Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘workers’

The Upsurge in Uncertain Work

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Robert ReichAs Labor Day looms, more Americans than ever don’t know how much they’ll be earning next week or even tomorrow.

This varied group includes independent contractors, temporary workers, the self-employed, part-timers, freelancers, and free agents. Most file 1099s rather than W2s, for tax purposes.

On demand and on call – in the “share” economy, the “gig” economy, or, more prosaically, the “irregular” economy – the result is the same: no predictable earnings or hours.

It’s the biggest change in the American workforce in over a century, and it’s happening at lightening speed. It’s estimated that in five years over 40 percent of the American labor force will have uncertain work; in a decade, most of us.

Increasingly, businesses need only a relatively small pool of “talent” anchored in the enterprise –  innovators and strategists responsible for the firm’s unique competitive strength.

Everyone else is becoming fungible, sought only for their reliability and low cost.

Complex algorithms can now determine who’s needed to do what and when, and then measure the quality of what’s produced. Reliability can be measured in experience ratings. Software can seamlessly handle all transactions – contracts, billing, payments, taxes.

All this allows businesses to be highly nimble – immediately responsive to changes in consumer preferences, overall demand, and technologies.

While shifting all the risks of such changes to workers.

Whether we’re software programmers, journalists, Uber drivers, stenographers, child care workers, TaskRabbits, beauticians, plumbers, Airbnb’rs, adjunct professors, or contract nurses – increasingly, we’re on our own.

And what we’re paid, here and now, depends on what we’re worth here and now – in a spot-auction market that’s rapidly substituting for the old labor market where people held jobs that paid regular salaries and wages.

Even giant corporations are devolving into spot-auction networks. Amazon’s algorithms evaluate and pay workers for exactly what they contribute.

Apple directly employs fewer than 10 percent of the 1 million workers who design, make and sell iMacs and iPhones.

This giant risk-shift doesn’t necessarily mean lower pay. Contract workers typically make around $18 an hour, comparable to what they earned as “employees.”

Uber and other ride-share drivers earn around $25 per hour, more than double what the typical taxi driver takes home.

The problem is workers don’t know when they’ll earn it. A downturn in demand, or sudden change in consumer needs, or a personal injury or sickness, can make it impossible to pay the bills.

So they have to take whatever they can get, now: ride-shares in mornings and evenings, temp jobs on weekdays, freelance projects on weekends, Mechanical Turk or TaskRabbit tasks in between.

Which partly explains why Americans are putting in such long work hours – longer than in any other advanced economy.

And why we’re so stressed. According to polls, almost a quarter of American workers worry they won’t be earning enough in the future. That’s up from 15 percent a decade ago.

Irregular hours can also take a mental toll. Studies show people who do irregular work for a decade suffer an average cognitive decline of 6.5 years relative people with regular hours.

Such uncertainty can be hard on families, too. Children of parents working unpredictable schedules or outside standard daytime working hours are likely to have lower cognitive skills and more behavioral problems, according to new research.

For all these reasons, the upsurge in uncertain work makes the old economic measures – unemployment and income – look far better than Americans actually feel.

It also renders irrelevant many labor protections such as the minimum wage, worker safety, family and medical leave, and overtime – because there’s no clear “employer.”

And for the same reason eliminates employer-financed insurance – Social Security, workers compensation, unemployment benefits, and employer-provided health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

What to do?  Courts are overflowing with lawsuits over whether companies have misclassified “employees” as “independent contractors,” resulting in a profusion of criteria and definitions.

We should aim instead for simplicity: Whatever party – contractor, client, customer, agent, or intermediary – pays more than half of someone’s income, or provides more than half their working hours, should be responsible for all the labor protections and insurance an employee is entitled to.

Presumably that party will share those costs and risks with its own clients, customers, owners, and investors. Which is the real point – to take these risks off the backs of individuals and spread them as widely as possible.

In addition, to restore some certainty to peoples’ lives, we’ll need to move away from unemployment insurance and toward income insurance.

Say, for example, your monthly income dips more than 50 percent below the average monthly income you’ve received from all the jobs you’ve taken over the preceding five years. Under one form of income insurance, you’d automatically receive half the difference for up to a year.

But that’s not all. Ultimately, we’ll need a guaranteed minimum basic income. But I’ll save this for another column.

