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Time to Move Beyond the Board

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Battle with Mining Giant Peabody, Willow Lake Coal Miners Win Union

Monday, September 17th, 2012

Workers at the Willow Lake coal mine in southern Illinois are now represented by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certified the union’s victory in a rank-and-file election.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) published a notice of its certification on September 4, following a lengthy series of administrative delays and legal actions. UMWA won a closely fought representation election on May 20, 2011, at the mine in rural Equality, Ill., about 150 miles east of St. Louis, Mo.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts called on the owner of the mine, Peabody Energy Corp., to quit stalling and negotiate a new contract for the 440 miners and production worker represented by the union. “It’s long past time for…Peabody Energy to finally accept the rule of law, sit down with its workers and negotiate a fair and equitable contract,” Roberts stated in a September 6 press release.

Peabody is the largest coal producer in the world, with extensive mining operations in the United States and Australia. Headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., it reported “record-setting financial performance” of $1.02 billion in profits last year, according to a statement from Peabody CEO Greg Boyce.

The NLRB’s action last week comes in the wake of a major court victory for labor against Peabody and its subsidiary, Big Ridge Inc. On April 30, U.S. District Court Judge G. Patrick Murphy ordered the company to cease an illegal anti-union campaign against the UMWA, and to reinstate Wade Waller, an outspoken Big Ridge employee who had been fired for supporting the union.

In issuing his order, Judge Murphy recounted the history of the UMWA organizing drive at Willow Lake. He stated that “Big Ridge proceeded to conduct a vigorous ant-union campaign” at about the same time that the UMWA sought a representation election at the mine.

“Big Ridge held a series of group meetings with employees, which included slide shows, films, and presentations by officials of Peabody Energy. … Big Ridge distributed flyers with employee paychecks, mailed letters and videotapes to employees’ homes, and made anti-union stickers available for employees to wear on their hardhats,” Judge Murphy’s wrote. The decision also noted the company “directed supervisors to make one-on-one contact with employees to encourage them to vote against UMWA representation.”

Despite the anti-union campaign, the UMWA prevailed in the election in a narrow vote of 219-206, according to NLRB records. But the company challenged the vote and fired Waller, a seven-year employee of Big Ridge with an outstanding work record. The only credible explanation for the firing, Judge Murphy determined, was that Waller “was one of the strongest and most outspoken UMWA supporters at the Willow Lake mine.”

Since the court action in favor of the union and Waller, Peabody has refused to begin contract talks, says UMWA Director of Communications Phil Smith. The NLRB’s recent certification of the union has not changed that, he says, and union lawyers will not be surprised if Peabody seeks a court appeal and further delay.

Meanwhile, UMWA faces a challenge from Peabody on an entirely different front.

According to UMWA, Peabody is abusing the legal process so as to avoid paying out millions in health care benefits that it owes to more than 20,000 former Peabody employees, retirees and family members.

In 2007, Peabody created a new company, Patriot Coal Corp., to operate most of its unionized coal mines in Appalachia. As part of the deal, Patriot assumed the liabilities for healthcare benefits for thousand of former Peabody employees and retirees, in addition to benefits for many dependents, UMWA said.

But in July, Patriot filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in federal court, saying it could no longer sustain its healthcare costs, which it estimated might exceed $100 million this year.

UMWA’s Roberts has charged that the spinoff of Patriot and the subsequent bankruptcy are both part of a deliberate attempt by Peabody to avoid paying the benefits that are due to union members and their families.

On Aug. 30, Roberts kicked off a new “Fight for Fairness at Patriot” campaign at a mass meeting of 3,000 union miners in Charleston, West Va. “We are prepared to go to he mat over this. This is an enormous challenge to our union,” Roberts told local reporters.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 12, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: 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.

How Houston Janitors Got 25 Cents a Year

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

After a dispute that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) called a threat to the future of the Houston janitors’ union, workers have ended their month-long strike with a deal for a new four-year union contract. The agreement, which includes concessions from both sides, calls for annual 25-cent hourly wage increases and the maintenance of workers’ current healthcare plan. It will tweak, but not transform, the stark reality that SEIU highlighted in its campaign: In the “Millionaire City,” cleaning the offices of the nation’s top banks and oil companies is a poverty-wage job.

“It’s a start in the right direction,” said Alice McAfee, a janitor of 30 years, of the deal.

The contractors also expressed satisfaction. In an e-mailed statement, Tim Reily, the lead negotiator for the Houston Area Contractors Association, which represents three of the largest janitorial contractors involved, said “We’re pleased to reach an agreement that is fair and in the best interests of our clients and employees, which has been the goal all along.” An HACA spokesperson declined further comment.

The deal

Elsa Caballero, the Texas State Director for SEIU Local 1, called the deal “a huge win for these workers when you look at the overall picture they were facing.” She noted that the raise is more than double what was previously offered by management. Workers, she said, “were able to protect their rights” and also “keep the benefits that they’ve [previously] bargained.”

