the bankruptcy and restructuring General Motors and the City of Detroit, to lead its defense.

McDonald’s business model in part rests on its exemptions from liability for the working conditions at its franchised stores. But even if these exemptions were to change, it is unclear what the implications for the rest of the fast food industry would be.

First, a finding of joint-employer status would have to survive in federal court, an institution notoriously unfriendly to workers’ collective action. And then it would only apply to the specific locations and conditions named in the complaint.

“As soon as there is some kind of a determination that an employer is a joint employer, the company just restructures the relationship,” says Michael Duff, a law professor at the University of Wyoming who worked at the NLRB for nine years. “And then you get another round of litigation.”

Because the joint-employer status would only apply to franchises named in the consolidated case, Duff explained, organizing campaigns through the NLRB could only occur at those stores. However, he added, an expanded joint employment standard could facilitate organizing at other similar franchises in the future.

“Once you have a broader way of thinking about the employment relationship, it opens up more kinds of workplaces to the credible allegation that this is a joint-employer relationship,” said Duff.

The charging parties are skeptical that McDonald’s workforce management systems can be restructured. Citing an April 2014 statement by then-CEO Dan Thompson, they allege the company has responded to falling profits with a “reset” plan that requires the company to take greater control of staffing and scheduling to maximize in-store revenues.

Guarded Campaigns

In its defense, the McDonald’s is arguing that any coordinated response at its franchised stores against protected activity was lawful-employer free speech, protected under the NLRA.

Under the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the Act, Goldsmith explained, McDonald’s has “the absolute unfettered right to engage in non-coercive free speech in response to attacks on the brand.” Coordination on these grounds, he argued, does not constitute joint-employer status.

To establish its case, McDonald’s subpoenaed information on the internal workings of SEIU’s campaign, including internal documents from the union, the public relations firm Berlin Rosen and two investigative firms.

“We are entitled to find out who they talked to and what they spoke about,” Goldsmith said, referring to one of the investigative firms hired by the SEIU which may have spoken to workers. The union countered that revealing the insides of its campaign would have a “chilling effect” on organizing, as the fast food corporation could threaten those revealed with retaliation.  On Thursday, April 10, Esposito revoked the subpoenas against SEIU and the third parties.

Open-ended future

The pace of the proceedings since workers began protesting in 2012 also gives some sense of the scope of the campaign drive being led by SEIU.

Since November 2012, at least 310 charges of illegal retaliation against workers engaging in protected activity have been filed by workers and their representatives. Over 100 of these charges have been found to have merit, and as of February 13, the Board had filed 19 complaints across 14 administrative regions across the country—offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Manhattan. As the protests have continued, so have the unfair labor practice charges filed by the union.

If McDonald’s is found to have coordinated a national response to protesting workers, as the Board is arguing, that could prove that the company exercises more control over the workers in its stores than it claims.

Such a finding would be initially limited and establish a legal basis for collective bargaining at just a handful of stores. However, the finding could facilitate traditional NLRB organizing across the heavily franchised service sector, forcing the company to bargain with workers who opt for union representation.

SEIU has made a considerable investment (“over $18 million at least,” said Goldsmith) in an open-ended campaign with little promise of immediate returns. The current case in front of the NLRB shows that the union is far from guaranteed from obtaining new dues-paying members any time soon, making the union’s investment an incredibly risky gamble—something most unions would be loathe to even consider.

The campaign has sparked a nation-wide movement that has already won minimum wage increases and raised entry-level pay for workers across the retail and fast food industries. Whether that momentum will translate into joint-employer status or fast food worker union membership may depend on the ruling handed down in Judge Esposito’s courtroom.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on April 29, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The Author’s name is Andrew Elrod. Andrew Elrod is a writer living in New York. He is a contributor and former intern at Dissent, and his work has also appeared in Labor Notes. He is from Texas. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewelrod or reach him at [email protected]

What’s the hottest smartphone feature? How about a unionized wireless carrier

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

davidIsn’t it funny how much we need our smartphone?

It’s not so different than how we depend on our union.

Finding a way to support both means giving our families the best, from companies that are giving their best to their workers.

If you’re a union member who hasn’t chosen a unionized wireless carrier (or maybe didn’t think to look!), here are some things to consider.

Supporting good jobs.

When you’re choosing a cellular plan, your first thought probably isn’t about the technicians, customers service representatives and retail store personnel that make the mobile magic happen. You’re probably thinking most about data plan savings, or the dilemma of choosing a smartphone with the best features.

