Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘working conditions’

Transit Workers Reach Agreement to End Weeklong Strike in Philadelphia

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

On Monday, transit workers in TWU Local 234 reached a tentative agreement with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and ended a weeklong transit strike in Philadelphia. Nearly 5,000 employees are returning to work, and the deal now goes to the local’s membership for a vote, which is set for Nov. 18.

Willie Brown, president of Transport Workers (TWU) Local 234, lauded the agreement:

“This is a contract with many important gains, especially on pension benefits and a host of non-economic issues effecting the working conditions and job security of our members. As everyone with experience in collective bargaining knows, we didn’t get everything we wanted—but we came a long way from where we were prior to the strike. We made gains in pensions and wages and minimized out-of-pocket health care expenses at a time when health care costs are soaring, while maintaining excellent medical coverage for our members and their families.

“We worked day and night at the bargaining table in an attempt to finalize a new contract over the past week. We settled just hours before facing the possibility of a back-to-work court-ordered injunction. We ultimately prevailed because our members were determined and united from beginning to end. We also benefited from the assistance of city leaders such as Congressman Bob Brady and Democratic congressional candidate Dwight Evans, who worked to help us settle this dispute with a SEPTA Board controlled by Republicans.

“Our members will keep Philadelphia moving, and we will continue to fight for our members’ economic well-being and their rights on the job.”

Said TWU President Harry Lombardo:

“TWU’s members in Philadelphia are some of the hardest working people on the job. We’re pleased they’ll have a contract that recognizes that.”

Details of the agreement will be made public after the vote.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on November 7, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Kenneth Quinnell: I am a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, I worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  My writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.  I am the proud father of three future progressive activists, an accomplished rapper and karaoke enthusiast.

Beyond the Fight for 15: The Worker-led Fast Food Union Campaign Building Power on the Shop Floor

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

psdtnwbe_400x400Last year, at age 17, Eli Fishel moved out of her parents’ house in Vancouver, Washington, squeezing into a three-bedroom apartment with five other roommates. To pay her bills as she finished high school, Fishel landed a job at Burgerville, a fast-food chain with 42 outlets and more than 1,500 employees in the Pacific Northwest.

Founded in 1961, Burgerville has cultivated a loyal following by emphasizing fresh, local food, combined with sustainable business practices like renewable energy and recycling. But Fishel quickly realized she wasn’t part of Burgerville’s commitment to “regional vitality” and “future generations.”

After 16 months on the job, she earns just $9.85 an hour, barely above the Washington State minimum wage. Her hours and shifts fluctuate weekly, with only a few days’ notice, and every month she goes hungry because she runs out of money to buy food.

Speaking of the privately-owned Burgerville, Fishel says, “We’re poor because they’re rich, and they’re rich because we’re poor.”

Disgruntled Burgerville workers began covertly organizing in 2015. The Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU) went public on April 26 with a march of more than 100 people through Portland, Oregon, and the delivery of a letter to the corporate headquarters in Vancouver. BVWU demands include a $5-an-hour raise for all hourly workers, recognition of a workers organization, affordable, quality healthcare, a safe and healthy workplace, and fair and consistent scheduling with ample notice.

Some BVWU members call their effort “Fight for $15, 2.0,” playing off the name of the fast-food worker campaign launched in 2011 by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

SEIU has won plaudits for making the plight of low-wage workers a national issue and igniting the movement for new laws boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour. But the campaign has not, thus far, included efforts to unionize individual workplaces.

Unlike Fight for $15, which Middlebury College sociology professor and labor expert Jamie McCallum describes as “a fairly top-down campaign,” BVWU is a worker-initiated and -led project backed by numerous labor organizations. The group of Burgerville workers who came up with the idea includes members of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a militant union with West Coast roots that date back to the early 1900s. The campaign has the backing of the Portland chapter of IWW and the support SEIU Local 49, the Portland Association of Teachers, and Jobs with Justice.

This scrappy approach enabled BVWU to leapfrog Fight for $15 by declaring a union from the start. While BVWU has not yet formally petitioned for recognition and Burgerville has not chosen to voluntarily negotiate with it, the union has established worker committees in five stores, is developing units in a similar number of shops and counts scores of workers as members.

BVWU is full of lessons in how organizing works. One member likens the campaign to “low-level guerrilla warfare” with workers maneuvering to increase their ranks, build power on the shop floor, expand the terrain from shop to shop, while skirmishing with managers over the work process, and suffering casualties as some members have quit or say they were pushed out of their jobs at Burgerville. In the workplace, the strategy is to develop leaders, form committees for each store, and nurture trust and respect between workers. Outside, BVWU uses direct action to empower workers and bring suppliers into the conversation. The union also works to build community support by mobilizing social-justice groups, clergy, and organized labor to win over the public and pressure the company.

McCallum says that BVWU an example of social movement unionism. “It’s about organizing as a class against another class,” he says. “It’s to win demands not just against a single boss or to change a law, but to engage in class struggle.”

