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Warehouse Workers Allege Wage Theft, Demand Pay Stubs

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kari-lydersenEmployees will march into Reliable Staffing office to demand billing records, highlight mistreatment

When Reginald Burnett started working in a warehouse unloading trucks of goods destined for Wal-Mart, he said he was told he’d make at least $10 an hour. But he soon realized that figure hinged on unloading a truck in three hours. Depending on how many things are in a truck and how heavy and unwieldy they are, unloading a truck can take two days.

Burnett, 32, soon found himself working 12-hour days, seven days a week, and taking home only $90-100 a day – less than $9 an hour, not counting copious overtime to which he should have been entitled under the law. He said he wasn’t the only one who realized his Friday paycheck from the agency Reliable Staffing “didn’t add up.”

Burnett is among workers who think they are victims of wage theft by the New Lenox, Ill., staffing agency. Reliable Staffing workers have contacted the group Warehouse Workers for Justice, which is trying to shed light on alleged wage and hour violations, unhealthy working conditions, extensive use of temporary labor and other unsettling aspects of the massive warehouse industry in Chicago’s southwest suburbs.

Today Burnett and other former or current Reliable Staffing workers and their supporters are marching into the company demanding copies of their pay stubs and billing records, to highlight what many workers say is erratic, deceptive or non-existent recordkeeping and transparency by the agencies that hire workers to staff warehouses for major multinational companies like Wal-Mart.

“It was everything that goes to Wal-Mart, from BBQ grills to tables to different types of book folders,” said Burnett. “A lot of it was heavy.”

George Johnson is among the former Reliable Staffing workers who never got straight answers about how much he was being paid. He said he was promised $9.25 an hour, but he said he sometimes got as little as $15 for a full eight-hour day during his three months at the company, paid piecemeal for unloading trucks, splitting pay with one or two other workers unloading the same truck. He said he was also told to report to the warehouse at 7 a.m., but wouldn’t start working until 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m., without being paid for the waiting time.

“It was all screwed up,” said Johnson, 41, who struggled to support eight kids on the meager wages. “You spent all these hours working, unloading these big trucks, one after another after another. For nothing.”

Warehouse Workers for Justice, a campaign launched several years ago by the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), last year released the study Bad Jobs in Good Movement: Warehouse Work in Will County that showed:

63 percent of warehouse workers were temps and that majority were earning below the poverty line…and one in four warehouse workers needed public assistance and many workers needed a second job in order to make ends meet.

Both Johnson and Burnett were temporary workers, and Johnson since then worked another temporary warehouse job. Burnett has been collecting unemployment since being laid off after about seven months, when his contract ended.

“When they want that order, they’ll say ‘that truck is hot,’” he said. “There are people waiting on the order, they need to complete it right away to get their money, so they make you work harder. But they don’t share the money with you. They are making big money, I kid you not.”

Warehouse Workers for Justice organizers have been meeting with Illinois state legislators to introduce legislation that would limit the number of temporary jobs in the industry, among other workers’ rights protections.
“People deserve permanent jobs,” said Tory Moore, a WWJ organizer who worked at the same warehouse for six years as a temp.

Burnett said he hopes more workers speak up about wage theft and other problems. He said many of the people working for Reliable Staffing have criminal records, something he thinks the company banked on.

“The job is so God-damned hard, most people they hire have felonies, they know most people won’t hire someone with a felony, so they know he’ll put up with it because he’ll have a hard time doing anything else,” Burnett said.

They are trying to prove to society that they’re capable of handling this kind of thing. Making their own money feels good, especially someone who came from the street, who never had anything in their lifetime. Now they don’t have to look over their shoulder, over their back, look out for the police.

They’re going to hold on to that job as long as they can. The people know they’re being cheated, but they don’t want to speak up because if you speak up, you lose your job.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

This post originally appeared in http://www.inthesetimes.com on February 21, 2011.

