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Coming soon to a restaurant menu near you: Livable wages

4:08 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Cross-posted from Crain’s Chicago Business

Mario Batali at a book signing

High profile chef Mario Batali has begun to reform restaurant worker conditions.

In the trend-conscious restaurant industry, foodies are asking questions not only about whether their beef was raised humanely and whether their asparagus is organic, but also about the working conditions of those who prepare and serve their food.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a New York City-based workers’ rights advocacy group, has studied the industry with an eye toward both improving working conditions and allowing restaurateurs to thrive. “Our whole frame is around collective prosperity,” ROC co-founder Saru Jayaraman told me recently, “that when workers do better, employers and consumers do better.”

Ms. Jayaraman’s organization has designed a collection of policy proposals that business leaders in the industry — which employs 10 million people — can support. Their goal is to make it attractive to provide paid sick days, offer low-paid workers opportunities to rise through the ranks, and for employers to pay a share of their employees’ health insurance.

Raising the tipped-employee hourly wage from its stagnant $2.13 level is another proposal, one that is currently before Congress as a national bill.

Several high-profile restaurateurs are joining ROC United in its commitment to making restaurant jobs more economically viable — in other words, more like careers. “I think everybody should have health insurance,” celebrity chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio said in a recent interview. “The idea of the transient employee, the college student waiting tables, that’s not how we operate. People have families to take care of.”

ROC United has put together an up-to-date national guide to restaurants that treat their employees well.

High-road employers like Mr. Colicchio are unfortunately still in the minority — 90 percent of restaurant workers don’t have any paid sick days, and 75 percent of the workers surveyed by ROC United said they have never been given the opportunity to apply for a promotion. But as groups like ROC United educate the eating public about the dangers of a chronically underpaid workforce with no ability to take sick leave preparing and serving food, more industry leaders are beginning to see the wisdom in promoting employee wellness and better career options.

Another celebrity chef, Mario Batali — owner of Del Posto in New York City — is an example. Once publicly targeted by dissatisfied employees, Mr. Batali has now agreed to create new promotions policies and to institute paid sick days for his employees at Del Posto.

Food culture has taken off in Chicago; the ROC United 2013 “high-road employers” list for the city already includes several foodie destinations like Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique, Pilsen’s Lupito’s Juice Bar, and Lincoln Park’s Siena by Maria café — as well as one restaurant chain, Houlihan’s. Here’s hoping that Chicago’s richly varied restaurant community can add more names in the coming year.

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Why Immigration Is a Top Priority for US Labor

7:43 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

This interview is cross-posted from

by Amy B. Dean

Immigrants’ rights are workers’ rights. These days, that idea is a principle held dear by the US labor movement. But that wasn’t always the case.

As recently as the mid-1990s, many unions took protectionist stances against allowing new immigrants to come to this country. It was only after these unions saw the abuses that became prevalent under an employer-driven system for verifying immigration status that the labor movement embraced a new position. The movement recognized that for working people to thrive, all employees had to have full rights in the workplace.

Today, labor is one of the key forces pushing for comprehensive immigration reform in Washington, DC. To learn more about the movement’s advocacy and more about how unions transformed themselves into outspoken champions of immigrant rights, I spoke with Maria Elena Durazo. A daughter of Mexican immigrant farm workers, Durazo rose to become the leader of the hotel and restaurant workers union in Los Angeles, the dynamic UNITE HERE Local 11. And, as chair of the national AFL-CIO’s Immigration Committee, Durazo is now a leading point person in the national immigration debate.

Knowing that many people are confused when hearing about union activism around immigration, I asked Durazo a straightforward question: Why is this issue a top priority for labor?

“It’s bad for American workers for there to be 11 million-plus people out there working with no rights,” Durazo said. “[These immigrants] are subject to exploitation. They are subject, as a result of that, to accept lower wages. They are subject to working in dangerous conditions. That is bad for those immigrant workers, and it is bad for American workers as a whole.”

She continued: “We cannot have a prosperous nation and recreate the middle class as long as there is an underclass of 11 million people who do not have rights. By fixing this and getting them all on the road to citizenship, we address a huge issue that is the cause of enormous exploitation – of wage theft and other massive violations of labor laws.”

“It’s kind of like why we support raising the minimum wage,” she added, by way of comparison. “Ninety-nine percent of unionized workers aren’t directly impacted by an increase in minimum wage. But when the standard is raised, when the bottom is lifted, that helps all workers.”