Burgerville Workers Union members and supporters rally in Portland, Ore. Photo courtesy of the BVWU

Burgerville Workers Union members and supporters rally in Portland, Ore. Photo courtesy of the BVWU

Beyond the Fight for $15

McCallum also sees the campaign as an attempt to build on Fight for $15. “For the first time since the Justice for Janitors campaign began 30 years ago, we have low-wage workers who are people of color working with traditional unions to change politics,” he says. “If the IWW is interested in pushing that agenda forward to make it more democratic and radical, that’s awesome.”

Fight for $15 is “one of the most successful and inspiring labor victories in the last 20 years,” says McCallum. “They’ve accomplished things, like doubling the minimum wage, thought impossible three years ago. They managed to raise the profile of low-wage workers in a failing economy.” He acknowledges, however, that Fight for $15 is “largely political organizing.”

“It doesn’t require a mass base. It requires mobilized workers with incredibly talented organizers to move sympathetic politicians in a defined geographic area,” McCallum says.

To that end, Fight for $15 devotes considerable money and effort to media. A Fight for $15 strategy document called “Strike in a Box” lists these criteria for a “good [organizing] site to focus on”: “Is it an iconic brand? Does the brand help tell a story, locally and/or nationally? Do we have spokespeople? Trained? Reliable? Experienced? Do we have stories? Compelling worker stories, Horror stories about site practices (wage theft, sexual harassment, etc).”

By contrast, Burgerville worker Flanagan says BVWU uses media primarily as a tool to foster the growth of the union along with worker solidarity and consciousness. She says media helps “connect the dots between our personal struggles and collective struggle.” She adds that explaining what unions do and how they organize helps to educate “my generation, which has very little understanding of unions.”

Indeed, although the Fight for $15 demands “$15 and a union,” SEIU has made a strategic decision not to attempt to organize the nation’s tens of thousands of fast-food restaurants shop by shop. “The NLRB has old rules for small shops,” Kendall Fells, Fight for $15’s organizing director, told Working in These Times in May. “This movement is too large to be put in that process.”

Adriana Alvarez, a Chicago McDonald’s worker, says that while Fight for $15 may not be a formal union, “We’re acting like a union, not waiting for anyone to tell us we can have one.”

“To me a union is workers joining together to accomplish things we wouldn’t be able to achieve on our own,” Alvarez says. “And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing—coming together and winning life-changing raises for 20 million Americans, including more than 10 million who are on the way to $15. By standing together, we’ve gone from powerless to having powerful voices in our stores.”

If SEIU can prove that McDonald’s calls the shots in its franchises, it could also push open the door to unionizing the whole company at once instead of the Sisyphean task of one franchise at a time. Deploying organizers, researchers and lawyers, SEIU has gathered evidence for 181 cases alleging that McDonald’s controls its franchisees’ employment practices and therefore should be held accountable for unfair labor practices in franchisees, including retaliation against workers who supported unionization. In 2014, the NLRB issued a preliminary finding in favor of SEIU’s case and, then the next year in a separate case involving Browning Ferris Industries of California the labor board revised the definition of joint employer to “consider whether an employer has exercised control over terms and conditions of employment through an intermediary.” Years later, the McDonald’s case is still grinding its way through a judicial process, with a multi-city case being argued before an administrative law judge that was kicked back to the NLRB on October 12. If the board finds or any of the court cases, which includes multiple class-action suits SEIU has backed against McDonald’s for wage theft, determine that McDonald’s is a joint employer with its franchisees, that may finally open the door to a company-wide union drive.

“It’s a huge amount of work”

The Burgerville campaign’s strategy of painstakingly organizing shop by shop emphasizes “building worker power,” which is both “a means and a goal,” says Flanagan.

For BVWU, the initial organizing drive was relatively easy, with workers chafing at difficult working conditions and poverty-level wages.

Debby Olson, 49, a military veteran, has worked at Burgerville since her home-cleaning business tanked during the Great Recession. She says the “people are nice, but the pay is horrible.” After six years, she makes $10.75 an hour.

Olson, says the job is “harder than my house-cleaning business. You are literally moving all day. For hours you don’t get to breathe. When I get home, I’m mentally and physically exhausted.”

Five other Burgerville workers also described the pace as non-stop. Olson reduced her full-time schedule to three days a week because, as she says, “I could barely walk when I got off work and my quality of life was really poor. It’s scary that my feet were getting so damaged that it could affect my ability to get another job or enjoy my later years.”

Burgerville’s lure is gourmet-style food, sourced locally from “988 farms, ranches, and artisans,” which requires labor-intensive preparation. Luis Brennan, 27, a two-year Burgerville employee, says, “The job is really hard. We actually cook the food. We core strawberries, we hand-blend milkshakes. We cook the meat and eggs fresh, we cut the onion rings and batter them twice. It’s a huge amount of work.”

The Burgerville campaign builds on the IWW’s experience over the last decade in fast-food organizing at Jimmy John’s and Starbucks. Picking a regional chain works to the benefit of the union as it can exert more pressure because Burgerville doesn’t have the might of a global food giant and its carefully crafted image is ripe for attack.