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Amendment to Thwart Airport Security Officers’ Bargaining Rights Defeated in Senate

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photo_4940On Tuesday, the Senate voted down a Republican-authored amendment to the FAA Authorization Act that would have eliminated the collective bargaining rights of baggage screeners at the Transportation Security Administration.

These workers, also known as TSOs, were granted limited collective bargaining rights on February 4 in a historic decision by TSA Administrator John Pistole, who was making good on a campaign promise by Barack Obama to allow bargaining rights for the nation’s 40,000 TSOs.

The amendment would have left intact the right of TSOs to belong to a union (12,000 TSOs are already exercising that right as dues-paying union members). However, the amendment would have outlawed collective bargaining, i.e., authorizing the union to negotiate on behalf of TSOs.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)

The lead sponsor of the amendment was Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who argued that giving TSOs the right to bargain collectively could harm national security by limiting the agency’s flexibility. Perhaps he didn’t realize that under the terms of Pistole’s determination, a future TSO union would be barred from negotiating issues that directly affect national security.

Like all federal public sector unions, a TSO union would not be allowed to negotiate salaries. Pistole will not even allow the union to negotiate on basic issues like disciplinary standards.

On the eve of the vote, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) took to the floor of the Senate to urge his fellow legislators to defeat the amendment. The senator argued that TSOs should be granted collective bargaining rights as a matter of national security.

He noted that a recent ranking of “Best Places to Work” put the TSA in 220th place, out of 224 federal agencies and departments. Turnover and injury rates at TSA are among the highest in the federal government.

“Low morale and high turnover at a frontline security agency are a recipe for disaster,” Harkin said. “TSA determined that collective bargaining will address those problems and improve the Agency’s ability to fulfill its mission.”

Harkin challenged the assumption that unionization is incompatible with national security, noting that most federal security employees, including Border Patrol personnel, Immigration and Custom Officials, Capitol Police officers and Federal Protective Service Officers have collective bargaining rights.

Wicker argued that TSOs should be treated like the CIA and the FBI, which do not have collective bargaining rights. This despite what seems fairly obvious: The job of a TSO seems to have a lot more in common with that of customs officials in the same airport than with that of an FBI special agent or a CIA operative.

The defeat of the amendment eliminates a major hurdle to TSO collective bargaining. TSOs are scheduled to vote on representation starting on March 9.

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Unemployed Can’t Get Jobs Because They Are…Unemployed

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Image: James ParksAs if finding a job isn’t hard enough, unemployed workers now face the added hurdle of being discriminated against because they don’t have a job. Speaking today before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP),  said that practices barring the unemployed from job availabilities have been growing around the country—and place a disproportionate burden on older workers, African Americans and other workers facing high levels of long-term unemployment.

“There is a disturbing and growing trend among employers and staffing firms to refuse to even consider the unemployed for available job openings, regardless of their qualifications,” said Owens.

Excluding unemployed workers from employment opportunities is unfair to workers, bad for the economy and potentially violates basic civil rights protections because of the disparate impact on older workers, workers of color, women and others. At a time when we should be doing whatever we can to open up job opportunities, it is profoundly disturbing to see deliberate exclusion of the jobless from work opportunities.

The EEOC, which is responsible for handling complaints of employment discrimination, began to receive reports of systematic and often blatant exclusion of unemployed workers from consideration for jobs early last summer. Many ads for jobs often specify that only currently employed candidates will be considered, or that no unemployed candidates will be considered, regardless of the reason for unemployment, or that no candidate unemployed for more than a certain period will be considered.

The job market is tough because the economy is not creating enough jobs. There are still roughly five officially unemployed job seekers for every new job opening.  The economy would need to add roughly 11 million jobs just to return to employment levels at the start of the recession.

Refusal to consider candidates simply because they are unemployed imposes an especially harsh burden on people of color, especially African Americans.  In January 2011, when the official unemployment rate overall was 9.0 percent, the unemployment rate for African Americans was 15.7 percent, compared with only 8.0 percent for white workers.

Similarly, long-term unemployment is far more severe among older Americans than younger workers, which means the impact of excluding unemployed workers from job consideration is greater for older workers.