The contract, which covers 3,200 workers cleaning the offices of companies like Shell Oil and JP Morgan Chase, was first negotiated between SEIU Local 1 and janitorial contractors in 2006 after a 1,000-janitor strike. When a 2009 contract renewal expired in May, it set off a series of shorter work stoppages; then hundreds of workers went on strike indefinitely in the second week of July. After a tentative agreement with major contractors was announced on August 8, the strike ended. Workers ratified the contract three days later (one contractor, Pritchard Industries, was not part of the deal).

According to SEIU, over 500 workers attended the ratification meeting and voted unanimously to accept the new contract. McAfee said the meeting was “super fantastic…we had all come together to congratulate each other for standing, and keeping standing, and thanking the others that were with us. It was kind of like being at a family reunion.”

Janitors currently make $8.35 an hour. Under management’s final pre-strike proposal, they would have been paid $8.85 in 2017; under SEIU’s, they would have reached $10.00 in 2016. As Local 1 President Tom Balanoff wrote in a July 30 letter to pension funds, neither proposal would have brought the janitors above the poverty level. Under the final deal, janitors’ hourly wage will rise to $9.35 in 2016.

“Getting this raise,” said McAfee, “we will be able to do not all that we want to do, and not all we was wanting to do, but we’re looking forward.” She added that despite management efforts “to take us backwards,” the deal meant that “we’re moving forward.”

The agreement maintains current healthcare benefits: Workers, but not their family members, have access to a dedicated janitors’ clinic and emergency care. The plan will continue to cost workers $20 a month.

One of the thorniest negotiation issues was a dispute over the scope of certain previous contract language, which allowed contractors to bid for some accounts at rates below those in the contract. Both sides made concessions on this. The compromise specifies where contractors can bid at a lower rate based on “geography” and “the size of the building,” according to Caballero. Management, she says, has also agreed to language that ensures SEIU’s standards in the areas where it has the most members, while the union has in turn agreed to language that will make it cheaper for contractors to expand into new areas. She said the language was “something we looked at very hard to make sure it has the least amount of impact on current workers for this contract.”

According to McAfee, if contractors had won on this point, “We wouldn’t have had a union at all. So what we really won is we kept the union.”

Asked whether that language would make it more difficult for SEIU to organize currently non-union janitors in buildings where management would be allowed to pay below the union contract rate, Caballero said, “I don’t believe so. The ability to do new organizing is always there–it’s all about how much workers want to organize.” Caballero added that non-union Houston workers in other industries had been inspired by the janitors’ struggle, and said, “Our future in organizing is not just in janitors.”

Caballero credits the contract settlement to three factors: the persistence of the workers; support from clergy, politicians, and the public; and the backing of “responsible building owners who were willing to call contractors and say, ‘Hey, you need to address it.’”

The causes

The level, and the limits, of SEIU’s leverage in negotiations were shaped by its strategy, the economics of the industry, the state of labor law, and the extent of organizing among union members. Following a trend in modern U.S. strikes, this one was not designed to shut down the operations of the janitorial contractors; indeed, less than a fifth of the bargaining unit was on strike. Rather, the work stoppage provided an anchor for a pressure campaign featuring public protests, media events, and political and religious appeals, whose primary target was the well-known companies that own the buildings janitors clean, not the contractors who directly employ them.

The Taft-Hartley’s Act’s prohibition on “secondary boycotts” could have made it illegal to directly strike against the bank and oil companies, which SEIU saw as the true decision-makers. But the union employed a range of tactics meant to expand the struggle, including solidarity strikes in other cities, organized civil disobedience, research criticizing companies’ tax reappraisals, and a Capitol Hill confrontation with JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon.

During the strike, the contractors also pushed back publicly. They claimed that 98 percent of available workers had “ignored the purported ‘city-wide strike.'” In response, SEIU said that more than 500 of the 3200 janitors were on strike, but that a choice had been made not to strike against all employers as a way of protecting workers from retaliation. All of the strikers were employed by janitorial companies against which SEIU had filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which made them less vulnerable than others to being “permanently replaced” by management.

When supporters did civil disobedience actions, Houston janitors were present but not among those arrested; Caballero says this, too, was part of the union’s tactics to minimize the risk of retaliation by janitorial contractors. Because U.S. labor law offers only weak remedies against retaliation, the likelihood workers will be illegally punished for activism is directly related to the number of workers taking action–“strength in numbers” can reduce, but not eliminate, that risk.

Asked about the level of participation by non-striking workers, Caballero said that demonstrations during the strike consistently drew at least 500 to 600 total workers, including strikers and non-strikers. Texas is a Right to Work state, meaning that union contracts cannot require workers who are represented to pay for the costs of representation. Caballero said that roughly 40 percent of the workers covered by the SEIU contract had chosen to become dues-paying union members by the time the strike started, but added that membership is “a lot higher now” as more workers got involved during the strike.

