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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.

Honeywell Plant Freezes Summer Vacations

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Mike ElkAt a time of year when many workers are taking family vacations, uranium workers at Honeywell’s plant in Metropolis, Ill. won’t have that option. On July 27, the company announced a vacation freeze. United Steelworkers Local 7-669, which represents workers at the plant, claims that the decision is just another salvo in a three-year-long battle by Honeywell to bust the union.

Honeywell is currently in the process of rehiring several hundred operations workers at the uranium plant who were laid off in July of 2012 when the plant shut down for earthquake-safety improvements requested by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Earlier this year, Honeywell began slowly rehiring the laid-off workers—both hourly union employees and non-union salary employees—to restart the plant. Now all but 21 of the 200 union employees have been rehired as the plant moves toward full operationality. But instead of rehiring the final 21 union workers, Honeywell is proceeding short-staffed and calling in workers on their days off to make up the gap.

In order to put pressure on the company to rehire the 21 laid-off union members, some union employees are refusing to work any overtime (and passing up the time-and-half pay). In response, Honeywell announced that because of the staffing shortage, no workers can take a vacation this summer.

In a July 27, 2013 email to employees, Honeywell Metropolis Operating Manager Jim Pritchett wrote:

Effective immediately, all vacations are cancelled and no further vacations are to be granted in operations including individuals’ days—that includes all hourly and salaried staff. The purpose is to assure we are staffed to support operations and to continue to get the remaining units on line so we can support our customers. … I am disappointed it has gotten to this but we have no choice due to employees not responding to call ins and taking care of their responsibilities…. This vacation freeze will be lifted as soon as the business needs of the plant are being effectively met by people coming when they are called.

The union speculates that Honeywell has an ulterior motive for not hiring the remaining 21 workers: It doesn’t want to rehire Local 7-669 President Stephen Lech. Under the union contract, Honeywell is obligated to rehire all of the laid-off union employees according to a mutually agreed upon list developed according to workers’ qualifications and seniority. The next person on the list is Lech.

“It’s directly targeting me for my work as union president,” says Lech, who thinks that Honeywell is trying to send a message about the length that the company is willing to go to crush the union.

The union says that instead of following the list, Honeywell has told the final 21 workers that they must compete against outside applicants and reapply for their jobs as if they were new hires directly off the street.

“It’s a violation of the contract,” Lech says. “How can Honeywell do it? Well, Honeywell does whatever they want.”

“It will take six months before the case even gets before an arbitrator and another six months before the arbitrator rules,” he says.

Workers are refusing overtime in the hopes that they can resolve the issue sooner. Many were planning family vacations and were outraged by the vacation moratorium.

“It’s a morally bankrupt company that punishes their employees for staffing shortages it created out of spite,” reads a text message to Working In These Times by one Honeywell employee who wished to remain anonymous for fear of being fired. “Two years ago we took their lousy contract and they’re still kicking us.”

Honeywell did not respond to request for comment for this piece.

Lech says that despite being laid off, he is undeterred from his work for the union.

“This absolutely will not stop me from doing my job,” says Lech. “Heck, I got more time than ever to work as union president.”

This article originally appeared on Working In These Times on August 12, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

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

We Cannot Build a Strong, Equitable Economy on Low-Paying Jobs

Friday, August 9th, 2013

Mary Kay HenryWhat started out last fall as a one-day walkout at fast-food restaurants to protest poverty-level wages and stand up for basic human dignity has transformed into a movement that has captured the public interest.

I’ve been privileged, especially in recent weeks, to talk to institutional partners, policymakers and media about why low-wage workers across the country are risking their jobs and forgoing a much-needed day’s pay to work toward a better future for themselves and their families. We will be better off when hardworking people have enough money in their pockets to put back into their communities and generate more jobs, and SEIU members are proud to back these workers in their pursuit of economic justice and better lives for their families.

I traveled to New York City on Wednesday, to talk to Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert about the fast-food strikes. How in the world did this happen? I told Kendall Fells, an organizer from Fast Food Forward, it is because of the courage of the strikers, such as Shay Kerr and Shakira Campbell.