The public may eat up buzzwords like local, fresh and sustainable, but Burgerville’s rhetoric sticks in workers’ throats. Fishel says that despite a 70 percent discount for food on shift, she still sometimes can’t afford it.

“If your workers are going without food, how can you say you are a better, more sustainable option for your community?” she asks.

“This is my community”

Building a workplace organization has been a transformative experience for workers. Fishel says, “Being in the union has been very uplifting, inspiring, and super-positive to come together with so many people. We deserve a living wage, to be treated with respect and to have more than what we have right now.”

Claire Flanagan, 26, who’s worked at the chain since June 2015, says, “The union has changed people’s relationship with the job and work. It’s gone from being a place I go to work to pay my bills to feeling invested in our coworkers and the job in a much deeper way. This is my community.”

Burgerville is hardly rolling over, however. Flanagan says, “The company has dug in their heels and refuses whatever we ask for.” She alleges in her store, “Managers spread anti-union rumors and encourage workers to talk shit about the union as a way to gain favoritism. The company is engaged in a misinformation campaign and spreading fear.”

But BVWU members keep the heat on whether by wearing a union button on the job or tussling over floor mats. Members are demanding mats to ease the stress of standing for hours. Management relented in a few stores, but the mats have emerged as a proxy war. Flanagan says despite having mats, managers will put them away and she will bring them back out.

Jordan Vaandering, 26, says of workers at his outlet, where he’s been for a year, “We own the culture whereas before it was management pushing people to meet speed of service times, meet sales goals.”

Building worker power

BVWU’s strategy is known as “minority unionism” because BVWU may not have a majority in each shop willing to declare support for a union. This sort of organizing circumvents a federal labor-law process that makes union elections difficult, time-consuming and expensive. But BVWU utilizes the NLRB process when it is to its advantage, such as by filing unfair labor practice charges that allege Burgerville is illegally retaliating against the union and workers.

Burgerville worker Brennan says BVWU relies on the IWW model: “It teaches, ‘You’re a worker who hates your job, here’s how to build a committee.’ ” Each organized store began with a committee and grew from there.

One useful question, says Brennan, is asking workers, “What could you do with $5 an hour more?” He says talking to coworkers about “what they need changed and why they need it changed helps to break down the walls of silence around hard stuff in our lives.”

Brennan explains, “Building relationships in the workplace is not natural, but it’s deeply human. The workplace is full of power relationships and incredibly constrained by the boss, by pay, by gender, by race, by language. You need to get to know someone to know whether or not they will fight and why they’ll fight.”

These relationships come into play when management goes after workers. One notable case involves Ivy Fleak, a member whom BVWU claims was targeted by management “for standing up on the job and standing up against sexual harassment.” Flanagan says, “They took Ivy off the schedule for two weeks. We organized actions and a vigil. She spoke out publicly and won, receiving back pay for when she was off-schedule.”

Flanagan says, “People related to Ivy’s story,” which boosted support for the union. “At another job they saw someone being targeted or fired for standing up, or that happened to them. Being part of the union means when I’m at work, I know people have my back.”

BVWU claims Fleak was later forced to quit under pressure after the company allegedly threatened to file spurious criminal charges against her for gift-card theft. Burgerville declined to comment on her case, saying,“Burgerville is dedicated to continuously enhancing our relationship with our employees. We do not comment on individual employee matters or internal communications.” The company also opted not to comment on the BVWU campaign or on complaints about wages and working conditions.

In the case of another BVWU supporter fired over a workplace accident, the union organized a delegation of 50 people to the corporate headquarters asking for the worker’s job back and conducted a food drive for the worker. It publicized the firing to make the case that Burgerville pushes workers“past their limits” and demanded a transparent disciplinary process. More than half the workers in that outlet also signed a petition asking for the worker to be rehired. The worker remains fired.

BVWU members view the firings as part of a wider anti-union campaign. The company has set up a website to “inform” workers of their rights, but which discourages them from unionizing. Store managers have also been holding anti-union sessions with workers, where they play a video featuring Burgerville CEO Jeff Harvey. In the video, Harvey states, “I don’t think a union is in the best interest of the company, our employees, our suppliers, or our guests.” He admits, “Burgerville understands employees face certain challenges like transportation, food, and housing to name just a few.” Harvey then claims, “We have spent well over a year looking into the pressing issues that concern you [but] can’t act” as “under current labor laws, we are obligated to maintain the status quo.”

Flanagan claims when Burgerville says it has to “maintain the status quo,” what it’s really saying to workers is, “If you didn’t get a raise, blame the union.” On August 15, Burgerville Workers Union filed four charges of unfair labor practices with the NLRB, including one concerning the anti-union video. Labor law is fuzzy on the issue. Companies are prohibited from increasing benefits during a traditional union election campaign, but as a minority union, BVWU is acting outside of this framework as a minority union.

