Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘chicago’

Hints of Progress for Labor in the United States

Friday, June 9th, 2017

With Donald Trump sitting in the White House and right-wing Republicans controlling Congress, there is not much for labor to cheer about on the American national political scene. In addition, the overall prospect for union organizing does not look very good. Republicans are pursuing policies at both the national and state level to further erode union membership. But with all the bad news, there have been some important victories at the state and local levels that can perhaps lay the groundwork for gains nationally in future years.

The most important of these battles has been the drive for an increase in the minimum wage. The national minimum wage has been set at $7.25 an hour since 2009. In the intervening eight years, inflation has reduced its purchasing power by almost 17%. Measured by purchasing power, the current national minimum wage is more than 25% below its 1968 peak. That is a substantial decline in living standards for the country’s lowest-paid workers.

However, the situation is even worse if we compare the minimum wage to productivity. From 1938, when a national minimum wage was first put in place, until 1968, it was raised in step with the average wage, which in turn tracked economy-wide productivity growth. If the minimum wage had continued to track productivity growth in the years since 1968, it would be almost $20 an hour today, more than two and a half times its current level. That would put it near the current median wage for men and close to the 60th percentile wage for women. This is a striking statement on how unevenly the gains from growth have been shared over the last half century.

The Obama administration tried unsuccessfully to make up some of this lost ground during his presidency. While it may have been possible in his first two years when the Democrats controlled Congress, higher priority was given to the stimulus, health care reform and financial reform. Once the Republicans regained control in 2010, increases in the minimum wage were off the table. Needless to say, it is unlikely (although not impossible) that the Trump administration will take the lead in pushing for a higher minimum wage any time soon.

Although the situation looks bleak nationally, there have been many successful efforts to increase the minimum wage in states and cities across the country in recent years. This effort has been led by unions, most importantly the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose “Fight for $15” campaign is pushing to make $15 an hour the nationwide minimum. The drive gained momentum with its endorsement by Bernie Sanders in his remarkable campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination last year. While Sanders was of course defeated for the nomination, his push for a $15 an hour minimum wage won the support of many voters. It is now a mainstream position within the national Democratic Party.

However, the action for the near term is at the state and local levels, where there have been many successes. There are now 29 states that have a minimum wage higher than the national minimum. The leader in this effort is California, which is now scheduled to have a $15 an hour minimum wage as of January 2022. With over 12% of the US population living there, this is a big deal. Washington State is not far behind, with the minimum wage scheduled to reach $13.50 an hour in January 2020. New York State’s minimum wage will rise to $12.50 an hour at the end of 2020 and will be indexed to inflation in subsequent years.

Several cities have also jumped ahead with higher minimum wages. San Francisco and Seattle, two centers of the tech economy, both are set to reach $15 an hour for city minimums by 2020. Many other cities, including New York, Chicago and St. Louis have also set minimum wages considerably higher than the federal and state levels.

What has been most impressive about these efforts to secure higher minimum wages is the widespread support they enjoy. This is not just an issue that appeals to the dwindling number of union members and progressive sympathizers. Polls consistently show that higher minimum wages have the support of people across the political spectrum. Even Republicans support raising the minimum wage, and often by a large margin.

As a result of this support, minimum wage drives have generally succeeded in ballot initiatives when state legislatures or local city councils were not willing to support higher minimums. The last minimum wage increase in Florida was put in place by a ballot initiative that passed in 2004, even as the state voted for George W. Bush for president. Missouri, which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in this century, approved a ballot initiative for a higher minimum wage in 2006. South Dakota, Nebraska and Arkansas, all solidly Republican states, approved ballot initiatives for higher minimum wages in 2014. In short, this is an issue where the public clearly supports the progressive position.

These increases in state and local minimum wages have meant substantial improvements in the living standards of the affected populations. In many cases, families are earning 20-30% more than they would if the minimum wage had been left at the federal minimum.

In addition, several states, including California, have also put in place measures to give workers some amount of paid family leave and sick days. While workers in Europe have long taken such benefits for granted, most workers in the United States cannot count on receiving paid time off. This is especially true for less-educated and lower-paid workers. In fact, employers in most states do not have to grant unpaid time off and can fire a worker for taking a sick day for themselves or to care for a sick child. So the movement towards requiring paid time off is quite significant for many workers.

This progress should be noted when thinking about the political situation and the plight of working people in the United States, but there are also two important qualifications that need to be added. The first is that there are clearly limits to how far it is possible to go with minimum wage increases before the job losses offset the benefits. Recent research has shown that modest increases can be put in place with few or no job losses, but everyone recognizes that at some point higher minimum wages will lead to substantial job loss. A higher minimum wage relative to economy-wide productivity was feasible in the past because the US had a whole range of more labor-friendly policies in place. In the absence of these supporting policies, we cannot expect the lowest-paid workers to get the same share of the pie as they did half a century ago.