Shay has worked at McDonald’s in East Flatbush, N.Y., for six months. She earns minimum wage and, because sometimes her hours are cut for no reason, she can’t rely on a set pay every week. Since she cannot make ends meet on her wages, she has been bouncing around shelters. She’s fighting for a union so she can make a better life for herself and her 6-year-old son. Shakira is leading an action tomorrow at her store to be put back on the schedule. Their stories echo stories I’ve heard from workers all around the country.

Shakira, Shay, and many others who I have had the privilege of meeting in recent months are helping the public understand that, contrary to what some believe, these positions aren’t being filled by teenagers. Anyone who thinks they are is nostalgic for a time that no longer exists.

More than 4 million people work in the food service industry. Their average age is 28. Many of these workers have children and are trying to support a family. The median wage (including managerial staff) of $9.08 an hour still falls far below the federal poverty line for a worker lucky enough to get 40 hours a week and never have to take a sick day. According to the National Employment Law Project, low-wage jobs comprised 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth in the last few years.

This means middle-class jobs are disappearing while low-wage jobs are growing. If we simply accept this as fact, then the divide between the haves and the have-nots will only grow worse. And that is just wrong.

We cannot build a strong, equitable economy on low-paying jobs. Corporate profits are at an all-time high. McDonalds earned $5.5 billion just last year; other fast-food restaurants and retail chains are similarly profitable. They can afford to raise wages.

Americans have a long history of sticking together to fight for something better. SEIU can be proud of how we are fighting on so many fronts, from winning commonsense immigration reform, to delivering on the promise of the Affordable Care Act, to telling our elected officials to invest in vital public services, and to organizing in various sectors to make sure workers have a voice in the workplace. All of our members are involved in these campaigns to help workers strengthen and grow our union. As we do it, we know we have to reach out to the growing service sector of low-wage jobs in retail and fast food.

We are united to make a path to power for all workers; winning a just society; and leaving the world a better and more equal place for next generations to come.

This article originally appeared on SEIU blog on August 8, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mary Kay Henry is the International President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Can McDonalds Make A Profit While Paying $15 An Hour?

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Bryce CovertWhile the average McDonalds employee in the United States makes just above the $7.25 minimum wage, that story is different in other countries. As Jordan Weissmann reports at The Atlantic, the minimum wage for full-time adult workers in Australia is $14.50 and McDonalds employees just negotiated a 15 percent raise by 2016. Yet the company has about 900 locations in the country.

Meanwhile, its profit margins at company-owned restaurants are higher in Europe than in the U.S. despite many countries there having a higher minimum wage. France’s minimum is about $12 an hour, and yet there are more than 1,200 locations there.

Residents of other countries pay more for their Big Macs, in part at least to make up for those extra costs, but the increase in prices is not drastic. Australians paid an average of $4.62 in U.S. dollars for a Big Mac in July and it cost $4.66 in the eurozone, while Americans paid $4.56. That’s a difference of about 6 to 10 extra cents, which would mean raising Big Mac prices a little over 2 percent in the U.S. to come equal with those in Europe.

Higher prices are related to the fact that the company does spend more on the cost of labor in other countries. In the U.S., it spends about 25 percent of its expenses on workers at the locations it owns, and franchises usually assume labor costs will take up about 30 to 35 percent. Worldwide, those costs have been found to come to closer to 45 percent of expenses. But the company reported nearly $5.5 billion in net income overall last year, up from about $2.4 billion in 2007, with more revenues coming from Europe than the U.S.

Australian locations have other ways to keep labor costs low, like exploiting a loophole that only requires an $8 wage for teenagers. Weissmann also reports that the company likely gives its higher paid European employees more responsibility and so ekes out more productivity from those workers. While productivity has risen in the U.S., wages haven’t.

But it’s clear, even to the company itself, that its American wages are not enough to get by on. It released a sample budget for employees that suggested paying nothing for heat, getting a second job, and spending just $20 a month on health care. While it claims to be an above minimum wage employer in the U.S., its average wages are mere cents more.

The inability to get by on its low wages has sparked pushback from workers across the country, with fast food workers striking in nine different cities. They are calling for a $15 minimum wage, the same as Australia’s, which is higher than President Obama’s $9 an hour proposal and Congressional Democrats’ of $10.10 an hour.