But being union is all about having each other’s back, and an out of sight, out of mind attitude allows wireless companies to treat labor as just the “cost of doing business.”

As we ask ourselves about our new smartphone’s camera resolution or cost of service, maybe we should also be asking does our wireless carrier…

  • Respect workers’ right to organize a union?
  • Support collective bargaining?
  • Have union contracts to provide good, middle class jobs and health care benefits?
  • Have a fair grievance procedure to resolve workplace disputes?

When companies hire union labor, their workers live better. That’s a real upgrade.

Creating a better economy.

Even as televisions, tablets, and smartphones dual for our attention, many of us are still eagerly awaiting the release of the latest smartwatches. The point couldn’t be clearer; we just can’t get enough gadgets.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But as more of our dollars flow out of our pocket and into our cellular plan, we should seriously consider where that money is invested. And the best investment, as we know, is the middle class.

And it is a big investment! Consider this:

  • More than 60% of Americans pay more than $100 for their phone plan.
  • More than 50% pay $200 or more.
  • One in five people spend more on their cellular plan than food each month.

As mobile technology becomes more ingrained in our daily lives, the shift in consumer spend should create more good jobs to keep our economy moving. Our money should be creating middle-class consumers, the true job creators.

Union members can save with Union Plus. AT&T is the country’s largest private union employer, with some 120,000 organized workers, and the only major U.S. wireless company with a union workforce. Union members who choose Union Plus AT&T Discount Program can save:

About the Author: David Tindell is a Marketing Assistant for Union Plus. He joined Union Plus in 2012, and has written about union benefits for the Union Plus Consumer Bargains blog since 2013. Union members looking to keep up most up-to-date, union-exclusive savings is to sign up for the Union Plus E-Newsletter. Click here to get started >>

 

Unions Can’t Beat Right to Work Just By Calling It ‘Unfair’—They Must Fight for Everyone

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

randwilsonWisconsin is now the 25th state to adopt a so-called “right-to-work” law, which allows workers to benefit from collective bargaining without having to pay for it.

It joins Michigan and Indiana, which both adopted right to work in 2012. Similar initiatives, or variants, are spreading to Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico and West Virginia—and the National Right to Work Committee and the American Legislative Exchange Council probably have a well-developed list of additional targets.

Without aggressive action, the right-to-work tsunami will sweep more states. To defeat it, the first step is committing to fight back, rather than resigning ourselves to what some say is inevitable.

Everyone’s Interests

We’ll have to go beyond what we’ve mostly been saying so far, which is that right to work is “unfair” or “wrong.”

That argument certainly works for most union households and many of our community allies. But the real challenge is to convince a much broader public that a strong (and fairly-funded) labor movement is in their interest and worth preserving. Clearly most Americans aren’t yet convinced.

Many unions over the last few years have undertaken important campaigns along these lines. For example, teachers unions have positioned themselves as defenders of quality public education. Refinery workers have struck for public safety.

Nurses and health care unions have fought for safe staffing to improve the quality of care. And most notably, the Service Employees (SEIU) and others have waged the “Fight for $15” for fast food and other low-wage workers.

In its own way, each union is working hard to be a champion of the entire working class. Yet with the exception of SEIU’s Fight for $15, each is essentially focused on the issues of its core constituency at work. This still limits the public’s perception of labor.

Supporters of right to work cynically play on the resentment many workers feel about their declining standard of living. Absent a union contract, the vast majority have few, if any, ways to address it. To most, organizing looks impossible and politics looks broken.

Workers’ understandable frustration is fertile ground for the far right, which promises to improve the business climate and create more jobs by stripping union members of their power.

Thus, when we anticipate right to work’s next targets, the best defense should be a good offense—one that clearly positions labor as a force for the good of all workers.

‘Just Cause for All’

Here’s one approach that would put labor on the offensive: an initiative for a new law providing all workers with due process rights to challenge unjust discipline and discharge, “Just Cause for All.”

Such a law would take aim at the “at-will” employment standard covering most non-union workers in the U.S. At-will employees can be fired for any reason and at any time—without just cause.

While such a major expansion of workers’ rights as Just Cause for All would be unlikely to pass in most state legislatures—Montana did it in 1987, but it’s still the only one—it could become law in states that allow ballot initiatives.

A well-orchestrated attack on the at-will employment standard would force the extreme, anti-worker, and big business interests who back right to work to respond. If nothing else, imagine how competing initiatives would force a debate. On one side, extending due process protections and increased job security to all workers: a real right-to-work bill. On the other side, taking away fair share contributions for collective bargaining.

