Labor

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...

Forty Years Behind on Sick-Leave Policy, But Catching Up

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer Emilio Palaguachi, center, speaks at a rally at New York's City Hall to call for a vote on paid-sick-days legislation, which has been held up by I t’s too late for Tonisha Howard , the mother of three in Milwaukee who was fired for leaving work to be with her hospitalized two-year-old. And for Felix Trinidad , who was so afraid of losing his job at Golden Farm fruit store in Brooklyn that he didn’t take time off to go to the doctor—even after he vomited blood. Trinidad, a father of two who had stomach cancer, continued to work until just days before his death at age 34. But for workers in Portland and perhaps Philadelphia, paid sick days just got much closer to becoming reality. Last Wednesday, the city council in Portland, Oregon, voted unanimously for a bill granting most employees up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per year. On Thursday, the Philadelphia City Council passed a similar law—and, with only one vote short of a veto-proof majority, advocates are...

The Women Behind the Wheel

A look into the life of female cab drivers in New York City, the last story in a three-part series.

Dolores Benitez
This is the last story in a three-part series on the life of immigrant workers in New York CIty. Here is Part One , on Chinese delivery workers, and Part Two on Latino construction workers. D ozens of taxi drivers are waiting to be issued their cabs at a taxi-leasing garage in Queensbridge, New York, a neighborhood just across the river from Manhattan. It is raining lightly, weather that could make for a busier-than-usual Sunday-night shift. Mohamed, a Pakistani driver, begins to tell Dolores Benítez about the $650 he had paid to a private yellow-cab owner in New Jersey to lease his vehicle for a week. Mohamed did not get a receipt and before the term of his lease was up, the owner took the car back and would not return his calls. Benítez, the only female cab driver at the garage and one of the 1 percent of women working in the industry in New York City, has been listening to the drivers’ problems and offering solutions during her half-hour wait. She migrated from Honduras in 1976 and...

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...

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