Labor

Pacifiers and Pink Slips

AP Images/Joel Ryan
Would you lose your job if, for a few months, you had to run to the bathroom more often than your coworkers? Or your doctor told you to carry a water bottle and drink as often as possible? Or if you were told you couldn’t lift more than twenty pounds for a few months? Probably not, if you’re a white-collar worker. And probably not, if you’re a blue- or pink-collar worker—a janitor, factory worker, health aide, retail clerk—who’s strained your back or has some other condition covered as a temporary disability by the Americans with Disabilities Act’s Amendments Act (ADAAA, or “AD triple A,” as the insiders say it) of 2008. But yes, you might well lose your job for that if you’re pregnant. Pregnancy doesn’t qualify as a disability. So if you’re a pregnant low-wage worker, your boss could very well tell you that if you can’t follow the workplace’s standard rules—about bathroom breaks, water bottles, standing all day, or carrying trash bags weighing up to 30 pounds—you have to stay home...

The Ugly Side of D.C.'s Corporate Bipartisanship

AP Images
AP Images/Ashraful Alam Tito Over the past month, an oceanic divide has opened between European and American retailers on the question of how to respond to the manmade epidemic of deadly disasters in the garment industry of Bangladesh, the world’s second largest clothing exporter. In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza fire on April 24, which killed at least 1,127 workers, a group of roughly 40 European retailers—including H&M, Carrefour, Bennetton, Tesco, and Marks & Spencer— signed on to a plan binding them to fund both a regimen of independent factory inspections and the improvements required to make those factories safe. But only three U.S.-based fashion companies and retailers —Abercrombie & Fitch, PVH (which includes the Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Izod labels), and Sean John (Sean Combs’s company)—have become party to the compact, despite the repeated urgings of anti-sweatshop and workers' rights organizations. Wal-Mart, Gap, Target, Sears, JCPenney, and other...

The New New Haven

Jesse Lenz
Major Ruth became a civic leader because he made a promise to his neighbor, Brian Wingate. Both had moved to the Beaver Hills section of New Haven, Connecticut, in 2003. A neighborhood of aging single--family homes that had seen better days, Beaver Hills had been targeted by the city for a housing--rehabilitation program, and, with the zeal of new arrivals, Ruth, a manager at the local utility company, and Wingate, a custodian and union steward at nearby Yale University, sought to involve themselves in neighborhood--improvement ventures. That proved harder than they had anticipated. Although New Haven aldermanic districts are tiny, encompassing no more than 4,300 residents, Ruth and Wingate couldn’t find anyone who could identify, much less locate, their alderman. “We joked that one of us would run for alderman and the other would have to run his campaign,” Ruth says. In 2010, Wingate told Ruth he was running and a deal was a deal. “It started out as a simple promise,” Ruth says, “but...

A Devil of a Problem for Labor in the City of Angels

AP Photo/Reed Saxon
AP Photo,File T omorrow, Angelenos go to the polls to select a new mayor. Well, some Angelenos—actually, not a hell of a lot. Indeed, turnout is projected to be so low that the winner may get fewer votes than Fletcher Bowron did in winning the election of 1938 , when Los Angeles was less than half as populous as it is today. The reason for the low turnout is straightforward: Not all that much differentiates the two candidates. Both City Controller Wendy Greuel and Hollywood-area City Councilman Eric Garcetti are mainstream Democrats. Unlike the election, say, of 1993, which pitted Republican businessman Richard Riordan against liberal Democratic Councilman Mike Woo—two candidates with widely divergent views on how to fix the L.A. police in the wake of the Rodney King riots—no great issues separate the two candidates this year. Unlike the election of 2005, in which former California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa ousted incumbent Mayor Jim Hahn, this year’s election won’t be a...

Labor's Plan B

Flickr/ Fibonacci Blue
AP Photo/Mark Kegans A week ago, labor-rights group Working America launched FixMyJob.com. The text of the site reads a bit like an infomercial: “Tough day at work? Are you feeling overworked, underpaid, unsafe or disrespected by your boss?” But instead of selling a new set of knives, the writers are hawking organizing skills. “Our tool can help you identify problems in your workplace and give you info about what others have done in similar situations.” The famous raised fist of labor is sideways, holding a wrench. The website is yet another attempt by the country’s once-powerful union movement to connect to workers in an increasingly hostile national workplace. “We also are trying to find new ways for workers to have representation on the job,” writes Working America spokesperson Aruna Jain in an email. “We want to train and educate people on how to self-organize, and to learn collective action—the single most effective way of improving their working conditions. This is one way we...