This post appeared in Our Future on August 24, 2015. Originally posted at RobertReich.org. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Robert B. Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century.

Vocational Education Should Be For Everyone

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Casey_200x200The term “vocational education,” which means preparing students for a certain trade, such as auto repair or beauty school, initially began in 1917 to reduce unemployment and improve wages, and in the 1940s and 1950s, vocational education expanded to other subjects beyond agriculture and industrial work such as science, math and foreign language education.

At some point, however, vocational education earned a reputation as something reserved for “those students,” experts say. From 1982 to 1994, there was a decline in enrollment in vocational education for most groups of students, but the portion of black, non-Hispanic students and Asian/Pacific Islander students stayed about the same while the percentage of students with disabilities increased, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Since 1990, students enrolled in vocational education has declined from an average 4.2 credits to 3.6 credits in 2009, according to NCES data analyzed by the National Education Association. Meanwhile, enrollment in academic credits increased from 23.5 to 26.9 during the same period.

Hillary Clinton said it is necessary to change attitudes about how we see vocational education and that it is critical to support and develop the nation’s community colleges “and get back to really respecting vocational and technical work.” She also supported the idea of apprentice work, saying at a campaign event in South Carolina last month that there should be a tax credit for businesses that hire and train apprentices.

Vocational education is changing, but many still see it as something only low-income, mostly minority students are pushed into and an option that upper class students and white students wouldn’t be encouraged to take. As academics and authors on national education trends point out, when our society devalues anything that isn’t academic prep work and a pathway to a four-year university, it’s easy to see why people are suspicious of vocational education, which encourages students to gain practical, hands-on skills in a certain industry, versus learning about economic theories in a lecture format.

In many cases, there is good reason for that suspicion. Anthony Greene, assistant professor with the African American studies program at the College of Charleston found that racial-ethnic minority students are disproportionately placed into lower-level academic courses, and subsequently enroll in vocational courses. Even within vocational education, students of color, especially women of color, aren’t tracked into professions that earn as much money over time. Greene wrote a 2014 paper on racial trends in vocational education in the International Journal of Educational Studies.

“Think for a second on the ‘workers’ at colleges and universities across the country. In the vast majority of cases, women, particularly black and Latino, often are regulated to cook and cleaning staffs. Latino men are often regulated to grounds keeping, but white males tend to be in maintenance and heating and lighting and electrical,” Greene said. “Each one of these jobs come with a level of prestige accompanied by a variation of pay. I argue that these pathways in occupations begin in high school vocational programs.”

Jose Vilson, a middle school math educator in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood and author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and the Future of Education, said he says similar patterns at his school.

“Usually the language is kind of coded like, ‘This kid isn’t really into academics,’ or ‘This kid doesn’t come to class a lot,’ or ‘Based on the way they volunteer, they seem to be very good with their hands,” Vilson said. “Who are we to say they aren’t good with academics? Maybe we haven’t given them the proper environment for them to succeed in an academic setting, and this isn’t just from white teachers. This comes from people who look like the kid.”

Vilson doesn’t oppose vocational training but would rather see more of an effort from educators to make sure they are encouraging students to follow their actual interests and make an informed choice on whether or not they want to take vocational education classes. Part of the problem, Vilson said, is that the professions we associate with vocational training, such as becoming an electrician or a plumber, are often devalued even though they make good money and are perfectly legitimate career options.

“I find there’s another element there too, in terms of what do we see as a professional job. You look at a plumber, for example, and they could be making money hand over fist, and people can denigrate the plumbing profession and make it into something that isn’t a profession in of itself. There just needs to be a certain set of skills that every American is entitled to,” Vilson said. “For the last 13 years, there has been a decline in having those types of skills in academic courses, like home economics and workshop. My focus is always going to be on students and allowing them to make a choice.”

Vocational training may typically lead people to envision beauty school and carpentry, but vocational programs are expanding to new subjects, and some programs, such as Denver Public Schools’ vocational education program, are much more modern. The district offers an engineering and energy pathway, biomedicine, engineering, and advanced manufacturing, said Laurent Trent, manager of strategic partnerships at Denver Public Schools at the school’s office of college and career readiness.

