Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘unions’

Grocery Chain’s Financial Meltdown Could Leave Thousands of Union Workers Jobless

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Bruce VailPlans to dismember the A&P supermarket chain were revealed in a federal bankruptcy court in New York this week, with dire results predicted for more than 15,000 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.

The historic grocery retailer—the original Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. was formed back in 1859—intends to sell or close all of its 300 stores spread across six Mid-Atlantic states, according to documents filed Monday in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. The plan will affect every one of an estimated 30,000 UFCW members currently employed with the company, with more than half of those in real danger of losing their jobs soon, union officials say.

The bad news for the union was partially tempered with the announcement that A&P had already lined up the sale of 120 of its stores to other regional grocery chains that also have UFCW contracts. If those sales go forward as planned, most of the 12,500 union members at those 120 stores would be expected to retain their jobs under the new owners. The prospective buyers—ACME Markets, Ahold USA (operator of Stop & Shop) and Key Food—already have UFCW collective bargaining agreements covering the 120 stores in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey (A&P stores are also located in Connecticut, Delaware and Maryland).

But those plans don’t include any future employment for workers at the other 180 stores, including 25 that A&P says it will seek to close immediately. All sales or closures are subject to approval by Bankruptcy Court Judge Robert Drain, and the process of selling off or closing stores is expected to begin soon but drag out for months. ACME Markets, for example, issued a statement saying that it didn’t expect to finalize purchase of any A&P stores until mid-October.

Very few union members were taken by surprise by these developments, says Wendell Young IV, President of UFCW Local 1776 in Philadelphia. A&P, which also operates under the trade names of Pathmark, Waldbaums and Superfresh, has been ailing financially for years, he says, and underwent a painful bankruptcy reorganization in 2010-2012.

“I’ve been telling my members for two years that I didn’t think A&P was going to make it. We’ve been doing everything we can as a union to be prepared for this,” he tells In These Times.

The final demise of A&P was signaled last September, Young comtinues, when company executives announced a debt refinancing package that failed to include any new investment in the company. Rumors swept the supermarket industry soon afterwards that executives were intent on dismembering the company by selling off its valuable pieces, and discarding the rest, he says.

Young adds that part of the union preparation has been to revive a coalition of 12 separate UFCW locals with A&P contracts. Supported by legal experts and financial resources from the UFCW International headquarters in Washington, D.C., the coalition was first formed in 2010 to present a united labor front in dealing with bankruptcy issues at that time. The coalition ceased active operation when A&P emerged from the first bankruptcy proceeding in 2012, but was revived in June as a crisis at A&P appeared imminent, Young says. UFCW Local 1500 in New York, with about 5,000 members employed with A&P, is one of the coalition members most affected by the bankruptcy.

UFCW Region 1 Director Tom Clarke, who heads the coalition, did not respond to In These Times calls seeking additional information and comment. Christopher McGarry, A&P’s Chief Administrative Officer, began the bankruptcy process by threatening the unions. In a declaration dated July 19 and filed with the court July 20. McGarry warned:

It is imperative that the parties cooperate with one another and that negotiations be conducted as expeditiously as possible. While the Debtors are committed to pursuing consensual resolutions with their unions where possible, if consensual resolutions cannot be quickly achieved within the required deadlines imposed…the Debtors will be required to commence proceedings under sections 1113 and 1114 of the Bankruptcy Code to seek authority to implement both temporary and permanent modifications to the CBAs on a unilateral basis.

Section 1113 is the section of the bankruptcy code commonly used to cancel or revise labor contracts, even without any agreement from unions or union members. The coalition will resist any attempts by A&P to use bankruptcy law to cancel existing UFCW collective bargaining agreements. “If the process is to be the orderly sale or closure of all the stores, then there is no need to cancel any contracts. The union is fully prepared to negotiate decent contracts with any of the new owners, and in the case of store closings, the existing contracts should be honored by all the parties,” Young says.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 22, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Bruce Vail. 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.

