Labor

Men at Work

A look into the life of Latino construction workers in New York City, the second in a three-part series.

Sujatha Fernandes
This is the second story in a three-part series on the life of immigrant workers in New York CIty. Here is Part One , on Chinese delivery workers. F or ten months between October 2010 and August 2011, a Korean contractor named Bong Jun Park** hired a group of eight Latino construction workers to excavate the basement of a building in upper Manhattan. The workers were required to break the existing cement floor, excavate eight to ten feet of earth beneath it, and then pour cement for the new foundation. Many of the workers were undocumented, and none were unionized. According to the workers, they were not given the proper equipment required to carry out the work, as they say often happens on such sites. While the initial concrete floor was broken up with a jackhammer, the workers were required to use pickaxes and shovels to ply it out. The task of digging up the earth was done by hand.* There was not even a conveyor belt to carry out the buckets of excavated dirt. Instead, workers...

The Once and Future Gov

AP Photo/Eric Risberg
AP Photo/Eric Risberg A merica’s most futuristic governor seems borne back ceaselessly into the past these days. As he shows me around his office on a crisp winter morning, California Governor Jerry Brown points out not just the desk that his father, Edmund “Pat” Brown, used during his own term as governor from 1959 to 1967 but also photos of his grandparents and his great-grandfather, who came to California in the gold rush years. “He knew John Sutter,” Brown says. The only two governors in the past half-century who were native Californians, he points out, were he and his father. At 74, Brown has lost little of the intensity that impressed and occasionally discomfited voters during his first tenure as governor nearly 40 years ago. His outfit—an open-collar shirt under a white pullover sweater, blue jeans—may be West Coast casual, his shaved head may call to mind the Zen monks with whom he’s studied, but Brown’s emotional repertoire does not include laid-back, except when he’s talking...

The Maximum Impact of the Minimum Wage

AP Photo/Mike Groll
Cristina Romer, Berkeley economics professor and the former head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, passed judgment on the merits of raising the minimum wage in Saturday’s New York Times , and in the process made clear why she wasn’t a member of the president’s de facto council of political advisers. She argued, as some mainstream economists do, that the merits of a heightened minimum wage were slight—that it may, for instance, raise prices, offsetting the gain to low-wage workers. The better solution, she argues, is to raise the earned income tax credit (EITC)—the government’s payment to the working poor—and to support universal pre-K education. “Why settle for half-measures,” she concludes (by which she means raising the minimum wage), “when such truly first-rate policies [by which she means the EITC and pre-K schooling] are well understood and ready to go?” Ready to go? Congressional Republicans are rarin’ to increase government spending on the working poor and...

Labor Wins—in China

Flickr/notebookaktuell
Is China moving ahead of the United States on worker rights? According to a report on Monday’s Financial Times , it may be doing just that. The FT reports that Foxconn, which employs 1.2 million Chinese workers who make the bulk of Apple’s products, along with those of Nokia, Dell, and other tech companies, has decided to allow its workers to hold elections to select their union leaders. This is a radical departure from past practice in China, where unions are run by the government—that is, the Communist Party—which customarily selects the union leaders. Often, the leaders selected under this system are actually the plant managers. Under Foxconn’s new plan, workers will cast secret ballots for their union leaders, and no managers will be eligible to run. The company’s proposal, writes the FT , is viewed as a “response to frequent worker protests, riots and strikes and soaring labor costs.” In other words, just as employers in Western Europe and the U.S. once came to prefer dealing...

Where the Wingers Won

Flickr/Richard Hurd
Flickr/Richard Hurd A rally outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. L iberals had every reason to burst with optimism as the November election results began to set in. Not only did Democrats hold on to the White House, but they also won major Senate battles. In battleground states like Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin, a majority of voters chose more progressive visions for the future in both the presidential and Senate races. You might assume that this would have repercussions at the state level too—that these moderate-to-progressive states would work with the federal government in forging a more liberal set of policies. But you’d be wrong. The GOP emerged from November 6 controlling both legislative chambers in 26 states—the same number of states it controlled after the 2010 Tea Party revolution. Most surprising: In seven states that went for Barack Obama, Republicans still hold both the governor’s office and at least one chamber, and they are showing no signs that the voters’...