This article originally appeared on ThinkProgress on August 6, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Bryce Covert  is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman.

Pizza-Making Strikers Win Small Slice of Justice in Milwaukee

Monday, August 5th, 2013

Roger BybeeThe 14-month-long strike at Palermo’s Pizza in Milwaukee produced a small slice of justice this week for the Mexican immigrant workers who have been fighting for higher wages, safer conditions and a union voice at the frozen-pizza maker.

Last Tuesday, Palermo’s finally agreed to comply with a finding by the National Labor Relations Board and re-hire eight workers with back pay, which will cost the pizza chain tens of thousands of dollars. The eight had been illegally fired for trying to unionize, the NLRB ruled.

Palermo’s has also agreed to post a notice announcing that the firm will no longer violate federal labor law. “This agreement confirms that Palermo’s used threats, intimidation, surveillance, discrimination, and retaliation to deny the freedom to choose a union voice,” says Raul de la Torre, an organizing committee member of the Palermo’s Workers Union. Fully 75 percent of the workers signed cards seeking union recognition prior to the strike, but Palermo’s management responded only with threats and other illegal tactics.

But Palermo’s decision to comply with the NLRB ruling does not reflect a softening of the intransigence that has driven about 125 workers, almost all immigrants from Mexico, out on strike for over a year. Palermo’s has refused for months to even engage in bargaining, said spokesperson Brian Rothgery of the United Steelworkers (USW) union, which has been assisting the Palermo’s strikers since they walked out on June 1, 2012.

Low pay, hazardous working conditions and arbitrary management decisions drove workers to form a union with the help of the immigrants-rights group Voces de la Frontera, which has been vocal and visible force in Wisconsin for the rights of immigrant workers.

Voces, the Palermo’s Workers Union and the USW are preparing to intensify their boycott of Palermo’s frozen pizzas at stores and institutions across the nation, said Rothgery. This escalation of the boycott will mean a focus on getting Palermo’s products removed from universities and on the Costco chain, which accounts for half of Palermo’s sales.

USW District 2 Director Mike Bolton called the settlement for the eight workers a positive development, but expressed exasperation with U.S. labor laws that allow a firm like Palermo’s to thwart the democratic choice of workers to form a union.

“It took much too long to get even this small bit of justice for these workers,” Bolton tells Working In These Times. “And unfortunately, they will be going back to jobs where union busters have created such an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that a democratic election is not possible.”

“The American system of labor laws has failed for most of the Palermo’s workers,” says Rothgery. “But that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop. The boycott is continuing, and we’ll keep fighting until there is justice for all the workers at Palermo’s.”

The workers and their allies will need to puncture the stone wall that has been Palermo’s response to the onslaught of community protests and legal challenges. Palermo’s refused to accept a letter from clergy and other community leaders following their 18-mile pilgrimage from Palermo’s plant to the palatial suburban home of Palermo’s co-owner Giacomo Falluci on June 1, 2013, the one-year anniversary of the strike.

Meanwhile, Palermo’s still faces various federal charges of both tolerating safety hazards and breaking labor-relations laws. Palermo’s is contesting seven “serious” charges filed May 7 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that its handling of nearly 30,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia—used in freezing food—was unsafe and posed a severe safety hazard. Palermo’s faces $38,500 in fines from OSHA.

The penalties reflect the threat posed by a potential accident. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a one-minute accidental release of 1,000 pounds of ammonia would spread toxic fumes 1.2 miles in an urban area.  A release of the full 29,500 pounds could travelsix miles. The Milwaukee Brewers’ major-league baseball stadium, with a seating capacity of 42,200, is just 1.3 miles west of the Palermo’s plant.

OSHA also requested that the frozen-pizza company turn over uncensored records of worker injuries and other safety problems, after Palermo’s submitted information with key information redacted.

Unfair labor charges

Until finally conceding on the one NLRB complaint, Palermo’s had refused to comply with the NLRB order issued last November. Palermo’s management and its advisors—which include the Chicago-based anti-union Jackson Lewis law firm and the PR firm of prominent local Democrat Evan Zeppos–seemingly want to project a message that the firm is impervious to any form of pressure, and thereby demoralize the workers and their supporters, say supporters of the strikers.