The other important qualification is the obvious one: higher minimum wages do not increase union membership. The SEIU, the AFL-CIO and the member unions that have supported the drive for a higher minimum wage have done so in the best tradition of enlightened unionism. They recognize that a higher minimum wage can benefit a substantial portion of their membership, since it sets a higher base from which they can negotiate upward. Of course, it is also a policy that benefits the working class as a whole. For this reason, unions collectively have devoted considerable resources to advancing the drive to raise the minimum wage.

However, this has put a real strain on their budgets at a time when anti-union efforts are reducing the number of dues-paying members in both the public and private sectors. This will make it more difficult to sustain the momentum for raising minimum wages and mandating employer benefits. For this reason, the good news on the minimum wage must be tempered. It is a rare bright spot for labor in the United States in the last decade, but it will be a struggle to sustain the momentum in the years ahead.

This blog was originally published at CEPR.net on June 7, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:  Dean Baker co-founded CEPR in 1999. His areas of research include housing and macroeconomics, intellectual property, Social Security, Medicare and European labor markets. He is the author of several books, including Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer. His blog, “Beat the Press,” provides commentary on economic reporting. He received his B.A. from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Michigan

Leaked Trump administration plan to close Chicago EPA office puts 1,000 jobs at risk

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

President Donald Trump’s proposed cutbacks to the Environmental Protection Agency may include the closure of the agency’s regional office in Chicago, a move that could undermine the agency’s ability to monitor pollution in the Great Lakes and curtail its ability to implement enforcement actions against coal-fired power plant owners in the six-state region.

The workforce for the Chicago Region 5 office would be consolidated with the EPA office in Kansas, the Chicago Sun-Times reported, citing anonymous sources. Trump’s budget chief Mick Mulvaney singled out the EPA as a target for budget cuts and the agency, under the leadership of former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, was tasked with choosing two regional office for closure by June 15. The identity of the other regional office has yet to be disclosed.

“This decision doesn’t make sense from an efficiency standpoint. Instead, this decision makes sense from an ideological standpoint,” Nicole Cantello, the head of the union representing agency employees in the region, told ThinkProgress. She received leaked information about the possible closure of the regional office and believes it accurately represents the intentions of the Trump administration.

Cantello, who also works as a lawyer in the EPA Region 5 office, added: “If you wanted to drive a stake through the heart of EPA enforcement and EPA’s ability to protect the country, this would be one way of doing it.”

News about the Trump administration’s plans to close the Chicago EPA office leaked the same week the agency discovered a potentially carcinogenic chemical had spilled from a U.S. Steel facility in Indiana into a tributary of Lake Michigan. U.S. Steel reported last Tuesday that it leaked an unknown amount of wastewater containing hexavalent chromium into a waterway in Portage, Indiana, within 100 yards of the lake.

The Region 5 office oversees environmental protection in six states surrounding the Great Lakes: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. “It would be devastating to environmental protection in Region 5, the office that is the steward of the Great Lakes,” Cantello insisted.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the region are pushing back against the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. In a March 30 letter to House appropriations committee leaders, the members of Congress explained the initiative “is showing real and measurable results, but there is still a great deal of work to do.”

EPA employees and environmental activists gather in Chicago on Feb. 6, 2017, to protest Scott Pruitt’s nomination as EPA administrator. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carla K. Johnson

Consolidating the two regions would make EPA Region 7, located in Kansas City, Kansas, the largest regional office in the nation, covering 10 states. Region 5 has expertise in dealing with the states in the upper Midwest and a deep knowledge of Great Lakes protection. “That expertise would be completely lost,” Cantello said.

Region 5 has only 500 employees, while Region 7 employs 1,000 staffers. “You could imagine how 500 people would be able to handle all the issues going on in 10 states,” she said. “It would be virtually impossible. Therefore, it would put people’s lives at stake. For the people who live in the six states, there won’t be an environmental cop on the beat.”

Under the administration’s plan, 3,000 EPA employees nationwide would lose their jobs. Closing the Chicago office, and eliminating its 1,000 positions, would help accomplish that goal. Whether any employees would be transferred to the Kansas office is unknown. But the EPA regional office in Kansas does not have adequate space to accommodate hundreds of new employees, Cantello said.

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), whose congressional district includes the city of Flint, called reports of the proposed closure of EPA’s Chicago a “misguided” move that would jeopardize federal resources to help Flint recover from its water crisis.

“If true, the closure of the EPA’s Region 5 office —which serves Michigan and other states in the Great Lakes region—is very concerning,” Kildee said in an emailed statement. “EPA efforts to protect the Great Lakes through the successful Great Lakes Restoration Initiative are also critical to reduce pollution run-off and combat the threat of invasive species like Asian carp.”

EPA employees rallied in early February against the impending confirmation Pruitt as EPA Administrator, in what was the first protest by federal workers against the Trump administration. Roughly 300 people—a third of whom work for the agency—took to the street outside the agency’s Chicago regional office.