In the Schools of Philadelphia

Flickr/It's Our City The Philadelphia School District headquarters in downtown Philadelphia O n December 13, a large group of parents, students, teachers, and activists gathered in front of the headquarters of the School District of Philadelphia—a drab, low-slung building on Broad Street, one of the city’s major arteries. In the numbing cold, the crowd’s mood was bitter: The district had recently announced the 37 schools slated to be closed next fall. Around 17,000 kids will be relocated, mostly to institutions with academic records no better than those they currently attend. Chants of “The Mayor don’t care!” rippled through the crowd as attendees carried gravestone-shaped signs reading “R.I.P Philly Schools.” The protesters—among them Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT)—were there to demand a moratorium on school closings, which many fear will further urban blight as school building are vacated and lead to violence as different neighborhood...

The D.C. Circuit Court's Chaos Theory

Flickr/Kim Davies
O n Friday, a three-judge panel on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that President Obama's recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board—the U.S. agency charged with remedying unfair labor practices—were unconstitutional. The opinion—written by highly partisan Reagan appointee David Sentelle—would effectively remove the president's power to make any recess appointments at a time when counterbalances to an obstructionist Senate are more necessary than ever. The key legal question addressed by the court concerns the president's power to make appointments without the "consent" of the Senate while it is in recess. There is no question that the Senate is in "recess" after a session of Congress has formally adjourned. In a longstanding practice going back to the administration of Andrew Johnson, however, presidents have considered the Senate in "recess" during any substantial break. As the Obama administration noted in its legal memo defending its recess appointments, the...

Workers, Not Babysitters

There's still a long way to go to ensure domestic workers have the same protections as other workers, but progress is coming. 

Flickr/brk in bklyn
S ome very welcome news may break soon for the domestic workforce: the White House appears to be close to announcing a rule change to the Federal Labor Standards Act, finally including home health aides—those who bathe, nurse, toilet, and care for the elderly and disabled in their homes—in its protections. It may sound out of another century, and it is, but home health care workers had been excluded from federal overtime and minimum wage protections through a companionship exemption. It was designed to leave out only those who provided company, but had become so widely interpreted as to encompass a vital, booming workforce. The administration has long been sitting on the decision to change the rule, but outgoing Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis recently told The Nation , “there’ll be movement on that. We’ll shortly see progress made there.” If and when this change is announced, this workforce will be formally recognized as “workers,” not babysitters making pin money. The symbolism can’t...

Labor, and Middle Class, Still Shrinking

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
Can we at least agree to stop using the term “Big Labor?” Whatever else may be said of the American union movement, it’s not really big any more. Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its report on the number of Americans in unions in 2012, and it tells a tale of steady, and in some cases, dramatic shrinkage. In 2011, 11.8 percent of American workers were unionized; last year, that figure dropped to 11.3 percent. The percentage of public sector workers in unions dropped from 37.0 percent to 35.9 percent, while the share of unionized private sector workers went from 6.9 percent to 6.6 percent. For all intents and purposes, collective bargaining in the U.S. private sector has just about vanished. In 1970, there were 17.8 million union members in a nation of 203 million. Last year, 14.4 million Americans were union members (down by 400,000 from the previous year) in a nation of 315 million people. In percentage terms, the 11.3 percent national unionization rate is just...

Invisible Workers, Global Struggles

Flickr/Janinsanfran
Flickr/Janansanfran L ike countless other migrant girls toiling far from home, her life was invisible—except for the chilling way it ended. Earlier this month, Rizana Nafeek, a young Sri Lankan migrant in Saudi Arabia, was executed after being convicted of killing a baby in her care. The case drew international condemnation not only because of the severe punishment and opacity of the legal proceedings—she was reportedly just 17 at the time, not 23 as her falsified passport indicated, and advocates said her confession had been coerced—but also because the girl’s brief life exposed the consequences of the invisible struggles facing domestic workers in the Middle East and beyond. Nafeek's case symbolized the severe treatment of migrants in Saudi Arabia (human-rights watchdogs report that numerous other domestic workers have faced the death penalty after unfair accusations—sometimes stemming from cases of self-defense against abusers—pushed them into a biased and abuse-ridden legal system...