BVWU has also taken the offensive by hitting at the company’s public image. The worker-organizers have kept up a brisk pace for five months, averaging an action a week such as vigils, marches, pickets and a bicycle ride. When BVWU members visited Liepold Farms near Portland, which supplies Burgerville with berries for its signature shakes, to ask for support, the farm owner was taken aback but accepted their letter. Shortly after BVWU was unveiled, dozens of workers, local labor leaders, activists, and clergy packed the corporate headquarters in support.

Knowing they have the backing of the community bolsters the confidence of workers on the shop floor. Flanagan says the current plan is to “build organizational capacity and infrastructure to pull off larger actions.”

Time may be on the side of BVWU. The more shops the union can organize, the more workers who join, and the more community support it builds, the likelier it is BVWU will force Burgerville to the bargaining table, with or without a majority union. Then the Burgerville Workers Union may be the one opening new outlets.

To find out more about the Burgerville Workers Union, go to burgervilleworkersunion.org.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on October 25, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Arun Gupta is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York and has written for dozens of publications including the Washington Post, the Nation, The Progressive, Telesur English, and the Guardian. He is the author of the upcoming Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste (The New Press).

As Temperatures Climb Across the Country, Workers Will Suffer

Monday, July 11th, 2016

elizabeth grossmanThe summer of 2016 is barely two weeks old, but this year is already on track to break high temperature records in the United States. On June 20, cities across the Southwest and into Nevada reached all-time triple-digit highs. Meanwhile, every single state experienced spring temperatures above average, with some in the Northwest reaching record highs. These temperatures have already proved deadly, killing five hikers in Arizona earlier this month. Triple-digit heat earlier that same week is also being blamed for the deaths of two construction workers, 49-year old Dale Heitman in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 15 and 55-year old Thomas F. “Tommy” Barnes on June 14 at the Monsanto campus in nearby Chesterfield, Missouri.

“I’ve been around since 1973 and we’ve never seen anything like this,” David Zimmermann, president and business manager of Sheet Metal Workers Local 36, told the St. Louis-Southern Illinois Labor Tribune. “With these new buildings, once they close them in, with the guys working in there, it’s like working in a big oven.”

While 100-degree heat in June may be unusual, serious illness and deaths caused by extreme heat at U.S. job sites is not. Last year, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) received more than 200 reports of workers hospitalized because of heat-related illness and at least eight deaths associated with heat exposure. According to OSHA, since 2003, heat has killed—on average—more than 30 workers a year. In 2014, 2,630 U.S. workers suffered from heat illness and 18 died on the job from heat stroke and related causes.

Of these deaths, nine occurred in the workers’ first three days on the job, four of them on the worker’s first day—and at workplaces where employers had no way of allowing new workers to acclimatize to the heat. These numbers have been even worse in the past. In 2011, heat killed 61 U.S. workers and sickened 4,420. OSHA has already begun investigating several heat-related on-the-job fatalities this year, including the two in Missouri.

“Heat can kill. And it is especially tragic when someone dies of heat exposure because they’re simply doing their job. We see cases like this every year and every one of them is preventable,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, David Michaels on a June 27 call with reporters. “We also know that in this current heat wave workers are concerned about their safety. In fact we’ve received a record number of emails, comments and questions regarding heat and worker rights in recent weeks.”

Michaels spoke with reporters as part of OSHA’s launch of this year’s “water-rest-shade campaign,” the agency’s ongoing effort to prevent work-related heat illness.

As part of its campaign, OSHA is upping its efforts to educate employers and workers on the danger of heat. OSHA’s Atlanta region that covers eight southern states planned a one-hour safety “stand down” at construction sites and other workplaces. OSHA has also updated its “heat app” for smartphones and tablets. This uses National Weather Service data to calculate the heat index at worksites and advise when the risk level is high. The app, which is available in English and Spanish, also includes information about identifying and preventing heat illness. According to OSHA the app has already been downloaded more than 250,000 times.

No federal heat standards

California has a “heat illness prevention regulation” that applies to all outdoor workplaces. The state also requires employers in agriculture, construction, landscaping, transportation and oil and gas extraction to take special measures when temperatures hit 95ºF or higher. Washington state also has an “outdoor heat exposure rule” that includes specific temperatures that trigger protective action.

But there are no specific federal extreme heat standards—in other words, no set temperatures at which employers are required to pull workers off the job. But under federal law, and OSHA’s general workplace safety standards, employers are required to protect workers from excessive heat and heat illness at whatever temperature that might occur. And if workers are going to be exposed to high temperatures, their employer is supposed to have a heat illness prevention program. This includes providing workers with water, rest and shade. It should also allow workers to acclimatize to the heat, and train workers to monitor for and prevent extreme heat exposure and illness.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), seven of the ten warmest years on record for the 48 contiguous U.S. states have occurred since 1998, with 2012 the warmest in the U.S.—and 2014, the hottest worldwide—thus far. So extreme heat and unseasonably high temperatures are far from new. But workers continue to succumb.