Owens told the commission:

The dire job market has made it essential that Congress and the administration maintain the most robust program of unemployment insurance benefits in the nation’s history. But what’s needed most—and what all unemployed workers most want—is jobs.

Click here to see Owens’ full testimony before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on February 16, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: James Parks-My first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when my colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. I saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. I am a journalist by trade, and I worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. I also have been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. My proudest career moment, though, was when I served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

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Teachers Under Fire: At least Nine States Propose Stripping Teachers of Collective Bargaining Rights

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Image: Pat GarofaloLawmakers in several states have launched a broadside against public employees, aiming to cut their pay, slash their benefits, and strip them of their collective bargaining rights. Pivoting off the myth that public employees are getting paid more than their private sector counterparts, governors and state legislatures are scapegoating public workers for their states’ respective budget woes.

One of the biggest targets for these conservatives have been teachers. In fact, lawmakers in at least seven states have proposed stripping teachers of some of their collective bargaining rights:teacherboard

WISCONSIN: Gov. Scott Walker (R), who threatened to call the National Guard on public employees who protested his severe budget cuts, has proposed stripping teachers of all collective bargaining rights except for the right to negotiate wages — and any increase would be capped even before the negotiation starts. Hundreds of Wisconsin high school students walked out of class yesterday to protest Walker’s plans.

OHIO: Ohio Republicans, joined by Gov. John Kasich (R), proposed a bill stripping collective bargaining rights from teachers, leaving only wages negotiable. The bill would also allow districts to unilaterally terminate collective bargaining agreements. Kasich said that if the state legislature doesn’t pass the bill, he will insert its provisions into his budget proposal.

IDAHO: Idaho schools superintendent Tom Luna (R) “has proposed legislation that would limit collective bargaining to teacher compensation, and exclude unions from deliberations over the design of education policies.”

INDIANA: A bill sponsored by three Republican lawmakers in Indiana would “remove certain items from collective bargaining negotiations, including teacher-evaluation procedures [and] teacher-dismissal procedures.” The bill, part of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ (R) education agenda, has already advanced out of one of the state’s Senate committee.

TENNESSEE: Tennessee’s state Senate Education Committee will vote today on a proposal to completely eliminate collective bargaining for teachers, barring teachers from having any outside representation. The legislation surprised many Tennessee teachers, as just last year they negotiated with the state (and made concessions) to craft a new system for teacher evaluation that helped the state win the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program.

ILLINOIS: Groups in Illinois are pushing Republican lawmakers to allow school board to mandate that teachers follow a particular contract, if negotiations are not completed in a certain timeframe, giving districts every incentive to stall and them unilaterally impose their own terms.

NEBRASKA: A bill filed by state Sen. John Nelson would explicitly prohibit the state from participating in collective bargaining; his gripe is that the state “when considering wage and benefit disputes, weighs what employees in similar jobs in other states are getting.” In all, nine bills before the state legislature deal with collective bargaining and the state’s commission that handles labor disputes.

FLORIDA: Gov. Rick Scott (R) wants to limit collective bargaining for teachers to wages and benefits, even though such a move would likely violate the state’s constitution.

MICHIGAN: Lawmakers in Michigan are attempting to strip public employee’s of collective bargaining rights, even though Gov. Rick Snyder (R) had previously said that such a move was unlikely.

These right-wing groups and lawmakers are using the guise of a budget crisis to push through changes to collective bargaining that have nothing to do with the budget. Through collective bargaining, not only can teachers negotiate a fair wage, but they can also ensure that work conditions are optimal and due process is employed when it comes to hiring and firing decisions. Taking these rights away will not alleviate budget deficits.

Of course, at the same time that they are using budget woes to justify attacks on teachers, many of these same states (Ohio, Florida, and Idaho) are proposing new rounds of corporate tax cuts that would blow bigger holes in their already ugly budgets.

About the Author: Pat Garofalo is the Economics Researcher/Blogger for WonkRoom.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. His writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, the Washington Examiner, and at New Deal 2.0.

