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On the Picket Line With Striking Miners

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Last Thursday, around 1,100 coal miners at Warrior Met Coal in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, went on strike. According to the union, the United Mine Workers of America, a tentative bargaining agreement has now been reached with the company, but workers must still vote on whether or not to ratify it. 

In order to cover this important strike and spread these workers’ stories, we’ve teamed up with our brothers-in-arms Jacob Morrison, a union organizer and cohost of the outstanding Valley Labor Report, Alabama’s only weekly labor radio talk show, and the incredible musician Lee Bains III of The Glory Fires. Jacob and Lee went down to the Warrior Met Coal picket line this weekend to talk with striking miners, play some music, and show solidarity. In this special episode, we’ve compiled clips from Lee’s live performance as well as Jacob’s interviews on the picket line and at the local UMWA union hall.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Amazon defeats Alabama union effort after dirty, but predictable, campaign

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The union organizing effort at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, appears headed for defeat after the first day of counting ballots. There were 3,215 votes, with the count standing at 1,100 against unionizing to 463 in favor. Voting ended March 29, but before the counting began, hundreds of ballots were challenged, most by the company. If those could be decisive, they will be revisited.

But on the day counting began, we learned more about how far Amazon went to stack the deck in its favor. The National Labor Relations Board had refused Amazon’s request to have a ballot drop box in the facility, citing coronavirus social distancing precautions. But documents obtained by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union through Freedom of Information Act requests show that Amazon defied that by going to the U.S. Postal Service and asking for a mailbox to be installed on Amazon property—which it was, unmarked, the day before voting started.

One critique of the campaign and the decision to press forward to an election after Amazon successfully expanded the bargaining unit involved in the vote from around 1500 workers to all 5800 in the warehouse: 

“We have not heard anything back on the install of this collection box,” a Postal Service account manager emailed Postal Service workers in Alabama on Jan. 14. “Amazon is reaching out again to me today about the status as they wanted to move quickly on this.” 

Those emails directly contradict a Postal Service spokesman’s claim that the mailbox was “suggested by the Postal Service as a solution to provide an efficient and secure delivery and collection point.”

”Even though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon’s request for a drop box on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the postal service anyway to install one,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement. “They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers.” 

When the mailbox was installed, journalist Kim Kelly and More Perfect Union showed exactly why it functioned to intimidate workers:

Assuming the vote counting continues as it has begun, this will become the basis for a challenge by the union. It was, of course, only one of a string of intimidation strategies and efforts to rig the vote in Amazon’s favor—most of which were allowed under current U.S. labor law. So much of what’s happened in Bessemer is a case study in why we need the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, but also in why big business is so determined to keep U.S. labor law weak and tilted in favor of management.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on April 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Biden administration weeks behind on Covid-19 workplace safety rules

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The federal worker safety watchdog is weeks behind on President Joe Biden’s deadline for the agency to issue mandatory workplace safety rules that experts say will fight the spread of the coronavirus and protect workers.

Shortly after taking office, Biden gave the Labor Department a March 15 deadline to decide whether such emergency rules were necessary, and it was widely assumed the department would recommend moving forward with them. But three weeks later, newly minted Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is asking the agency to continue reviewing the rule.

“Secretary Walsh reviewed the materials, and determined that they should be updated to reflect the latest scientific analysis of the state of the disease,” a Labor Department spokesperson told POLITICO. “He has ordered a rapid update based on CDC analysis and the latest information regarding the state of vaccinations and the variants. He believes this is the best way to proceed.”

Biden campaigned on making Covid-19 guidelines — currently just optional recommendations for employers — into mandatory rules. Business groups and unions have been bracing for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to release an emergency workplace safety standard that would immediately require employers to take steps to protect their workers from exposure to the virus.

The rule was expected to at least mandate CDC guidelines on mask wearing, which some industry groups have warned would create headaches for businesses in the states that have already moved to rollback social distancing and mask requirements for businesses. It also would likely require employers to develop a Covid-19 response plan, similar to a required fire drill, for how the businesses would respond if someone was exposed to the virus at work.

The delay is raising concerns among former workplace regulators and worker advocates, who fear Biden may be dropping an essential piece of his Covid-19 response plan, as well as sowing confusion in the business community.

“I’m concerned that there are administration staff who incorrectly believe that the pandemic is under control and that an ETS isn’t necessary,” said David Michaels, who led OSHA during the Obama administration.

“The CDC director is pleading with the country to take precautions, but workers can’t take those precautions” without an ETS, said Michaels, now a professor of occupational health at George Washington University.

Business groups are also scratching their heads after broadly expecting the rules.

