Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘working conditions’

Elon Musk May Be a “Visionary,” But His Vision Doesn’t Seem To Include Unions

Friday, August 11th, 2017

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been making more headlines than usual lately. Shortly after the business magnate claimed he had received governmental approval to build a hyperloop from New York to Washington, D.C., he got into a public argument with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the future of artificial intelligence. Musk also recently made comments regarding the production of Tesla’s new Model 3, a battery-electric sedan. “We’re going to go through at least six months of manufacturing hell,” he told journalists.

It’s hard to know exactly what constitutes “manufacturing hell,” but it might also be difficult to ever find out. That’s because, since last November, Tesla has required employees to sign confidentiality agreements which prevent them from discussing workplace conditions. This policy has faced increased criticism since February, as workers at Tesla’s Fremont, Calif. plant have expressed concern over wages, safety and their right to unionize. They have reached out to the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) union, which is now intervening.

Last week, some of those workers made specific demands. A group called Tesla Workers’ Organizing Committee sent a letter to the company’s board members seeking safety improvements and a clearer promotion policy. The letter cites 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the last full year for which such information is available. “For that year, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that our injury rate was higher than that of sawmills and slaughter houses. Accidents happen every day,” reads the letter. The committee also addressed Tesla’s resistance to workplace organizing: “We should be free to speak out and to organize together to the benefit of Tesla and all of our workers. When we have raised this with management we have been met with anti-union rhetoric and action.”

Attention was originally drawn to the factory’s organizing fight after Tesla employee Jose Moran published a Medium post on February 9. Moran raises safety concerns, writing that, a few months ago, six of the eight people on his work team were on leave due to workplace injuries. He also breaks down problems with the factory’s wages. According to Moran, workers at the Tesla factory make between $17 and $21 in Alameda county, an area where the living wage is more than $28 an hour. Moran wrote that some of his coworkers make a two-hour commute to work because they can’t afford to live near the factory.

“Tesla’s Production Associates are building the future: They are doing the hard work to build the electric cars and battery packs that are necessary to reduce carbon emissions. But they are paid significantly below the living wage for one adult and one child in our community,” Maria Noel Fernandez, campaign director of the local worker advocacy group Silicon Valley Rising, told In These Times via email. “We believe that green jobs should be good jobs, and that they have a right to organize and advocate for themselves and their families.”

The day after Moran published his post, employees passed out literature containing the piece during a shift change at the factory. According to an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made by workers, and obtained by Capital and Main, this prompted management to schedule a meeting where workers were told they couldn’t pass out information unless it was pre-approved by the employer. The same NLRB charge accuses Tesla of illegal surveillance and intimidation.

Moran’s piece, and the subsequent accusations, were taken seriously enough to be addressed by Elon Musk directly. In an email to employees, obtained by Buzzfeed, Musk declared that safety concerns ignored vast improvements established in 2017. Tesla also put out a statement echoing Musk’s claims. The company’s data points to a 52 percent reduction in lost time incidents and a 30 percent reduction in recordable incidents during the company’s first quarter.

Musk promised a “really amazing party” for workers after the Model 3 reached volume production. In addition to the party, the factory would eventually include free frozen yogurt stands and a roller coaster. “It’s going to get crazy good,” he wrote. As for Moran, Musk claimed he was a paid UAW plant and that he had looked into his claims and discovered they weren’t true. The UAW, he explained, “does not share our mission” and their “true allegiance is to the giant car companies, where the money they take from employees in dues is vastly more than they could ever make from Tesla.”

This wouldn’t be the last time Musk would use such language in regards to a union. Six months after Tesla acquired Germany’s Grohmann Engineering, Musk found himself clashing with the country’s dominant metalworkers’ union, IG Metall. The union intervened to insist that Tesla straighten out a wage discrepancy that had some workers claiming they were making 30 percent less than union rates. Musk sent a letter to Grohmann employees offering a one-time bonus—an extra 150 Euros a month—and Tesla shares instead of a pay increases that the employees desire. “I do not believe IG Metall shares our mission,” reads the letter.

