Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘workers’

A Bright Spot in Tuesday’s Bloodbath: Massachusetts Voters Passed a Strong Paid Sick Leave Bill

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

in these timesOn Tuesday night, Massachusetts became the first state to give workers 40 hours of sick leave a year. California and Connecticut have both recently adopted statewide sick leave policies, but Massachusetts now possesses the most ambitious and comprehensive system in the nation.

As a result of the initiative, employees of businesses with more than 10 people will earn an hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours they work. Employees who work for companies with 10 or less people will accrue sick time at the same rate, although their employers aren’t required to pay them for the time away.

Sixty percent of voters supported the measure, Question 4 on the state’s ballot. About 900,000 workers in Massachusetts lacked paid sick days.

Although frequently defined by its many higher education, tech, and science jobs, Massachusetts is also fueled by a service sector of almost 300,000. Fifty-two percent of those employees lacked paid sick time. For maintenance and construction workers, it was 43 percent. Fifty-five percent of the state’s workers who make less than $15,000 were without sick time; 46 percent of Hispanic workers in the state were unable to take a paid sick day. Without paid sick days, workers not only were unable to take time off for their own ailments, but were also unable to take time off to care for a sick child or parent.

While some in the business community predictably suggest that such legislation would hurt the economy— Bob Luz, President and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, claimed that the law would be a “job-killing mandate”—a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research concluded the opposite is, in fact, true. Question 4 should reduce worker turnover and drastically cut back on diseases spreading throughout the state’s workplaces, according to the study’s authors, in addition to improving the overall health and economic well-being of the community: “Comparing costs to employers and anticipated benefits for employers, an annual net benefit for Massachusetts employers of $26 million is expected”

The Drum Major Institute studied the impact of San Francisco’s paid sick leave policy and reached similar conclusions. Not only did they discover the legislation hadn’t negatively impacted San Francisco businesses, but “since San Francisco’s paid sick leave law was enacted, both job growth and business growth in San Francisco have consistently been greater than in the five neighboring counties of the Bay Area, none of which have enacted paid sick leave.”

While Question 4 will certainly alleviate a massive burden for the state’s most vulnerable workers, Andrew Farnitano, a spokesperson for Raise Up Massachusetts, a local coalition of organizers who worked on the initiative, says he was impressed with how the movement had found support throughout the state regardless of the area’s economic position or racial demographic.

“It’s an issue that cuts through a lot of lines,” Farnitano said. A long list of community organizations, economists, local politicians and faith groups publicly endorsed the measure. “We believe that requiring earned sick time contributes to the dignity of every worker,” read a statement signed by the four Catholic Bishops of Massachusetts.

While the movement for paid sick time moves throughout the US, an alternative movement of “preemption bills aiming to block the possibility of expanded sick time have also worked their way throughout the country. Last year, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed an ALEC-affiliated bill that would obstruct local governments from enacting sick time legislation; the bill was backed by Disney World, Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

But if Massachusetts’ successful Question 4 campaign is any indication, many voters around the country are willing to back measures that bolster basic human rights in their community like paid sick leave.

This blog originally appeared in IntheseTime.com on November 6, 2016 Reprinted with permission. http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/17327/massachusetts_paid_sick_leave.

About the author: Michael Arria is a journalist living in NYC. He is the author of Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC.

Walmart Wouldn't Make a Dime Without Its Workers

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Jackie TortoraA group of Walmart associates marched today from the AFL-CIO to the Washington, D.C., Walton Family Foundation’s offices to deliver more than 15,000 signatures from workers asking Walmart to pay $15 an hour and provide full-time hours.

Shouts of “We’re fired up! Can’t take it no more!” rang out as the workers and hundreds of supporters and allies marched down I Street and made their way to the foundation offices. Before the workers attempted to deliver the petitions, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka reminded everyone that Walmart, which rakes in billions every year, wouldn’t make a dime without its workers, yet pays wages so low that many of its workers need to rely on public assistance and food stamps to get by.

One Walmart associate, Isaiah, shared heartbreaking stories of seeing co-workers cry in the Walmart break room when they found out their hours had been cut, making it impossible to provide for their families.

When the workers got inside the office, the building manager claimed no one from the Walton Family Foundation was working today (um, OK) and said they couldn’t call the office because they didn’t know the number. “We’ll be back,” shouted the determined workers, including Bene’t Holmes who was leading some of the chants. Holmes said they weren’t going to leave the petition with the front desk and promised this is not the last time they would attempt to hand deliver those signatures.

Following the demonstration outside the office, 15 Walmart strikers and supporters sat down in a cross section of the street in front of Walmart heir Alice Walton’s condo and took arrest. See some aerial views from the action below:

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The associates were accompanied by union members and allies from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), AFSCME, AFT, Jobs with Justice, UNITE HERE, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), UAW, United Steelworkers (USW), the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and many others.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on October 16, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.http://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Organizing-Bargaining/Walmart-Wouldn-t-Make-a-Dime-Without-Its-Workers.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.