Solis Steps Down

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File
There has never been a more pro-worker Secretary of Labor than Hilda Solis, who announced yesterday that she’s stepping down from her cabinet post. But for much of her tenure, she was swimming upstream—confronting not just most anti-labor congressional Republicans in modern American history, but also an Obama White House inner circle that she, like many of her fellow cabinet members, never really permeated. Within those considerable constraints, Solis did what she could to get the federal government to intervene on workers’ behalf. Unable to advance many new policies, however, that often meant enforcing established pro-worker policies with uncommon vigor. During her tenure, the Labor Department collected record amounts of back pay for workers cheated by their employers, and moved to strengthen mine-safety inspections. The administration also announced new regulations that would bring nearly 2 million home-care workers under the coverage of the federal minimum-wage law, but,...

Just What Workers Need: More Labor Civil War

AP Photo/Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Rachel Denny Clow
As a rule, most merger or affiliation announcements between two organizations tend to the celebratory: Each group brings a proud history and now have joined together to create an even prouder future, yadda yadda. But not last Thursday’s press release from the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United (CNA), which proclaimed its affiliation with the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) in an announcement largely devoted to attacking the presumed perfidy of the Service Employees International Union, with which NUHW has been engaged in a prolonged blood feud that puts the Hatfields and McCoys to shame. Broadly speaking, SEIU and CNA are the nation’s two pre-eminent health-care worker unions, with CNA the leading organization of registered nurses and SEIU representing close to one million hospital orderlies and nursing home attendants. In 2009, after the two groups had waged a number of bitter organizing campaigns against each other for the right to represent the same...

Watching Wal-Mart’s Warehouses

AP Photo/Noah Berger
Friday’s Wall Street Journal reported that Wal-Mart “is planning to monitor subcontractors’ U.S. warehouses, in the same way it tries to police conditions at suppliers’ factories around the globe.” For the more than half-million Americans who work in warehouses like those that supply Wal-Mart—the Labor Department puts their number at 672,000—this is modestly good news. As the Prospect has been reporting since 2009, Wal-Mart and America’s other discount retailers don’t employ their warehouse workers directly. In the Ontario-Fontana exurbs of Los Angeles, where half the imports that come into the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors are trucked to be unloaded, arranged on pallets, and retrucked to Wal-Mart and kindred stores for a thousand miles around, the warehouses themselves are owned by property management companies, and they’re run by logistics companies with which Wal-Mart and other retailers contract. But the logistics companies aren’t the workers’ employers of record. Rather,...

States of Play

Flickr/Paul Weaver
If you’d forgotten just how much state legislatures impact citizens’ day-to-day lives, 2012 was a year full of reminders. From unions to health care to basic civil rights, states have a tremendous amount of power in shaping public policy. That’s no secret to groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which offers model bills lawmakers can introduce and has pushed issues like voter ID and the “Stand Your Ground” bills that many believed helped pave the way for the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis shootings in Florida. Thanks to a whistleblower and Common Cause, a nonpartisan good government group that supports a variety of reforms to campaign finance and lobbying, a number of ALEC’s tactics were exposed this year, and many lawmakers and corporate members dropped their affiliation with the controversial group this year. Many state debates took on national significance this year, especially those involving birth control, abortion, and unions. Both the right and the left...

For Unions, It Was a Very Bad Year

AP Photo/Detroit News, Dale G. Young
AP Photo/Detroit News, Dale G. Young Pro-union demonstrators crowd the Capitol Rotunda in Lansing, Michigan to protest "right to work" legislation being considered by the Republican-controlled legislature. A merican labor can begin the new year with thanks that 2012 is over. Not that the unions didn’t win some big victories in 2012. Their political programs in key swing states played a major role in President Obama’s re-election, both by turning out minority voters in record numbers in Ohio, Nevada, and Florida and by winning Obama a higher share of white, working-class voters in the industrial Midwest than he won in other regions. Their efforts also helped liberal Democrats hold key Senate seats in Ohio (Sherrod Brown) and Wisconsin (Tammy Baldwin), and pick up Massachusetts (Elizabeth Warren). In California, the nation’s mega-state, unions beat back a ballot measure designed to cripple their political programs by a decisive 12.5-percent margin, turning out so many voters that they...

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