A search of OSHA’s workplace inspections and safety violations database shows 70 investigations related to heat stress since 2006. These include at least 20 fatalities. Of these 70 investigations, more than 20—including at least five fatalities—occurred in a construction-related industry. Nine involved delivery service workers, among them two U.S. Postal Service workers who died of heat exposure. Eight incidents involved landscaping workers, eight of whom died. Farm work has proved similarly dangerous for heat exposure, with all four incidents investigated involving fatalities. But workers also fell to heat doing work in the energy extraction industry, doing warehouse work, handling waste and recycling, and performing vehicle repair work. But the OSHA record of heat stress violations also includes restaurant and nursing home work.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, most of these incidents occurred in the hot and humid South and Southeast, including Texas and Louisiana. The accounts, where they are available, are heartbreaking for the utter ordinariness of the workdays they describe:

  • A worker in West Virginia who’d been dragging tree limbs to a chipper truck for three hours on a late August day was sent to sit in a truck when he said he didn’t feel well. After a little while he left the job site to walk home, a distance of four blocks. Two hours later, an emergency service worker found him unconscious by the side of the street, his body temperature at 107.4º. He never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead of heatstroke.
  • A man pulling weeds in a fruit tree nursery on a July day dies of hyperthermia.
  • Men found slumped over their construction work, pronounced dead of heat exhaustion.
  • A migrant farm worker who’d completed three months in a tomato packing warehouse who volunteered to stay on after the harvest ended to remove stakes and strings from 300 to 400 acres of tomato fields. After his fourth day cutting and removing strings he went to a shaded area to take a break. He was found there, some time later by coworkers, unconscious. After a local hospital recorded his 108º body temperature he was airlifted to a major hospital where he died the following day.
Ongoing low OSHA penalties

As Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) policy analyst Katie Tracy notes, under current rules, OSHA is limited in what it can fine employers for violations of any kind—including those that keep workers on the job in dangerous heat. “The median penalty for a fatality is a little over $5,000,” says Tracy. And under OSHA’s process for working with employers on fixing hazards, employers can—and regularly do—negotiate lower penalty fees than OSHA initially assessed. In fact, during the time that a company is contesting these penalties the company isn’t legally required to correct the violations for which the employers was cited. In a new report examining this practice, CPR found that the median penalty employers have paid for a fatality during the Obama Administration is $5,800. This amount, says CPR, is “less than the cost of an average funeral.”

A look at the fines companies paid in the past 10 years when workers died on the job from heat exposure reflects what CPR found. While some fines were much higher, when a number of construction workers suffered heat-related deaths, many of their employers paid fines of $7,000. When farm and landscaping workers died, those fines were often lower, in two cases: $2,000 and $2,500. OSHA is now poised to increase its penalties for the first time since 1990.

But when it comes to heat, “We want this message to get out as widely as possible,” said Michael. That includes publicizing what some employers are doing to keep workers safely cool on the job—with easy access to shade, cool drinks, wet cloths and opportunity for rest breaks. It also means making sure everyone is aware of the dangers of heat and knows what the symptoms are so they can stop before it’s too late.

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on July 5, 2016. Reprinted with permission. 

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones,Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

UFCW Canada and Mexico's Farm Workers Sign Historic Agreement

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Jackie TortoraThe National Farm Workers’ Confederation (CNC) and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada signed a historic agreement to ensure the rights of migrant agriculture workers are protected and defended in Mexico, Canada and the United States, reports UFCW Canada.

The agreement, which was signed last week, will result in better conditions for migrant Mexican agriculture workers in North America.

Labor rights training and proactive monitoring and advocacy also are integral to the agreement. UFCW Canada and the CNC plan to develop a comprehensive database and reports on the conditions facing migrant agriculture workers in Mexico, United States and Canada.

This research and analysis will be used also to develop programs to improve access to social programs and benefits such as health, housing and educational subsidies for the workers and members of their families.

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on April 16, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

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

Apple and Foxconn to Improve Working Conditions and Hours

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Laura ClawsonFollowing lots and lots of terrible publicity around the wages, working conditions and hours faced by Chinese workers manufacturing its iPhones and iPads, Apple asked the Fair Labor Association, an organization widely described as independent although it is funded by the corporations it oversees, to look into working conditions in the factories of its Chinese contractors. The FLA has now looked into Foxconn, the largest and most (in)famous Apple contractor, and:

Foxconn – which makes Apple devices from the iPhone to the iPad – will hire tens of thousands of new workers, clamp down on illegal overtime, improve safety protocols and upgrade worker housing and other amenities. […]

Foxconn said it would reduce working hours to 49 hours per week, including overtime, while keeping total compensation for workers at its current level. The FLA audit had found that during peak production times, workers in the three factories put in more than 60 hours per week on average.

To compensate for the reduced hours, Foxconn will hire tens of thousands of additional workers. It also said it would build more housing and canteens to accommodate that influx.

Foxconn’s changes will also affect other brands with products manufactured by the contractor, such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Sony. It will also have an effect on competing contract manufacturers. Consumers, of course, can expect to pay slightly higher prices, although labor costs are a small fraction of the price of the devices, and if you’re going to complain that you’re paying a little more because Chinese workers are only working 49 instead of 60 hours per week, I don’t want to hear from you anyway.