Continuing our conversation, Durazo and I spoke about the benefits she anticipates if immigration reform is successful.

“We are positive that immigration reform is going to strengthen the middle class. One of the studies shows that, just through citizenship, someone’s income grows by 15 percent. Employers know that they can’t threaten and push them down.

“We want to raise the working standards for everybody. That is both self-interest, and it is [consistent with] the values of the labor movement. That is what we hope to live up to, that is what we believe in, and that is what we have got to put into practice.”

Noting that there has been an almost 180-degree turn in the past 20 years, I asked Durazo to speak about the internal changes that the labor movement has experienced around its position on immigration.

“This year the national AFL-CIO convention is going to be in Los Angeles,” she said. “I was remembering that, the last time the convention was in Los Angeles – in 1999 – that was when there was a major break with the previous policies on immigrant workers. [Former AFL-CIO] President [John] Sweeney had recently come into office, and there was a [shift] from basically blaming immigrant workers for a lot of problems to saying, ‘We stand with immigrant workers, and we want immigration reform.’

“I think a number of things lined up” to make that happen, she said. “One is President Sweeney’s election and his own experience as the head of SEIU [which represents janitors and other service-sector workers]. Other unions had national leadership that had also become very passionate about immigration. SEIU, [UNITE] HERE, the Farmworkers Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers – and even the Laborers at the time. Those national leaders stood up and backed up this change in policy.

“It was delicate, to say the least, but it happened. I would say that from then to today, we have come a long way. It has been more constant, to the point where, this year, President Trumka is in a position to say, ‘We are going all out. This is one of two national priorities for the AFL-CIO to get done in 2013.’ That is a remarkable change from 1999.”

Knowing that Republicans are pushing for some pretty odious compromises, I asked what labor is willing to accept in an immigration reform proposal.

“It is premature to say what we would accept or would not accept,” Durazo said. “What we are pushing for, and what is absolutely essential to us, is that there has to be a path to citizenship. There are a lot of details still to be figured out about this. But we say, ‘Don’t play games about a “path to legalization,” which leaves people halfway there, with half the rights.’ That is a game we don’t want to play.

“We think both the Democrats and the Republicans, who have been shaken up by the surge in the number of Latino voters who went to the polls in November, have got to understand why those Latinos care. They care because if it’s not fixed the right way, then they are going to continue to be singled out – under the guise of immigration laws, which in fact turn out to be voter suppression laws [or] discriminatory laws, like SB1070 in Arizona.”

Concluding our talk, I asked Durazo to speak about her personal experience with this issue – and about how she sees labor’s investment growing.

“I have been working at this my whole life. My parents came to this country from Mexico. My oldest sisters were born in Mexico. We worked in the field. I personally know what it’s like to be singled out and to not earn enough money to have a roof over our heads, to not make enough money to have food on our table. It is wrong, period, in this country to live like that.

“When I see in the year 2013 – 40 years after I left working in the field – that there are car wash workers who routinely do not get wages, do not get paid for 8 or 10 hours of work a day, the only thing they get is tips . . . When I see routinely that hotel housekeepers have to clock out and then go back and clean a bunch more rooms . . . When I see that stuff going on to this day, it angers me.

“Yet it is extraordinary when those men and women turn around and take charge of their lives,” Durazo continued. “For me, this is not about what happens inside of Washington, DC. What I am excited about is all the organizing, all the connections that we are going to make outside of Washington, DC., outside of the Beltway, in our communities. Because not only will that organizing deliver the best immigration reform, but it is also going to get a whole lot of other things done for this country.”

“Lord knows,” she said, “we have got a lot of other things to fix besides immigration reform.”

President Obama Reelected—But Where Is the Pathway to Good Jobs?

2:15 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

With Barack Obama’s reelection last night, we witnessed the labor movement once again, as in every successful Democratic presidential race in recent decades, saving the president. Its ground troops and financial backing provided the bulwark to shore up Obama’s lead against Romney. By aiding in Obama’s victory, unions helped avert the crisis that the election of Romney/Ryan would have represented—an attack not only on organized labor, but on women’s rights and the whole of the social safety net.

But what, in terms of a positive agenda, should working people expect that’s different from when President Obama was first elected? After the election of the last two Democratic presidents, organized labor had a clear legislative priority to hand to the successful candidate—the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) in the case of Obama’s first term, and a proposed ban on striker replacement in the case of President Clinton. In both cases, labor waited for the White House to lead on those issues, and that never happened. Neither EFCA nor the striker replacement ban came to pass.