Calm Down: SCOTUS’s ‘Friedrichs’ Case Won’t Mean the End of the American Labor Movement

Monday, July 20th, 2015

David MobergWhile most liberals were celebrating the Supreme Court’s June rulings affirming both marriage equality and Obamacare, many labor leaders were already worrying about next year. They feared that the court might hear a case that many of them saw as potentially delivering a crippling blow to the union movement: Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. And at the last minute, the court announced it would.

If a majority of the Supreme Court justices back the plaintiff in the Friedrichs case, promoted by a variety of right-wing, anti-union organizations, they will likely overturn the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education court decision. The Supreme Court ruled in Abood that when a public employee union provided benefits, such as collective bargaining or grievance processing, to both members and non-members alike, the non-members could be charged a “fair share” or “agency shop” fee to cover an appropriate share of union expenses. Critics of the Friedrichs petition say that if justices agreed with its complaint, the Supreme Court’s action would have the effect of passing a national right-to-work law for all public employees (even though public employed collective bargaining rights are primarily matters of state law).

The two big teachers unions (American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association) and the two biggest unions of other public employees (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees [AFSCME] and the Service Employees International Union [SEIU]), responded with alarm to the court’s announcement:

“We are disappointed that at a time when big corporations and the wealthy few are rewriting the rules in their favor, knocking American families and our entire economy off-balance, the Supreme Court has chosen to take a case that threatens the fundamental promise of America—that if you work hard and play by the rules you should be able to provide for your family and live a decent life.

“The Supreme Court is revisiting decisions that have made it possible for people to stick together for a voice at work and in their communities—decisions that have stood for more than 35 years—and that have allowed people to work together for better public services and vibrant communities.”

Whether celebrating from the Right or mourning from the Left, many observers saw the Supreme Court’s decision to take the case as another nail in the coffin of the labor movement.

There are good reasons to be concerned. A ruling in favor of Friedrichs would legally and morally permit some workers to be “free riders”—individuals who take advantage of what the union by law must provide them without paying for it. Perhaps more important, it would disregard the fundamental reasoning behind the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)-protected “union security clauses.” The law was intended to encourage collective bargaining, and if some workers could opt out of supporting collective bargaining, legislators reasoned, they would weaken the institution.

From a practical point of view, unions would lose income that they could be using to improve conditions for all workers, including organizing the unorganized (although only voluntary political contributions, not dues money, can be used for union political advocacy). And a ruling in favor of the plaintiff would be a symbolic blow, a legal slap in the face, to a movement which has endured many such blows in the past.

But there are many other reasons to think that, win or lose on this case, the labor movement may not be as seriously damaged as many now fear.

First, there is a chance that even with this very conservative court (whose conservative bloc split enough times to give the liberal bloc some unexpected victories this past term), a majority might vote against the Friedrichs plaintiffs. The Supreme Court has narrowed interpretations of Abood in recent related cases, such as Harris v. Quinn. In that case, the court ruled that home care workers paid by the state are not state employees and thus are exempt from fair share requirements. Conservatives typically argue that agency fee payers are forced to financially support speech with which they disagree, thus violating the First Amendment. They have even argued that collective bargaining constitutes political speech for public employees.

But surprisingly, as the union lawyers noted in their response to the Friedrichs petition, normally arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia has offered strong arguments in defense of the agency fee, going beyond the usual “free-rider” critique of people getting benefits without paying their cost.

“What is distinctive, however, about the ‘free riders’ who are nonunion members of the union’s own bargaining unit is that in some respects they are free riders whom the law requires the union to carry—indeed, requires the union to go out of its way to benefit, even at the expense of its other interests,” Scalia wrote in the case of Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association. Scalia would have to perform some pretty spectacular legal acrobatic maneuvers to move from that position to rejection of a “fair share” fee.

But even if unions lose the Friedrichs case, it need not be the end of the world. It might even prompt some change in strategy that would strengthen unions.