“I’m as in much of a befuddlement as anyone,” said Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the Chamber of Commerce. “This sounds like Secretary Walsh and the DOL are grappling with what everyone else is seeing — the increasing success of the vaccines raises serious questions about whether an ETS is justified, such as whether employees are still in ‘grave danger,’ and an ETS can be called ‘necessary.’”

The longer it takes for the Biden administration to release the rule, the harder it could be for the rule to stand up to legal challenges, according to Freedman and attorneys who specialize in workplace safety law.

OSHA only has the authority to issue an “emergency temporary safety standard” if it determines that workers are “in grave danger” due to exposure to something “determined to be toxic or physically harmful or to new hazards.” But that justification could be slipping as the Biden administration rushes to get Americans vaccinated against the virus.

While Biden administration officials have been warning that more contagious strains of the virus are taking hold, the president has been moving to expand access to the vaccine and was optimistic in his last message to the nation, promising Americans a return to some sense of normal life by Independence Day.

Republicans, who have been broadly opposed to any mandatory safety rules, are criticizing what they see as a mixed message from the administration.

“The Biden administration is speaking out of both sides of its mouth,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee. “The President claims every adult will be eligible for a vaccine in May and then argues an immediate ‘emergency’ standard is necessary to curb the crisis.”

“This politicized process highlights the Biden administration’s blatant incompetence and hypocrisy. The federal government must not add more uncertainty and bureaucratic red tape for job creators, workers, and consumers as we continue to emerge from this crisis.”

But worker-safety experts say that the longer the Biden administration waits, more workers will get sick with the virus and could die.

“We are deeply concerned about when the standard is coming out. Basically workers have been going for a year facing untold numbers of illnesses and deaths without just a basic agreement that employers need to create a safety plan,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

“It’s essential, it’s life saving and it needs to come out now,” she said. “We can’t wait another day for this.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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The Movement to End At-Will Employment Is Getting Serious

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On March 31, a group of worker centers, unions, community groups and policy organizations in Illinois officially formed a new coalition, Stable Jobs Now, that aims to dramatically shift the power balance between workers and bosses by eliminating ?“at-will” employment?—?the practice that allows employers to fire their employees on a whim.

In most of the rest of the world, workers are protected by the ?“just cause” principle, which says they can only be terminated for legitimate, documented reasons connected to poor job performance. But in the United States, the at-will doctrine allows bosses to arbitrarily fire employees for any reason or no reason whatsoever, with the burden of proving it was an unlawful dismissal placed on the worker. 

“It’s like we’re disposable to them,” said Estrella Hernandez, who was abruptly fired from her stitching job at a Chicago-area factory in December 2020. ?“I got to work one morning at 4am and the supervisor told me I couldn’t be there, that they had let me go the day before… I asked the reason and they said they didn’t have to tell me and told me to just go home.”

Hernandez believes she was fired as illegal retaliation for raising concerns about the inability to practice social distancing in her cramped work area, but she can’t prove it, especially since her employer never provided a reason for her dismissal. 

Predominantly Black and Latino workers in Chicago’s low-wage jobs routinely face illegal retaliation for reporting workplace injustices like unsafe conditions, wage theft, injuries, sexual harassment and discrimination. The at-will doctrine makes it practically impossible for employees to prove they were fired as retaliation for speaking up against illegal abuses.

new study published by Raise the Floor Alliance, a group of Chicago worker centers, and the National Employment Law Project (NELP) found that 37percent of Illinois workers have been fired for an unfair reason and 42 percent have been terminated for no reason at all, with Black and Latino workers the most likely to be fired. A third of those who faced unfair discharge say it was over raising concerns about problems on the job.

“While conditions were bad for working people well before the pandemic, this past year has highlighted and exacerbated these conditions,” said Sophia Zaman, executive director of Raise the Floor Alliance.

The Stable Jobs Now coalition is pushing for passage of the Secure Jobs Act, a bill recently introduced in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly. The legislation would make Illinois the second state to adopt a just cause system. Only Montana currently restricts at-will employment, a law dating back to 1987.

Among other measures, the Secure Jobs Act would lay out valid reasons for termination, grant workers a fair chance to improve their job performance before being fired, prohibit ?“constructive discharge” where employers pressure workers into resigning by creating a hostile work environment, outlaw ?“Do Not Hire” lists (a practice prevalent in the temp industry), and allow workers to accrue severance pay that employers would have to disburse upon termination. The law would be enforced by the Illinois Department of Employment Security, but would also permit fired workers to sue their employers under a private right of action.

“At-will employment has been a longstanding problem in the state and at-will termination has long endangered the stability of our communities,” said State Rep. Carol Ammons, the Secure Jobs Act’s chief sponsor in the Illinois House of Representatives. Ammons previously spearheaded a successful legislative effort to enshrine more rights for temp workers in Illinois. 