Asked about the strike and its outcome, University of Texas Law Professor Julius Getman said, “Any kind of significant strike is going to involve a comprehensive effort, trying to put pressure at different points.”

Getman, the author of Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement and a longtime observer of the Houston janitors’ campaigns, added, “It’s a multifaceted effort to be successful, but doing it without the involvement of the workers on whose behalf you’re striking is unfortunate at best.”

“Workers are very proud of the accomplishments,” said Caballero. She added that “to appreciate what this fight was about” requires a comparison to the conditions before unionization: “They were at $20 a day, horrible working conditions, they could be fired on any given day, just because…no voice, nobody to help them.”

Caballero said to expect further improvements when a new contract is negotiated in 2016. So did McAfee: “The next time the contracts comes up, we will get the 10 dollars. And more.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on August 27, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet. After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years. His website is http://www.josheidelson.com.

Looking for a Good Job? Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Michelle ChenIf you think your job stinks, you’re not alone. And if you’re still looking for a decent job, don’t expect to find one anytime soon, or ever.

A new analysis of job quality, assessing various measures of benefits and wages, confirms what many of us already suspected: Good jobs are vanishing from the United States, with global trade and social disinvestment leaving workers stranded on a barren economic landscape.

The report, published by John Schmitt and Janelle Jones from the Center for Economic and Policy Reseach (CEPR), shows that the downward spiral began long before the recent economic crisis. It notes that since 1979, the “good job” (one that “pays at least $18.50 an hour, has employer provided health insurance, and some kind of retirement plan”) has become an endangered species:

[T]he economy has lost about one-third (28 to 38 percent) of its capacity to generate good jobs. The data show only minor differences between 2007, before the Great Recession began, and 2010, the low point for the labor market.

In 2010, “less than one-fourth (24.6 percent) of the workforce” possessed those precious good jobs. And the clincher is this downturn is beginning to look like a sad plateau:

The deterioration in the economy’s ability to generate good jobs reflects long-run changes in the U.S. economy, not short-run factors related to the recession or recent economic policy.

While workers around the world have witnessed massive economic volatility in the recent boom-bust cycles, food crises and political upheavals, the trend line of labor hardship holds steady. The societal impacts of unemployment crises parallel the effect of long-term effects on individual workers, especially young ones–a self-perpetuating sense of despair and isolation, and perhaps entrenched, long-term suffering.

The report’s long-term prognosis undercuts the historically entrenched national mythology of upward mobility. Alan Barber, a spokesperson for CEPR, tells In These Times via email:

It may come as a surprise or at least run against logic to some readers because even though the workforce is better educated and older, one would expect that more people have good job. Conventional wisdom holds that if a person goes to college and gets a degree they will get better jobs. It also holds that the longer you are in the workforce the better your prospects for getting a good job. But as the report shows this is not the case.

The divergence between the American Dream and American reality has widened as neoliberal policies have assaulted workers under the guise of promoting “personal responsibility.” The belief that hard work pays off has been betrayed by the degradation of public trusts like education and health care, while mortgage and student debt crises and the decline of union representation, hollow out communities from within.

The erosion of public services and social programs is nothing new, but the flip side of a shrinking safety net–a crumbling labor market–pushes self-sufficiency even further out of reach for millions.

The vanishing promise of social mobility may have an even more severe impact across generations. According to the Pew Economic Mobility project’s report on intergenerational prosperity:

  • Eighty-four percent of Americans have higher family incomes than their parents did.
  • Those born at the top and bottom of the income ladder are likely to stay there as adults. More than 40 percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile of the family income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent remain below the middle.
  • African Americans are more likely to be stuck at the bottom and fall from the middle of the economic ladder across a generation.

So apparently the traditional rungs by which earlier generations climbed the class ladder–a bachelor’s degree, a first home, “loyalty” to a single company–are now shakier than ever. Pew researchers uncovered a cleft in mobility over time: in terms of “relative” mobility, people tend to do a bit better than their parents. But the gains often fail to add up to “absolute” mobility, which means people don’t ascend to a significantly better income bracket. Many are actually falling behind relative to the rest of the economy. About 16 percent are “downwardly mobile,” staying put or falling in the class hierarchy. Overall, some 20 percent “make more money than their parents did, but have actually fallen to a lower rung of the income ladder.”

The withering of the middle class is deeply skewed by race, with black and white households moving ahead at vastly different rates. According to Pew, “only 23 percent of blacks raised in the middle exceed their parents’ wealth compared with 56 percent of whites.”

So what’s left for workers who not only face a lifetime of economic hopelessness, but also can’t even give their kids the hope of achieving something more? The CEPR report doesn’t offer policy prescriptions, but does note that the shrinking share of good jobs in the U.S. workforce is not an inevitability. The research connects the decline in quality jobs to the dismantling of the economic supports that make work fair and rewarding, including union power and industry regulations. On a macro level:

the decline in the economy’s ability to create good jobs is related to a deterioration in the bargaining power of workers, especially those at the middle and the bottom of the income scale. The main cause of the loss of bargaining power is the large-scale restructuring of the labor market that began at the end of the 1970s and continues to the present.