Would raising the minimum wage help Walmart?

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Laura ClawsonWould a higher minimum wage be good for business at Walmart? Many experts say so—after all, a higher minimum wage would give many Walmart customers a little more disposable incometo spend at the store:

David Cooper, an economic analyst with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, agrees with Demos’s Ruetschlin that the sluggish economic recovery means a boost in the minimum wage could push low-income workers to spend more, and in many cases they’d spend that money at low-priced outlets like Walmart.“If suddenly all these low-wage workers have more income, they are likely to spend that money right away,” Cooper said. “If these retailers want strong, stable sustainable growth in the U.S. economy, then they should also want strong, stable increases in wages to their employees.” […]

The data linking an increase in wages to a rise in consumer spending — particularly at a specific retail outlet — is a bit thin, but there’s “very strong anecdotal evidence in support of that claim,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.

Walmart definitely knows that when its customers don’t have money, business suffers; the company’s chief financial officer recently said, to explain a drop in U.S. sales, that “The consumer doesn’t quite have the discretionary income, or they’re hesitant to spend what they do have.” And in fact, in the past, when the minimum wage has gotten too far below the poverty line, a Walmart CEO has explicitly said that was a problem: “The U.S. minimum wage of $5.15 an hour has not been raised in nearly a decade, and we believe it is out of date with the times … Our customers simply don’t have the money to buy basic necessities between paychecks.”

A yacht store is unlikely to see much of a boost from an increase in the minimum wage, in other words, but Walmart, where people go for cheap, basic necessities, will do better. Walmart’s opposition to paying an actual living wage, one that doesn’t force workers to rely on food stamps and Medicaid, is well known. But if Congress doesn’t act and raise the minimum wage, we might get back to a point where Walmart admits it would benefit from an increase. Which would, more than anything, be a sign of how embarrassingly bad Congress is—can you imagine lagging behind Walmart on wage issues?

Join Making Change at Walmart and Daily Kos in telling Walmart and the Waltons to respect their employees and pay a real wage.

This article originally appeared on Daily Kos Labor on September 4, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author:  Laura Clawson is the labor editor at Daily Kos

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. .

Chicago Students Boycott Class, Demanding an Elected and Accountable School Board

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

“David Vitale, we don’t recognize you as the board chairperson… You’re fired!”

Thus Jitu Brown, education organizer at the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization on Chicago’s South Side, began today’s protest rally of about 400 students, parents and community members outside the downtown headquarters of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), where Chicago Board of Education president Vitale and the rest of the board were holding their monthly meeting.

Activists like Brown have been incensed by unpopular board decisions like the recent 50 school closures and massive budget cuts, and students haven’t been happy at the changes, either. Today, dozens boycotted school to join community organizations from around the city at the rally.

The protesters demanded that the school board be directly elected by Chicagoans, rather than appointed by the mayor, to make the body accountable to community needs.

“We have jumped through every hoop CPS has said to jump through, and still, they make the same decisions over and over again that have damaged schools in our communities,” Brown said. “We need an elected school board!”

The boycott was called by community groups earlier this summer. Yesterday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel pleaded with parents not to keep their children home from school.

“You have a disagreement [about school closings]? The court has spoken to that. You don’t like something? There’s another way to speak of it. Do not take the kids out of school and harm them and their future,” Emanuel said.

No boycott organizers or union officials knew the exact number of students who participated in today’s boycott. But the number of students skipping class for today’s rally was far below Civil Rights-era CPS boycotts, like the one in 1963 protesting extreme racial segregation and miserable conditions in the city’s schools. According to community and teachers union staff, most schools continued business as usual.

However, the clamor for an elected board seems to be growing.

Standing in the middle of the crowd with her three children participating in the day’s boycott, Mae McLeninen, a janitor at Curie High School on the South Side, said she kept her elementary-age kids out of school to join the effort against Emanuel and the board.

“We’ve gotta get rid of the mayor, but not just him. We have to hold them accountable through an elected school board,” McLeninen says.

“TIF money is our money. We should be able to tell them to put that money into schools,” says McLeninen, referring to tax increment financing (TIF) dollars—public funds initially designed to alleviate blight that critics say have taken resources away from schools and have become a giant slush fund for the mayor to dole out giveaways to corporations like MillerCoors and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

The Chicago Teachers Union did not officially endorse the day’s boycott, though CTU staffers and members in red T-shirts could be seen throughout the crowd.

“We can’t ask kids not to go to school, but if parents think that’s the best thing for their children, we fully support them,” says Kristine Mayle, the CTU’s financial secretary.