This strategy isn’t untested. When the Coors beer dynasty backed a right-to-work ballot initiative in Colorado in 2008, labor collected signatures for a counter-initiative, “Allowable Reasons for Employee Discharge or Suspension,” which would have overturned at-will employment. (Labor also supported a proposal that would have provided affordable health insurance to all employees and a measure to allow workers injured on the job to sue for damages in state courts.)

Fearing that the just cause proposal might pass, centrist business people offered a deal. In exchange for labor withdrawing its proposal, they provided financial support and manpower that helped labor defeat right to work in Colorado. (For more on this story, read Raymond L. Hogler’s “The 2008 Defeat of Right to Work in Colorado: Is it the End of Section 14(b)?” in Labor Law Journal.)

While it’s unfortunate that the labor initiative didn’t go before Colorado voters, the result was still encouraging—and instructive. By championing the interests of all workers, labor split business and blunted the right-to-work effort.

To win back “fair-share” participation in the three new right-to-work states and stop further attacks, we’ll need well-planned campaigns that include grassroots mobilization, direct action, paid and earned media, and focused electoral work.

Just Cause for All campaigns should be part of the strategy. Even if we lose, campaigns for due process and job security for all will help shift the debate on right to work, leave the labor movement stronger—and make labor and its allies once again the champions of the “99%.”

This article originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on March 18, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rand Wilson is policy and communications director at SEIU Local 888 in Boston.

Union benefits that could save your home

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

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One out of every 200 homes will be foreclosed according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. For a city the size of Washington, DC, that’s as much as 3,000 homes per year. And what does foreclosure look like?

 

According to the Homeownership Preservation Foundation:

  • 32% experienced a job loss.
  • 25% experienced a health crisis.
  • 85% have already missed one mortgage payment.
  • Most have no savings, no available credit, and extended families have limited resources.
  • Most have first-time loans, less than three years old.

These are scary situations, but not necessarily uncommon ones. Although foreclosures and delinquencies have dropped to pre-2007 levels, knowing what to do can be the difference that saves your home. If you are a union member, you have resources available when things go bad, and to help make sure things don’t get worse.

  • Union Plus save my home hotline: This program is provided through the non-profit Money Management Institute (MMI), and is accredited to provide counseling for labor union members facing foreclosure. This program has the largest network of local offices, for those who don’t prefer counseling by phone.

 

  • Union Plus Mortgage Program – The Union Plus Mortgage program can help you purchase a home while also receiving special benefits by virtue of your union membership. Once you have a Union Plus mortgage for a year or more, you’re protected by a unique mortgage assistance program administered through the AFL-CIO Mutual Benefit Plan. The Union Plus Mortgage Assistance provides interest-free loans and grants to help make mortgage payments when you’re disabled, unemployed, locked out or on strike. The program has provided over $10.6 million in assistance to union members.
  • Foreclosure resources from the AFL-CIO – Knowledge is power when it comes to saving your home. The AFL-CIO’s website has a robust list of information regarding what to do in this situation, including:
    • Rights during foreclosure
    • Federally approved housing counselors
    • Legal Assistance
    • And information regarding negotiating a mortgage modification with your bank
  • AFL-CIO Community Services Network – The AFL-CIO Community Services Programs were established to improve the lives of workers and their families by connecting to their human and social services needs. Some of the services they provide include an emergency assistance fund, information and referral services, lay-off & strike preparation, and educational workshops.

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About the Author: David Tindell is a Marketing Assistant for Union Plus. He joined Union Plus in 2012, and has written for the Union Plus Consumer Bargains blog since 2013.

 

A Legacy Remembered

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Gebre

Every February, people across the country celebrate Black History Month. We honor the  heritage and struggle of African Americans in the United States while looking with hope  toward the future. This year, I am honored to look back at organizers and activists who  inspire me daily in my work as a leader in the labor movement. The history of the  modern labor movement, which is positioned to speak, fight and win on behalf of all  workers, is filled with strong black figures who fought for civil and economic justice  during a time when justice was not guaranteed for all.

When I arrived in the United States at the age of 15 as a refugee of war-torn Ethiopia, I  struggled to take care of myself financially while also trying to focus on my academics.  When I started college at Cal Poly Pomona on an athletic scholarship, I also got a job as a night shift loader for UPS as a member of Teamsters Local 396. UPS was my first union job, and it opened my eyes to the world of labor and all of the trailblazing African American organizers who had come before me.