The public sector has suffered under privatization, and once-solid middle-class jobs have been lost to the tides of global commerce. Immigrants meanwhile have been absorbed into a precarious low-wage workforce that feeds raging inequality. And meanwhile, political elites are finding new and creative ways to siphon more resources away from the public and subsidize predatory corporate wealth.

The deficit in good jobs can’t be simply chalked up to globalization or a decline in American workers’ “competitiveness.” It’s a reflection of a deficit in power at the bottom, and a surplus of greed at the top.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on August 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

Infographic: When Dollars Stop Fatalities

Friday, August 24th, 2012

New infographics from E-Training and Compliance and Safety show that as the U.S. budget for workplace safety continues to rise, the number of deaths dramatically falls. In 2010, the United States spent a then-high of $558 million dollars a year on workplace safety, and a record low of 4,600 workers died on the job. (Infographic after the jump).

The Obama administration has requested an increase in the Occupational Safety & Health Administration budget every year, but faced opposition from Republicans, who targeted it for steep cuts in the fiscal-year 2012 budget battles.

The charts also make the very interesting case that raising the retirement age above the current 67 could be disaster, as workers over the age of 65 suffer fatal workplace accidents at nearly three times the rate of those between 55 and 64.

Featured By: Compliance and Safety LLC Safety Training DVDs

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on August 23, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at [email protected]

Workers Try to Organize Airport Subway, Get Fired

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

david baconOAKLAND, CA—This city is supposed to be a union town, but out at the airport, workers say they’re getting fired for trying to join one. The airport is administered by the Oakland Port Commission, whose members, appointed by the mayor, are mostly viewed as progressives. The commission has passed a living wage ordinance that not only sets a level much higher than state or national minimum wage laws, but also requires companies who rent space to respect the labor rights of their workers.

One of the workers fired recently is Hakima Arhab, who says she lost her job at the Subway concession after she complained about violations of the ordinance, and because she and her coworkers are trying to join UNITE HERE Local 2850.

Arhab told her story to Working In These Times:

I worked at Subway for a year and a half. When I got the job there I thought that I would have a better life. It should be a good job. I thought I’d have more money, and be able to afford a few more things for myself, and be able to send money to my home country, because I have family there. When I started at the airport I was getting $12.82 an hour, and then it went up to $13.05.

Most people go through the airport and see us from one side of the counter, but from our side it feels really different. It turned out to be like working in hell. When the airport was busy, there were huge long lines—sometimes it seemed like 100 people. We had to wait on them, and make the orders up at the same time. Sometimes I thought I’d fall down from being so tired, but I’d eat something sweet and go back to my job.

The schedule was always changing, and it turned out to be just a part-time job. They kept cutting peoples’ schedules. Whenever we would hear that they were going to hire someone, everyone would get scared because we were afraid our hours would be cut. They’d hire people and give them our hours.

Then they told us that if we worked two days in the airport, we should work outside too. The owners have many other Subway stores, so they’d pressure me to work for them outside the airport. And it was a hard job too. But I did it because I was scared that if I didn’t they would fire me from the airport job.

They expected me to work outside the airport if I wanted a full time set of hours, but the work outside was at a different wage. That work only paid minimum wage—$8 an hour. They’d send me around to all their stores. Sometimes I’d open one store, and then go close at another one. I worked overtime, but they didn’t pay me overtime pay. They’d give you separate checks, so you’d never get overtime pay.

I was very angry about that, but they refused to give me a full schedule at the airport. They even wanted me to work seven days a week, but since they wouldn’t pay overtime, at first I said no—that was too much. Many of my coworkers did, though, because they couldn’t afford to say no. If you said no, then the owners would cut your whole schedule.

So I also just shut up and worked too. And the worst part was that sometimes when I’d work 50 or 60 hours, they wouldn’t pay for all those hours. They’d be short an hour or an hour and a half.

I knew some other workers who work at HMS Host concessions right next to us, and I knew they had a union. Last spring I got very sick, but I still had to work, because otherwise, how was I going to pay for my rent or my food? I was so, so angry. One of them asked me, “Hakima, do you want to speak to the union?” I told her, “Yes, I want to do it.” So I set up an appointment with the union, and asked them to help us: myself, my coworkers and all the workers who work hard in the airport without benefits or sick days. That’s how it happened.

Finally I filed a complaint with the government, with the Port of Oakland. But they didn’t take it seriously. It was like they were just playing around, and told us it would take months to investigate. And I needed my job, especially after I was fired.

On May 29 I took unpaid vacation, for 20 days. The owner agreed that I could do that when I told her four months before. But I filed the complaint before I took the time off. She found out, because the Port gave her the names of the people who complained.