“They want to flaunt their impunity, “ explained Christine Neumann-Ortiz, director of Voces de la Frontera, the influential immigrants-rights group which has reinvigorated Milwaukee’s long tradition of May Day marches—dating back to 1886–by assembling tens of thousands of immigrant workers and supporters. Zeppos has attacked Neumann-Ortiz in harsh terms for supposedly discouraging business development: “I’ve talked to businesses who say, ‘Why should I move to the valley when that’s happening?’ She has hurt the city, she has hurt those workers, and she has hurt herself. She’s become toxic property.”

Palermo’s has managed to replace the striking workers with “scab” replacement workers. Many of these replacement workers were hired through the BG temporary agency, which faces its own set of charges issued by the NLRB—including a contingent of refugees from Myanmar (until recently, a nation wracked by dire poverty ruled by an extraordinarily brutal military dictatorship). A 21 year-old refugee suffered the loss of three fingers in an accident at the plant.

Big subsidies for low-wage jobs

Palermo’s stance has been reinforced by the overtly pro-corporate and anti-unionadministration of Gov. Scott Walker, especially the scandal-wracked Wisconsin Economic Development Agency, which has been willing to overlook the company’s failure to provide family-sustaining wages as promised in exchange for state grants. Wages at Palermo’s have fallen far short of the $12 an hour target set a full decade back in 2003 by the Menominee Valley Partners, a joint public-private initiative, when a plan was laid out for the area, which had been vacated by many large employers. One Palermo’s worker reported that she made just $9.30 an hour after 10 years at the plant.

Total taxpayer subsidies to Palermo’s—from city, state, and federal sources—have totaled $48 million, according to an updated version of an AFL-CIO report called “Too Much Pork in the Pepperoni.”

Allies and foes

Despite Palermo’s failure to meet its obligations to taxpayers, the company has found allies in the Milwaukee area’s top Democratic leaders. County Executive Chris Abele, who both gained office with labor support, openly aligned himself with Palermo’s in an op-ed shortly after the dispute started. For his part, Mayor Tom Barrett issued a deceptively neutral-sounding call for a “fair and timely” union representation election late last November, in a statement describing Palermo’s as “a valued corporate citizen.” But holding elections under the prevailing conditions would mean that the Palermo’s strikers would be shut out of the election while replacement workers would constitute the voters, noted Neumann Ortiz.  “They [Palermo’s and Barrett] only want an election where the voters would be hand-picked,” she pointed out.

But has been extensive support for the workers around the state and in the local community—as exhibited by the clergy-led 18-mile walk to protest Palermo’s practices. At UW-Madison, students held a sit-in ON April 29 at the office of Chancellor David Ward and won a halt to the university’s licensing deal with Palermo’s, under which the UW receiveD about $200,000 for promoting Palermo’s pizzas with a “Bucky Badger” logo.

Some Wisconsin Democrats, like state Rep. Jon Richards, have been actively demanding records on Palermo’s failure to provide the quality jobs needed to comply with the terms of its subsidies. Several County Board and City Council members have also been outspoken in their support of the strikers.

Meanwhile, labor activists nationwide are pressuring chains like San Diego-based Costco to stop carrying Palermo’s pizzas until workers’ rights are honored. While Costco has marketed itself as a humane alternative to Wal-Mart’s infamous low-wage and unashamedly brutal disregard of worker suffering, as with victims of factory disasters in Bangladesh for whom Wal-Mart has denied any responsibility, Costco has thus far refused to budge on selling Palermo’s pizzas  produced under harsh conditions closer to home.

With Palermo’s concession n the rehiring of the eight workers and acknowledgement of labor-law violations, the Palermo’s strikers and their allies see a small step forward. The boycott campaign gains ammunition at universities with strong policies on labor rights.

But until a breakthrough occurs to cut significantly into Palermo’s sales, Palermo’s seems intent on maintaining a hard line against the strikers. Image-conscious Costco, with 449 warehouse-style stores across the U.S., may prove to be the crucial target if Palermo’s workers are ever to win justice.

This article originally posted on Working In These Times on August 5th, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.  

About the Author:Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Zmagazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.