People like Bayard Rustin, who persevered in the face of threats and violence in his efforts to organize workers on behalf of the trade unionists. Despite enduring multiple arrests and beatings, Rustin continued in his work and went on to help organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom alongside A. Philip Randolph, another great African American labor leader. The March on Washington was the largest demonstration the United States had ever seen, bringing together hundreds of people in the struggle for better jobs and better lives.

Thanks to the work of activists like Rustin and Randolph, all African Americans have moved closer to achieving the goals of justice and equality set forth by the civil rights movement. Rustin and Randolph are important examples of the positive role unions and collective action play in the African American struggle for economic justice. Today, African American union members earn 28% more than our nonunion peers and are far more likely to have good benefits that help us raise families. But there is still work to be done.

Now more than ever, the struggle for civil rights must include good jobs that raise wages and an economy that works for all. Without good jobs, there is no real freedom. While African American union members are weathering the economic downturn with the aid of collective bargaining, our nonunion brothers and sisters are suffering. Today African Americans have a 10.4% rate of unemployment in the United States, compared to a 4.8% rate for white Americans.

It’s time for the next generation of leaders to take up the torch and work on behalf of all workers. I am grateful for the inspiration that past African American leaders have left behind for me. This proud legacy continues to motivate fellow activists who are fighting for justice today. Let’s get to work and make them proud.

This article originally appeared at  The Huffington Post on February 9, 2015. Reprinted with permission from AFL-CIO Now.

About the author: Tefere Gebre is the Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO.

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

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. .

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

Friday, August 30th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strike in Colombia Highlights Free Trade Failure

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

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

The Strike

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

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

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

Reasons For Strike

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labor Murders In Colombia

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

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

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

The Common Dreams report drives this home,

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

Effect Of US-Colombia Agreement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NAFTA Wiped Out Small Mexican Farmers, Sending Them North

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

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

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

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

China Trade

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

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

No Jobs From Trade Deals

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

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

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

Promises, Promises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cato offered promises for Colombia as well,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware

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

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

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

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

T-Mobile US Workers Unite for Respect

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Image: Mike HallWith a new website—TMobileWorkersUnited.org—workers at T-Mobile US are connecting with each other to build strength in their drive for workplace justice and respect.

Working with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), T-Mobile Workers United (TU) is an alliance of hundreds of call center representatives, retail associates and technicians who are standing up to discuss the issues and challenges they face at the new T-Mobile US, a merger of T-Mobile USA and MetroPCS.

For the past several years, T-Mobile workers say they have faced an extensive anti-union campaign by the company that last year closed seven call centers in the United States and shipped more than 3,300 jobs overseas.

Before the merger, MetroPCS shared T-Mobile’s U.S. job-killing record. The company “outsourced all of its customer contact center services to maintain low operating expenses” through a partnership with Telvista, a call center outsourcer. Good American jobs are now going to Mexico, Antigua, Panama and the Philippines, according to MetroPCS’s 10-K filing.

Ronald Ellis, a T-Mobile US call center worker in Nashville, Tenn., writes on the new website:

With the recent acquisition of MetroPCS (9 million no-contract customers, and no customer service based in the USA), the winds of change are blowing. T-Mobile USA stopped employees’ raises and stopped the phone incentive for employees. We feel if we don’t unite soon, more call centers may soon be on the chopping blocks for downsizing.

The workers say they want this new company to succeed, and they believe that justice and respect in the workplace are essential for that success.

In 2011, CWA, ver.di, the German union that represents workers at T-Mobile’s parent company Deutsche Telekom, and a coalition of community and labor groups around the world, partnered on an international campaign to win workers a voice and respect at T-Mobile. Read more about the global campaign here and here.

This article originally appeared on AFL-CIO NOW blog on August 19th, 2013.  Reposted with permission. 

About the Author:  Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety

Oil Drilling Boom Boosts Boilermakers, Other Shipyard Unions

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Bruce Vail

Unionized workers at Aker Philadelphia Shipyard breathed a collective sigh of relief late last week with news that an agreement to build as many as eight new oil tankers has been finalized. The investment, estimated to be worth $1 billion, should keep the yard humming for the next four years.

The contract to build the new ships means that some 1,000 workers will continue to be regularly employed beyond next year, when the yard will complete most work on two crude oil tankers now under construction for a shipping subsidiary of ExxonMobil Corp. Recent years have seen some lean times at the shipyard, with employment falling to 400 as recently as 2011 when new orders for vessels were hard to come by, says Aker spokesperson Kelly Whittaker.