So when I came back on June 19, she gave me a check for the days I worked before the vacation. She told me, “Hakima, you know, I’m very very slow right now. I don’t have any more hours for you.” I told her, “No, no, no. Don’t play with me. I know you just took in $5,500—you’re making the highest amount ever here in the airport. How can you tell me that?”

And just two days later, she hired another worker at the airport. She just wanted to kick me out because I’d gotten involved in the union, and I stood up and filed a complaint. Because I was demanding my rights. That’s why she fired me.

Last week we had a rally out at the airport, to support me and the other workers who have been fired. We even had a chant in Berber. That’s the home language of North Africa, and I’m from a little Berber town in Algeria. And the meaning is “We are Berber, we are people who would rather fight and be fired than work without rights.”

The union says several other workers have faced retaliation as well. Isaac Kos-Read, director of external affairs for the Port of Oakland, says the port takes the complaints very seriously, but called it “an open ended thing. It could take as little as a month or as many as three months. We don’t know.” By now, the port is investigating 15 complaints. Meanwhile port security is writing up workers if they use their badges to go into the airport to meet with employers or other workers.

Nevertheless, “the port prides itself on providing jobs, and union jobs. Over 70% of the jobs at the port are union jobs,” Kos-Read says. “We assiduously enforce the living wage ordinance.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on August 10, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.

Making Health Care Reform Work: A Perspective from California Doctors

Friday, July 27th, 2012

kari-lydersenLOS ANGELES—At a conference convened by the organization Reporting on Health at the University of Southern California this week, doctors and health care experts shed light on labor-related aspects of the health care field as the sweeping health care reform legislation is set to take effect after being upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

They provided a window into the workplace stresses and challenges doctors themselves have faced in our tumultuous and trouble-plagued health care system, and also the health care needs and challenges of low-income workers.

Marcia Sablan, a doctor in the tiny northern California town of Firebaugh, embodies both of these narratives. Marcia is one of many doctors who depended on a federal program that helps people afford medical school in exchange for working in under-served rural districts. After her residency at the University of Hawaii, she was assigned to Firebaugh, in the agricultural valley of Fresno County, with a population then of just over 3,000. She was accompanied by her husband, also a doctor and the first native of Saipan to graduate from a U.S. medical school.

Panelists at the conference noted that such programs will be increasingly important if the government wants to encourage more doctors to go into general primary care rather than becoming specialists. Specialists make an estimated $3.5 million more over their lifetimes, yet there will be an estimated shortage of 30,000 primary care doctors in coming years especially as more people become insured under the new health care law.

Sablan arrived in Firebaugh in 1981 and eventually founded her own private practice there, where she primarily serves low-income Latino farmworkers, about half of them immigrants, including many uninsured people who may or may not end up insured under the health care bill reforms. Doctors and experts at the USC conference echoed the widespread concern that due to the way the health care reform bill and Supreme Court decision played out, people living under the poverty line may not get insurance under the new law. That’s because the insurance exchanges and subsidies the law mandates are designated for people who make more than the poverty line, while people making below the poverty line (including childless adults —a change from the past) are all supposed to be covered by Medicaid.

States are ordered to expand their Medicaid programs to cover people making up to 133 percent of the poverty line, but the mandate doesn’t have strong teeth since it is unclear if or how the federal government can punish states that don’t expand their Medicaid programs to cover the newly eligible people. Many states say they cannot afford their share of the expansion plus the extra costs expected when currently eligible but un-enrolled people “come out of the woodwork” thanks to the publicity around the reform law.

Sablan notes that she never asks her patients about immigration status—she is not required to under California’s Medicaid law—and she typically charges a $50 fee which most patients pay out of pocket.

“Undocumented workers know not to leave a trail, not to leave bills,” she said.

But when her patients need specialty care, the seasonal nature of farm work can cause serious problems. Many of them do have insurance during the months they are employed, but not during the off-months, she said. In her early years in Firebaugh, many of the locals were migrant workers living in labor camps who returned to Mexico or otherwise left Firebaugh for half the year. But the labor camps have been demolished and now many farmworkers have bought homes and live year-round in the town with their families, even as they continue to depend on seasonal agricultural wages. Hence an illness or injury that keeps them away from work for days or weeks during the crucial seasonal employment period is especially devastating financially.

“What does an agricultural-based seasonal economy mean to a doctor practicing there?” Sablan asked, noting that Firebaugh’s population now numbers 6,741: 88 percent Latino, 22 percent living below the poverty line, more than a third unemployed and almost two-thirds without a high school diploma. “It means people have insurance and Medi-Cal (California’s version of Medicaid) at certain seasons of the year. But we know diseases don’t work like that. So this is a huge problem for us—seasonal workers have a very difficult time keeping up with chronic diseases.”

From a health perspective, Sablan is glad to see the valley’s once-thriving cotton industry decline, she said, since it involves heavy pesticide use that raised serious health problems for workers and other residents. Once she treated victims of what was known as the worst pesticide-poisoning case in state history—28 workers critically poisoned after being ordered to return to a field too soon after it had been sprayed with phosphates. Now almonds and pistachios are the main crops in the area, grown mostly by huge industrial farms. (Meanwhile a sustainable cotton project has been in the works.)