“We’re a money-losing company,” Musk told The Guardian in May. “This is not some situation where, for example, we are just greedy capitalists who decided to skimp on safety in order to have more profits and dividends and that kind of thing.” Two months after that interview, Automotive News reported that Musk had been the highest paid auto executive of 2016, exercising stock options worth $1.34 billion. Musk’s incredible economic success hasn’t exactly been generated via an unfettered free market. According to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times in 2015, Musk’s companies have benefited from billions in government subsidies.

Whether or not Tesla’s board members are receptive to employee demands, it seems clear that the workers’ struggle is not going away anytime soon.

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

Trump reversal of Obama-era labor rule is great news for corporations

Friday, June 23rd, 2017

A transgender woman is suing McDonald’s and the owner of the franchised restaurant she worked for after allegedly experiencing sexual harassment and discrimination.

La’Ray Reed said a coworker asked if she were a “boy or girl,” “top or bottom,” or what her “role” was “in the bedroom.” She said she was groped and spied on while using the public toilet.

But for Reed to hold McDonald’s responsible for her alleged mistreatment, her lawyers have to prove that McDonald’s should be held responsible as a joint employer—not just the owners of the franchised restaurant. There is a question of whether the Labor Department’s recent decision to rescind the standard for determining who is a joint employer will hinder her ability to seek justice. The Obama administration’s standard went beyond simply looking at who sets wages and hires people, and considered a worker’s “economic dependency” on the business.

McDonald’s has resisted this legal responsibility for many years, and says it does not have control over things like pay and working conditions at franchised restaurants. In 2016, McDonald’s settled a wage-theft class action through a $3.75 million payment that allowed it to dodge responsibility. McDonald’s released a statement that said it “reconfirms that it is not the employer of or responsible for employees of its independent franchisees.”

Industry groups have been pushing against efforts to call businesses like McDonald’s joint employers for many years now. In 2015, Matt Haller, a lobbyist at the International Franchise Association called a 2015 National Labor Relations Board ruling on whether a recycling company could be called a joint employer, “a knife-to-the throat issue for the franchise model.” He told the Washington Post, “You’d be hard pressed to find a business that shouldn’t be concerned about the impact of this joint employer standard.” Haller said IFA was “pleased” at the department’s decision to rescind guidance this month.

But there is certainly hope for La’Ray Reed, and other workers like her who are experiencing discrimination or issues such as wage theft at work. Since the joint employer guidance does not have the full force of law, it is not as important to these cases as existing tests for determining if an employer relationship exists. Under the economic realities test, applied under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Labor Standards Act, among other laws, a relationship exists if someone is economically dependent on that business. Paul Secunda, professor of law at Marquette University, who teaches on employment discrimination law, said this test will play a much bigger role in determining whether an employee can hold McDonald’s responsible for discrimination.

“Just the Trump administration withdrawing this guidance does not mean in any way that these claims are doomed to failure or are otherwise are not plausible,” Secunda said. “Because what matters the most with employment law is focusing on employment discrimination under Title VII and what other state laws apply there.”

‘This control standard is the standard that has been in place since the 1950s and ‘60s, and so it doesn’t make sense to have different standards under different laws. It only makes sense to hold liable those who control what happens in the workplace,” Secunda added.

Representatives of Fight for $15, a group of fast food workers, teachers, and adjunct professors advocating for better pay backed by the Service Employees International Union, said McDonald’s has failed to enforce its own policies.

“The growing number of allegations suggests a failure by McDonald’s to enforce the zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment outlined in its Operations and Training and Policies for Franchisees manuals,” the labor group told BuzzFeed.