For starters, non-member workers who pay agency fees make up only about 9 percent of the public sector workers who are covered by union contracts, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. And though the “fair share” payment varies by union, local, region and other factors, it is always at least a substantial reduction from full public worker union membership fees. With union density more than five times as great in the public sector compared to the rate of unionization in private business, and with unions feeling pressed for money already, any loss of public union income hurts, but it may not be a “life or death” situation, as some fear.

Also, it is hard to gauge how much difference Abood has made in the growth of public unions since the decision was handed down in 1977. At that time, 33 percent of the public sector was unionized (nearly 5 million members), and 40 percent were under contract; in 2014, 36 percent were members, and 39 percent under contract, according to Union Stats. Membership peaked at 39 percent of public workers in 1994, the same year that 45 percent were covered by a contract, then dropped to around 35-36 percent membership recently. (The number of public sector members peaked at 8.7 million in 2009.)

So it seems that having the Abood union security protection may have helped the public sector unions keep pace with employment growth and avoid, until recently, setbacks from massive employer attacks. But the effect seems modest. An AFSCME spokesperson emphasized that the union grew to be powerful before fair share; the implication is that they could do it again.

But didn’t Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 lead to huge union membership losses as a result of eliminating fair share payments? Yes, there were great losses, as the Washington Post reported: “The state branch of the National Education Association, once 100,000 strong, has seen its membership drop by a third. The American Federation of Teachers, which organized in the college system, saw a 50 percent decline. The 70,000-person membership in the state employees union has fallen by 70 percent.”

But unions lost the right to bargain over almost everything, lost dues check-off, were forced to have representation elections ever year and suffered other assaults that led to members no longer paying dues. The loss of fair share payments played a small role in the overall union losses. Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels rescinded an earlier executive order from Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh granting union representation rights to state employees almost as soon as Daniels took office in 2005. Now Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is trying to wipe out a broad swath of worker rights. If a win on Friedrichs emboldens the right-wing Republicans in the scope of their attack, then it could lead to other measures that could be disastrous.

Fourth, as labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan writes in his recent book Only One Thing Can Save Us, no unions in Europe have the legal security protection U.S. unions have that permits a requirement that all workers either join or pay a fee to a recognized union in their workplace. Yet they have still fared relatively well. Of course, most European unions benefit even more from the laws that often extend the terms of union negotiated wages in an industry to all workers in the industry, whether they belong to a union or not.  That would make an enormous difference in the U.S., well worth even giving up an agency shop fee in order to obtain it, as Geoghegan makes a case for (which is one reason why it is unlikely to happen).

Finally, unions have discovered that there are other ways to deal with workers who are not on their membership rolls. For example, for the first half of last year, AFSCME set out to organize as full members 50,000 of the fair share payers or other non-members in workplaces where they had contracts. They organized 90,000. Some cases were easy—such as workers who thought they were members but weren’t. Renewing the drive this year, the union has signed up 50,000 more, according to an AFSCME spokesperson. The National Education Association has signed up 13,000 fair share payers as members, and other public sector unions are undertaking similar campaigns.

Internal organizing takes staff time and money, and some unionists fear that if the fair share requirement is dropped, not only agency dues payers but also current members may decide not to pay full dues or become full voting members. It is a risk, and the internal organizing adds new demands on already overstretched unions. But it also may lead unions to turn their membership into the active, educated force in the workplace and in the public arena that it already claims to be but all too often isn’t.

The biggest danger of a Supreme Court victory for anti-union forces in Friedrichs is the potential for encouraging more and more devastating legal and political attack on workers who want to organize. Bad as times are now, they could get worse. But the best defense—as well as the best offense to gain improvements—is a highly motivated, well-organized and politically savvy union workforce.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 15, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is David Moberg. 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. He can be reached at [email protected]

Union Is the New Black: Labor Organizing in Orange Is the New Black, And What It Means For You

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Leslie-Tolf2In its third season with Netflix, Orange Is the New Black has had a significant effect on America’s consciousness regarding: race, women and incarceration, and transgender issues. This season highlighted many character backstories, but personally, the most interesting plot-line was that of the security guards and their efforts to organize a potential union. We see labor issues in popular culture and television on occasion, and this example in particular shines light on issues that that arise when workers don’t have labor protection. In this instance, the security guards at Litchfield women’s prison were dealing with cut hours, a loss of benefits and job security, and how to protect themselves. The answer to that, in addition to having an ally in management, was to form a union. We’re not often exposed to unionization in mainstream media, so I want to take the opportunity to explain the importance of unionizing and what it takes to get the protection you need when it comes to labor.