Sablan hopes the health care reform law will indeed result in better preventative care for low-income and currently uninsured people. She cites the case of one patient, a 54-year-old farmworker who had a heart attack and was prescribed medication which, at $400 a week, he could never afford. Also suffering from diabetes and lacking medication, he eventually had another heart attack and ending up needing permanent dialysis by age 60.

“When you think about the Obama plan, think about [the farmworker] – do we want to be upstream or downstream?” in health care spending, she asked. “Someone paid for him to be in the hospital two times and on dialysis, which costs about a million dollars a year. He’s totally disabled now, unable to work, from what should have been a preventable situation.”

Despite such challenges, Sablan and her husband feel lucky to work in an environment where they have treated three generations of patients —it gives them a sense of personal connection and continuity that other doctors say they lack when forced to see up to 30 patients a day, in the common “fee for service” health care model.

Dr. Ken Kim described the challenges of working in a typical profit-driven, urban system. He and other internists were disgusted to see how badly many of their patients were faring under the standard health care model. He described multiple diabetic patients with legs amputated because they were shuffled between specialists, waiting for months for appointments, while a “pin-sized” wound became infected and festered. And he described elderly patients unable to comply with a doctor’s orders because they lacked a ride to the clinic or couldn’t open medicine bottles with arthritic hands or ate high-sodium meals as shut-ins. Doctors and nurses want to help such patients with personalized care, he indicated, but the fee-for-service model and other aspects of the traditional insurance system create so much time pressure that patients fall through the cracks.

So Kim and other doctors formed an “accountable care organization” (ACO) wherein insurance companies like Blue Cross pay the organization a flat fee to provide care for a certain group of the insurance companies’ enrollees. Kim said that after floundering at first, the company, CareMore, where he now serves as chief medical officer, was able to provide holistic, preventative care to a patient base of mostly ailing senior citizens by subverting the fee for service model, focusing on prevention and making sure the various nurses and doctors working with a given patient communicate and develop a cohesive plan. He said that under their organization rates of hospital readmissions, amputations, mortality and other indicators have decreased drastically. Many hope this type of accountable care organization will become more common under the health reform law.

While the general public is obviously confused about the implications of the health care reform bill, doctors and health care experts are also uncertain about how the law will play out and what it will mean for their own work lives and those of their patients.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on July 26, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

Paid-Sick-Leave Fight Escalates in New York City, Expands Across the Nation

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

eidelson-headshotNEW YORK CITY—Flanked by a hundred-some supporters at a press conference on Wednesday, labor leaders and feminist activists announced a new initiative to push a longtime goal: passage of a citywide paid-sick-leave mandate. Wednesday’s event, held at noon on the steps of City Hall, marked supporters’ latest effort to move City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who will decide the bill’s fate. It comes amid increased organized labor support for similar campaigns around the country—including a recently announced effort in Portland.

All eyes are on Quinn because the law is already backed by a large enough majority of the council to pass and override a promised veto by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The question is whether Quinn will allow the bill to come up for a vote. As I’ve reported for Working In These Times, paid sick leave poses a crucial test for Quinn, a former liberal activist now viewed as the candidate of the city’s business establishment, and Bloomberg’s heir apparent.

Rev. Jennifer Kottler opened the rally with a prayer asking, “Oh holy one…please temper [Quinn’s] strength with compassion and justice so that she is moved to do the right thing…Give her the courage to do what is right.” Rhonda Nelson, the Chair of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Women’s Network, said that Speaker Quinn “has been a champion for women who work in supermarkets across this great city. … Today we ask her to continue to fight for fairness for supermarket workers and the thousands of other workers in this great city who need paid-sick-leave legislation.”

In 2010, Quinn stymied a stronger paid-sick-leave bill by preventing a vote. At the time, Quinn said she supported the goal but had to “help small business stay alive in a fragile economy.” By winter, Quinn will have to disappoint a constituency whose support she’s counting on in next year’s election: either liberals or the business lobby.

Wednesday’s rally marked the launch of a new Women for Paid Sick Days Initiative. Ai-Jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, emceed the event, which drew contingents from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Restaurant Opportunities Center, Make the Road New York and other organizations. Restaurant worker Ai Elo, restaurant owner Barbara Sibley and Gay Men’s Health Crisis head Marjorie Hill all spoke at the event, amidst signs reading, “Here are the Germs You Ordered” and “Our Health = Clean Food.”

In an e-mail to The New York Times this week, Quinn maintained her opposition. Echoing her past comments, Quinn said that she supported the goal, but “with the current state of the economy and so many businesses struggling to stay alive, I do not believe it would be wise to implement this policy, in this way, at this time.” Quinn also wrote, “I stand by the commitment I made more than a year ago—to continue to meet and discuss the legislation, in the context of the evolving economy, with council leaders” and supporters. Quinn’s comments came in the Times’ report on a letter from 200 prominent women calling for the speaker to allow a vote. Signatories included current and former New York politicians, union leaders and feminist icon Gloria Steinem.