The new campaign in Illinois is part of a budding national movement to end the at-will employment system. In the past two years, Philadelphia and New York City have both enacted just cause bills covering parking lot attendants and fast-food workers, respectively. 

“This cries out for a signature federal bill, however long it takes to pass,” said Shaun Richman, an In These Times contributor and advocate for a national just cause rule. ?“In the absence of that, you’ve got these sort of rebel cities and blue states that are introducing their own bills as signal efforts.”

“This movement is still at an early stage, perhaps where the Fight for $15 or the paid sick days movements were a decade ago, which is why the work being done here in Illinois is so important and exciting,” explained NELP senior researcher and policy analyst Irene Tung.

Proposals to enact just cause laws are widely popular, with a recent pollfinding that 67 percent of likely voters support the idea.

“At-will isn’t a law anyone voted for, it was just made up by judges in the 19thcentury,” Richman said. ?“Let’s actually have a vote on this. Let’s put this to the people.”

Traditionally, U.S. employers only have to follow just cause rules in workplaces governed by union contracts, but only 11 percent of the national workforce is currently unionized. Several unions have joined the Stable Jobs Now coalition, including the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Healthcare, SEIU Local 73, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, Cook County College Teachers Union, and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America.

Coalition organizers say they are also in communication with the Illinois AFL-CIO. The state labor federation supported a similar wrongful discharge bill in 2017, but so far has not endorsed the Secure Jobs Act and did not respond to In These Times’ requests for comment. 

“The American labor movement has this weird, total exception to the rule that we base this right in collective bargaining,” Richman said. ?“It’s time to get over that. This really should just be a law. It sucks up so much time in collective bargaining. Also, workers know they will be fired for organizing a union. Let’s make it a law that you can’t be fired unless it’s for a good reason, and then we’ll get more unions.”

Importantly, the Secure Jobs Act includes a provision that would restrict bosses from using data gathered through electronic monitoring to make decisions around discipline or dismissal, instead limiting such decisions only to human-based information. The new study by NELP and Raise the Floor Alliance found that 52 percent of Illinois workers are observed, recorded, or tracked at work through various forms of surveillance technology.

Delivery driver Jesus Ruelas told In These Times that he was fired by Amazon last year partly because he had a low score on Mentor, an app he said the company uses to monitor ?“how fast we’re driving, if we’re reversing, how fast we’re turning, how hard we’re braking, and whether we’re putting a seatbelt on.”

Amazon drivers nationwide complain that Mentor often provides glitchy, inaccurate, or misleading data that doesn’t take real-world conditions into account?—?leading to unfair discipline and discharge. 

“The app just records what you do, it’s not advanced enough to know if you’re doing it for a reason. If you brake on a slick road, it records that as a negative thing,” Ruelas said. ?“Amazon will let you go for anything they can think of.”

The proposed legislation is certain to face opposition from employer groups, but since 2019, the Illinois General Assembly has managed to pass a host of progressive reforms, including a $15-an-hour minimum wagelegalization of recreational marijuana and abolition of cash bail.

“At its core, this is a racial justice and economic justice issue that can no longer be ignored,” said State Sen. Celina Villanueva, the bill’s chief sponsor in the Illinois Senate. ?“We have to catch up with the rest of the world and end this perverse and broken system that seeks to subjugate workers.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst.


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One City’s Pioneering Project to Push Police Funding Into Housing the Homeless

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Homelessness in the U.S., which was already on the rise prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, increased in 2020, exacerbated by the economic realities of the pandemic. Austin, Texas, is no exception, with an estimated 11 percent increase in homeless people counted in the city and Travis County between 2019 and 2020, according to the point-in-time (PIT) count reported in the Austin American-Statesman. Of Austin’s population of roughly 1 million, an estimated 2,500 people experience homelessness on any given night, according to the 2020 PIT count. Austin City Council member Gregorio Casar says this is a number “a community of [more than] a million folks should be able to care [for].”

In an effort to do so, the city of Austin has been purchasing underutilized hotels and transforming them into housing and services for people experiencing homelessness. In a February 4 meeting, the Austin City Council approved the purchase of a fourth hotel—which will provide 150 new homes to the homeless population in the city. Casar says the city plans to move forward on purchasing a fifth and a sixth hotel in the future.

“We have found sufficient resources in the city budget to acquire more hotels because we really believe that it’s a strategy for significantly reducing homelessness in the city,” he says.

In addition to providing long-term and transitional housing to people experiencing homelessness, the hotels purchased by the city will also provide supportive services, including mental health services, trauma services and job services.