This blog originally appeared in http://wonkroom.thinkprogress.org on February 16, 2011.

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Mob Rule? At Work?

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Image: Bob RosnerOkay, this is yet another article about the current wave of protests in the Middle East and the implications for the rest of us (in the case of this blog, for the workplace).
A strained metaphor? Undoubtedly. Annoying? Hopefully not. Important? Well, what do you think I’m going to say after spending the past two hours working on this blog?
There is one phrase that really struck me over the past few weeks as the tumult seemed to spread from creepy dictator to creepy dictator. “No leaders.” Political parties, yes they existed. But few seemed to gain much traction over the swarm of people protesting throughout Egypt. Opposition leaders? Yes, there were multiple waves of them arriving triumphantly at Tahrir Square. Mostly, according to new reports, to a response that catapulted exactly no one into the exalted title of the opposition leader.
Overthrow an entrenched dictator without a plan? Without violence? Without the Internet? This isn’t politics, it sounds like a fantasy.
Given that most business organizations in the United States don’t believe that they can produce a widget without a strategic plan, four consultants and an executive dining room full of middle managers.
Cynical, a bit. But more true than most of us want to accept.
Which all reminds me of my first real job. It was at a restaurant cooperative in Philadelphia. There were twenty one employees with no boss. There was a boss at the very inception of the restaurant, but Marcus was a true hippie in the best sense of the word. He believed that more minds beat one mind. So his first act as boss was to make everyone the boss.
Sure there were times where consensus decision making made me want to take an ice pick to my eyeballs. But mostly it was a grand experiment in collection action. But rather than a select group of leaders, everyone took a turn at leadership when the situation favored their particular experience or expertise.
When no one is the anointed leader you can get an out-of-control mob, but you can also get a situation where leadership is assumed and exercised and handed off to the next leader.
I wasn’t in Egypt. But I was in the Eatery and I saw first hand that collective action can work.
I’ve also been an adjunct professor to MBA students, so I’ve been around people who preach the importance of short leashes. And for most of the past twenty years I’ve been arguing that leashes should be longer. But reflecting on the past few weeks and my own first job, I’m starting to wonder if leashlessness is indeed the best, and most overlooked option.
About the Author: Rob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

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Jury Awards $900 Thousand In Age Discrimination Case!

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ellen simonI just finished trying an age discrimination case and the good news is that we won. Here’s an article published yesterday about the case:

Jury awards Cleveland woman $900K in age discrimination employment case
CLEVELAND, OH – A Cleveland jury in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Wednesday returned a $900,000 verdict in a significant employment discrimination lawsuit brought by a former employee of Cleveland’s University Hospitals Case Medical Center. The lawsuit filed by Gloria Parks against University Hospitals alleged that Parks, a medical assistant, was discriminated against because of her age when she was terminated from her job of 30 years in July of 2008.

After a seven-day trial in the courtroom of Judge Carolyn Friedland, the jury found that age was a determining factor in University Hospitals’ decision to terminate Ms. Parks’ employment. Parks was awarded $450,000 for her economic loss and $450,000 for other compensatory damages.

“We are thrilled that Gloria Parks received the justice that she deserved from the jury”, said renowned civil rights lawyer Ellen S. Simon, of counsel with McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman, and lead attorney on this case. “Nothing could be better than to see Ms. Parks have the opportunity to be vindicated. What happened to Gloria was tragic and shouldn’t happen to anyone.”

Parks’ lawsuit charged that her termination stemmed from a patient identification incident in July of 2008, involving Parks and a younger co-worker in the pre-admission testing department where they both worked. The mix-up occurred when two patients with the identical name appeared at the department on the same morning to get their blood drawn. UH claimed that Parks failed to follow the proper patient identification policy, but witnesses testified that the policy was not enforced in the department and not properly followed by the employee who checked the patient in that day, pulled the wrong medical chart, and passed it off to Parks. The mistake was discovered and corrected before the patient left the department and the blood work was for both patients was properly processed without any error. Neither patient was harmed. After Parks was fired, the department changed its procedures in the department to require proof of identification at the time of check in with a driver’s license.

