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Walmart sued for alleged discrimination against pregnant workers

Monday, September 24th, 2018

Federal regulators have filed a lawsuit against Walmart claiming the retailer forced pregnant workers to take unpaid leave and refused their requests for less physically demanding duties.

Companies are required by law to accommodate employee pregnancies the same way they would disabilities, according to an article on the lawsuit published by Reuters. The suit was filed Friday on behalf of Alyssa Gilliam and several other female employees.

In her complaint, Gilliam said she became pregnant in April 2015, at which point she requested “light duty or transfer to a less physically demanding job” to avoid any heavy lifting that might endanger her pregnancy. She said she was told “light duty” was only available “to employees on workers’ compensation.”

Gilliam claimed her requests for a chair, shorter work days, or additional breaks were also denied. She said that eventually, she was forced to transfer to a part-time job within the company, resulting in a pay cut and loss of benefits.

In November 2015, Gilliam said she submitted a doctor’s note to the company identifying a five pound lifting restriction. Walmart, in response, immediately placed her on unpaid FMLA (parental) leave, two full months before she was due to deliver.

The company allegedly denied requests for accommodations for other pregnancy-related medical restrictions made by other pregnant employees at the distribution center, the suit argues.

By contrast, Walmart “accommodated non-pregnant employees who were similar in their ability or inability to work.”

“For example, Defendant accommodated [distribution center] employees who had restrictions due to work-related injuries by providing them with light duty,” the suit reads.

“Defendant deprived Gilliam and a class of female employees of equal employment opportunities and otherwise adversely affect their status as employees, because of their sex and pregnancy.”

Julianne Bowman, the EEOC’s district director in Chicago, said in a statement Friday that Walmart’s alleged refusal to accommodate the pregnant workers amounted to a violation of federal law.

“What our investigation indicated is that Walmart had a robust light duty program that allowed workers with lifting restrictions to be accommodated,” she said. “But Walmart deprived pregnant workers of the opportunity to participate in its light duty program. This amounted to pregnancy discrimination, which violates federal law.”

The EEOC said it is seeking “full relief, including back pay, compensatory and punitive damages, and non-monetary measures to correct Walmart’s practices going forward.”

In a statement Friday, Walmart spokesperson Randy Hargrove responded to the suit, saying the company’s anti-discrimination policies were in full compliance with the law.

“Our accommodations policy has been updated a number of times over the last several years and our policies have always fully met or exceeded both state and federal law,” he said.

The nation’s largest private employer, Walmart is reportedly facing similar lawsuits in other states, including Illinois and New York. In May last year, Hargrove issued a statement insisting the company was “a great place for women to work.”

According to Reuters, the company requested to have the Illinois suit tossed out earlier this year, but was denied. The New York suit is currently pending.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 22, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Melanie Schmitz is an editor at ThinkProgress. She formerly worked at Bustle and Romper. Send her tips here: mschmitz@thinkprogress.org.

Chicago hotels seem unwilling to meet workers’ demands, as strike stretches into second week

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

The Chicago hotel workers strike has entered its second week, but employees and management don’t appear to be any closer to a resolution.

Workers are demanding year-round health insurance, since many workers don’t have insurance during the slow winter months, when they are laid off. They also want higher wages, more sick days, and more manageable workloads.

Ionela Petrea, a server at Hyatt Regency Bar who is on the worker negotiating committee at the hotel, told the Chicago Tribune last week that there had been two negotiating sessions since the beginning of the strike. Petrea said they were talking about wage increases for tipped workers, heavy workloads, and year-round health insurance, with the last issue being the source of the most contention. Petrea told the Tribune that the reason the hotel is probably dragging its feet on this particular issue because it would be more expensive compared to other requests.

The union argues that the hotel industry can afford to answer the workers’ demands. Sarah Lyons, research analyst of UNITE HERE Local 1, told WTTW, “The Chicago hospitality industry is doing extraordinarily well. Last year there were a record number of visitors: 55 million people. Chicago hotels raked in $2.3 billion in revenue last year.”

The contracts, which covered 6,000 employees, including doorman, servers, doormen, and housekeepers, expired on August 30. The businesses don’t seem any more eager to meet workers’ requests, however. Last week, representatives for these hotels claimed that it was too early in the negotiations process to strike and that workers and management had not reached an impasse. This week, hotels continue to make similar statements and haven’t signaled that they’re willing to meet workers’ demands.

Paul Andes, a Hilton Hotels senior vice president for labor relations, said in a statement to Chicago Reader published on Tuesday that the strike will have “minimal impact” on operations and added, “We continue to provide the service and amenities we are proud to offer our guests and clients every day. We are negotiating with the union in good faith and are confident that we will reach an agreement that is fair to our valued team members and to our hotels.”

However, last week, travelers said that their stay at Palmer House a Hilton Hotel, or as some refer to it, Palmer House Hilton, had a few complications. According to ABC7, towels were piling up, beds were unmade, and check-in lines were long. The same has been true at other hotels during the strike, with managers doing housekeeping and struggling to keep up with the workload. Ernesto Melendez, a Chicago tourist staying at a strike-affected hotel he did not name, said to CBS Chicago, “Our room hasn’t been cleaned for a couple of days. They gave us a notice when we checked in that they weren’t going to clean the room and that’s tough because there’s five of us in the room.”