“We are working with trusted community groups and nonprofit organizations to provide services at the hotels because we know that there are lots of folks who have experienced real trauma while living on the street and who need support so that their homelessness can permanently end,” Casar says. “And then there are lots of other folks who just need a connection to a job and a stable address for a while so that they can get back on their feet.”

According to Tara Pohlmeyer, communications director for Council Member Casar, Integral Care and Caritas of Austin have submitted letters of interest in operating the hotels and providing services, and the Homeless Services Division (HSD) anticipates negotiating a contract with a service provider/operator for each hotel in April.

He says while shelters provide an important service, oftentimes, they’re just temporarily addressing the issue. The plan for the converted hotels is for them to serve as a more permanent housing solution, to address the real needs of each person they house.

“That’s the way that we can reduce the amount of homelessness in the city, instead of just sort of hiding it, or moving [the homeless population] around while the numbers grow,” Casar says.

To pay for these supportive services, the city will reallocate dollars originally assigned to the police budget, as part of its project to reimagine safety, in response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and public demand. Funding for operations and services of the hotels will come from Austin Public Health, using a portion of the additional $6.5 million added to the Fiscal Year 2021 budget to address homelessness during the city council’s efforts to reimagine public safety.

“We have never had so many people engage in local government before [the BLM movement],” he says. “There were tens of thousands of people that contacted my office alone. In the weeks of protest over the summer [in 2020], we had hundreds of people testifying at city council meetings, for hours, about the changes that they were calling on us to make. I think that was really important. It shifted all of our perspectives. The community here in Austin is calling on us to be real leaders for our community and for people across the state and across the country. Austin, I think, actually responded to the call to transform police budgets in a way that very few cities across the country did.”

Casar says while cities often have the dollars to make the capital investment in property to house the homeless, the long-term funding for operating those buildings and providing supportive services tends to be the challenge. He says prior to last summer’s BLM movement, which pressured cities across the nation to reallocate police funds into supportive services, one of Austin’s greatest challenges regarding homelessness was related to finding that long-term funding.

“The dollars from the police budget are going to provide the services and operate the hotels,” he says. “No matter how many changes I and some others have tried to make to the budget in years past, we’ve, oftentimes, struggled to make really transformative change because so many dollars get wrapped up in the police budget. This last year, there was finally an opportunity for us to rethink that budget and recognize that we were spending so many dollars on jailing folks experiencing homelessness and policing people experiencing homelessness—but that actually doesn’t reduce homelessness.”

Between the four hotels the city has purchased, there are about 300 rooms, some of which might be able to house a couple of people, and many of them just a single person. The plan is for the city to continue to purchase additional hotels and expand the programs offered, Casar says.

“We have to pull hundreds of people off the streets this year,” Casar says. “I think that would make a really significant difference.”

The extreme winter weather experienced in Texas through February and March makes the need to provide safe shelter and supportive services for people living on the streets all the more urgent.

“In a city as prosperous as Austin, no one should have to live on the streets, period. That became even more clear as we saw folks still sleeping out under bridges when we knew that zero-degree temperatures were coming—and sometimes there were hotels or lit-up buildings right across the streets where they could have safely stayed,” Casar says. “It’s clearly already so dangerous to live outdoors and without a home, and these extreme weather events make it even more clear why we can and should reorganize our resources and our priorities to make sure that everybody has a place to lay their head at night that is safe.”

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.


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‘The president’s committed to raising the minimum wage,’ Labor Sec. Marty Walsh says. He should be

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The Senate voted against including a minimum wage increase in the American Rescue Plan in March, and as long as Republicans have the option of filibustering it, they will block any meaningful increase in what’s now a poverty-level federal minimum wage. But because $7.25 an hour is a poverty-level wage—and because raising it is proven popular with voters—Democrats need to find a way to make it happen, and happen in a form that isn’t an insult to the workers such a policy should be helping.

“When you think about raising the minimum wage, it’s really about raising the opportunity for families to earn a living,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi on Saturday. “Most families can’t live on $7 an hour—no family can live on $7 an hour. It’s pretty hard to live on $15 an hour.”

“The president’s committed to raising the minimum wage,” Walsh continued. “I’m committed to raising the minimum wage, there are members of Congress committed to raising the minimum wage.”

What a minimum wage increase looks like is the big question. The Raise the Wage Act of 2021 would raise it in steps, going from $7.25 to $9.50 later in 2021, then $11 in 2022, $12.50 in 2023, $14 in 2024, and $15 in 2025. After that, the minimum wage would be indexed to median wage growth, so that we wouldn’t again have a minimum wage that hadn’t changed in more than a decade thanks to Republican obstruction. Importantly, the Raise the Wage Act would also raise the tipped subminimum wage from $2.13 an hour, where it has been since 1991, bringing it equal with the full minimum wage in 2027; the much less frequently used youth wage would also match the minimum wage in 2027.