“Often, a student doesn’t realize they’re in a career and technical education class until they get in it and really like it and say, ‘Oh I’m going to take the next one.’ They don’t hold a lot of the stigma that their parents and other adults hold,” Trent said. “So, business partners and parents — in the best-case scenario, they don’t know — and in the worst, they do know and they associate it with vocational education of decades past, so we definitely wanted to signal that this is a new day.”

They’re also trying to reenvision some of the more traditional kinds of vocations, such as automotive work, to be more compatible with the modern workforce, Trent said.

“We’re thinking about that now, to take more old school programs and reimagine them into career pathways, so we’re thinking about how you take traditional construction and woodworking classes and change the structure so it aligns with a high-demand advanced manufacturing pathway. Certainly many of our investments are in other areas. Auto – for instance – does auto have a place in the engineering pathway? We’re still thinking through how that works,” she said.

To decide which programs reflect relevant growing industries, the school partners with the Office of Economic Development in Denver, to analyze data on which fields are developing rapidly. The school also received a “Youth CareerConnect” grant. Students are also doing job shadows and getting connected with mentors in their fields. Trent said the district is currently working with three universities on a preferential admissions agreement for students in the vocational education classes.

Philip Zelikow, co-author of America’s Moment: Creating Opportunity in the Connected Age, and White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia, said the best way to provide vocational education would be to integrate elements of vocational education into the rest of the academic curricula. He pointed to Camden County High School where you learn the theory in order to use the skills, such as learning how to investigate a crime scene and using instruments and writing up reports for actual hands-on skills.

“You unite theory and practice, which is actually a very interesting way to learn the theory and makes it much more accessible.” Zelikow said.

He argued that a child choosing one vocation early on in their high school career may be too rigid, since students often change their minds sometime in high school, if not college.

“They say, ‘We don’t expect these kids to get these academic subjects,’ and in effect, they’re tracking them since they’re 15. They’ve ended up spending their whole high school career to prepare to be an aircraft repairperson, but that may be too rigid and confining,” Zelikow said. “One of the advantages of the mainstreaming approach is that it builds up soft skills, basic literacy and numeracy, and the context in which you build up that literacy and numeracy isn’t all that important.”

When you separate vocational education from academic work, you emphasize class differences, Zelikow said, instead of helping all students build skills they will need in the future.

“You reinforce the problem of two Americas with this kind of educational system, which is duplicating the kind of class educational system you would have encountered in America in the 1850s, where a small number of students of a particular class would go to certain schools and everyone else was assumed to be good for nothing but farmwork,” Zelikow said. “In the period between 1880 and 1940, there was the universal high school movement and radical changes in college. These changes now look anachronistic, but they were a major overhaul of the system. It’s time for another overhaul.”

This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on July 21, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Casey Quinlan. Casey Quinlan is an education reporter for ThinkProgress. Previously, she was an editor for U.S. News and World Report. She has covered investing, education crime, LGBT issues, and politics for publications such as the NY Daily News, The Crime Report, The Legislative Gazette, Autostraddle, City Limits, The Atlantic and The Toast.

Democrats push to limit abusive work scheduling practices like split shifts

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Laura ClawsonLow hourly wages aren’t the only thing that keep workers in the fast food and retail industries struggling. Scheduling matters, too. These days it’s common for workers to not know their schedules more than a week ahead; to be on call, ready to go to work with no notice, but not guaranteed any pay; for their hours (and therefore their paychecks) to vary enormously month to month; or to be forced to work split shifts, with a few hours of work in the morning and a few hours at the end of the day. All of this doesn’t just affect paychecks, it makes it difficult for workers to raise their incomes by getting a second job, and it costs them as they try to line up child care for unpredictable schedules. Democrats, led by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Patty Murray, and Chris Murphy and Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Bobby Scott, have a bill to fix that, or at least start to fix it: the Schedules That Work Act.

The bill:

Protects Workers who Ask for Schedule Changes
All employees of companies with more than 15 workers will have the right to request changes in their schedules without fear of retaliation. Employers would be required to consider and respond to all schedule requests, and, when a worker’s request is made because of a health condition, child or elder care, a second job, continued education, or job training, the employer would be required to grant the request unless a legitimate business reason precludes it.Incentivizes Predictable and Stable Schedules in Occupations with Known Scheduling Abuses
Employees in food service, cleaning, and retail occupations—as well as additional occupations with documented scheduling abuses designated by the Secretary of Labor—will now get their work schedules two weeks in advance and will receive additional pay when they are put “on-call” without any guarantee that work will be available; report to work only to be sent home early; are scheduled for a “split shift;” or receive changes to their schedule with less than 24 hours notice.