Parks claimed that Steve Diltz, who became her supervisor five months prior to the incident, had singled her out and treated her differently than her younger coworkers since his assignment to her department. Evidence presented at trial showed that Diltz seized on the identification incident as a means to ensure that Parks was fired, and that his decision to unjustly fire her was supported without question by University Hospitals human resources department as well as Diltz’s manager without any independent investigation. The incident resulted in a patient complaint, but the testimony of the patient revealed that it was a third employee involved with the patient — the department nurse — not Parks, who had upset the patient on the day in question. The nurse was never disciplined.

Parks’ age discrimination claim was supported by the fact that she and the younger co-worker were involved in an identical incident and Parks was fired while the younger co-worker received no discipline whatsoever. The evidence also showed that younger employees made comparable or more serious mistakes with some frequency in the department and received no formal corrective action or discipline, and that no other long term employee had been discharged for a single mistake at UH involving a patient which caused no harm .

Parks, who was 54 at the time of her discharge, and known throughout the hospital as one of the best phlebotomists at UH, had a “Do Not Re-Hire” permanently placed in her personnel file. A day after her termination, Parks was replaced by Diltz with a much younger worker. As a consequence of the firing and the “Do Not Re-Hire” classification, Gloria Parks has since been unable to find permanent employment at any hospitals, and lost her home, as well as her ability to make a living in her field. “I am very pleased with the verdict”, said Parks, following the jury’s decision. “It’s been so hard – I loved my job. I just couldn’t believe this was happening to me. Now, I have a chance to make a new start. I am so thankful for my legal team, and my family and friends who stood by me at this difficult time. I thank God for all their support.”

For more about the case, read theCleveland Plain Dealer Article, here. Needless to say, we’re thrilled. More to come about the case when I get a chance to recuperate.

About the Author: Ellen Simon’s focus includes civil rights cases, dispute resolution services, litigation strategy and management and complaint investigation. She’s had more than $50 million* in verdicts and settlements and over 30 years of experience. She’s been lauded for her work on landmark cases that helped establish employment law in both state and federal court.

This blog originally appeared in http://www.employeerightspost.com on February 18, 2011.

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‘Deeper Into the Shadows’: The Aftermath of ICE’s Audits and Enforcement Strategy

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R.M. ArrietaA new report issued by the Immigration Policy Center, “Deeper into the Shadows: The Unintended Consequence of Immigration Worksite Enforcement,” examines what happens to workers after an I-9 audit, wherein the federal governmet inspects employment eligibility forms employers keep on file for each worker.

The results aren’t pretty.

Aftermath of an audit

In Minneapolis, 1,200 workers were fired from ABM Industries, a major building-services contractor, after an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) audit. Staff members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26, the janitors’ union in Minneapolis, surveyed 50 of the workers and found they had on average worked seven years at ABM and were equally composed of men and women.

Of the 50 fired ABM workers surveyed, 31 had found work but now are making 40 percent less than their ABM wages. Fewer than half said they would report their wages to the IRS.

(Most of the surveyed workers are Mexican nationals with an average age of 38. They had lived in the U.S. between six and 24 years, with half arriving before 1999. Thirty-four had children born in the United States. Only nine said they would return to their homeland.)

Last October and December, about 100 workers at two St. Paul, Minn., companies in cattle hide processing and tanning lost their jobs after ICE audits.

On Thursday, January 20, 2011, eight people were arrested after protesting inside of a Chipotle restaurant in Minneapolis. In December, Chipotle fired more than 100 Latino workers following ICE audits. See video below profiling one fired Chipotle worker.   (Photo courtesy Workday Minnesota)
On Thursday, January 20, 2011, eight people were arrested after protesting inside of a Chipotle restaurant in Minneapolis. In December, Chipotle fired more than 100 Latino workers following ICE audits. See video below profiling one fired Chipotle worker. (Photo courtesy Workday Minnesota)

Audits at Chipotle Mexican Grill chain, based in Denver, resulted in the firings of at least 100 people in 50 of the chain’s restaurants. (See SEIU video below profiling one worker.) Company spokesman Chris Arnold called it a “heartbreaking situation to lose so many excellent employees” but pointed out that the ICE audit left the company’s hands tied. He said the company asked ICE for an extra 90 days so that the workers could present valid papers, but officials denied their request.