One alternative you’ll hear mentioned a lot is a regional minimum wage, with lower-cost states having a lower minimum wage than higher-cost ones. There are a lot of problems with this. First of all, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, the only state in the country in which a living wage for one adult with no children is currently below $13 an hour is South Dakota. $15 an hour in 2025 is likely to be the equivalent of $13.79 in today’s dollars. So when people tell you that $15 in 2025 is too much, too fast … they’re sure not talking about what’s fair or right.

Second, consider how many states have already raised their minimum wages—and that it’s not just deep blue and expensive states like California, New York, or Massachusetts. In 2018, voters in Arkansas and Missouri raised their states’ minimum wages to $11 in 2021 and $12 in 2023, respectively. In 2020, more than 60% of Florida voters passed an amendment raising their state’s minimum wage to $15 by 2026. The Democratic senators most likely to stand in the way of a meaningful minimum wage increase are West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema. Arizona voters in 2016 passed increases to $12 in 2020, with the minimum wage indexed to the cost of living after that. West Virginia’s minimum wage is $8.75 an hour.

But third, the history of proposals for a regional minimum wage is instructive.

“When the first federal minimum wage was being debated in the 1930s, Southern congressmen strongly opposed the federal standard, concerned that it would upset the white supremacist plantation system that dominated the South’s economy,” David Cooper and Lawrence Mishel write at the Economic Policy Institute. “In fact, Southern lawmakers insisted that the federal wage standard should be adjusted by region to account for differences in costs of living. What ultimately led to the minimum wage law’s passage as a single national wage floor was a “compromise” with Southern Democrats to exempt agriculture, restaurants, and a host of other service-sector industries that disproportionately employed Black workers. Even after it was amended in 1967 to cover more of these industries, the law still exempted most farmworkers—who today are majority Latinx—and allowed employers to pay a subminimum wage to tipped workers—who today are overwhelmingly women.”

Huh. What do you know. The early attempts for a regional minimum wage were about keeping wages low for specific people—as evidenced by the fact that the acceptable compromise was the one that wrote Black workers and Latino workers and women workers out of the policy. And once again we’re seeing efforts to keep wages low in ways that would, according to a 2019 analysis, disproportionately hurt Black workers and women of color. More than one in three of the workers who would lose out from a regional proposal similar to one suggested by Third Way would be women of color. Black workers would, on average, get half the raise they would get from the Raise the Wage Act.

Raising the minimum wage would lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty. The best available economic research, drawing on actual real-life minimum wage increases that have already happened, tells us that it would not cost jobs. It’s a matter of basic fairness, allowing workers to get a small share of increased productivity. By raising wages disproportionately for women and people of color, it would promote equity. It’s popular. This should be a no-brainer as an issue even for the likes of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and a sledgehammer for Democrats to use against Republicans, not an issue to muddle with talk of a regional increase or other insulting compromises.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on April 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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McGraw Hill Rejects Calls to Stop Charging Its Freelancers a Fee in Order to Get Paid

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The revelation that McGraw Hill (MH), a multibillion-dollar educational publishing company, has begun charging its freelancers and independent contractors a fee in order to get paid has prompted a wave of public outrage, along with a letter from advocacy groups demanding that the company end the practice. The company’s response: No. 

Two weeks ago, In These Times reported on the existence of the 2.2% fee that the company began charging last October. The fee applies to freelancers and independent contractors who submit invoices through the company’s invoicing system, called Fieldglass?—?but because that is the only way to invoice the company, it amounts to a mandatory fee that workers must pay in order to get what the company owes. The company calls it an ?“administrative fee” levied in order to ?“cover the cost of third-party vendors that help us ensure that each contractor meets the requirements needed to be classified as an Independent Contractor under various state laws and IRS regulations.” But it is, in effect, an across-the-board mandatory pay cut for all of the workers, a brazen and unusual move by the company to shift its normal administrative costs onto the backs of its freelancers. 

The story caused an uproar among the wider community of people who do freelance editorial work for a living. On social media, the fee was referred to as ?“incredible,” ?“utter crap,” and ?“bullshit.” The existence of the fee, which was not widely known, even caused mortification inside McGraw Hill itself. ?“The fee is an embarrassment. We’ve always been good to our freelancers so I was very surprised to learn we’d be charging a fee to process their invoices. Taking a cut from their pay is petty and makes us look bad,” said one MH employee, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear over professional repercussions. ?“I really hope the company reconsiders and rolls back this policy. The invoicing system is already a pain to use.”