Some groups holding events have moved their conferences to hotels and other venues where workers are not on strike in solidarity with workers. Last week, the Democratic Attorneys General Association canceled its 200-person policy event at the strike-affected JW Marriott in support of the hotel workers, the Chicago Tribune reported. Howard Brown Health Center, a nonprofit focused on LGBTQ people’s health, moved the Midwest LGBTQ Health Symposium from its original hotel venue where workers were striking to the Tribune to Malcolm X College.

Some national political figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, have tweeted in support of the strike.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) decided to give a speech at a striking hotel, however, while Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, alderman for Chicago’s 35th Ward, joined the hotel workers’ picket line.

The Democratic candidate challenging Gov. Rauner, Jay Robert Pritzker, or J.B. Pritzker, a venture capitalist, is a member of the family that owns the Hyatt Hotel chain. Pritzker, who received endorsements from 14 unions in May and has sent a number of pro-union tweets, has not tweeted anything about the hotel strike since it began.

Thousands of Boston hotel employers may be next to go on strike. Last week, Marriott hotel workers voted to authorize a strike against Marrott’s eight Boston hotels to demand better pay and benefits, according to WGBH.

“It won’t only cripple the hotels, but it will send a message worldwide that there’s labor unrest in Boston,” Brian Lang, Local 26 union president, said.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 19, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

Chicago hotel strike enters sixth day, as workers demand year-round health insurance

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018

Thousands of Chicago hotel workers continued their strike for the sixth day Wednesday, primarily to demand a year-round health insurance guarantee. The union said workers also want higher wages, more sick days, and more manageable workloads, the Associated Press reported. Their contracts, which covered 6,000 employees, expired on August 30.

The number of hotel workers involved in the strike has only increased since then. On Monday, workers at Cambria Chicago Magnificent Mile joined the strike, which brought the count of hotels affected by the strike to 26. Before the strike, more than 3,000 UNITE HERE Local 1’s members voted on the issue and 97 percent voted to authorize it.

The union told the Chicago Tribune that it is the most widespread and coordinated hotel worker strike ever held in Chicago. It’s the first strike in the city to include all hotel workers, whether they’re dishwashers or housekeepers, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.

As the Tribune reported, there are only four hotels that have expired contracts where hotel workers are not on strike: Hotel Raffaelo, Tremont Chicago at Magnificent Mile, Park Hyatt Chicago, and Fairmont Chicago.

Some fine dining restaurants, including the Ritz-Carlton Chicago’s fine-dining restaurant and Torali Italian-Steak, are closed or offering limited menus. Inside the Palmer House Hilton, long lines await check-in, dirty towels have been piling up, and beds have been left unmade, according to ABC7. One guest, Matt Lissack, told ABC7 that the line for check-in was “literally around the building.”

In the central business, there are 174 hotels, which means travelers could stay somewhere that is not dealing with contract negotiations, but the hotels in the midst of a strike are some of the biggest ones in Chicago, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.

Q. Rivers, who works at Palmer House Hilton, said in a statement on the union website, “Hotels may slow down in the wintertime, but I still need my diabetes medication when I’m laid off. Nobody should lose their health benefits just because it’s cold out. Full-time jobs should have year-round benefits.”

Each hotel or hotel brand does its own negotiation with the union, so management at some hotels and brands could make agreements with the union before others. Hotel groups say it’s too early in the negotiation process for workers to go on strike, and say they have not yet reached an impasse with the union.

Thousands of workers have disagreed. A spokesperson for Hyatt sent a statement to ABC7 saying, “In fact, Hyatt has not received the union’s complete proposals. Colleague benefits and wages remain unchanged as we negotiate a new agreement … Many colleagues are working …”

A Hilton spokesperson told the outlet “More and more of our union Team Members are choosing to return to work and we welcome them to do so,” adding that “It is still early in the negotiations process and Hilton is committed to negotiating in good faith with UNITE HERE Local 1.”

UNITE HERE Local 1 recently helped workers by advocating for a Chicago ordinance that made the city the second in the country to require that hotels have panic buttons. These panic buttons allow hotel workers to request help if a guest is harassing or sexually assaulting them. In 2016, the union put out a survey that showed 58 percent of those surveyed were sexually harassed by guests.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits

Minimum wage workers just got a raise in two states, D.C., and 15 cities or counties

Thursday, July 5th, 2018

Minimum wage workers in two states, Washington, DC, and 15 cities and counties got a raise on Sunday. These state and local governments had passed laws to increase the minimum wage on a schedule, with July 1 and January 1 being the most common dates for raises.

  • Oregon doesn’t have a single statewide minimum wage, but it went up! The minimum is now $10.75 as a standard, $10.50 in “nonurban” counties, and $12 in the Portland metro area.
  • Maryland’s minimum wage went up to $10.10. In Maryland, Montgomery County boosted its minimum wage from $11.50 to $12.25
  • Washington, D.C., rose from $12.50 to $13.25.
  • Eleven California cities saw minimum wage increases, with Emeryville the high point at $15.69 an hour for larger businesses. Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, Malibu, Milpitas, Pasadena, and Santa Monica all went from $12 to $13.25. San Francisco rose from $14 to $15.
  • Workers in Portland, Maine, are seeing a modest bump from $10.68 to $10.90.
  • In Illinois, Chicago went from $11 to $12 and Cook County went from $10 to $11.

The federal minimum wage remains stuck at $7.25 an hour, with Republicans continuing to refuse to consider an increase. Perhaps most depressingly—and showing most clearly where Republican priorities are—Birmingham, Alabama, and Johnson County, Iowa, were both supposed to have minimum wage increases on July 1, but didn’t. Their state legislatures stepped in to pre-empt local governments from improving life for workers.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on July 4, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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.

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