With the latest leaked information about the possible closure of the Region 5 office, Cantello said her union plans to work with members of Congress from the six states to fight back against the closure of the Chicago office.

The Trump administration plans to focus on regional offices for job cuts, not the EPA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Along with Chicago, employees housed in other regional offices are fighting back against the administration’s plans to gut the agency. In the EPA Region 3 office, the mood “is fear, dread,” Marie Owens Powell, an EPA enforcement officer and a local union leader, told National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

The Philadelphia office employees hope they can persuade their representatives to save the EPA and convince friends and family to speak out in defense of the agency’s work, the union leader said. A recent poll by Quinnipiac University showed a large majority of U.S. voters oppose cutting EPA’s budget.

The proposed budget cuts are like nothing Cantello has seen in her 27-year career at the EPA. “I’ve been through many presidential transitions and have never seen this type of animosity toward our staff and animosity toward our mission,” she said. “George W. Bush, even though there were some things around the edges he wanted to do that were from a conservative bent, generally supported our mission.”

The Trump administration wants to let the states take over many of the duties of the EPA. “This idea that the states do the same work of the folks in the region is a fallacy supported by some Republicans but is not something that is a reality on the ground,” Cantello said. “The notion that there is duplication between what we do and what the states do is not reflected in reality. All the enforcement we do is requested by the states because they can’t do the work we do.”

In the six-state Midwest region, where coal-fired power plant capacity retains a sizable share of the electric power generating mix, the EPA Region 5 office has pending cases against coal plants for violations. “We don’t know if we will be allowed to follow through with those cases,” she explained. “We already have some cases on the docket against coal-fired power plants. We may not be able to get the cuts in environmental pollution that we would get under a regular course of business.”

This article was originally posted at Thinkprogress.org on April 17, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Mark Hand is a climate reporter for Think Progress. Contact him at mhand@americanprogress.org.

This week in the war on workers: Chicago teachers protest planned cuts and layoffs

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Chicago schools and teachers are once again under serious attack from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, and once again, the Chicago Teachers Union is showing that it is a powerful force. Thousands of teachers and supporters rallied Thursday, with 16 people arrested, protesting massive proposed cuts and layoffs:

Officials with Chicago Public Schools said Tuesday they’re ready to cut $100 million from school budgets and force teachers to pay more pension costs after their union rejected the latest contract offer, ratcheting up the tone of contentious negotiations that have lasted over a year. […]

The latest flare-up followed an offer a CTU bargaining team rejected Monday, after both sides had deemed it “serious.” The proposal included pay raises and job security, but union officials said it didn’t address school conditions or a lack of services.

The teachers have authorized a strike, though that wouldn’t happen until spring if it happens at all.

? Weeks after the West Virginia Senate passed an anti-union bill, the state House followed suit. A PPP poll conducted for the state AFL-CIO found high support for unions and opposition to laws weakening them.

? A union has filed a National Labor Relations Board petition to represent New York Uber drivers.

? Speaking of which, New York Uber drivers are pissed, with good reason.

A crowd of 600 drivers gathered outside the Uber office in Long Island City, Queens, to protest a 15 percent reduction in fares last month, which also means 15 percent lower wages. That pay cut is on top of Uber’s 20 percent slashing of fares in 2014. All things being equal, drivers who began less than two years ago have seen their pay tumble a whopping 35 percent.

Actually, it’s not just New York.

Last September, Dallas-area drivers for UberBlack, the company’s high-end car service, received an email informing them that they would be expected to start picking up passengers on UberX, its low-cost option.

The next day, when the policy was scheduled to go into effect, dozens of drivers caravaned to Uber’s office in downtown Dallas and planted themselves outside until company officials met with them.

? Indiana repealed prevailing wage protections to let them lower wages on public construction projects … and costs have gone up since then.

Not your typical Alabama labor story:

The state’s largest employer – the University of Alabama at Birmingham and UAB Medicine – plans to raise employees’ minimum wage to $11 an hour beginning in March.

UAB employs more than 23,000 faculty and staff. The institution currently pays $8.24 an hour, about a dollar higher than the federally mandated minimum wage.

? For union members: seven steps to opening up bargaining.

?

This blog originally appeared in dailykos.com on February 6, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and Labor editor since 2011.

Chicago Window Workers Who Occupied Their Factory in 2008 Win New Bankruptcy Payout

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

kari-lydersenSeven years after Republic Windows & Doors workers occupied a recently-shuttered factory in Chicago, making international news, and three years after they opened their own window company, they are receiving a $295,000 payout in bankruptcy court that is both a symbolic and pragmatic victory.

When a company goes bankrupt, workers are usually at the end of the line to get paid, as they are considered “unsecured creditors” behind various secured creditors who are owed money. That means workers often never get money they are owed.