Union officials say the enforcement is not forcing undocumented immigrants to leave the country so much as pushing them into an underground economy that is making them poorer.

When one woman lost her job at ABM, her daughter dropped out of high school to help support the family. She now works seven days a week, two shifts a day in a factory and makes $8.65 an hour without overtime or health benefits.

One worker dismissed from ABM found another seven-day-a-week janitorial job that pays him $25 a night in cash. His hourly rate depends on his speed. “Sometimes its like, $5 an hour,” he said.  He has two U.S.-born children and has no intention of leaving the country. He says:  “I don’t know what’s going to happen to the kids if they catch me. We don’t go outside. We don’t go to church now.”

The Immigration Policy Center report, released on February 9, found that money is slowly being withdrawn from the local economy and people are relying on the barter system.

For example, one man pays less rent in exchange for landscaping. Another shovels snow or tunes up cars in exchange for childcare. According to immigrants interviewed in the report, the use of “tandas” is increasing. A tanda is a revolving credit system based on trust. Participants agree to pool their money. Members of the pool receive that money which they have to repay.

Bad for companies—and the economy?

Companies are also taking a hit. One firm had to fire 150 out of its 200 workers.

According to ICE guidelines, agents who enforce worksite laws must look for evidence of worker mistreatment, trafficking, smuggling, harboring, visa fraud, identification document fraud and money laundering. But a lack of transparency makes it difficult to find out whether the guidelines are even being followed.

John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center in Minnesota asked, “What are the priorities of this kind of I-9 auditing? It’s a strategy that has a high political value in trying to prove they’re doing enforcement…and going after the bad apples, the worst employers. But the reality is that ABM did not have a serious record of being a bad actor. Why was that a priority?”

Is ICE violating its pledge to go after the worst cases of worker mistreatment?

SEIU Local 26 President Javier Morillo-Alicea says he and other union representatives have taken their complaints to ICE officials in Washington. But he says there’s a disturbing disconnect. “What [the Washington] D.C. ICE [office] tells us has no connection to what local ICE agents do,” Morillo-Alicea contends.  “We are forcing people to the bad actors who profit from the broken immigration system.”

Workers are worried about their livelihoods, their families, whether they will be detained, and the fact that some of their money will not be returned. “When we get paid, they withhold Social Security and Medicare. We pay unemployment and everything in a single paycheck,” Alondra says in the report. (To protect their identities, workers in the report are referred to with pseudonyms or only first names.) She wonders if fired workers will ever see that money.

As the report states,

Immigrant workers are an important part of our labor force. Those who are undocumented, in many cases, entered the workforce when demand was high and have lived in this country for many years, setting down roots and becoming productive members of their communities.

Ripping them from their jobs and families or driving them deeper underground will only hurt the U.S. economy.

Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank, put it simply while testifying before Congress recently. “We cannot deport our way out of unemployment,” he said.

Watch Video of Fired Chipolte Worker

About the Author: R.M. Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked at three dailies and two television stations. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She can be reached at rmarrieta@inthesetimes.com.

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Wisconsin Rally for Workers Grows to 30,000

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Image: Mike HallA massive protest against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to eliminate collective bargaining rights for state workers entered its second day in Madison with as many as 30,000 people, according to some estimates. More demonstrations are expected tomorrow.

Also for more information and to help support Wisconsin workers, visit the Facebook page of Protect Wisconsin Families here.

AFL-CIO Field Communications staff member Mike Uehlein sends us the latest report on today’s actions. We also have new video (above) from  Tuesday’s demonstrations.