Continuing oversight will be crucial, as it would be altogether typical for the improvements for workers to be rolled back once the spotlight was off Apple’s manufacturing process.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on March 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Getting on the BRT Bus: U.S. Cities Eye Mexico Program That Benefits Workers

Friday, March 16th, 2012

kari-lydersenMEXICO CITY—Almost any time of day on Avenida de los Insurgentes, one of Mexico City’s busiest streets, people crowd onto the constant parade of shiny red buses that pull up to platforms every few seconds, whisking passengers to different neighborhoods in the city of 22 million.

This is the Metrobus system, one of the bus rapid transit or BRT projects that have been instituted in the past decade or two in Bogota, Johannesburg, Guangzhou and other Latin American, Asian and African cities. They’ve been proposed for an increasing number of U.S. cities.

The system is meant to enhance public transportation, help revitalize marginalized neighborhoods and reduce air pollution, with less expense and construction than new light rail lines. On a tour this week paid for by The Rockefeller Foundation and run by the international Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), Metrobus official Gonzalo Garcia Miaja told me and other journalists that the system also means a major improvement in working conditions for bus drivers. And it makes the workday easier for hundreds of thousands of regular residents, who now have a much quicker, healthier and safer commute to work.

Intracity transport has a complicated and dramatic history in Mexico City. In the 1980s and 1990s the powerful bus drivers union fought bitterly with the administrations of presidents Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Ernesto Zedillo over plans to privatize the public bus system. Union leaders were jailed and massive protests rocked the city, as In These Times contributor David Bacon explained in this 1996 article. Unlike many unions of the time, Mexico City’s SUTAUR-100 bus union was not affiliated with the then-ruling PRI party, and they supported the Zapatistas during their 1994 uprising.

The labor clashes changed the face of standard public bus transport in Mexico City, with use of these “high capacity” buses dropping dramatically between 1990 and 2000. Standard public buses were largely replaced by a chaotic and allegedly corrupt system of private small microbuses, or “combis,” with a mosaic of small fleets run by extended families and syndicates, with relatively little oversight from the government. According to the ITDP, the percent of trips by microbus increased from 36 percent in 1989 to 54 percent in 2000 as the use of high-capacity public buses plummeted.

As in many other cities in the “developing world,” Mexico City microbuses are infamous for driving wildly through crowded and perilous streets, motivated to pick up as many passengers and reach their destinations as quickly as possible—for more profit. The operators also typically delay repairs and maintenance and run the vehicles for as long as possible, meaning many archaic, heavily-polluting and dangerous microbuses on the street.

Enter the BRT system starting in 2005, wherein city and private officials with the new agency Metrobus essentially convinced seven of the city’s main private microbus operators to become partners in the new public-private Metrobus organization in exchange for removing their microbuses from key routes.

The Metrobuses have their own dedicated lanes, and people pay fares on platforms as at light rail stations, so the buses can move very rapidly. The city government oversees the Metrobus program, while the collectives of private operators pay the costs and reap the profits.

Many microbus drivers lost their jobs because of the conversion, since a total of 1,077 microbuses (with at least that many drivers) were removed from the streets, while currently about 800 drivers now operate the city’s fleet of almost 300 Metrobuses.

Garcia noted that many of the microbuses were family operations “where the father drives in the morning, the brother in the afternoon and the son in the evening,” and the whole family profits; so the streamlining of operations into the Metrobus system wouldn’t necessarily mean devastating layoffs for drivers’ families.

But Garcia said working conditions are much better for the drivers who now pilot Metrobuses instead of microbuses. They now have health insurance and pensions, he said, and work 8-hour days, compared to workdays that could last 20 hours in the past. And they are paid based on numbers of kilometers driven on established uniform routes rather than by the number of passengers they pick up—so the actual driving is much safer and more relaxed.

“Previously their income was directly proportional to the number of passengers they were carrying, so they were literally killing themselves to get more passengers,” Garcia said.

Additionally drivers and passengers in the old microbuses were exposed to high levels of benzene, particulate and other air pollution extremely harmful to health. Tests have shown the air emissions from Metrobuses are much lower—about 35 percent less benzene exposure and 54 percent less exposure to carbon monoxide for riders and drivers, and of course less pollution for the city as a whole.

The Metrobus drivers are not unionized and they are employed directly by the private operators. Garcia said the city government closely regulates the private operators to make sure working conditions are decent and drivers are safe and qualified, undergoing mandatory training and testing related to alcohol use and other factors.

Official policy and reality regarding working conditions, customer protection and civil rights are often far apart in Mexico, so U.S. advocates and analysts usually take official statements with a large grain of salt. However, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard of the center-left PRD, whose six-year term expires this fall, has generally been supported and praised by people across the political and economic spectrum for his populist policies and his efforts in revitalizing and securing the city.