Mayle says she understands the frustration of many parents at massive class sizes in many schools throughout the district and the failure to deliver promised items like iPads and air conditioning to sweltering classrooms during a Midwestern heat wave this week.

“The reports we’re getting from schools are that the promises the district gave them are not being kept, so it’s understandable they want to fight,” Mayle says.

As I reported for Al Jazeera America last week, many CPS parents were worried before the school year began on Monday that schools would not be able to meet students’ basic needs, thanks to budget cuts of $162 million and teacher layoffs throughout the district, as well as school closings and consolidations in neighborhoods of color on the South and West Side.

That worry has come true, according to several of the day’s speakers. After the protesters marched from the school board headquarters to city hall, Jamie Adams, a sophomore at Roosevelt High School in the Albany Park neighborhood, told the crowd that her school saw $1.6 million in budget cuts and layoffs of six teachers and counselors, leading to overcrowding.

“We’re literally fighting over desks. Some of us are sitting on the floor,” Adams said.

Adams joined a group of about 20 students affiliated with the newly-formed Chicago Students Union, who say they will be waging a campaign for a seat on the city’s school board for students.

At the Board of Education meeting this morning, parents, teachers, union officials, and community organization representatives denounced the board’s actions during the public comment period, in a scene that has become routine in this city. Lane Tech parent Adenia Linker promised parents will keep fighting “until this board is history.”

The beginning of last year’s school year saw the Chicago Teachers Union walk out in a historic strike. With several hundred parents and students marching on the third day of school, a growing campaign to end mayoral control of the city’s school board, and rising anger among parents and students over austerity measures, the new school year promises to be just as contentious.

This article originally appeared on Working In These Times on August 28, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Micah Uetricht is an In These Times contributing editor. He has written for SalonThe Nation,The American ProspectJacobin, and the Chicago Reader. Most importantly, he is also a proud former In These Times editorial intern. Follow him on Twitter @micahuetricht or contact him at micah.uetricht [at] gmail.

Twelve arrested in protest of Walmart firings and retaliation against activists

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

Laura ClawsonBeginning shortly after the early June strike by around 100 Walmart workers, 20 of the strikers were fired and another 50 were disciplined in retaliation; Walmart basically treated their absences as if they’d been playing hooky rather than engaging in legally protected concerted activity. Now, in a protest against that retaliation, 9 former and one current Walmart workers and two allies have been arrested in planned acts of civil disobedience outside a Washington, D.C., Walmart office Thursday afternoon. The workers are setting a deadline of Labor Day for Walmart to reinstate fired workers and raise wages or face an escalation of worker activism.

Walmart wants to turn this into an argument about labor law, claiming that the workers’ actions constitute “intermittent strikes” that aren’t protected by law. However, Josh Eidelson reports:

Asked in June about Walmart claims that workers were fired for threatening customer service by violating attendance rules, former Obama-appointed NLRB Chair Wilma Liebman said, “the case law doesn’t sustain that as a valid defense” against the charge of illegally punishing strikers. As for the lack of legal protection for “intermittent strikes,” Liebman told The Nation, “I think it would be hard on the facts so far to say that the conduct constitutes intermittent striking.”

By turning this into a dispute about the specifics of labor law, Walmart can both drag things out for months or years before potentially being forced to reinstate the workers and can try to shift the conversation from Walmart’s own rampant abuse of workers and damage to the economy. They’d like to shift the conversation from the workers’ voices, while letting workers who haven’t yet joined the protests and strikes know the cost of doing so:

Another of the fired workers arrested today, Brandon Garrett, yesterday told The Nationthat his termination had taken a toll in his Baker, Louisiana, store: “When we came back from striking and we wasn’t fired right away, even more associates wanted to join the organization. But I guess Walmart got a sense of that, and when they terminated me, they kind of scared a lot of them off.” Now, said Garrett, “they’re still behind us,” but “a lot of them are scared to be retaliated against. So that’s another reason I’m standing up like I am.”

These efforts to change the subject and silence workers are why it’s important to hear what the workers had to say at Thursday’s protest:

Jovani ‘Virtually impossible to go to school with #walmart schedules. We should all be able to pursue our dreams’ #walmartstrikers
— @ForRespect

Pam from CA ‘I am here taking a stand for every Associate too afraid to speak out.’ #walmartstrikers
— @ForRespect

Lucas, gay, out and proud, faced discrimination at #walmart and was fired for speaking out. ‘Today I take a stand.’
— @ForRespect

Tell Walmart and the Walton family to respect workers and pay a real wage.

 

This article originally appeared on Daily Kos on August 22, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author:  Laura Clawson is the labor editor at Daily Kos

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

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.