D.C. Circuit v. Worker Rights

WikiMedia Commons
Last week, a decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals provided an excellent example of how both presidential action and inaction can matter. Because of the former, the National Labor Relations Board had issued a rule intending to alleviate the power disparities between workers and employers. But in part because of action by Republican presidents and inaction by Democratic presidents, the rule is no longer in effect. And while the outcome of the case is hardly surprising, the sheer radicalism of the court's holding is yet another sign of how in the tank much of the powerful D.C. Circuit is for powerful business interests. The case involved a 2011 regulation issued by the NLRB which required employers to post notices informing workers of their right to join a union and providing basic information about how to contact the NLRB. The regulation was challenged by business groups based on an assortment of legal arguments. The District Court upheld the authority of the NLRB to issue the...

The Upside Down Economy

AP Images/Scott Sady
AP Photo/Richard Drew O ne aspect that defines our current economy is that things are happening that shouldn’t be happening. I don’t mean that things are happening that are illegal or immoral. (Well, some of them are immoral, but that’s not what I mean.) Rather, things are happening that defy economic logic—a slippery term that really means, the economic patterns of roughly the past half-century. The first such logic-defying thing is that corporate profits are soaring even as corporate revenues limp along. The quarterly reports of S&P 500 corporations for the first three months of 2013 are almost entirely in now, and they show profits rising by more than 5 percent even while revenues have risen by less than 1 percent. Seventy percent of these companies—the largest publicly traded U.S. firms—exceeded the analysts’ profit projections. On the other hand, 60 percent came in under the projections for their sales. Were this disjuncture just a one-time epiphenomenon, we could pass it off...

Are Vouchers Dead?

AP Images/Ben Margot
When news broke Tuesday that the Louisiana Supreme Court struck down Louisiana’s voucher system, which uses public dollars to pay for low-income students to go to private schools, the fight over vouchers made its way back into the headlines. The Louisiana program, pushed hard and publicly by Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, offers any low-income child in the state, regardless of what public school they would attend, tuition assistance at private schools. It’s something liberals fear will become commonplace in other states in the future if conservative lawmakers get their way on education policy. Yet conservatives have been dominating legislatures since 2010 and there has been little success in creating voucher programs. Louisiana is one of only two states with such a broad program in place. After the 2010 Tea Party wave there was “a big spike in the number of states considering voucher legislation,” says Josh Cunningham, a policy specialist at the National Conference of State...

Unions to Banks: Pay Up

AP Photo/Dominic Lipinski,
AP Photo/Keystone, Steffen Schmidt R ebecca Sandoval hasn't had a raise for six years. She and other home-care workers who work for the state of Oregon and are represented by Local 503 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) make $10.20 an hour to assist people with disabilities and senior citizens, like the 99-year-old woman Sandoval cares for. The state froze wages at 2007 levels to help offset a yawning $855 million budget shortfall caused by the financial crisis. Almost every year since then, Sandoval says, it has further cut back hours, leaving workers with the choice to leave some of their clients' needs unmet or to work for free. “You can't rush a 99-year-old woman with any aspect of her daily living,” she says. Members of Local 503 in different professions have seen similar wage freezes and cutbacks. James Jacobson got a layoff notice after 16 years as an office worker at the University of Oregon's college of education; budget cuts, it explained. He's one of the...

Fast Food, Slow to Change

AP Images/Rui Viera
The strikes of fed-up fast-food workers move westward with the sun. On Wednesday evening, fast-food employees in St. Louis, like their peers in New York and Chicago earlier this spring, staged a one-day strike to dramatize the low wages they, and millions of American workers in the restaurant and food sectors, take home. The job action is one of a series of short strikes that the Service Employees International Union, in conjunction with a range of local community groups, is helping to organize. Similar actions in other cities are slated in coming weeks. The goal of these actions is to catalyze a broader movement of workers in the sector—not with the intent of winning contracts from corporations like McDonald (that’s far beyond the labor movement’s capacity, alas), but in hopes that such a movement could spur city councils and state legislatures to enact higher minimum wages or living wage provisions for workers in specified sectors. At Tuesday’s night annual Hillman Prize...