But the Republic Windows workers have broken the mold in many ways, starting when they occupied the factory on Goose Island in the Chicago River, receiving massive community and political support and convincing Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase to hand over the severance and vacation pay due them.

They became a poster child of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (or the “stimulus”) after the company was bought by a California-based maker of highly energy efficient products. Then they occupied the factory again when that owner threatened to close it. Finally in spring 2013 they opened their own factory, New Era Windows.

In January 2009, not long after the occupation, the United Electrical Workers (UE) union, which represented Republic workers, filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board charging that the company violated the union contract by closing abruptly without negotiating over the closure terms. Two years later, the board ruled in favor of the workers and decided they were due two weeks’ wages, the estimated amount of time that bargaining over a closure would have taken.

The company was in bankruptcy proceedings by then, however, and it wasn’t until this week that the bankruptcy court ordered the release of the funds. The NLRB will distribute the money to individual workers.

A release from the NLRB this week noted:

The Board found that the employer violated the National Labor Relations Act when they closed their Goose Island facility and moved operations to an alter ego operation in Iowa. However, ongoing bankruptcy procedures made full or partial compliance with the order unlikely until a successful suit against the employer’s insurer made additional assets available for the repayment of debts.

The board continued that: “Bankruptcy proceedings often prevent compliance with Board-ordered remedies as employer’s assets are liquidated through Chapter 7 processes. While the employees did not receive full back pay, obtaining partial compliance in this case is a victory for workers who have been waiting for a remedy since 2008.”

“Some people feel like it’s not enough, but it’s symbolic,” said Armando Robles, one of the New Era worker-owners and a leader of the occupation and ensuing efforts. “It’s a huge victory.”

UE organizer Leah Fried noted that the payout is thanks to “the constant haranguing we had do to. We had to wait until everyone else came out of the woodwork, but the fact we kept pressuring the court” paid off.

“It’s great that seven years later, [the workers are] still winning money,” she says.

The former Republic Windows CEO, Richard Gillman, was sentenced to four years in prison for fraud charges related to the closing of the factory and the purchase of another window factory in Iowa. He was released after serving significantly less time than the sentence.

New Era has been growing, with 14 worker-owners and four new hires, Robles said. This is the slow season, however, when few people are ordering windows. Robles said the bankruptcy payment should mean about $1,200, helping him pay rent and bills until New Era business picks up in the spring.

“It hasn’t been easy, obviously,” said Fried. “But they’ve shown you can run a company without bosses, and do well.”

This blog originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on January 25, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gunand the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work.

Teachers Say 17 Firings at Urban Prep Charter Schools Were Retaliation for Unionization

Monday, July 6th, 2015

Ariel Ziontscrystal stella becerrilOn June 19, during their biannual semester-end interviews, 17 teachers were informed by school staff that they would not be returning to Chicago’s Urban Prep Academy come fall. The terminations came just weeks after 61 percent of Urban Prep’s teachers voted to form a union; activists say the firings were a blatant act of anti-union retaliation.

Last Thursday, around 100 teachers, students, parents and supporters attended Urban Prep’s board meeting to protest the firings and accuse the board of harming their community and hindering student progress. They also accused the board of resisting transparency and accountability, and creating a high teacher-turnover rate through firings and policies that push teachers out of the school.

This is only the latest case of such allegedly unjust firings, as more and more charter schools in Chicago and across the country are organizing to unionize despite the legal hurdles, backlash, and the common belief—at least among school management—that charter teachers don’t need unions.

Matthias Muschal told Catalyst Chicago he was fired after working as a lead English teacher at Urban Prep’s Bronzeville campus for six years for “insubordination—specifically because he threw a pizza party for student-athletes and their families without notifying administration,” according to the administration. He says the real reason was his union activism—a huge disappointment because “I wouldn’t be able to teach my students anymore,” Muschal told In These Times.

Urban Prep CEO Evan Lewis wrote in a statement that “the suggestion that anyone was fired as a result of their organizing activity is both wrong and offensive. … “We respect and support the right of our teachers to choose a union as their exclusive representative. … Many of the teachers returning next year were active in the effort to organize, and we look forward to continuing our work with them.”

At the board meeting, 26 people signed up to speak, although roughly half were allowed to address the board. Parents also delivered over 200 letters in support of the fired teachers in an effort to influence the board’s decision. Not all board members, however, were present at Thursday’s meeting—even though, according to Samuel Adams, a former Urban Prep English teacher, they all live in Chicago. Those who did not attend the meeting called in—a gesture seen by some union supporters as disrespectful.

Teachers, parents and students who attended the meeting praised Urban Prep’s mission and success, but said the recent firings go against the school’s mission and will ultimately harm the students. Englewood Junior Lamar Strickland told the board he “would just like to ask that you guys bring back our teachers because … they have all taught us something different that we can take in our life.”