A Little Bit of History

During the 18th century and Industrial Revolution in Europe, the influx of new workers in the workplace warranted regulations and conversations around worker protection. In the US, the founding of the National Labor Union in 1886 – though not largely successful – paved the way for unions in the US. Labor protection brought us things we see as customary now, like: the weekend, minimum wage, or national holidays. Without unions, and despite our economy veering towards entrepreneurship and fewer professional boundaries, many of us would be in danger of job loss. Think about what you see on OITNB, where the prisoners work without pay, are demeaned by the prison and are endangered at every moment. Now, imagine that was your job. Less than a century ago, Americans worked for poverty wages alongside their children in dangerous factories; the same factories where the bosses that degraded them also turned workers against other workers by exploiting racial and ethnic prejudices. Imagine that your death was just another cost of doing business, like the overhead and taxes.

This was America before the labor movement – before workers acted together to demand fair wages, safe workplaces and laws that reflected the values of the working class. Workers not only won things like the weekend, minimum wage and national holidays, but also the less-sexy (but equally important) rights to bargain collectively, to take collective action and to even just talk to your coworkers about your wages and working conditions. People died for these things. While we may live in a great democracy, it’s worth remembering that true progress is really made through the mobilization of people. After all, women didn’t get the right to vote by voting on it.

Should You Unionize?

For a long time, a powerful labor movement allowed all American workers the ability to share in economic prosperity and take advantage of what is now an anachronism: if you work harder, you’ll get more. Wages and productivity went hand in hand until the decline of union membership began to drop as a result of anti-union laws and well-funded corporate attack on organized labor. If the median household income had kept pace with the economy at a constant rate during the years of higher unionization, it would now be closer to $92,000 a year instead of just under $52,000. The fundamental purpose of a union is to balance the overwhelming power of the few people making huge gains in our economy.

Put another way: how many people can afford their own lobbyist to get a slice of that pie? That’s the big picture. The smaller picture is you and your job. You know how great the constitution is? Freedom of speech and assembly? The right to due process? Democracy? You can throw all that out when you enter the workplace. If you don’t have a union, you can be fired for any reason that’s not based on a relatively small list of protected classes. But let’s talk money: union members have wages that average 27 percent higher than their non-union counterparts, are more than 79 percent likely to have health benefits through their employers, and 60 percent more likely to have an employer-provided pension.

What it Takes to Build a Union

Solidarity. Practically speaking, it takes a small group of you and your co-workers who can first quietly assess how others in your workplace feel about their jobs. What matters most to you? Is it the low pay? The poor benefits? Safety? Lack of respect? Focusing on what really matters will be crucial to winning the right to collectively bargain. The labor union you contact will help shepherd you through the election process to a contract, but the most important thing that you and your coworkers can do is to educate yourselves and stick together. And always remember that the union is you and your co-workers, not the third-party intruder your bosses might suggest. It’s your union and you’re trying to fix issues that matter to you.

Why It’s Important

Despite common belief, unions aren’t just for factory workers and building trades, they’re for everyone who wants to make a better life for himself or herself and earn a fair wage for the work they do. When you have a union, hard work can once again equate to sharing in the benefits of your labor. Even a college degree hardly guarantees a good paying job like it once did; too many people with piled student loan debt have found themselves underpaid and struggling. At the end of the day, a union is about how you will provide for yourself and your family.

About the Author: The author’s name is Leslie Tolf. Leslie Tolf is the President of Union Plus. You can follow Leslie Tolf  on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/ltolf.