There are two things to note about this: First, it’s the kind of bill Democrats wouldn’t be proposing without worker activism drawing attention to the problem. Second, it’s the kind of bill Republicans will never pass, so for workers to have these protections, we need to elect Democrats.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on July 16, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

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

Rep. Keith Ellison’s Low-wage Worker Organizer SOTU Guest: “I go with a conflicted heart”

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

in these timesToday I will accompany U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, representing low-wage workers’ voices at President Barack Obama’s sixth State of the Union. While I am honored, I go with a conflicted heart.

Yesterday the radio was filled with speeches from the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today I will stand beside the first African American to be elected to the House of Representatives from Minnesota listening to a speech from the first African-American President of the United States. Clearly we live in changed times, demonstrating that through organizing we can win important change.

Yet in many respects times have not changed for the better. Nearly 50 years ago, Dr. King talked about the dangers of income inequality in the country, stating: “the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” Since then there has in fact been a radical redistribution of economic power, but not in the direction imagined by Dr. King.

Today, the wealthiest 0.1% of the population in the United States controls as much of the wealth in this country as 90% of the population. Let those numbers sink in for a second. In 2013, the average CEO in the United States earned 331 times as much as the average worker, and 774 times as much as minimum wage workers. In half a day’s work, the CEO of McDonald’s Corporation receives more compensation than the workers who produce his wealth are paid in an entire year.

This division of wealth is also now more than ever reflected in the halls of political power: For the first time in history, more than half the members of the House and Senate are millionaires. And while the new Congress is the most diverse in history, four out of five members of Congress are white and four out of five are men.

Let’s move beyond statistics to understand what this means in real life. I work at the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), a low-wage worker led organization that is fighting for fair wages, fair working conditions, and a voice in the workplace for all workers in the Twin Cities metro area. Members of CTUL build and reconstruct the homes in our communities, yet cannot afford to put a roof over the heads of their own families. Members of CTUL work for fast food companies, surrounded by an overwhelming abundance of food, yet often cannot provide food for their own families. Members of CTUL work for contracted companies maintaining the sleek and clean images of large stores like Kohl’s and Home Depot, yet they cannot afford to shop in the very stores they clean.

Every day, millions of workers stress about how to cover basic needs for their families on wages that fall well below the poverty level. Every day, workers endure the arrogance and disrespect of companies that constantly increase workloads, lower wages, and threaten workers who complain.  Every day, people drive home from work worrying that they will be pulled over simply for being a person of color. Every day, parents worry about a racist system that allows police to kill unarmed youth of color. And all of these combined days create a reality where the wealthiest, mostly white Minnesotans live on average eight years longer than the poorest Minnesotans, mostly people of color.

Despite all of this, I do not by any means feel defeated. Low-wage workers across the country are standing up, refusing to be relegated to the back of the bus of the U.S. economy. From retail janitors in the Twin Cities to farmworkers in Florida to fast food workers across the nation, low-wage workers are organizing and winning. Yesterday on MLK Day, and over the past month, hundreds of thousands of young people have marched in the streets, declaring #BlackLivesMatter.

Our voices are echoing through the halls of political and economic power structures. Target Corporation is now following the lead of retail janitors by implementing a Responsible Contractor Policy regarding the contracted cleaning of its stores. U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison is working tirelessly to amplify workers’ voices in Washington by calling for policies to achieve justice for low-wage workers across the country. President Barack Obama is now calling for an increase in the federal minimum wage and the right to guaranteed paid sick days for all workers.

While all of this is important, it’s not enough. As you read this, the city of Bloomington is threatening to sue organizers for declaring that Black Lives Matter in the sacred halls of American capitalism, Mall of America. Even if we win paid sick days and a $10.10 minimum wage, millions of workers will still live in poverty.

Today I will sit surrounded by the political and economic power structure of this country listening to the State of the Union. Tomorrow I will stand in the streets surrounded by those who have been pushed to the edges of the political and economic system, demanding a radical redistribution of political and economic power.

This article originally appeared on Inthesetimes.com on January 20, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Veronica Mendez Moore is co-director of the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha in the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

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

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