This time around, labor does not have a single marquee piece of legislation that it is rallying around. We already know that any worker-friendly legislation that the White House advances will certainly face a blockade from Congressional Republicans. But that’s no excuse for the president to neglect using the bully pulpit to stand in defense of the rights of working people.

This is not a question of transactional politics. It’s not an issue of President Obama showing appreciation to labor for helping with his reelection. The need to revive the right to collective bargaining is important for a far more fundamental reason: without strengthening the ability of workers to negotiate for living-wage jobs, President Obama’s vows to restore the American middle class have little chance of being fulfilled.

Voters affirmed that the message presented by the Obama campaign was correct: the administration had inherited an economic mess, and under Obama’s presidency we have begun a recovery; it’s not moving fast enough, but the administration has put us on the right path. A Republican win would have destroyed any hope of achieving a true recovery for the 99 percent.

While that message is valid, Obama hasn’t provided an answer for how to make sure that new jobs that are being created in the economy are good jobs. In fact, the evidence is that the preponderance of jobs being created in the recovery do not support a middle-class standard of living. The National Employment Law Project’s report from August of this year, entitled The Low Wage Recovery and Growing Inequality, found that, during the recession, low-wage jobs grew 2.7 times as fast as middle- and high-wage jobs together. A total of 58 percent of the jobs created were low-wage jobs.

It’s not just the latest recession that has resulted in the loss of good jobs: the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) published a report in July that estimated that, since 1979, the economy has lost about one-third (28 to 38 percent) of its capacity to generate good jobs. One look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of the top thirty fastest-growing occupations bears out CEPR’s observation: a majority of the jobs listed pay less than $50,000 per year.

In the end, the only path to making new jobs into good jobs is to restore and support workers’ collective bargaining rights.

The reason our country has so often gotten itself into the position of being stuck in low-wage recoveries is that no president has taken on the issue of making the right to bargain collectively legal again in this country. If Obama does not address this in his second term, his administration will continue to watch the majority of Americans experience economic hardship.

The key issue for the president’s second term will be whether he understands that the health of our democracy has depended on having an enfranchised middle class, something that was built through collective bargaining and cannot be restored in its absence. If President Obama fails to recognize the stakes, the stated goals of his economic agenda—the creation of good jobs and the rescue of the American middle class—will be perpetually out of reach.

Four years ago, candidate Obama made a commitment to stand shoulder to shoulder with working people if their rights were ever threatened. That time has come. America’s working and middle class is in a fight for its life. The only question that remains in Obama’s second term, given that legislative remedies are not available, is whether America will see the president send a message by walking the picket lines and being an unabashed public spokesperson for workers’ rights.

Originally posted on The Century Foundation.

Why are working people invisible in the mainstream media? My interview with Barbara Ehrenreich

8:43 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

This interview is reposted from Truthout.

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich (Photo: David Shankbone / Flickr)

Best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich – probably best known for her 2001 book “Nickel and Dimed” – has long been on the forefront of promoting stories about working people in an often hostile media environment. Recently, she has been heading the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. An endeavor inspired in part by the Federal Writers Project of the 1930s, the initiative aims “to force this country’s crisis of poverty and economic insecurity to the center of the national conversation.”

I spoke with Ehrenreich about this crisis of economic insecurity, about the invisibility of working people in the mainstream media, and about the current state of journalism.

That working people are chronically underrepresented in the media – even in times of economic downturn – is a sad reality readily apparent to anyone who has surveyed the American news landscape. Given this, I asked Ehrenreich if she thought this problem has been a constant, or if has it gotten worse in recent years.

“It’s always been something of a problem,” she said, “for two reasons. The first reason I discovered in my years as a freelance writer in the 1980s and 90s. That is: magazines and newspapers want to please their advertisers. Their advertisers want to think they are reaching wealthy people, people who will buy the products. They don’t want really depressing articles about misery and hardship near their ads.”

“The other reason is that typically the gatekeepers in these media outlets, the top editors and producers, have been from a social class quite far removed from what we are talking about. They have no clue. I found that this could be very, very dispiriting.”

“I remember pitching a story to an editor in the 1980s. It had something to do with working-class men. The editor said, ‘Well, can they talk?’”

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