On March 30, representatives of more than a dozen groups representing editorial and freelance workers, including the National Writers Union, Freelancers Union and the Authors Guild, sent a letter to the company demanding ?“that you immediately cease this inequitable practice that amounts to a wage cut at an unprecedented time… and reimburse all freelancers who have already been charged this outrageous fee.” The letter called the practice ?“shocking,” and noted that MH’s digital revenue has been growing even as the company shifted costs onto its freelance work force. 

The company was unmoved. David Stafford, the SVP and general counsel of MH, sent a reply letter on April 1 saying that ?“The 2.2% fee offsets the incremental costs we now incur to ensure proper labor force classification. We communicated the fee in advance to our independent contractors and they agreed to pay it.” 

The letter also includes a common rationalization used by ?“gig economy” companies that seek to lower labor costs by using more freelancers and fewer full time employees: ?“Many of the independent contractors we engage already have full-time jobs and the work they do for us provides them with additional income. The rate of independent contractors returning to do work with us is very high and during the pandemic, the percentage of independent contractors who had more than one project with us increased. The high return rate implies satisfaction among the independent contractors who work with us.” This is an example of the gig economy’s underlying sleight of hand?—?to force workers to take up more and more freelance work out of economic necessity, and then use the fact that they are doing that work as proof that they’re satisfied with the arrangement. 

The groups that sent the complaint letter are unsatisfied. Mary Rasenberger, the CEO of the Authors Guild, said that the fee itself is ?“exploitative, and an outrage,” and that it sets a ?“dangerous precedent.” Rafael Espinal, the head of the Freelancers Union, called the company’s response ?“tone-deaf.”

“The simple fact that freelancers have agreed to these terms is not evidence that they are happy with the system, it’s proof that they feel they have no recourse when presented with usurious terms such as this,” Espinal said. ?“It is a matter of course that corporations bear the administrative and payroll costs associated with their employees. There is absolutely no reason they should not bear the same responsibility when hiring freelancers.”

Advocates are unanimous in rejecting the company’s assertion that charging a fee in order to get paid is either standard or defensible. ?“In no way is this a common or justified business practice,” said Larry Bleiberg, the president of the Society of American Travel Writers and a signatory of the letter. ?“It’s a scheme dreamed up by his company to squeeze out extra revenue. I’m just disappointed that a publisher that claims to support writers, photographers and graphic artists?—?and profits from their work?—?would so shamelessly try to take advantage of them.”

The company appears to have made the calculation that the revenue it takes in by charging freelancers in order to get paid is worth the bad publicity it has received thus far. There is serious money at stake for both sides. Were it to become common, the practice of shifting administrative costs away from employers and onto freelancers would constitute a permanent decline in wages for independent contractors?—?another incremental step downward for workers in an era when full-time employment is becoming harder and harder to find. The National Writers Union, which represents freelance writers, is actively seeking MH freelancers who have been charged the fee, in order to organize them to fight the practice. 

“I understand being hesitant to reach out,” said NWU president Larry Goldbetter, ?“but they can make all the difference here.”

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on April 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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Judge tosses Trump-era pork processing speed-up, this week in the war on workers

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Line speeds in meat processing plants are a classic example of something that’s simultaneously a worker safety issue and a consumer safety issue. And this week, both workers and consumers got a major victory when a federal judge threw out a Trump-era rule allowing pork processing plants to operate at higher speeds.

According to U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen, the U.S. Department of Agriculture “expressly identified worker safety as an important consideration and requested public comment on whether increasing line speeds would harm workers. Then, after receiving many comments raising worker safety concerns, FSIS rejected the comments and eliminated line speed limits without considering worker safety.” Faster line speeds lead to increased harm to workers, from repetitive motion injuries to knife injuries. And while the Trump rule allowing pork plants to increase line speeds as much as they wanted included a nod to cleanliness … realistically that’s going to suffer too, and the speed increase came as many government inspections were replaced by company-run inspections, with predictable results.

”An agency can’t put its hands over its ears and refuse to consider facts that cut against its policy preferences, as USDA did here in ignoring workers and public health advocates, and blindly following industry’s wishes,” said Public Citizen’s Adam Pulver, who represented workers from the United Food and Commercial Workers.

The Biden administration has already withdrawn a similar speed-up for poultry processing plants that hadn’t yet gone into effect.

A decade ago, the bill got little attention. But last year in September, it passed the House with bipartisan support, with every Democrat voting in favor and 103 Republican joining them. It has gained the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and 30 states across the country have already adopted their own versions — including Southern states like Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina. The pandemic and the election derailed a Senate vote last fall, but this year, advocates think the bill is finally poised to pass. It has 19 Republican cosponsors in the House.