In Streets of Chicago, Fast Food Workers Celebrate Small Victories

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

kari-lydersenChicago workers continued the roving fast food and retail strike Thursday, joining strikers and picketers around the nation calling for increased wages and better working conditions for the thousands of low-wage workers who staff some of the nation’s largest companies but are not paid even enough to scrape by.

A crowd of workers and supporters sporting employee uniforms or red “Fight for 15” t-shirts—referring to the call for a $15 hourly wage—snaked through downtown streets all day, stopping to rally outside businesses, ranging from fast food outlets such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Chik-Fil-A to more expensive stores like Nike, Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret. Pharmacies, delis, health food stores and beauty salons were also on the route.

The mood was celebratory. Many workers said they had gotten raises, better schedules, more hours and better working conditions since the April 24 strike by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) union. While the union doesn’t have any contracts with employers or even official collective bargaining power, it has already leveraged the power of public pressure to gain concessions from major businesses. It is supported by a wide range of labor unions and community groups, as Jeff Schuhrke reported yesterday for Working In These Times.

Krystal Maxie-Collins, 29, says that, about a week after the April protest, she was promoted from part-time to full-time and got a raise from $8.25 to $8.50 an hour at her job at Macy’s. A mother of four, she said it is nearly impossible to make ends meet on retail wages that hover at or just above the state minimum wage of $8.25.

“You have rent, gas, lights, just the cost of living in Chicago,” she said. “Even being able to go to lunch and participate in society here in Chicago, you need more than $8.50 an hour. You should be able to afford to shop where you work, but I can’t do that unless there is a 60 percent off sale. It’s hard to even buy personal necessities. We’re not talking about wanting to get rich. We just want to get by and take care of ourselves.”

Outside one of downtown Chicago’s numerous McDonald’s franchises, one worker after another called in Spanish and English for higher wages.

Robert Wilson, 25, described working for a McDonald’s at Water Tower Place for seven years and getting only a single, 10-cent-per-hour raise. He finally got a 25-cent-per-hour raise after Black Friday last year, thanks to the retail-fast food workers movement, he tells Working In These Times.

Wilson described to the crowd how he has worked 15-hour days at two different stores when McDonald’s managers were in a pinch.

“It’s a shame to know I’ll give that kind of dedication to work, and not even receive paid sick days or a steady schedule, and have to negotiate for days off when I have an emergency,” he said. “We work too hard for this company to back down…we’ll keep fighting until we get what we deserve.”

The crowd went into the restaurant to try to deliver a petition, but police officers ordered them out.

“They’re just trying to raise the minimum wage,” said Monica A., 20, a passerby who saw the workers earlier in the day outside a Walgreens and, sympathizing with their message, decided to continue walking with them.

“$8.25, you can’t do anything on that, especially after they take taxes out and everything,” said Monica, who declined to give her last name.

McDonald’s unintentionally gave the fast food workers movement a boost last month when it published a sample budget for workers that was apparently meant to help them manage their money but instead highlighted for the country how nearly impossible it is to survive on their wages. The budget included a “second job” and even so did not cover realistic living expenses. Health insurance was penciled in at $20 a month, heat (in an earlier version) as “$0,” and gas and child care were not included at all.

It’s not only employees serving customers at private companies who make such low wages. Grace Hill works in the kitchen at Homewood-Flossmoor high school in the south suburbs, earning $9.87 an hour. Even as she makes healthy food for the students, she told Working In These Times, she can’t afford to buy healthy food for herself—a particular problem since she is diabetic.

“Half the time I can’t pay all my bills,” she said. “The school does have the money, they just aren’t giving it to us.”

Union employees of the Chicago Public Schools, including teachers, janitors and food service workers, were on hand to support the Fight for 15.

“Like all movements, it starts small, and then it will grow,” said Eric Ortega, 30, who works as a prep cook on Navy Pier.

Campaign organizer Deivid Rojas said it’s clear the movement has already made an impact and will continue to do so.

“We’ve had workers having victories in all kinds of ways,” he told In These Times. “They’re getting raises of $1 or $2 an hour, or moving from part time to full time. People have more predictable scheduling and report being more respected at work, by their managers and their co-workers.”

This article originally appeared on Working In These Times on August 1, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.  

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications.

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