Students were especially upset about the firing of English teacher Natasha Robinson. Robert DuPont, a junior at the Englewood campus, said Ms. Robinson went above and beyond her responsibilities like calling students she knew were having trouble getting to school on time. Mr. Adams said that his former colleague had the highest freshmen test scores in the school and continued to teach even soon after her mother died.

Of the outpouring of student support over the past weeks, Robinson said, “It’s nice to know I made an impact during my time at Urban Prep—to know that I was able to help these young men.” (Urban Prep is an all-male school.)

At the meeting, James Thindwa of the American Federations of Teachers (who is also a member of the In These Times board of directors) also accused Urban Prep’s majority-black board of directors of harming the black community and instituting measures similar to anti-union, right-wing politicians like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

“I can’t believe that this institution, this publicly funded institution, … anchored in the black neighborhood, that is itself reeling from economic disinvestment that in part has been caused by the attack on labor unions … is participating in a vile attack on a legitimate institution that serves as a legitimate counterweight to what we’re seeing as unchecked corporate power in the United States.”

In a press release, Thindwa wrote that because black Americans hold a disproportionate share of public-sector jobs, they have been hit especially hard by the decline of public-sector jobs and the attacks on their unions.

The audience highlighted the irony in these firings, as one of the main reasons teachers wanted to unionize was to change what they say are Urban Prep’s high teacher turnover rates. They say students don’t know if their favorite teachers will return the following year, which affects their learning environment.

“It’s unfortunate that they would fire veteran teachers and that there will be so much uncertainty for these students going into the new school year,” said Robinson, who had taught at the school for seven years. Teachers say high turnover rates also mean devoting important time to train new teachers rather than to develop the skills of existing ones.

According to Brian Harris, a special education teacher at CICS Northtown Academy and Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS) president, “across the network, only nine teachers have been at Urban Prep more than five years. Now, only about half of them are returning.”

“Students are calling for a stable learning environment, and their teachers know that unionization is the only way to get stability for these students and their communities,” says Rob Heise, an educator and activist who says he was fired from an UNO Network charter high School earlier this month for his involvement in helping unionize his school last year. Heise filed his own unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB two weeks ago.

Chicago Teachers Union members made their way to the South Side school from their own union’s contract negotiation meeting earlier that afternoon to show support for the fired Urban Prep teachers. Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, was among them. Chambers said that all the Urban Prep teachers who voted to unionize wanted was a voice for their students. Having played a major role in preparing her school for the historic 10-day CTU strike back in 2012, Chambers knows first hand the power of belonging to a union and added that teachers “know that if they don’t have a union they don’t have a voice.”

“Urban Prep punished their staff for unionizing. They lied about what ACTS is and used teachers’ professional development time to spread anti-union propaganda,” said Brian Harris. “Their actions show a real disrespect for teachers and democracy and scream ‘we don’t want to be accountable to anyone.’ ”

Chris Baehrend, Vice President of Chicago ACTS and English teacher at Latino Youth High School, said retaliation is the main reason why 39% of eligible voters chose not to join the Urban Prep union. “They’re afraid. They’re afraid of things like exactly what happened right here happening to them.”

An unfair labor practice suit has been filed with the NLRB, and Chicago ACTS will be planning future demonstrations.

During the public comment period, Samuel Adams called on supporters to put pressure on Urban Prep by sending emails, and parent Shoneice Reynolds called for a local school council. Reynolds cited Urban Prep’s creed to make her point: “It states, we have a future for which we are accountable. I challenge you all to be accountable for our children’s future.”

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 1, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: The authors’ names are Ariel Zionts and Crystal Stella Becerril. Arielle Zionts is a freelancer writer and, beginning in August, a producer at the Interfaith Voices radio show in D.C. She studied anthropology at Pitzer College and radio at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Crystal Stella Becerril is a Chicago-based Xicana activist, writer and photographer who regularly contributes to Socialist Worker, Red Wedge and Warscapes.

Why the New Law Combating Wage Theft in Chicago is a Big Deal

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

in these timesIn a win for local workers, last week Illinois’s Cook County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed what workers’ advocates say is one of the strongest ordinances to combat wage theft to date in the U.S.

The Cook County Wage Theft Ordinance aims to punish companies guilty of shortchanging their workers by taking away lucrative county contracts and various tax incentives. Unscrupulous employers can steal from their workers in a number of ways, including not paying a minimum wage, incorrectly classifying employees as contractors, stealing tips and not paying overtime. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the ordinance would be a model for similar legislation nationwide.

The ordinance uses the economic leverage of the county to remove economic incentives from employers who steal wages. Businesses convicted of wage theft could risk losing their business licenses, as well as being barred from receiving contracts with the county and property tax incentives for a period of five years.

In 2013, Arise had success passing a similar ordinance in Chicago (which is located in Cook County). Under that ordinance, companies convicted of wage theft would have their business licenses revoked. After the success of that campaign, according to Adam Kader, director at Arise’s Worker Center, they wanted to explore what could happen at the county level. A major campaign this summer surrounding Source Interlink, Kader says, sped things up.