Unions, after all, are simply made up of workers; bills that are good for the former tend to be good for the latter. Workers who face racial and gender discrimination on the job could benefit the most from the PRO Act’s provisions. In unions, said Celine McNicholas of the Economic Policy Institute, “workers of color are not experiencing the same sort of wage suppression that they are in other, non-unionized settings.” Union membership thus correlates to lower racial wealth gaps. “The PRO Act promotes greater racial economic justice because unions allow for collective bargaining, essentially shrinks Black-white wage gaps, and brings greater fairness in terms of hiring opportunities,” she added.

“In the at-will employment system, workers are treated as disposable,” said Sophia Zaman, executive director of Raise the Floor.

The act would require employers to provide a written reason for terminations and progressive discipline to allow workers to improve. It would ban actions designed to force workers to quit, such as reducing hours, and would prevent companies from using electronic monitoring as evidence in employee discipline.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on April 3, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Alabama Amazon organizing drive is a case study in why it’s so important to pass the PRO Act

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The recent organizing drive by workers at an Alabama Amazon warehouse has drawn an unusual amount of attention to a union representation election, and for good reason—Amazon is a massive employer that has successfully beaten back multiple organizing efforts in the United States. Even the possibility of a union win, in Alabama of all places, is worthy of the headlines. But it also draws attention to just how much the deck is stacked against workers and unions in this country. Amazon management has carried out an aggressive anti-union campaign, texting workers multiple times a day, posting anti-union messages in bathroom stalls, and more.

What could make it easier for workers to build power in the United States? In March, the House passed the PRO Act—the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—which would provide a much-needed update to labor law after decades of erosion of collective bargaining and rising economic inequality.

Much of the discussion of the PRO Act, both on social media and here at Daily Kos, has centered on one provision of the bill applying to freelancers and independent contractors. I’ll get to that. But it’s one provision, so let’s refocus for a bit on parts of the bill that would affect far, far more workers.

The PRO Act protects worker-activists from being fired during organizing campaigns—something that’s technically illegal now, but employers do it all the time anyway, facing few penalties. The PRO Act creates penalties with real teeth. 

Under the current system, workers regularly face captive audience meetings in which they’re barraged with anti-union messaging and speaking out can put a target on them. The PRO Act would ban such meetings and allow union organizers to contact workers at their work email accounts (unless there was a strong business reason against it). The bill would also force companies to disclose what anti-union consultants they’ve hired. Delay is a common tactic to intimidate workers (often by firing outspokenly pro-union workers); the PRO Act would streamline the process and give workers more of a say in what their bargaining unit would look like.

These provisions would have made a significant difference in the Amazon organizing drive, as Brandon Magner writes at Jacobin. Amazon wouldn’t have been able to hold the many captive audience meetings it did hold. It wouldn’t have been able to force a vote by virtually all the workers in the building in one bargaining unit rather than accepting the significantly smaller bargaining unit the workers wanted. The election would have been held with much less delay and with the option of electronic voting. 

Once workers do vote to join a union, employers frequently continue using delay as a tactic. They drag their feet on bargaining a contract, they refuse to negotiate in good faith, they lock out workers or unilaterally impose their own proposals. The PRO Act would prevent those things, including with a mediation and arbitration process for first contract negotiations and a ban on “offensive lockouts” in which an employer declares that bargaining is at an impasse and locks out workers to put pressure on them.

And the PRO Act repeals state “right to work” laws, which weaken unions by allowing workers to freeload on their union coworkers, refusing to pay even a fee to cover the costs of their representation, which the union must nonetheless provide even for nonmembers.

But about that provision that’s drawing controversy from unexpected places:

Markos recently wrote about—and invited a guest writer to expand on—concerns that the inclusion of the so-called ABC test in the PRO Act would hurt freelancers. ABC is a test used to determine whether someone is an employee or a legitimate independent contractor. In the PRO Act, it would be used for assessing whether people had the right to organize as workers at a company; Markos, however, points to concerns that if the ABC test is made federal law for one purpose involving freelancers, it will be a slippery slope to its use for other purposes.

Opposition to this provision of the PRO Act is very sincerely coming from some freelancers concerned for their ability to make a living, following the failure of California’s AB5 to carve out an adequate exemption for their work when that law—since repealed by Proposition 22—used the ABC test to determine employment status much more broadly. But the opposition is also coming, Alex Press reports, from organizations like the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others who are less concerned for the rights and livelihood of freelance writers than they are with opposing any bill that might give unions or worker organizing efforts any additional leverage.