“There are terms and conditions that are set by the national parent McDonald’s,” Secunda said. “It has a policy on sexual harassment and equal opportunity that all its franchisees have to meet: that it will not tolerate sexual harassment whether based on transgender status or otherwise in the workplace. [The argument is] that McDonald’s parent company exercises meaningful control—that is being free from sexual harassment and demeaning conduct in the workplace.”

None of this means that any parent corporation is responsible for any franchisees’ lability, Secunda said, since every case must be decided on its facts, but where employers do exercise meaningful control over employees, there should be a possibility that they will be held responsible.

The decision to rescind this joint-employer guidance will by no means kill any possibility of holding a corporation, such as McDonald’s, responsible, and a judge would be more likely to consider the rule of law first, Secunda said, but the joint employer guidance would still be a helpful resource for the defendant to have in its arsenal.

“If I were a conservative jurist who wanted it to come out on the corporate conservative side of the world, I see that they could use this. ‘You know they’re the expert agency, so they can’t be wrong,’” Secunda said. “But I just think that would be disingenuous, because the agency has obviously changed its position based on the politics on the administration. And this should be an answer that has nothing to do with politics. It should be based on rule of law.”

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on June 22, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a journalist covering education, investments, politics, crime, and LGBT issues.

Food Workers Take On Fowl Play at Tyson—And Win Better Conditions

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

A consumer pressure campaign against labor abuses in the chicken-processing industry has produced some initial results, with a detailed pledge this week from Tyson Foods to build a better workplace for its 95,000 employees.

The campaign, led by the famed hunger-fighting group Oxfam America, is challenging Tyson and three other large chicken producers to improve on their collective record of chronic worker safety problems, poverty-level wages and anti-union attitudes. It was launched in late 2015 with the help of a coalition of like-minded groups, including the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. Tyson’s pledge is the campaign’s first visible success.

An announcement from Tyson executive Noel White carefully avoided the language of labor rights and emphasized, instead, “investing in sustainability … to create a beneficial cycle of contributing to the future.” Nevertheless, the pledge promises some real improvements in the lives of workers on the shop floor, including:

  • Improving workplace health and safety with a commitment to achieving a 15 percent year-over-year reduction in worker injuries and illnesses;
  • Committing to a goal of zero turnover, striving for a 10 percent year-over-year improvement company-wide in worker retention;
  • Hiring 25 or more poultry plant safety trainers, adding to about 300 trainers and training coordinators the company has hired since 2015;
  • Broadening a pilot compensation program at two poultry plants aimed at increasing base wages and shortening the time it takes new workers to move to higher wage rates;
  • Making public the results of third-party social compliance audits of Tyson plants;
  • Improving and expanding other existing company-wide programs for worker health and well-being.

“Tyson Foods’ commitment to worker safety and worker rights should not just be applauded—it should serve as a model for the rest of the industry,” said Marc Perrone, president of UFCW. “Through our ongoing partnership with Tyson Foods, we have already made valuable progress. We look forward to these new and expanded initiatives.”

Oxfam campaign chief Minor Sinclair echoed Perrone’s call that other chicken producers adopt Tyson’s approach. The three other companies targeted by Oxfam—Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue and Sanderson Farms—have thus far refused to engage with the Oxfam-led coalition, Sinclair tells In These Times. The three are now “lagging behind” in their treatment of workers and their sensitivity to the concerns of consumers, he says.

Sinclair credited other organizations in the “Big Chicken” coalition for the initial breakthrough with Tyson. In addition to UFCW, other prominent members include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center. Even the U.S. Department of Labor has supported the safety goals of the coalition, he says.

Tyson itself has only recently had a change of heart about the Oxfam campaign, Sinclair continues. For the first year or so, Tyson typically ignored Oxfam and its allies. “For many months we felt stonewalled.” But a change came in late 2016, he says, at about the same time Tyson named Tom Hayes as the new chief executive.

“I can’t really say the exact reason that Tyson changed its attitude, but I don’t think it is a coincidence,” Sinclair said about the change in leadership.