 

Teachers Say 17 Firings at Urban Prep Charter Schools Were Retaliation for Unionization

Monday, July 6th, 2015

Ariel Ziontscrystal stella becerrilOn June 19, during their biannual semester-end interviews, 17 teachers were informed by school staff that they would not be returning to Chicago’s Urban Prep Academy come fall. The terminations came just weeks after 61 percent of Urban Prep’s teachers voted to form a union; activists say the firings were a blatant act of anti-union retaliation.

Last Thursday, around 100 teachers, students, parents and supporters attended Urban Prep’s board meeting to protest the firings and accuse the board of harming their community and hindering student progress. They also accused the board of resisting transparency and accountability, and creating a high teacher-turnover rate through firings and policies that push teachers out of the school.

This is only the latest case of such allegedly unjust firings, as more and more charter schools in Chicago and across the country are organizing to unionize despite the legal hurdles, backlash, and the common belief—at least among school management—that charter teachers don’t need unions.

Matthias Muschal told Catalyst Chicago he was fired after working as a lead English teacher at Urban Prep’s Bronzeville campus for six years for “insubordination—specifically because he threw a pizza party for student-athletes and their families without notifying administration,” according to the administration. He says the real reason was his union activism—a huge disappointment because “I wouldn’t be able to teach my students anymore,” Muschal told In These Times.

Urban Prep CEO Evan Lewis wrote in a statement that “the suggestion that anyone was fired as a result of their organizing activity is both wrong and offensive. … “We respect and support the right of our teachers to choose a union as their exclusive representative. … Many of the teachers returning next year were active in the effort to organize, and we look forward to continuing our work with them.”

At the board meeting, 26 people signed up to speak, although roughly half were allowed to address the board. Parents also delivered over 200 letters in support of the fired teachers in an effort to influence the board’s decision. Not all board members, however, were present at Thursday’s meeting—even though, according to Samuel Adams, a former Urban Prep English teacher, they all live in Chicago. Those who did not attend the meeting called in—a gesture seen by some union supporters as disrespectful.

Teachers, parents and students who attended the meeting praised Urban Prep’s mission and success, but said the recent firings go against the school’s mission and will ultimately harm the students. Englewood Junior Lamar Strickland told the board he “would just like to ask that you guys bring back our teachers because … they have all taught us something different that we can take in our life.”

Students were especially upset about the firing of English teacher Natasha Robinson. Robert DuPont, a junior at the Englewood campus, said Ms. Robinson went above and beyond her responsibilities like calling students she knew were having trouble getting to school on time. Mr. Adams said that his former colleague had the highest freshmen test scores in the school and continued to teach even soon after her mother died.

Of the outpouring of student support over the past weeks, Robinson said, “It’s nice to know I made an impact during my time at Urban Prep—to know that I was able to help these young men.” (Urban Prep is an all-male school.)

At the meeting, James Thindwa of the American Federations of Teachers (who is also a member of the In These Times board of directors) also accused Urban Prep’s majority-black board of directors of harming the black community and instituting measures similar to anti-union, right-wing politicians like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

“I can’t believe that this institution, this publicly funded institution, … anchored in the black neighborhood, that is itself reeling from economic disinvestment that in part has been caused by the attack on labor unions … is participating in a vile attack on a legitimate institution that serves as a legitimate counterweight to what we’re seeing as unchecked corporate power in the United States.”

In a press release, Thindwa wrote that because black Americans hold a disproportionate share of public-sector jobs, they have been hit especially hard by the decline of public-sector jobs and the attacks on their unions.

The audience highlighted the irony in these firings, as one of the main reasons teachers wanted to unionize was to change what they say are Urban Prep’s high teacher turnover rates. They say students don’t know if their favorite teachers will return the following year, which affects their learning environment.

“It’s unfortunate that they would fire veteran teachers and that there will be so much uncertainty for these students going into the new school year,” said Robinson, who had taught at the school for seven years. Teachers say high turnover rates also mean devoting important time to train new teachers rather than to develop the skills of existing ones.