Bus rapid transit has been proposed for an increasing number of U.S. cities including Chicago and Detroit. In Latin America the systems are typically run by private operators, with the contracts bid out or, as in Mexico City, run by the operators of previously existing microbus systems. In the U.S. such bus rapid transit would typically co-exist with current light rail and regular public bus systems, in most cases replacing some regular bus routes. Bus rapid transit could be incorporated into the existing public systems or privatized or some hybrid of the two approaches. It is not clear how it will play out exactly in different U.S. cities, whether workers will be unionized or whether there will be opposition from public transit unions.

On March 12 a fleet of 17 new Metrobuses including prized “bi-articulated” (three-car) ones lined up in formation in front of Mexico City’s Plaza de la Republica, a monument to the 1910 Revolution. The grand structure was under construction as the country’s new Congress building at the time of the Revolution; it was left unfinished and later revamped as an homage to revolutionary leaders including Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and Ricardo Flores Magon. Nearby is an historic massive jai alai stadium where workers have been on strike since 1994. An occupation continues inside and faded red and black flags cover the entrances.

(Protests and strikes are a constant presence in Mexico City. For example, during our tour, one Metrobus line was blocked by a public protest, and a separate protest of union pensioners against the government of Tabasco state blocked one of the separated bike lanes that are also part of the current administration’s sustainable transportation initiative.)

Facing the Revolution monument with the buses lined up expectantly behind him, Mayor Ebrard described the Metrobus system as part of a larger effort to make Mexico City more livable, sustainable and healthy. Ebrard, an ally of famous former Mexico City Mayor and presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), has won international attention for his “green” initiatives in Mexico City and his outreach to poor and working people.

“It’s dramatically changed the culture of the city,” he told a crowd at the unveiling of the new Metrobuses.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 16, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book isRevolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached atkari.lydersen@gmail.com.

Whaddya Gonna Do?

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Okay, I have a confession to make. I’m still a big Soprano’s fan. So this week’s blog is going to combine the number one question that everyone in business needs to ask themselves with a short homage to my favorite Jersey family. Capiche?

“Whaddya Gonna Do?”

This question is the closest thing to a mantra on the Sopranos. Business turns south, someone goes after an important customer or suddenly the feds are wreaking havoc. Inevitably one of the characters shrugs, grabs a drink and blurts out, whaddya gonna do?

Unlike a certain organized crime family on TV, most of us do have plenty that we can do. But we are so mired in the fog of our jobs that we fail to see it.

Take a lousy boss. Whaddya gonna do? Well you can go boss shopping. Start looking inside and outside your company for a boss that you can trust. Yep, trust. Get creative with using conference rooms for taking calls to potential employers, using fake doctor’s visits to go for interviews and using letters from clients for references. Serve on committees that will increase your visibility, find excuses to meet with potential new bosses (example, by serving on a United Way committee) or just hang out in the executive bathroom until your top executive prospect hears nature’s call.

Take a crummy paycheck. Whaddya gonna do? Ask to meet with your boss to discuss a raise. After they give you a ton of reasons why it won’t happen, smile and ask for specific performance targets you’d need to hit to get a raise. Specific is the key. Find out what it will take, document the conversation then put all of your creativity to work to hit the target. But don’t just play inside your company. Start shopping your resume outside of it. That is the quickest way to getting a bump in pay, because your company will never pay you what you’re worth until you have a firm outside offer from another company. Never.

Take not having enough hours in a day. Whaddya gonna do? For most of us, the key to getting more done isn’t about squeezing more stuff into your already full eight or nine hour day. The key is to ensure that you’re focusing your best efforts into the areas of greatest opportunity for both you and your company. I’m a big believe in the 80-20 rule. I try to always put 80% of my best effort into my most important projects. It’s tough to do because the urgent always has a way of trumping the important, but you’ve got to resist that temptation and keep your eyes on the prize.

Take being scared of being laid off. Whaddya gonna do? People write to me all the time describing a lay off that came out of nowhere. And yes, that can happen. But more often than not there were subtle clues about what was going to happen. The company suddenly started cutting the budget, sending important projects to other departments and transferring the starts to other departments at your company. We all have to be careful about getting too comfortable and keep our eyes on what is next for our industry, our company but most of all ourselves.

Whaddya gonna do? Plenty. Because you don’t have to be stuck with the mob, you can chart your own course of action.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist and popular speaker. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com .

Worst Jobs, Part 2

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Having written a column entitled Workplace911 and Working Wounded for fourteen years, as you can imagine, I hear from a lot of people with terrible jobs. Last time I addressed a few of my favorites, this week the worsts continue:

  • Worst Interview (some worst jobs start even before you get the job)
  • Worst Coworkers
  • Worst Boss
  • Worst of the Worst

WORST INTERVIEW
 
“I applied for a job as a researcher. I was informed before the interview that the director was chemically sensitive. She said I shouldn’t wear any scented products or even wash my hair before the interview. I complied, but when I arrived at the office, the director pointed at me from across the room and said, ‘She’s here, Bill. Could you sniff her?’ At which point, this big, hairy guy proceeded to do so—very up close and personal. Having passed the sniff test, I was allowed to approach the director and begin the interview. I later got a call saying I got the job, which, of course, I didn’t take.”
 