UFCW is the largest union at Tyson, representing about 24,000 of its hourly workers, says company spokesman Gary Mickelson. There is some unionization at 30 of the company’s 100 U.S. food-product plants, he says, with a handful of other unions representing an additional 5,000 employees.

One of the other union is the UFCW-affiliated Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Randy Hadley, a RWDSU organizer, tells In These Times he hopes to see results from Tyson’s pledges soon. A cavalier approach to worker safety has characterized the meat industry for decades, he says, and improvements are long overdue.

“I hope this isn’t just a bunch of PR nonsense,” he says.

RWDSU, which represents Tyson workers in one of the Alabama chicken plants, has seen an increased emphasis on safety recently, according to Hadley.

“We have seen an increase in the number of safety meetings and safety training sessions,” he says, “so I’ll give them credit for that.”

Language barriers are the biggest obstacle to effective safety training, Hadley adds, because Tyson recruits a lot of new immigrants, including political refugees from the Middle East and other hot spots, to work in the chicken plants.

“We have another plant that we represent in Tennessee. When we print out our union literature, we do it in 17 different languages. And some of these folks can barely read, even in their own home language,” Hadley says.

As part of the new commitments announced this week by Tyson, the company pledged to expand its in-house program called “Upward Academy,” which offers courses in English as a Second Language (ESL) and other services aimed specifically at new immigrants.

This week’s announcement follows the company’s 2015 move to raise wages at most of its plants. At that time, Tyson said it would establish a new minimum of at least $10 an hour, up from $8 to $9 an hour. Top labor rates for certain skilled maintenance jobs were to be raised to as high as $26 an hour at the same time.

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on April 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Day 1 in the Newly Seated Kentucky Legislature Is About Attacking Working People

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Kentucky Republican leaders, led by Gov. Matt Bevin, gained control of the state House, giving them control of the executive and legislative branches. Their first order of business? Go after working families. Bevin and the Republicans are pushing forward with several anti-worker resolutions. In the process, they have given more say in the state’s future to outsider billionaires and CEOs than the people of the state.

Kentucky Republicans abused their power, changing the rules to move the anti-working people bills as “emergency legislation,” even though the only emergency happening is the one they are creating for working families. Legislators don’t even have time to read the bills, much less take the time to fully understand the impact of the legislation. New legislators don’t even have phones or offices yet, and they’re being asked to quickly vote yes or no on dangerous, destructive bills.

Even worse, by bending the rules in their favor, Republicans have given the public no chance to weigh in on the legislation. The bills have been reported out of committee and could be voted on the floor of the legislature as early as Saturday.

The Kentucky State AFL-CIO condemned the sneaky move:

The so-called right to work and prevailing wage repeal bills passed (out of committee) today will deny economic opportunities for Kentucky’s working families.
Kentucky’s working families are suffering. They are facing employment, health care access and education challenges. The Kentucky GOP not only ignored their plight, they made them worse with these anti-worker bills.

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin and House Republican leadership made hurting working Kentuckians their number one priority. They did not advance bills to increase education funding, raise wages, or fund vital services in our community. Instead they chose to give multi-national corporations more power to outsource jobs, cut wages, and reduce benefits at the expense of our workers, small businesses, and the local economy. This is shameful.

The Kentucky labor movement will continue to fight for the rights of Kentucky’s working families, like we have been doing for more than 100 years. We will demand government transparency and accountability. And we will continue to fight for better wages, reasonable hours and safer working conditions. We will take this opportunity to grow the labor movement and organize like hell!

Politicians didn’t create the labor movement and politicians aren’t going to destroy the labor movement.

Other working family advocates agree. Bill Finn, director of the Kentucky State Building and Construction Trades Council, said: “A lot of working people voted for change in this election. They didn’t vote for this. They didn’t vote for a pay cut.”

Learn more at Kentucky State AFL-CIO.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on January 4, 2017.  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.

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.

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