Time to Move Beyond the Board

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

kahlenbergThe stunning decision today by a federal court to invalidate President Obama’s appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is being treated by the media primarily as a constitutional power struggle between the president, the Senate and the judiciary. But for labor unions—and the millions of workers they represent—the court ruling is just the latest evidence that the NLRB—a New Deal-era federal agency set up to handle all labor disputes—needs updating. It’s time for a new, more decentralized approach to protecting worker rights that supplements the current structure, which funnels all worker complaints through a single central agency in Washington D.C.

The current NLRB delivered a number of significant pro-worker decisions in 2012, all of which may now be in jeopardy. In a single year, workers gained greater protections in their use of social media; protections from employer-mandated dispute resolution programs; and greater protections for automatic dues deductions, among others. After years of pro-employer boards, many in labor saw the current incarnation, which has served since January 2012,  as providing a necessary rebalance of power. However, the NLRB was only able to reach these pro-worker decisions because President Obama used his recess appointment powers to appoint progressive members.

Now, that act may be erased. On Friday, a three-judge panel of the Federal District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously held that President Obama violated the Constitution when he made three recess appointments to the NLRB last January. The court rested its analysis on the definition of the word “the,” stating, “Then, as now, the word ‘the’ was and is a definite article.” Therefore a recess appointment must take place during “the recess” rather than “a recess.” In this instance, the Senate was not in session, but was not strictly in “the recess,” as it was gaveled in and out every few days. 

If this decision stands, the NLRB of the past year will have had only one properly appointed member, Chairman Mark Pearce. Hundreds of board decisions will be retroactively invalidated, and the board will be unable to function until at least two additional members are confirmed by the Senate. With the latest attempt at filibuster reform having failed, it is unlikely that the Republican minority in the Senate will allow new appointees to proceed quickly, if at all.

Since all labor disputes must proceed through the NLRB, this ruling could leave workers with no venue to protect their unionization and bargaining rights. As former Board Chair William Gould wrote in the New York Times in 2011, before Obama made the recess appointments, no quorum on the Board would mean that:

Workers illegally fired for union organizing won’t be reinstated with back pay. Employers will be able to get away with interfering with union elections. Perhaps most important, employers won’t have to recognize unions despite a majority vote by workers. Without the board to enforce labor law, most companies will not voluntarily deal with unions.” 

It was this reality that led the sole Republican member on the then-three-person board to consider resigning in order to rob it of a quorum. (The GOP has long loathed the NLRB). Now, the D.C. Circuit Court has held that millions of workers will have their workplace rights suspended because of the definition of a definite article in the Constitution.

The Obama administration will certainly appeal the D.C. Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court, but given the high court’s current composition, it is unlikely that the decision will be overruled. The four conservative Supreme Court Justices can usually be counted on to vote against workers’ rights, and Justice Kennedy will likely be persuaded by the D.C. Circuit’s constitutional exegesis and appeal to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary.

Labor should take this opportunity to look beyond the NLRB as the sole source of workers’ labor rights. The court’s decision on Friday has made apparent that the board has become too weak to remain the only venue where workers can seek relief for labor rights violations.

It is time to broaden the rights of workers by making labor organizing a civil right, so when employers illegitimately fire or discriminate against workers for organizing a union, workers can appeal not only to the NLRB, but also to a federal court. Just like victims of gender or racial discrimination, workers who suffered discrimination on the basis of union activity would get their day in court. As we discuss in our recent book, this proposal has many discrete benefits under a fully functional board. But it becomes a dire necessity with the prospect of the NLRB remaining defunct for a long stretch of time.

Writing labor rights into our civil-rights legislation does not entail scrapping the NLRB, but rather giving workers the same choice they have with other forms of discrimination: to proceed through an agency or through the courts. The conferral of such a choice may actually strengthen the NLRB by removing some of the enormous political pressures that the noard currently faces as the sole arbiter of labor rights. An NLRB that doesn’t have to carry the weight of every labor rights fight could devote itself to pursuing egregious or particularly difficult cases. Conservatives would have less incentive to rob the NLRB of a quorum if workers could still proceed through the courts and receive potentially greater remedies. 

It’s unlikely we’ll see compromise on this issue from an increasingly intransigent GOP that has proven happy to gum up the works of government. Republicans have no incentive to confirm Obama’s NLRB nominees when a non-functioning board will render moot many of the nation’s labor laws and dramatically shift power from workers to corporations, which has been a core GOP goal. Labor should continue to work to strengthen the NLRB, but should also think about moving beyond it. A year’s worth of pro-worker precedent has been erased in a single day; that should be a wake-up call. 

This article was originally published by Working In These Times. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Authors: Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and Moshe Z. Marvit, a Century fellow and labor and civil rights attorney, are coauthors of Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice (2012).

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