According to Brian Harris, a special education teacher at CICS Northtown Academy and Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS) president, “across the network, only nine teachers have been at Urban Prep more than five years. Now, only about half of them are returning.”

“Students are calling for a stable learning environment, and their teachers know that unionization is the only way to get stability for these students and their communities,” says Rob Heise, an educator and activist who says he was fired from an UNO Network charter high School earlier this month for his involvement in helping unionize his school last year. Heise filed his own unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB two weeks ago.

Chicago Teachers Union members made their way to the South Side school from their own union’s contract negotiation meeting earlier that afternoon to show support for the fired Urban Prep teachers. Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, was among them. Chambers said that all the Urban Prep teachers who voted to unionize wanted was a voice for their students. Having played a major role in preparing her school for the historic 10-day CTU strike back in 2012, Chambers knows first hand the power of belonging to a union and added that teachers “know that if they don’t have a union they don’t have a voice.”

“Urban Prep punished their staff for unionizing. They lied about what ACTS is and used teachers’ professional development time to spread anti-union propaganda,” said Brian Harris. “Their actions show a real disrespect for teachers and democracy and scream ‘we don’t want to be accountable to anyone.’ ”

Chris Baehrend, Vice President of Chicago ACTS and English teacher at Latino Youth High School, said retaliation is the main reason why 39% of eligible voters chose not to join the Urban Prep union. “They’re afraid. They’re afraid of things like exactly what happened right here happening to them.”

An unfair labor practice suit has been filed with the NLRB, and Chicago ACTS will be planning future demonstrations.

During the public comment period, Samuel Adams called on supporters to put pressure on Urban Prep by sending emails, and parent Shoneice Reynolds called for a local school council. Reynolds cited Urban Prep’s creed to make her point: “It states, we have a future for which we are accountable. I challenge you all to be accountable for our children’s future.”

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 1, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: The authors’ names are Ariel Zionts and Crystal Stella Becerril. Arielle Zionts is a freelancer writer and, beginning in August, a producer at the Interfaith Voices radio show in D.C. She studied anthropology at Pitzer College and radio at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Crystal Stella Becerril is a Chicago-based Xicana activist, writer and photographer who regularly contributes to Socialist Worker, Red Wedge and Warscapes.

Stop Freaking Out: The Union-Backed Minimum Wage Exemption Isn’t About Paying Union Workers Less

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Mario VasquezOn June 13, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed the city’s landmark $15 minimum wage into law. Although the city’s workers won’t be seeing that full figure until 2020, the new law will bring billions of dollars into the pockets of at least 36% of the workforce, and should be seen as the culmination of grassroots action supported by a coalition of labor groups such as Raise the Wage and Fight for $15.

But in the aftermath of its initial approval a few weeks ago, right-wing pundits, with help from mainstream news outlets, succeeded in pitting minimum-wage activists up against labor leaders, drumming up charges that the unions were acting to actually undermine the minimum-wage-increase movement. Rusty Hicks, the head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, had to save face after he led a failed last-minute push to include a clause into the city’s minimum wage ordinance that would allow employees the option of having their collective bargaining agreement supercede the local minimum wage policy.

Opponents have argued that the provision potentially allows for unions to negotiate contracts that include wages below the minimum, and that unions would use the wage carve-out to offer a kind of carrot to employers in exchange for allowing the union to gain new members—assumedly leaving new union members earning, in total, less than the minimum wage.

Mostly due to the inability of Hicks or anyone else in the city’s labor movement to offer a strong and convincing rebuttal to these charges, this talking point has largely taken hold. With labor at the front of Fight for $15 battles in Los Angeles and across the country (Hicks himself has been a leader in Los Angeles’s Raise the Wage coalition), pundits on Fox News have spread the idea that “big labor” could be trying to get around the minimum wage that “they tried to impose on others.”

“They want to make unions basically the cheapest labor and have more money for themselves—that’s what this is all about,” libertarian journalist Michelle Fields told host Eric Bolling on the conservative network on May 30.