How Unions Are Getting Their Groove Back

flickr/ Chris Dilts
Yesterday—April 24th — was a red-letter day in the annals of worker mobilization in post-collective-bargaining America. In Chicago, hundreds of fast-food and retail employees who work in the Loop and along the Magnificent Mile called a one-day strike and demonstrated for a raise to $15-an-hour and the right to form a union. At more than 150 Wal-Mart stores across the nation, workers and community activists called on the chain to regularize employees’ work schedules. And under pressure from an AFL-CIO-backed campaign of working-class voters who primarily aren’t union members, the county supervisors of New Mexico’s Bernalillo County voted to raise the local minimum wage. The Chicago demonstration, which began in the dawn’s early light of 5:30 a.m., included workers at McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Subway, as well as Macy’s, Sears, and Victoria’s Secret, all of whom make the state minimum wage ($8.25) or just slightly more. Roughly one-third of the jobs in Chicago are low-wage, and...

As Wal-Mart Swallows China's Economy, Workers Fight Back

Strikes continue to erupt in Asia.

Imaginechina via AP Images
Imaginechina via AP Images O n any given day, go to the Shenzhen Wal-Mart in the city's Yuanling neighborhood, and you may find a stocky man in his early fifties in front of its doors, draped in a banner that reads, in Chinese characters, “Support the just demands of workers.” Ask him why he's there, and he will tell you that he used to work at the Wal-Mart, that he was unjustly fired for organizing other workers and protesting deteriorating work conditions, and that he's fighting to get his job back. “A lot of people said I should just leave. But my skin is really thick, and I didn’t want to leave the company. I still had faith that things could and would change,” Wang said. “I asked myself, how should I protect my rights? How can this unfair situation be made right?” The answer he found, he said, was organizing along with his fellow workers and now, continuing to stage his weekly protests. While he usually protests alone, Wang Shishu's is one of a growing number of Wal-Mart workers...

Where's the Change?

AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke
AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File T he Democratic Party’s long-term prospects have dramatically improved since the November election. They will control the White House for another four years. The Republicans, who lost the total vote for the House of Representatives, remain captive of an unpopular reactionary right wing. The “Obama Coalition” of minorities and single women is growing faster than the GOP’s white male base. If demography is destiny, Democrats—and the progressive interests that they are supposed represent in the two-party system—are the wave of the future. But the American dream is about upward mobility. Ultimately, “The economy, Stupid” trumps identity politics. If the Democrats are not the champions of expanding jobs and incomes for the majority of voters who work for a living—whatever their gender, color, or sexual orientation—their claim to being the natural majority party will amount to little. So it made political sense that Barack Obama began his 2013 State of the Union...

The Keystone Fight's Labor Pains

The battle over the tar sands pipeline among unions has been XL on drama.

AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File
AP Photo/Nati Harnik “F or too long we have allowed some corporations to hold a gun to our heads and demand that we choose jobs or choose the earth.” That’s what Terry O’Sullivan, the general president of the Laborers International Union of North America, told green groups and fellow unions at a green-jobs conference in February 2009, just a few months after the union—one of the largest in the country—joined the Blue-Green Alliance, a group organized to advocate for a “clean economy.” But by January 2012, O’Sullivan had made a choice. The climate bill had failed, the money from the recovery act had run out, political tides had turned against government spending, and the union was no longer so keen to partner with the environmental movement. “We’re repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women,” O’Sullivan said. This heady “job killer” rhetoric...

Why the AFL-CIO Is Embracing Immigration Reform

Flickr/Old Shoe Woman
Flickr/Old Shoe Woman Their agreement is very preliminary and hasn’t yet even been blessed by the so-called Gang of Eight Senators working on immigration reform, but the mere fact that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue agreed on anything is remarkable. The question is whether it’s a good deal for American workers. It is, and I’ll explain why in a moment. Under the agreement (arrived at last weekend) a limited number of temporary visas would be issued to foreign workers in low-skilled occupations, who could thereafter petition to become American citizens. The agreement is an important step toward a comprehensive immigration reform package to be introduced in the Senate later this month. Disagreement over allowing in low-skilled workers helped derail immigration reform in 2007. The unions don’t want foreign workers to take jobs away from Americans or depress American wages, while business groups obviously want the lowest-priced workers...

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