“It showed in a dramatic way, to elected officials, why wage theft is a fact that merits attention,” says Kader.

When Source Interlink, a magazine publishing company, shut down its McCook, Illinois, distribution center without notice on May 30, over 200 workers were left with no work or severance pay. The Illinois Workers Adjustment and Retraining Notification Ac requires large companies to provide 60 days’ notice about the layoffs, but Source Interlink did not. Arise supported the workers in finding new employment and in a class action lawsuit to recover their 60 days’ worth of wages against Source Interlink.

Arise also brought the issue to the attention of Jeffery Tobolski who, in addition to being a county commissioner, is the Mayor of McCook. Tobolski said that wage theft was a growing problem in Cook County that hurt both workers and law abiding businesses.

“Many businesses are targeting low wage workers,” he says, “who lack either the sophistication or the resources to adequately defend themselves.”

The language of the ordinance was the result of collaboration between Arise and the Board of Commissioners. Arise worked with Tobolski’s and Preckwinkle’s staffs to turn what was Arise’s concept into a functioning law.

“This was actually a collaborative effort. This wasn’t like Arise came in with demands and had to fight the county over it,” says Kader. “This was truly a community partnership.”

Aside from covering a greater geographic area than the previous wage theft law, the Cook County ordinance is larger in scope as well, going beyond business licenses and impacting the potential profits of dishonest businesses.

It received overwhelming support from the Board of Commissioners, including President Preckwinkle.

“In a sense, this is the least controversial law ever,” says Kader. “This is saying, ‘If you violate laws, you’re not going to get other public benefits.’ ”

Wage theft is a problem with large amounts of money at stake, especially for low-wage workers. In 2008, a joint study by the Center for Urban Economic Development, the National Employment Law Project, and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment found that nearly 60 percent of the surveyed workers had experienced some sort of wage violation. The violations included examples of not receiving overtime pay, breaks shorter than legally required, and being paid below the minimum wage.

The study concluded that “many employment and labor laws are regularly and systematically violated, impacting a significant part of the low-wage labor force in the nation’s largest cities.”

More recently, the Economic Policy Institute published a study in an attempt to gauge the amount of money workers lose due to wage theft. In 2012, the study surveyed the departments of labor or attorneys general offices of nine states, and found those institutions had recovered nearly $1 billion in stolen wages. The study suggested increasing the penalties for wage theft violations, noting that the maximum civil penalty is just $1,100.

In recent years, states and local governments have made some progress in setting stricter fines for violators, and stricter penalties for repeat offenders. Cook County’s ordinance, by using the carrot and stick of county contracts—as well as applying to first time violators—is the harshest in the nation thus far, and should serve as a benchmark for future campaigns.

“The legislation passed today will make Cook County a national leader in targeting wage theft,” said Preckwinkle.

This article originally appeared in Inthesetimes.com on February 17, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Kevin is an educator and freelance writer in Chicago.

Chicago’s Black Unemployment Rate Near Quadruple That of Whites

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Adeshina EmmanuelWith 25 percent of its African-American residents jobless, Chicago has the highest black unemployment rate among the nation’s five most populous cities. Chicago’s rate is higher than Philadelphia’s 19 percent, Los Angeles’ 18 percent, Houston’s 15 percent and New York City’s 14 percent, based on 2013 U.S. Census figures.

Why?

Experts point to Chicago’s unique brand of residential segregation, among other factors.  Almost 75 percent of black Chicagoans live in a community that’s at least 90 percent black, according to Census data. Blacks are about one-third of Chicago’s population. The unemployment rate for white Chicagoans is 7 percent; for Latinos, it’s 12 percent.

Michael Dawson, a leading scholar on politics and race, said Chicago’s “extreme segregation” deprives many residents of the predominantly black South and West Sides of adequate public transit and job networks.

“The way people get hired is through networks,” and most people’s social networks are predominately within their own race, he said.

For decades, the city’s economically marginalized black communities have been saddled with failing, underfunded public schools, high youth unemployment and low college graduation rates.

“You get neighborhoods where not only do you not have a job, you don’t know many other people who have one and can help you get one,” said Valerie Wilson, an economist who heads the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

But segregation alone doesn’t explain the situation.

This blog originally appeared in the Chicago Reported and then reposted on In These Time on November 18, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/17378/chicago_ranks_fifth_in_highest_black_unemployment_rate

About the Author: Adeshina Emmanuel is a reporter for the Chicago Reporter.

Labor Day 2013: Things Have Never Looked Worse for Workers—Or Brighter

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

 

David MobergFour young men breakdancing on the Federal Plaza last week in downtown Chicago say a lot about why this Labor Day provides occasion for both celebration and protest.