It’s an easy talking point to run with, and admittedly the optics of it are pretty bad. But those trashing the union’s attempt to insert the provision have failed to realize the nuances of the situation. Glancing at the data of union workers’ compensation in cities that already have such wage exemption provisions on the books, as well as applying a bit of logic in thinking about why a worker would vote to join or choose to stay in a union, show that such provisions haven’t and won’t result in unionized workers earning below the minimum wage, and in fact can serve to protect minimum wage increases from legal challenges from business interests.

Why do workers organize?

To explain why this is the case, let’s examine some of the arguments against the provision. The U.S Chamber of Commerce, often labor’s foe, outlined a modern history of minimum wage policy and the union carve-out in a study they published last year. The study suggested that what the Chamber calls the “union escape clause” is nothing more than a ruse to gain “new members, new dues revenue, increased political clout, and, most likely, increased payments into its pension fund.”

The Chamber’s study points to hotel worker union UNITE HERE’s explosive growth in San Francisco (where minimum wage ordinances have typically included “union escape” provisions) as an example of a “real-world correlation” between the provision and labor’s supposed self-interest:

UNITE-HERE Local 11, which represents hotel workers in Los Angeles, California, saw its membership and revenues jump after the city included a union escape clause in a minimum wage hike on hotels. Local 11’s membership increased from 13,626 in 2007 to 20,896 in 2013, while its revenue increased from approximately $7.5 million per year to nearly $12.7 million. … When San Francisco, California, passed a citywide minimum wage ordinance with a union exemption in late 2003, membership in UNITE-HERE Local 2 rose from 8,000 in 2004 to more than 14,000 in 2013. Notably, these increases occurred as union density nationally declined from 12.9% of the workforce in 2003 to 11.3% in 2013.

Reading the Chamber’s study, you would think that the principal reason UNITE HERE membership in LA and San Francisco grew during this time was the wage carve-out. But that’s absurd, and doesn’t reflect the way workers join unions or how union membership grows in general.

In case the Chamber has forgotten, workers are the ones who choose to join unions, either through a secret-ballot vote or through a “card check” process. And if they don’t like their union, they can vote to decertify it. If workers joined a union and paid dues to it every month but continued earning a wage below the minimum after they joined, why wouldn’t they vote to leave the union? They would have no financial incentive to stay, and assumedly UNITE HERE’s membership would be tanking rather than growing as workers realized they were getting a raw deal and voted to leave the union.

But of course, rather than seeing their compensation tank, hotel workers are seeing their wages and benefits increase as union members. UNITE HERE says that its members in San Francisco—remember, a city with the minimum wage carve-out for union workers—earn, on average, an hourly wage of $20.94. The deal also gets sweeter for those members when quality-of-life benefits like secure hours and compensation packages are included.

In Los Angeles, where the union’s members are also allowed to have their collective bargaining agreement supercede local wage ordinances, union workers earn slightly less, $16.47 plus benefits. Still, union workers’ wages alone are higher than the $15.37 wage floor enacted for hotel workers last year; when you include the benefits those workers typically receive through their collective bargaining agreements that most minimum wage earners do not have a right to, the total compensation becomes even higher.

Beyond hotel workers, the numbers make it clear that union workers earn on average considerably more than the minimum wage, even in cities that have these carve-out provisions. A 2014 study by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCLA reports that, when adjusted for cost of living, hourly earnings for union workers in Los Angeles stand at $20.35, whereas their nonunion counterparts earn $16.13. Clearly, few union members in the city earn less than minimum wage.

Hicks remarked at a recent press conference, “Unfortunately, too many in today’s society do not have the benefit of being a part of a collective bargaining opportunity or experience, so it can be confusing.” The confusion might have been cleared up, however, with a few concrete facts showing how collective bargaining helps put money in workers’ pockets—far more money than any minimum wage.

Safety in Supersession  

Hicks had a lot of material to work with to beat back the anti-union rhetoric that he didn’t use. But his press conference did mention what is apparently the foundation for collective bargaining supersession clauses that have been included in other minimum wage laws of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and Chicago, among others: The provision is actually intended to provide a safeguard for union workers against potential legal challenges to minimum wage laws.