“I challenge these celebrities,” Manhattan Chamber of Commerce President Nancy Ploeger told Crain’s New York Business. “What do these women really know about running a small business and what the costs of this bill will be?”

The Times noted that Steinem had introduced Quinn at a fall fundraiser, but reported that in an e-mail to the paper, “Steinem said that before she gave her support to Ms. Quinn, she had told her that it was conditional on Ms. Quinn’s bringing the paid-sick-day bill to a vote.” Steinem told the Times that Quinn had told her that “discussions were under way about the size of businesses to be covered.”

“Everyday people want to see that they can both care for their families and keep their jobs,” says Carol Joyner, the national policy director for the Labor Project for Working Families. By not calling the vote, she notes, “Chris Quinn is standing between a healthy workforce…and the will of the people.”

In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to pass a law requiring most employers to provide paid sick leave to employees. As I’ve reported, paid sick days laws have since passed citywide in San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC, and statewide in Connecticut. A ballot initiative failed in Denver. Philadelphia Mayor Nutter vetoed a paid sick days bill but subsequently allowed a narrower one covering city contractors and subsidized companies to pass. Milwaukee passed a law, but it was over-ridden by a state law signed by Governor Scott Walker. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal similarly signed a law preemptively barring cities from mandating paid sick leave. Along with New York City, campaigns are underway for bills covering Orange County, the state of Massachusetts and now the city of Portland.

Joyner says that what last year was “a group of different campaigns” is now “becoming a movement. There have been some wins along the win, some losses – losses we have learned from. There’s a growing momentum.”

“Over the last year the engagement of labor has been ratcheted up,” Joyner adds. “Some of the larger international unions have been paying closer attention to the issue…we’ve seen a dramatic increase in unions getting involved in this issue on a state and a local level.”

Joyner also cites the prominent role of labor leaders, including AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler and SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry, at a national paid sick leave summit this month. She says that “real heavy-hitters who always have been supportive” are now “speaking up publicly and saying these are issues that the labor movement has to take on, so that everyone can have a minimum standard.”

“Most of the hard-working men and women that we represent get paid sick leave as part of their negotiated contracts,” SEIU District 1199 Secretary-Treasurer Maria Castaneda told the crowd Wednesday. “But we believe that workers deserve a paid day off to care for their self or their loved one, without the risk of losing wages or being terminated. Paid sick days should be a basic workplace standard for all New Yorkers.” UFCW’s Nelson also noted that most of her union’s members have paid sick leave, but said, “All these other employers that do not provide paid sick days are trying to drag the responsible employers and their workers down into the gutter, where profit matters more than fairness.”

Paid sick leave has also become a focus for some chapters of Working America, the AFL-CIO affiliate for non-union workers. Tara Murphy, a senior member coordinator in Portland, says that Working America canvassers have collected 2,000 letters to the city’s mayor and city council calling for a bill.

“Working families are saying to our organizers that this something that they really need right now,” Murphy says. The coalition backing a bill includes several local unions and the state Working Families Party. According to Murphy, organizers had originally hoped to push for an August vote, but may need to wait until just after the November election. “We’re hoping to get this done sooner rather than later,” she adds. “People really can’t wait any longer.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on July 23, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet. After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years. His website is http://www.josheidelson.com.

Chipotle Workers Under New Scrutiny by the Feds

Friday, May 6th, 2011

Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill is once again facing close scrutiny from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We told you about Chipotle earlier this year when the company fired 450 workers in Minnesota—more than one third of its workforce—after a probe by immigration authorities.

This week, federal agents questioned employees at more than two dozen Chipotle restaurants in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C., as part of a probe into the chain’s hiring practices in several states. Chipotle employs about 26,500 workers.

Robert Luskin, Chipotle’s outside counsel and a partner at Patton Boggs in Washington, told Reuters: “We’ve got nothing to hide. We’re absolutely convinced that nobody did anything wrong.”

ICE spokeswoman Cori Bassett told the Denver Post that as a matter of policy, ICE doesn’t comment on ongoing investigations.

The Wall Street Journal reports the Chipotle has been one of the most prominent high-profile employers to be investigated under President Obama’s immigration policy of cracking down on employers.

The intensified scrutiny of employers is having a severe economic impact on undocumented workers, not to mention the businesses. Immigrants, whether undocumented or not, make-up about a quarter of workers in the restaurant and food services industry. A 2009 report by the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that about 12 percent of the workforce in food preparation and food serving in 2008 was undocumented.

In February, Chipotle began using E-Verify at all its 1,100 restaurants. E-Verify is an electronic database that verifies the eligibility of workers to work in the U.S.