 

The dancers—black, white, Latino, all of them putting on a spectacular show—were fast food and retail workers on strike for the day for $15 an hour pay and the right to form a union without retaliation. They were among about 400 low-wage workers from more than 60 stores convening for a celebration after a day of delivering their key demands—with specific additional grievances tailored to each workplace—to their employers, who, from McDonald’s to Sears, make up a  Who’s Who of brand-name fast-food and retail companies.

 

It was the third strike for many of the workers. The strike wave began last November in in New York, with Chicago holding protest marches late last year as well, and it spread in July to five other traditional union strongholds. On Thursday—just after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—thousands of workers from a total of approximately 60 cities joined a national day of action, the largest yet. Strikes cropped up in the South, in cities such as Raleigh, N.C. and Memphis, Tenn., and in smaller Northern cities, such as Bloomington and Peoria, Ill. In tiny Ellsworth, Maine, a community-labor group demonstrated support for higher pay fast food workers even though none went on strike. In some cases, workers appear to have organized themselves after hearing about the earlier actions, calling whomever they could contact and asking how they could take part in the next strike.

 

The dark side of this jubilant surge of activity is the many reasons why it is needed—weak job growth, underemployment, flat or declining wages, feeble labor standards, a stalled union movement, an occupational structure shifting toward more low-wage service jobs, growing inequality, and widespread abuse of power by the very rich.

 

The decline in the official unemployment rate masks the degree to which American workers face a very grim world of work. Much of the improvement in the unemployment rate simply reflects a growth in the number of discouraged or “marginally attached” workers (people who want a job but have given up looking). The share of the workforce working part-time involuntarily has risen as well.

 

Such slack in the demand for labor, along with the declining power of unions and the cuts in pay demanded by both private and public employers (often accompanied by outsourcing or, at public employers, privatizing), holds down—or pushes further down—wages that had improved little even from 2000 to 2007, when the recession began. Between 2007 and 2012, even as productivity grew by 7.7 percent, wages declined for the bottom 70 percent of the workforce, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute report by Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz.

 

The weakness of the labor movement, especially in growing, low-wage sectors like retail and fast food, accounts for much of the decline, but the diminishing value of the minimum wage plays a big role. According to another recent EPI study, by Sylvia Allegretto and Steven C. Pitts, if the federal government restored the minimum to its peak value in 1968, the minimum wage would be $9.44 today in inflation-adjusted dollars, not $7.25. And if it matched in real terms the $2.00 minimum wage demanded 50 years ago by the March on Washington, the minimum wage would be $13.39—not far from the striking fast food workers’ demand and not far from the minimum in many advanced countries (approximately $12 an hour in France and $15 an hour in Australia, for example). If the minimum wage had risen as much as worker productivity since 1968, it would be $22 an hour.

 

Any rise in the federal minimum would especially help people of color and women, Allegretto and Pitts report. Contrary to stereotypes of low-wage workers as teenages, a raise would help many adult, family-supporting workers. In a report for EPI published in March, David Cooper and Dan Essrow calculated that with even the modest $10.10 minimum proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the average age of low-wage workers whose pay would likely increase is 35. Eighty-eight percent are over 20 years old, and 35.5 percent are 40 or older. In addition, 44 percent of the beneficiaries would be workers with some college education, and 28 percent with children.

 

The plight of low-wage workers is becoming a much more acute problem as the nation’s occupational structure, that is, the kinds of jobs being created or retained, has changed. According to Daniel Alpert of the Century Foundation, 70 percent of the jobs created in the second quarter of this year were low-wage, like retail and hospitality work, about twice the percentage of such jobs in the overall workforce. And about 50 percent of all new jobs in the first half of 2013 were part-time.

 

Wages have risen for the top 5 percent, however, especially for the very richest. The top 1 percent—mainly executives and financial managers—captured 121 percent of the nation’s new income during the first two years of the recovery, according to University of California, Berkeley economist Emanuel Saez. How do they do that? Essentially, they direct all national income gains to themselves while simultaneously taking more away from the 99 percent.

 

Looking more closely makes the picture even uglier. The success of the very rich often involves large elements of chicanery, fraud and exploitation of public resources, according to a new study, “Bailed Out, Booted, Busted,” the 20th annual Labor Day edition of the Executive Excess reports from the Institute for Policy Studies. The researchers compiled data from 20 years of their studies, which relied on annual Wall Street Journal surveys of CEO pay.

 

Their final survey covered 500 CEOS—the 25 highest-paid CEOs each year for the two decades. IPS reports that 38 percent of these CEOs had performed extremely poorly as executives of their firms. Of those poor performers, 22 percent of the top pay winners led their firms into bankruptcy or bailout; 8 percent were fired (but got golden parachutes worth $38 million on average); and 8 percent were found guilty of fraud.

 

Then there are simply the super-excessively paid, making over $1 billion during their tenure, and other executives who fed at the “taxpayer trough,” collecting top pay while their companies profited as major government contractors.