I’ve heard references to the “sniff test” at work, who knew that some people took it so literally?
 
WORST COWORKER
 
“The last straw for me was the guy in the next cube who would have long, loud conversations with his wife, totally in baby talk.”
 
Okay, admit it. The dumpster cleaning gig isn’t sounding so bad right now, is it?
 
WORST BOSS
 
For many years I included a worst boss contest in my speeches. I asked over ten thousand audience members for their stories. I heard some whoppers. But by far the worst all time boss story was told to me by a guy in Los Angeles.
 
“The worst boss I ever worked for? He asked his assistant to type her own termination letter.”
 
Ouch, you’ve got to be really tough to survive today’s workplace.
 
WORST OF THE WORST
 
“I had an office mate who muttered to himself and constantly interrupted me. I complained to our boss, but he wasn’t moved. His desk was directly under an old ceiling fan. One morning I left an oily machine nut on his desk. During the day I caught him glancing up at the fan. The next day I put a rusty bolt on his desk. The next, another nut and a screw. That afternoon, HE went to our boss and asked to be moved.”
 
This email gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase just dropping a hint at work.
 
Wait a minute, you’re probably saying to yourself. This guy used creativity and guile to get what he needed. How does this qualify as a worst job story?
 
Should someone really have to work that hard just to put themselves in a position to do their job? And that sums up the insanity of today’s workplace. And this guy’s not alone. Watson Wyatt, a management consulting firm, did a study that found that 62% of us report that we don’t have the information that we need to do our jobs. And another 57% report that we’re not given the skills to do our jobs. 
 
The most important lesson we can take away from Worst Jobs is not from the few really awful jobs out there, but that so many of us aren’t given the simple things we need to make ours a great job.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

Worst Jobs, Part 1

Monday, June 1st, 2009

Let’s start with my qualifications to discuss “Worst Jobs.” For the last decade I’ve written an internationally syndicated work advice column called Workplace911 (formerly Working Wounded). With a name like that, you can imagine the emails I receive on a daily basis. One example, “I decided to put a photo of my family on the wall of my cube. I got out a pin to attach it and suddenly I heard screams from the other side of the wall. Turns out my neighbor was bleeding and quite displeased.”
 
Let’s face it. We all get “stuck” once and a while at work. It’s inevitable. But this blog is about the very worst jobs out there, at least according to my email. I broke them down into the following categories and include an example for each:

  • Worst Working Conditions
  • Worst Assignment
  • Worst Employee (yes, bad employees can create a nightmarish job, too)

DISCLAIMER: A construction worker once emailed, “I’m just happy to come home each night with all my body parts intact.” The truly worst jobs are those that present a clear and present danger to your health and safety. Each year, according to the government, fishing and mining are usually at the top of the list of most dangerous jobs. We chose to not include dangerous jobs in this article because they’re just not that funny.
 
Worst WORKING CONDITIONS
 
“I once had a job steam cleaning dumpsters.  It was even worse than you imagine. I had to climb inside of these dirty dumpsters with nothing but me and my steam gun. This was before the days of protective clothing. As an aside, many of your readers have no doubt seen corner reflectors hung on sailboats, designed to reflect radar energy back to the source so that the boat will be easily seen. It turns out that directing steam into the interior corners of a dumpster works pretty much the same way. Everything that was once stuck in the corner of the dumpster gets blasted out and comes directly back to you—covering you from head to toe in an instant. A sort of putrid tsunami.”
 
This email sums up the real value of reading about someone else’s truly terrible job. It makes each of us feel so much better about our 9-5.
 
WORST ASSIGNMENT
 
“My job was to sort through used men’s and women’s undergarments after lingerie shows across Europe (instead of discarding the unmentionables once the shows were over, the undergarments were shipped back to Winston-Salem, presumably for tax purposes). The problem was that each was different, so they needed someone to type up a description for each pair of panties, briefs, and thongs, which numbered in the hundreds. I was put into a cubicle with a computer and Hefty sacks full of the ‘inventory.’ I was assured that the garments had been washed. Scraps of paper were pinned onto each piece written with names like ‘Jean-Pierre’ and ‘Bridgette.’ I soon found out both by sight and smell that the laundry had NOT been done. I became intimately familiar with both Bridgette and Jean-Pierre and gained much unnecessary insight into French toileting habits. Because no one in the office could find me a pair of rubber gloves, I continued my task by pinching each undergarment by the least offensive part I could find and learned how to inhale through the mouth.”
 
Finally, an explanation for the question we’ve all pondered—what was Victoria’s Secret?

WORST EMPLOYEE
 
“I once asked one of my people to stop reading a People Magazine at her desk and to get back to work. She began to cry and went on disability for two days.”
 
That’s what I’d call people who really need people!
 
Next time I’ll return with more worsts:

  • Worst Interview (some worst jobs start even before you get the job)
  • Worst Coworkers
  • Worst Boss
  • Worst of the Worst

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

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