“It’s feast or famine in this business, so we’re really happy they [Aker] got the contract,” says Phillipp J. Evans, a regional representative for the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers & Helpers. The Boilermakers union represent about two-thirds of the workers at the Aker yard, Evans estimates, with the remainder represented by local units of 10 other unions organized into the Philadelphia Metal Trades Council.

The Aker Philadelphia contract is welcome news also because it confirms a national rebound in commercial tanker construction, adds Ron Ault, President of the AFL-CIO’s Metal Trades Department (MTD), which represents unionized shipbuilders around the country. In May, shipyard employees in San Diego got a similar boost when a company called American Petroleum Tankers signed a contract for new vessels at the General Dynamics NASSCO yard there. Some 800 workers are expected to be hired to complete that contract, according to a NASSCO statement.

Rumors are rife that there are further tanker orders in the offing, most of which are related to an unusual rise in the U.S. production of crude oil, Ault says. Increased shale oil drilling—largely in the Bakken region of North Dakota and the Eagle Ford geologic formation in Texas—are flooding the domestic market with new crude, and the oil industry is scrambling to line up tankers to move the crude to refineries and then ship the refined petroleum  products to consumers.

Largely absent from most discussions of the tanker resurgence is the environmental impact of the drilling increase. Most of the new oil is thought to displace imports from the Middle East or Africa, so there appears to be little net impact on total oil consumption or the resultant air pollution. With a decision due soon from federal government authorities on whether the Keystone XL pipeline will go forward, it is a tricky moment in relations between environmentalist and organized labor, and neither side seems anxious to worsen the situation by introducing new, potentially divisive issues. And for the Boilermakers and other unions that build tankers and equipment for the energy industry, environmental concerns rarely register.

Shipping industry experts are startled by the tanker boom. Tim Colton, a retired shipbuilding executive who writes the popular blog Maritime Memos, commented Aug. 9:

It’s amazing to think that it’s not very long ago that it was safe to say that all the… (U.S.-flag commercial tanker construction) was done, which it was, and here we are building ships like crazy, with a bunch more still to be ordered.  This upheaval in the domestic product trades is the most exciting thing that’s happened in the industry in decades, especially as there’s been almost no growth in these trades since the 1970s.

The excitement was accentuated in June when Reuters reported that ExxonMobil had chartered one U.S.-flag tanker at the astonishingly high rate of $100,000 per day. Controlled by the Koch Shipping and Supply Company (owned by the notorious Koch brothers), the vessel American Phoenix was reported to be earning 50 percent more than similar vessels at the same time last year. With charter rates at these levels, operating U.S.-flag tankers is estimated to be a very profitable enterprise that will spur construction of additional ships.

The lively tanker market also has an effect on the barge industry, which along with pipelines and railroads is an important player in the oil transport sector. For example, barge builder Jeffboat reported in late July that it was adding about 100 new jobs to help fill orders for tank barges. Coincidentally, Teamsters Local 89 ratified a new contract covering about 800 of its members at the Jeffersonville, Ind. yard at about the same time.

Back in Philadephia, Boilermakers’ Evans adds that the new tanker contract there should provide some respite also from political attacks on Aker Shipyard, and also on the Jones Act, the law that requires ships carrying cargo between U.S. ports to be built here and crewed with U.S.civilian seafarers.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have been subjected to intense criticism since 1998 for a series of efforts to financially aid the shipyard’s conversion from a military facility to a commercial yard, and the unions have come in for their share of attacks, he says. Such attacks have been most intense when the yard has struggled, while the benefits of such aid are most apparent when the yard’s order book is full.

Attacks on the Jones Act itself (particularly from big business interests and their Republican Party allies) are almost constant, adds MTD’s Ault. Complaints typically focus on the high cost of building ships in U.S. yards, compared to dramatically lower prices for similar vessels from countries like South Korea or China. But American labor has always argued that the ships are worth the price because they support U.S. jobs and are crucial to the country’s manufacturing base. Shortages of U.S.-flag tankers invariably prompt new calls for doing away with the Jones Act, Ault says, but strong labor union support for the law has been successful in blocking repeal efforts in the past. Today’s unusual conditions in the U.S. domestic tanker market can be expected to draw fresh fire against the Jones Act, he predicts, and unions will have to stand ready to defend the law again.

This article originally appeared on Working in These Times on August 14, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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