The Authors Guild, which supports collective bargaining rights for freelancers, earlier echoed the concerns expressed by Markos and Kim Kavin, writing that it “does not agree that it is the right test to determine whether creative freelancers have the right to collectively bargain” and was drafting alternative language for amendments to the act. However, the Authors Guild is now supporting the PRO Act, planning a webinar on the bill that will “address misinformation fanned online about how the PRO Act would ‘nationalize’ California’s AB5 law and make freelance writers employees—which in reality is not the case.”

The AFL-CIO and Economic Policy Institute (EPI) argue those concerns are misplaced. The EPI spells out what the PRO Act does and doesn’t do with regard to freelancers and independent contractors: “The PRO Act would provide workers with the right to join unions and band together no matter where they live if they are deemed employees because the legislation would be federally regulated and enforced.” However, “The Act would not impact rules or laws in states that determine whether workers are employees or independent contractors for the purposes of determining a workers’ state income tax status or whether they’re entitled to workers’ compensation benefits or unemployment benefits.” That’s what’s in this act, and while some opponents of the ABC test have argued that putting it into federal law in this context would create a slippery slope to laws replicating AB5, the reality is that there are few slippery slopes to new labor laws in the U.S.

The National Writers Union and its Freelance Solidarity Project agree, supporting the PRO Act in part because “Under current labor law, freelancers can form unions like ours, but our attempts to organize are not protected—and employers are even able to file legal charges against us for some of the very same activity protected for our W-2 colleagues. This means we are forced to walk a very narrow line, and in some cases avoid certain types of organizing and advocacy entirely. The PRO Act would change this, and make it easier for us to exercise our civil rights to come together for our common good.”

Again, though, wherever you come down on this specific provision in the bill, it’s a small part of a larger law to strengthen workers’ right to organize, a right that exists in law already but in practice is constantly compromised and under attack. It would benefit workers in Amazon warehouses, and in hospitals and nursing homes and meatpacking plants. 

The political reality, of course, is that while the PRO Act has passed the House, it is not going to get through a Senate in which the filibuster is intact. Filibuster reform or abolition is the prerequisite to getting almost anything done for workers, from raising the minimum wage to passing this bill. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on April 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Unions demand Biden cancel student debt for public service workers

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Labor unions are making a new push to get the Education Department to use executive action to forgive the student loans of Americans working in public service jobs — the latest pressure from the left for the Biden administration to act more aggressively on student debt relief.

A wide range of unions representing teachers, fire fighters, health care workers and government employees on Thursday called on Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to fully erase the debt of borrowers who have worked for more than a decade in public service jobs.

The unions say the relief is needed because the Education Department’s existing Public Service Loan Forgiveness program has been plagued by problems and mismanagement. More than 98 percent of applicants seeking loan forgiveness have been rejected by the program.

“The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need for immediate action,” the unions wrote to Cardona in a letter, which was shared with POLITICO. “Public service workers who should have already benefited from the Department of Education’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program are serving on the front lines of our pandemic response — caring for patients, teaching our students, and delivering essential services in communities across the country.

The letter was led by the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, and signed by 14 other unions collectively representing more than 10 million public service workers. They include the American Federation of Government Employees; American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; International Association of Fire Fighters; United Auto Workers; and Service Employees International Union.

Democrats for years have raised concerns about the difficulty that public service workers have had navigating the federal government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. They sharply criticized Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ oversight of the program, which the Trump administration had proposed eliminating.

“After four years of scandal and allegations of widespread mismanagement, it is clear to our organizations that the federal government has fundamentally failed to deliver on this promise,” the unions wrote in the letter to Cardona on Thursday.

On the campaign trail, President Joe Biden vowed to fix the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, and he backed legislation that would expand the benefits.

Now the unions are pressing the Biden administration to go further and use executive action to swiftly provide automatic relief to public service workers. The letter says that the Education Department should use its emergency powers during the pandemic to waive any necessary regulations or laws to carry out the loan forgiveness.

But Biden has been skeptical of the notion of using executive powers to unilaterally write off federal student loan debt. Earlier this year, Biden said he would not take executive action to wipe out $50,000 of debt per borrower, as many progressives and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are urging him to do.

The White House has said that the president has not ruled out taking some type of executive action to cancel student loan debt, and his advisers are reviewing the issue.

The Biden administration over the past week has announced a series of “targeted” relief to federal student loan borrowers, though consumer advocates have criticized the policies as far too narrow.

The Education Department canceled the debts of some students who were defrauded by their for-profit college and waived some of the paperwork requirements to ease loan forgiveness for borrowers with severe disabilities. In addition, the department earlier this week halted collections on more than 1 million borrowers who had defaulted on federally-guaranteed student loans held by private entities.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 1, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Stratford is an education reporter for POLITICO Pro. He most recently covered federal higher education policy and student loans at Inside Higher Ed, with previous bylines at The Associated Press, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. 


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