UC Berkeley hunger strikers enter Day 10

And now for something slightly different. Six students continue a hunger strike at UC Berkeley where they are protesting the consolidation of Ethnic Studies with African American studies, and Gender and Women studies departments.

The result is staff reductions and the demotion of full-time faculty to half time. Last semester Ethnic Studies lost two positions and now will eliminate 2.5 full-time equivalent staff positions.

A dozen students began their strike on April 26. The consolidation of the departments takes place under the “Operational Excellence,” an effort by UC Berkeley to cut costs and streamline bureaucracy. The consolidation of the three departments would save $500,000 in staff costs.

This is not just for us,” Veronica Rivas, one of the hunger strikers, said on KPFA’s Morning Mix. “Today it’s ethnic studies, African-American studies and women gender studies. Tomorrow it’s toxicology or its economics.”

On April 26, the students and their supporters sent a letter to university officials to outline four demands: re-instate staff positions eliminated under Operation Excellence, end the current process of Operation Excellence, publicly support ACR 34—an Assembly resolution that would formally recognize the work of Ethnic Studies departments statewide—and publicly acknowledge the unfulfilled promise to create a Third World College at the university.

Administrators responded in a letter, “Our hope is to understand one another better, given that we have the same ultimate goals for equity and inclusion. This hope also applies to questions about the particular structure of ethnic and related studies and their place in the academic organization.”

*This article originally appeared in Working in These Times on May 6, 2011.

About the Author: R.M. Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked at three daily newspapers and two television stations and is a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets. She can be reached at [email protected]

Obama Admin Blocks Two Workplace Safety Regulations, Pleasing Big Business

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Mike ElkLast month, President Obama wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for “a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive.”

The announcement by Obama to eliminate burdensome regulation was seen as dramatic tilt to the right for the White House, which is increasingly pro-business. Others, though, dismissed the move as mere posturing that would not seriously affect workers. But since calling for the regulatory review, the Obama Administration has done away with  several proposed workplace safety regulations that have upset worker safety advocates.

Earlier this week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration  announced it was delaying (or stopping, as many advocates claimed) implementation of a set of proposed regulations on ergonomics. Work-related musculoskeletal disorders remain the leading cause of workplace injury and illness in this country,” stated OSHA Chief Dr. David Michaels in a press release. “However, it is clear that the proposal has raised concern among small businesses, so OSHA is facilitating an active dialogue between the agency and the small business community.”

The proposed regulation would have forced firms to count ergonomic injuries—also known as musculoskeletal disorder injuries (MSDs)—in statistics provided to OSHA . The push to merely count ergonomic injuries as part of workplace injury statistics was considered to be the compromise over regulating ergonomic injuries more broadly. Advocates had tried to bring tougher Clinton-era workplace safety laws, but settled on counting the MSD injuries as the compromise.

Workplace advocates hoped that being able to point to companies where a high amount of workers were suffering from ergonomic injuries would allow them to hold companies accountable. Now they will lack even the ability to shame corporations using government-published statistics.

Ergonomic injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and strained backs are agrowing problem, as more Americans wind up working in offices. Federal data shows that MSDs injuries “accounted for 28 percent of all workplace injuries and illnesses” that forced workers to miss time from the job.

Previously, there had been regulations on the books during the Clinton Administration to at least monitor and to offer minor protections to workers from such injuries. However, in 2001, a Republican-led Congress eliminated most ergonomic regulations. This was followed by eliminating the counting of ergonomic injuries by the Bush-era OSHA in 2003.

Many labor observers say OSHA’s decision not to regulate MSD workplace injuries shows that the Obama administration is slowly shifting away from its focus on tougher regulation of workplace safety. The decision to delay implementation of rules to regulate MSD workplace injuries follows a decision in mid-January by OSHA to write a rule regulating extreme noise on the job, which affects the hearing of many who work in the construction and manufacturing industries.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the National Association of Manufacturers had advocated against the proposal and in a letter to the new chairman of the House oversight committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), called for celebrating its demise. As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Issa has threatened to investigate such regulations, which has scared many administration officials who do not want to get caught in bureaucratic wrangling.

Those in the business community saw the defeat of these two regulations as a sign of their growing influence with the Department of Labor and OSHA. “We hope that these first two steps are a signal to the business community, and employers in general, that OSHA will ‘stop, look and listen,’” Joe Trauger, vice president of human resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers told the Hill newspaper.

People in organized labor are upset about the proposed regulation being withdrawn. “All of these actions are coming because of the November elections and the fierce business opposition to anything,” said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s director of health and safety. “Just because the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups scream doesn’t mean there is a legitimate reason to retreat. There are real negative impacts here that can harm workers.”

The ability of corporate forces to stop the implementation of these rules may signal the ability of big business to block or water down other rules protecting workers. One has to wonder: Will the elimination of such regulations actually save any jobs, as the president seems to believe? Or will their elimination hurt workers’ lives?

*This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on Feb 3, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times, Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout.

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