Herb Wesson, Los Angeles’ City Council President, has admitted as much, with his spokesperson telling KPCC, a local NPR affiliate, that Wesson “continues to have questions about the policy as it relates to exposing the city to legal liability.” The concern, KPCC reported, is that “federal labor laws could be interpreted as preventing cities from interfering with contracts between employers and unions.”

James Elmendorf, deputy director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a progressive policy group affiliated with the city’s labor movement, told the Los Angeles Business Journal last year upon the passing of the hotel wage ordinance that “in a previous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recommended that local and state laws and regulations of private businesses contain such exemptions.”

The provision actually ensures that collective bargaining will trump any local statutes. If any wage increase ordinance is challenged in court (as they frequently are by industry groups), local collective bargaining agreements that were formed while new “imposed” wage floors were in place would be protected from legal challenges through the supersession clause.

When combined with the fact that employees will earn higher wages and benefits when unionized, it easy to see why this provision makes business interests and their allies jump at the chance to turn the tide in a war of sound bites.

While the $15 minimum wage ordinance became official on June 13 without the “collective bargaining supersession clause,” the ordinance may be expanded by the time it takes effect next July. The expansion could include the supersession clause, as well as two other provisions that the union fought for during the legislative process: 12 days of paid sick leave and banning restaurants from keeping bogus “service charges” rather than considering them workers’ tips.

The boost in the minimum wage will undoubtedly help improve the quality of life and economic situation for masses of non-union workers in the city. But rather than undermining those gains, Hicks’s provision would have helped protect against potentially damaging legal challenges to the real benefits and increased wages that come with unionization.

For now, one can only hope that LA’s labor leaders will speak out for the provision and get organized labor past an embarrassing and largely untrue spate of headlines to convince low-wage workers that unions are not the villains Fox News and the Chamber of Commerce are attempting to portray them as.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on June 18, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Mario Vasquez. Mario Vasquez is a writer from Santa Barbara, California. You can reach him at [email protected]

This week in the war on workers: Did Kevin Johnson destroy black mayors group over charter schools?

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

Laura Clawson All-Star NBA point guard Kevin Johnson is now the mayor of Sacramento, California—and the destroyer of the 40-year-old National Conference of Black Mayors. At Deadspin, Dave McKenna details how Johnson first tried to take over the group, and then, when that failed, went to war against it while starting his own black mayors group, the African American Mayors Association. So why am I writing about this as a labor issue? Because Johnson, who is married to corporate education reform star Michelle Rhee, was trying to use the NCBM to promote charter schools:

[East Orange, New Jersey, Mayor Robert] Bowser says that Johnson, before his coup, had proposed a resolution saying NCBM endorsed the charter-school movement.“We took a vote and said, ‘Hell no!’ to his resolution,” Bowser says. “The black mayors are not buying the charter schools, period.”

During his takeover attempt of the NCBM, Johnson also tried to turn a civil rights event, the commemoration of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, into a charter-boosting event.

Then there’s Ballard Spahr. During the takeover, Valarie J. Allen, a partner in Ballard Spahr’s Philadelphia offices, sent a missive to the NCBM’s general counsel, Sue Winchester, threatening to report her to “the California Bar” if she didn’t comply with Johnson’s dictates. It turns out that Allen’s prime role with the firm is to run its charter school portfolio. And that’s a big job. “In the past 10 years, Ballard Spahr has helped more than 60 charter schools … secure more than $676 million in tax-exempt bond funding,” reads the sales pitch Allen makes to charter schools operators on the firm’s website. Allen goes on to boast that Ballard Spahr handles “more than 10 percent” of all charter-school financing nationwide.

Surprise, surprise, Johnson’s new African American Mayors Association is holding a charter-dominated education panel at its convention this year.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on May 30, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Laura Clawson. Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. She has been a Labor editor since 2011.

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

man_family

 

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.

 

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