 

Any move towards equality will have to hold down the excess at the top as well as raise the bottom. But beyond basic fairness, society would reap additional benefits—faster and more stable growth (and therefore a speedier, more robust recovery); less crime and social tension; a stronger democracy; and better health, longer life and lower medical expenses, to mention a just few. (See Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level.)

 

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus was not speaking rhetorically, but quite practically, when she told strikers in Chicago, “These workers are among thousands and thousands of low-wage workers around the country, who have a really reasonable and simple request, and that is that they be paid a living wage. …These are the makers; they are the takers. I want to thank these brave workers who walked out. They are doing it for themselves and they are doing it for America.”

 

And it seems the strikers are doing it their way, with people volunteering and reaching out to other workers to spread the word. Most events include raps composed by strikers about their work, and protest strategies reflect their decisions. For example, in Chicago, the strikers this time wanted actions at every store where someone walked out, not just a couple of highlighted targets, as in the July strike. And they wanted a celebration at the end. If the fast food fight succeeds, it will be a result of that insurgent sentiment.

 

The spirit was there in the breakdance—introduced in Spanish and English, as all the program was before the crowd of comfortably mixed ethnicities, performed under a banner reading, “Fight for 15, Valemos Mas.” Dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” two stands-in for CEOs in mock-suits faced off against two workers from Potbelly’s.

 

The workers won. It wasn’t Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers singing “Roll the Union On.” But I’m sure Pete would have approved

This article was originally published on Working In These Times on September 2, 2013.  Republished with permission. 

About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. .

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

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 Ways That ALEC Is Targeting Working Families

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallInformation about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) working in secret to push state-level policy to more extreme levels is coming to light more and more and America’s working families are starting to stand up to the group’s corporate-driven agenda. While ALEC’s agenda is all over the policy map, the organization has a particular focus on pushing new laws that attack working families and undercut the rights of workers, both in the workplace and in retirement.  Here are eight of the most dangerous and most widespread ways that ALEC is targeting workers and their right to a voice on the job.

8. Voter ID Act: Laws directly based on or similar to ALEC’s Voter ID Act have been introduced in recent years in nearly every state, with more than a dozen states passing or strengthening such laws in the past three years. These laws disproportionately affect working families, senior citizens, people of color and residents of rural areas and help elect legislators who vote against the rights and needs of workers.

7. Paycheck Protection Bills: ALEC has at least four different versions of this legislation, each one more extreme than the last, that were introduced 20 times in various states in 2013. These bills range from requiring that each employee sign an annual form authorizing that their union dues be allowed to be used for political purposes to preventing payroll deductions from being used for union dues. These bills provide no additional rights to workers and do nothing more than weaken the ability of workers to collectively bargain by depriving unions of the funds they need to fight on behalf of their members.

6. Direct Union Assaults: Through model legislation such as the Election Accountability for Municipal Employee Union Representatives Act and the De-certification Elections Act, introduced in Idaho and Arizona, respectively, ALEC is seeking to make public employees vote over and over again to retain their union status, giving ALEC and other groups the opportunity to flood workers with anti-union propaganda.

5. Public Employees’ Portable Retirement Option Act: Through this and similar bills, 10 states have attempted to weaken or eliminate defined-benefit pension plans and replace them with defined-contribution plans, which make retirees depend on the market for how much money they have for retirement and health care.

4. Council on Efficient Government Act: As Orwellian a name as any in the ALEC arsenal, this legislation does nothing but use government money to create a commission to figure out ways to privatize government services. In other words, yet another example of ALEC attempting to get taxpayer money into the hands of private corporations without any accountability or taxpayer recourse.

3. “Right to Work” Act: This incredibly misleadingly titled legislation gives no one any new rights and does nothing but prevent employees from paying for the benefits that unions earn on their behalf. So-called “right to work” for less states end up paying their workers a lot less than states that don’t have such laws. In 2013, 15 states introduced this legislation.

2. Parent Trigger Act: These laws give parents the option, once a majority of parents sign a petition, to change a public school into a charter school, give students vouchers or close the school. Seven states have passed parent trigger laws similar to the ALEC bill. Parent Trigger laws force parents to make a bad choice—either stick with a poorly performing school, or take drastic actions that are likely to make things worse, do little to help students and are a boon for corporate groups that run private schools. Meanwhile one of the best tools for helping working families reach the middle class—public education—gets less and less funding.

1. Wage Protections: In 14 states, ALEC model legislation attacking wage protections were introduced. The bills sought to weaken or eliminate laws that require prevailing wages, living wages or minimum wages. Big corporations heavily support these efforts, which would only serve to lower wages for workers.

On Thursday, Aug. 8, working families and other opponents of the ALEC agenda will be rallying at the conservative group’s convention in Chicago. Those who are in the area can RSVP online.

This article originally appeared on AFL-CIO NOW blog on August 7, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog