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Workers Can ‘Don and Doff’ Off the Clock, Says Court

9:18 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Bill Jacobus / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

For workers in dangerous industries, safety should be non-negotiable. But the Supreme Court may have just given employers a little more leeway to put critical protections for workers on the table when bargaining over labor contracts.

In a unanimous decision issued last month in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, the Supreme Court ruled against a group of steelworkers who argued that they should be compensated for the time they spend suiting up before and after their workdays, or “donning and doffing” protective gear including hard hats and safety glasses. Workers at U.S. Steel’s Gary Works in Indiana had sought compensation for what they believed were unpaid overtime wages, earned during their time spent changing into and out of their work clothes, which they argued was not properly clocked.

But the justices ultimately ruled that the steel company’s labor contract did not require the company to count the “donning and doffing” of workers’ clothes as paid overtime labor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), meaning that the workers will lose their claim to back pay for the time spent putting on and taking off their gear.

The Sandifer ruling is limited from a legal standpoint, as it applies only to section 203(o), an obscure provision of the FLSA governing wage negotiations in collectively-bargained union contracts. According to an analysis in legal news outlet SCOTUS Blog, section 203(o), a 1949 amendment to the FLSA, “allows collective-bargaining agreements to exclude time spent ‘changing clothes’ from the work time subject to the statute.”  Read the rest of this entry →

A House Is Not a Home Without Rights for Care Workers

6:43 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Caregivers and clients gather in Washington, D.C. to support workers’ right to organize. (SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana via Facebook)

Originally published at In These Times

Does a public union belong in the most private of workplaces? Thousands of personal care workers in Illinois who tend to elders and people with disabilities at home wouldn’t have it any other way. For years, they’ve relied on the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to negotiate their contracts. But a radical anti-union movement has gone to the Supreme Court to challenge care providers’ right to organize—putting hard-won labor gains in serious danger.

The case now before the court, Harris v. Quinn, started with a class-action lawsuit filed in 2010 by several care providers in a state Medicaid-financed program for people with disabilities. The plaintiffs argue that their automatic incorporation into a public sector union—with the requirement to pay dues—violates their free speech and free association rights.

The litigation, which lost first in a federal district court and later in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, stems from the political agenda of the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, whose representatives are arguing on behalf of the plaintiffs. In the past, the group has led campaigns in various states to push “right to work” legislation that undermines the dues obligations unions rely on to finance their operations. This time, it’s attempting through the judiciary system to weaken the collective bargaining authority of public-sector unions.

In 1977, a Supreme Court decision mandated that unions named as the bargaining agent for a group of workers must represent all of them. In turn, those who benefit from unions’ negotiations with employers must pay their “fair share” of the cost in the form of dues. If the Defense Foundation’s challenge succeeds, it could nationally damage this “fair share” precedent, thereby eviscerating unions’ financial resources. And on a statewide level, home care workers would be left with less protection in the workplace and less leverage to negotiate as a group.

The workers at the heart of Harris are an unusual group of public servants: They’re based in private homes as hands-on caregivers, yet they’re supported by taxpayer dollars. As state employees, they also enjoy working conditions that are a cut above a home healthcare typically industry characterized by low wages, high turnover and sparse benefits. Unlike many nannies, housekeepers and privately employed home aides, some 20,000 SEIU-represented workers have a steady contract with the state of Illinois. And during the past decade, SEIU has enabled its care providers to gain access to professional training, a new healthcare fund and a 65 percent wage hike.

But Flora Johnson, a home care provider and chair of SEIU Healthcare Illinois’s Executive Board, testified recently that a Legal Defense Foundation victory could threaten those advancements.

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Coal Spill Puts Spotlight on Colombia’s Labor and Environmental Struggles

12:40 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

A miner sits in front of the Cerrejón coal mine in Guajira, Colombia. Cerrejón is one of the major coal companies in the country who have come under fire for human rights and environmental violations. (Santiago la Rotta / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

The Alabama-based Drummond Company’s recent coal spill in Colombia has combined with its record of labor abuse to place the coal giant at the intersection of the country’s political struggles and environmental crises.

In 2007, Colombia issued a mandate for coal exporters requiring Drummond Company to update its loading facilities at a key port in Cienaga by installing closed conveyor belts, a cleaner system than the traditional barges and cranes used to load coal. But Drummond has continuously failed to retool its operations. After a wrecked barge spilled hundreds of tons of coal into the port waters in 2013, Colombia imposed a $3.6 million fine on the company—and now, in a rare regulatory confrontation from the usually business-oriented regime, the government has suspended its port license to induce Drummond’s compliance.

The move seems aimed at demonstrating President Juan Manuel Santos’s commitment to environmental protection—perhaps as part of a broader campaign to strengthen ecological protections for politically tumultuous, resource-rich areas. Colombia has for years courted energy companies to use its mineral resources, and Drummond, a major exporter to Europe, is an established foreign investor.

Though the coal spill reportedly did not result in major long-term environmental damage, it became a sensation when a watchdog photographer, local attorney Alejandro Arias, widely publicized images of a crane hauling up coal and water from the barge and dropping it into the sea. In an interview with Bloomberg, Arias stated, “I want people in Europe to know that they’re heating themselves with coal that has caused pollution [in Colombia] … Royalties paid by mining companies here don’t nearly cover the costs of all this.”

Drummond vehemently defended the environmental soundness of its operations in an official statement, blaming its compliance failure in part on construction delays tied to last year’s mineworker strike. But the unrest that led to that labor action arguably stems from the same situation environmentalists blame for the dumping: the notorious impunity of many multinationals in the Global South, particularly in the energy sectors, which exploit poor countries’ resources and workers to feed carbon-burning industries abroad.

Colombia ranks among the world’s deadliest places to be a trade unionist, with thousands of union members murdered and brutalized over the past two decades. In 2013, union slayings did decline somewhat while the number of strikes increased—potentially suggesting a less oppressive climate for labor in the future. Whatever this year’s body count, however, violence continues to stalk workers who dare to organize. Last week, United Steel Workers and the international labor group IndustriALL issued letters condemning Colombia for its repeated failure to address anti-union assaults, citing the recent murder of Ever Luis Marin Rolong, an electrician and local leader of the SINALTRACEBA union.

And Drummond’s union workers have remained defiant despite the risks. Though it was hardly the first labor clash Drummond has had to deal with, the strike that started last summer made waves in global energy markets because it lasted for months and forced a partial suspension of Drummond’s export contracts. In a dispute over wages and layoffs, workers struck for more than 50 days. Eventually, the Labor Ministry intervened, and workers voted to end the strike under pressure (though one of the largest unions, Sintramienergetica, remained opposed).

But Drummond reportedly has a more sinister history when it comes to worker repression. Human rights groups have long accused the company of complicity in vicious anti-union hostilities, citing evidence gathered from union sources and Wikileaks documents. A major civil lawsuit in the U.S. courts was denied last year, but volumes of potentially damning testimony remain part of the public record.

In one testimony issued in October 2011, a witness who worked with Drummond in the 1990s and early 2000s claimed to have aided Drummond in brutalizing unionists:

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Angry Workers Swarm Seoul’s Streets, Demand President Resign

10:49 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Korean Confederation of Trade Unions via Facebook

Originally published at In These Times

South Korea may best be known for slick electronics and saccharine pop tunes, but less of that stereotypical effervescence was present in Seoul in December. Instead, the streets were filled with throngs of angry union workers, facing down riot police in a show of defiance against a government plan that they say would lead to layoffs and privatization.

On December 28, workers staged a one-day general strike that capped about three weeks of intense smaller protests involving thousands of workers and activists and causing sharp service reductions. The establishment of a parliamentary committee to resolve the railway dispute has paused the demonstrations for now. But unions, who see the fight as a broader labor struggle beyond the rail issue, are not giving up and have vowed to keep protesting. On Friday, theydemanded the president’s resignation.

In recent months, the government has proposed subdividing and commercializing the national railway, Korail—supposedly a cost-saving measure to deal with the railway’s debt burden and financial losses. Recently, tensions escalated when the government announced plans to split Korail services into separate segments and to create a subsidiary to run part of the high-speed rail service under a separate corporation, which would purportedly stay primarily state-controlled.

Labor activists suspect the claims of financial concerns mask the government’s underlying aim to incrementally privatize the vital public institution, in turn triggering job losses and pay cuts. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the Korean Railway Workers’ Union (KRWU) have also argued President Park Guenhye’s administration pushed through the plan without adequate public or opposition consultation. In response to the government’s railway proposal, rail union workers voted to go on strike on November 22, launching a wave of public rallies and pickets that grew to flood the streets of downtown Seoul. In mid-December, after the Prime Minister declared the strike “illegal,” police began clamping down on union leadershipby issuing arrest warrants and confiscating equipment and documents from several local union offices.

When police then moved on to targeting the headquarters of the umbrella labor organization KCTU, which represents a multi-sector membership of more than 690,000 workers, union activists struck back. Eric Lee of LabourStart reported at OpenSecurity that the activists “formed a defensive cordon but eventually riot police charged the building, smashing down glass doors and firing pepper gas, causing several injuries. There were reports that some of the trade unionists responded with improvised water cannons.”

After the blockade of the KCTU building resulted in 138 arrests of protesters, as Lee put it, “An enraged KCTU leadership issued a call for a million-worker strong general strike.” Internationally, meanwhile, labor activists garnered about 14,500 signatures online on astatement of solidarity.

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Advice for Young Women: Get a Union Job

11:11 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times

Back in the days before modern feminism, a young woman looking for work might typically be advised, politely, to “learn a trade,” with the implication that she wasn’t bound for college or an elite career, but a humbler job as, say, a secretary or seamstress. Such a phrase might sound condescending today. Yet working in a trade might still be sound career goal for a woman, if she gets the right kind of job—in a union.

According to a new paper on women and unionization by progressive think tank the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), “Even after controlling for factors such as age, race, industry, educational attainment and state of residence, the data show a substantial boost in pay and benefits for female workers in unions relative to their non-union counterparts. The effect is particularly strong for women with lower levels of formal education.”

In other words, all other things being equal, unions are good for working women, yielding higher wages and better job benefits. Specifically, “unionized women workers on average make 12.9 percent more than their non-union counterparts, are 36.8 percent more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and 53.4 percent more likely to have participated in an employer-sponsored retirement plan.”

Of course, unions are good for men, too. Across the unionized workforce—which includes higher-paying, male-dominated sectors like construction—men actually see a bigger wage boost from union membership than women do. But for women, who still face a gendered pay gap, the gains that unions provide can be critical. CEPR notes, “All else equal, being in a union raises a woman’s pay as much as a full year of college does.”

The study concludes, “Considering the great boost to pay and benefits that unions bring, it’s important that anyone who cares about the well-being of women workers also care about unions.”

Even though it materially enhances many aspects of their working lives, the value of union membership for women tends to get overlooked. Media narratives and neoliberal feminist advice tracts like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In tend to stress higher education, networking and climbing the corporate ladder as ways for women to get ahead. But the report’s findings suggest that “good union work”—an idea that’s culturally more associated with rough-hewn longshoremen than single moms—may be an overlooked path to social advancement for women. Read the rest of this entry →

Teachers Seek to ‘Reclaim’ Education

6:48 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Chicago Teachers Local Union 1/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

After years of being backed into a corner, on Monday public-school teachers stood up in defiance against what they see as their chief bully—budget-slashing school reforms that have made school more stressful and less fulfilling for both them and their students.

Under the banner of a National Day of Action to Reclaim the Promise of Public Education, educators, students and community groups coordinated demonstrations, rallies and other public gatherings in dozens of cities. In the long run, the day of action kicked off a broader campaign by a coalition of unions and community groups to chart an alternative path to education reform.

According to a policy statement by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the leading union behind the campaign, and its partner groups, the goal is to foster “a community-union movement for educational equity and excellence.” While that agenda may sound neutral to the uninitiated, it speaks to growing resentment toward the prevailing reform rhetoric pushed by the White House and many politicians: corporate-oriented “standards” and “management,” leading to a test-heavy curriculum focused on math and reading at the expense of all else. First imposed under the No Child Left Behind law of the Bush administration, this hardline approach rests on the belief that a lack of academic rigor and “ineffective” educators are impeding U.S. students’ performance. The prescription has been an avalanche of high-stakes testing, public-school funding cuts and free-market privatization measures such as charter schools, often funded by corporate-oriented philanthropists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

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‘From Bean to Cup,’ Starbucks Labor Action Heats Up

4:16 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

As part of workers’ Week of Action, a protester distributes leaflets outside of a Starbucks in Cambridge, Mass. (Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers)

Originally posted at In These Times

The Starbucks cup, with its iconic green mermaid logo and smart cardboard sleeve, seems to embody the essence of the urbane yuppie lifestyle. But the carefully constructed cool of the coffee mega-brand belies some serious anger percolating beneath the surface of Starbucks’ supply chain.

That cup means something different to Ray Allen, a machine operator at a paper goods plant run by Pactiv, a major Starbucks supplier. Allen got his first full-time job at the Stockton, Calif. factory; now, more than a decade later, the steady employment has allowed him to own a home and raise a family. But it hasn’t come without cost.

“I have given [Pactiv] my blood, sweat, and tears throughout the years,” said Allen in a recent testimonial. “I have missed many events in my children’s lives for this job with no regrets. All I ask for in return is a fair contract to preserve our well-deserved and hard-earned middle-class way of life.”

Since the Stockton factory’s parent company, Dopaco, was taken over by Lake Forest, Ill.-based Pactiv in 2011, Allen’s union, Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers Local 83, has been fighting for such a fair contract. The union says that management is pushing for unreasonable cutbacks on benefits and trying to allow temporary agency workers, hired outside the union, into the plant—a major departure from the old contract terms. They also claim the company wants to take away paid mealtimes, which they fear would significantly cut wages for a standard workweek.

The Stockton employees represent one of the last bastions of unionization in Pactiv’s workforce—just nine of its 55 facilities worldwide are union, PlasticsNews reported last year. Union representative Greg Jones says Pactiv’s proposal of hiring more temp workers, in particular, “really weakens our bargaining potential” and “only gives Pactiv the incentive to try to use more and more temp workers, at lower wages with no benefits … it eventually could be the demise of the union.” And Pactiv has a reputation for labor antagonism. In Kearny, N.J. last year, Pactiv shuttered a plant producing Reynolds-brand packaging products following months of labor clashes. The workers-—mostly Latina and Chinese women—launched a campaign accusing the company of imposing harsh working conditions, unfair layoffs and trying to bust their unionization efforts.

In Stockton, labor conditions have also declined in the last year, say workers. Ever since Pactiv’s takeover, they claim, the workload has gotten more stressful and management has gotten harsher.

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How Sandy Clean-Up Brought Day Laborers Out of the Shadows

6:34 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(El Centro de Immigrante)

Originally published at In These Times

When Sandy hit last October, the Northeast shoreline seemed to freeze: people were stranded in flooded homes, businesses shuttered, downtown Manhattan’s lights went eerily dark. But the paralysis wasn’t total—the area began buzzing immediately with invisible workers. The day after Sandy was just another day of honest work for the “casual” manual laborers who would spent months cleaning, gutting and rebuilding homes and businesses across the stricken area, often in grueling conditions with little protection from collapsing walls, toxic mold and other hazards.

A study published late last month by researchers with the City University of New York’s Baruch College reports that after Sandy, many of these day laborers—a workforce that is typically dominated by Latino immigrants and considered a “casual” or irregular part of the construction trade—were unnecessarily put in harm’s way amidst the haphazard recovery process.

Based on interviews with workers and advocacy groups in New York and surrounding areas, the researchers found that while demand for day laborers spiked post-Sandy, working conditions sank even lower than usual. Flooded areas were quickly awash in contractors and desperate homeowners seeking quick, cheap labor to fix their property damage, which led to a perfect storm of risks, ranging from injuries and toxic exposures to wage theft by crooked subcontractors.

The researchers note that many day labor sites belied major safety threats, such as “industrial cleanups involving warehouses that stored pharmaceuticals and in hospitals.” And in many cases, homeowners who informally hired day laborers for immediate clean-up did not understand the complex hazards involved with clean-up, demolition and rebuilding, leaving workers even more vulnerable. Read the rest of this entry →

When Federal Contracts Turn Into Corporate Welfare

7:30 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: AFL-CIO’s Executive Paywatch

Originally published at In These Times

Where does the corporate bottom line end and the public interest begin? Through the voodoo economics of federal contracting, Washington’s “partnerships” with private corporations have drained the public trust straight into the pockets of top corporate executives.

The progressive think tank Demos calculates in a new research report that private contractors have funneled up to $24 billion in federal funds into executive salaries. Yet, according to the analysis, the same system of contracted firms—from defense manufacturers to concession stands at national tourist sites—also employs hundreds of thousands of poverty-wage workers at the bottom.

Federal contractors are currently subject to a very loose limit on the amount of an executive’s salary that can come directly from federal subsidies: about $763,000. Extrapolating from survey data on the top contractor executive salaries fromthe Government Accountability Office, Demos estimates the aggregate share of public money that is ultimately funneled into executive pay at $23.9 billion.

Besides taxpayers, those who stand to lose most from these skewed CEO pay schemes may be the low-wage laborers carrying out the actual work of the contract projects, such as repairing a school or building a bridge. These are the workers featured in another recent Demos analysis of contractors, showing that “an estimated 560,000 Americans employed by federal contractors were paid $12 an hour or less.”

Demos points out that the government could save taxpayers a hefty sum by simply shrinking the CEO portion of contractor payments. For example, by capping it at the level of the U.S. vice presidential salary, taxpayers could save “$6.97 to $7.65 billion.” Theoretically, under a more equitable pay distribution, that sum would be enough to significantly lift the lowest tier of worker wages:

If taxpayer-funded payouts for these executives were capped at $230,700—the salary of the U.S. Vice President—the pay of hundreds of thousands of low-wage federal contract workers could be raised by as much as $6.69 per hour or $13,902 per year for a full-time worker, without costing taxpayers an additional dime.

Demos notes that these are “conservative estimates” based on extrapolated data. Researchers based the analysis on a representative sample of defense contractors evaluated by the Government Accountability Office, with some adjustments for civilian contractors. The takeaway is that while legions of workers struggle to survive on the wages paid through federal contracts, the same grants are fattening the wallets of some of the wealthiest executives in the country. Read the rest of this entry →

Wage Wars: Bangladeshi Workers Reach a Boiling Point

9:16 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(International Labor Rights Forum / National Garment Workers’ Federation)

Originally published at In These Times

Workers in Bangladesh have been perishing in tragic, preventable factory accidents for years. Now, in mass uprisings that portend both more violent labor struggles on the horizon and a new dawn for a nascent labor movement, the workers are starting to strike at the factories themselves.

Tens of thousands of workers took to the streets earlier this week, turning some of their anger at the factories by hurling broken bricks at the authorities. About 300 factories were shuttered “to contain the violence,” according to Al Jazeeraand police cracked down on protesters with “tear gas and rubber bullets.” In lashing out at the physical workplaces, the workers were responding to symbols of a power structure that has done far greater violence to them: Just this spring, more than 1,100 people died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza industrial complex, and before that, scores of lives were claimed in a blaze at the Tazreen garment factory.

While the Rana disaster was a catalyst for the uprising, the workers’ primary demand appeared to be for higher wages.

After similar protests broke out a few years ago, the government was compelled to increase the minimum wage, roughly doubling it in 2010 to about $38 per month. Now workers are seeking to raise the monthly minimum wage to $100. That might be a large jump percentage-wise, but the big ask is a testament to the unconscionably low income levels of Bangladeshi garment workers compared to other garment-exporting countries. According to a recent study cited in a Bloomberg News report, “The annual total [compensation] for a Bangladesh worker amounted to $1,478, compared with $4,577 in neighboring India.”

The new unrest reflects the frustration that has mounted in the wake of the industrial tragedies. International labor advocates have been working for months with Bangladeshi activists to push for compensation for thousands of survivors and family members of those affected by the recent factory disasters. With the garment sector serving as a main engine of development in one of the region’s poorest countries, the Rana collapse wiped out a livelihood that allowed thousands to barely scrape by. Al Jazeera recently reported that many of the affected workers were women breadwinners:

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