Video of the Rally

In a continuing show of support for public workers, huge crowds arrived in Madison today to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s attack on Wisconsin families. A diverse collection of working men and women, students, community members and religious groups marched around the Capitol building.

Despite the practice of hearing testimony from any Wisconsinite who wishes to speak, the Joint Committee on Finance cut off public debate late last night. So today at the demonstration, a public citizen’s forum was offered for people denied the ability to speak at the Joint Committee hearing yesterday.

Wisconsin State AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt told the crowd, “It is up to us to fight for the right of workers to have a collective voice on the job.”

We will not stand by and watch those rights be taken away. For every person here today, there are 100 more who could not make it and we stand with them. This proposal is too extreme. No one should be taking away our rights as workers and our rights as Americans.

Speaking to the huge sea of protesters, Steve Heimsness, treasurer of the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, says:

Politicians are trying to take away workers’ union rights in Wisconsin. We need representatives to listen to the thousands of workers here today and stop this bill. We have to stop this now.

Today’s continuing protests signal strong disapproval of the provisions in the budget measure. As a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial said Monday, this “bill is about rights, not benefits.” The protests on the Capitol ground reflected this, with many carrying signs saying, “Stop the Attack on Working Families.”

Walker has urged the legislature to fast track the proposal and the committee could vote later today or tonight, with final legislative action by the end of the week. Says Milwaukee bus driver James Macon:

This bill is too extreme to push through in four days. We have worked with both Democratic and Republican governors before and we can do that again.

This Blog originally appeared in http://blog.aflcio.org/ on February 16, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He has also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold his blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.

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Solidarity in Action: Unionists Across North America to Protest for Mexican Workers’ Rights

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kari-lydersenFrom Vancouver to New York City, Actions Will Span One Week and One Continent

This week, people across the United States and Canada will demonstrate at Mexican consulates and embassies in protest of violations of the right to organize in Mexico. Of particular concern to protesters will be the bitter strikes and repression of unions representing miners and electrical workers, and the escalating practice of government and corporate entities forcibly installing company unions known there as “protection unions.”

The government itself has been increasingly aggressive in attacking and trying to undermine independent public-sector unions, while local and federal police are also known to back private companies in their battles to oust independent unions.

For five years, miners in the Mexican town of Cananea have been clashing with the government and the company Grupo Mexico. Solidarity actions this week highlight union rights in Cananea and elsewhere.   (Photo by Kari Lydersen)
For five years, miners in the Mexican town of Cananea have been clashing with the government and the company Grupo Mexico. Solidarity actions this week highlight union rights in Cananea and elsewhere. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

So four global union federations—the IMF (metalworkers), ICEM (chemical and mine workers), ITF (transport workers) and UNI Global Union—are calling on their affiliates across North America to demand the Mexican government recognize the striking miners’ demands and otherwise guarantee the right to independent organizing and free association. (Full details are here.) As explained in a recent action alert:

The newly formed Tri-National Solidarity Alliance of unions in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada has taken up the call and together with several community organizations will be organizing actions in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Portland, Raleigh, San Francisco, Tucson and Washington DC and in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver.

In Detroit on February 16, workers from Jalisco on Mexico’s Pacific coast will meet with union autoworkers at the United Auto Workers hall. In Chicago on February 19, people will visit the Mexican consulate,  conveniently located on the same few blocks as union halls including Teamster City and the UE, whose hall features a mural celebrating the UE’s alliance with the independent Mexican union FAT.

In the past few years, international union solidarity has been particularly focused on Mexican miners, who since 2006 have been periodically attacked by federal and local police and military while striking at mines owned by the politically connected company Grupo Mexico.

The unrest at Grupo Mexico mines across the country was unleashed by an explosion that killed 65 at the Pasta de Conchos mine. Most of the bodies remain buried and residents say the government has not adequately investigated or compensated families for the disaster they say was caused by Grupo Mexico’s cutting corners.

Two days before that disaster, Grupo Mexico had revoked the authority of controversial, democratically elected miners union general secretary, Napoleon Gomez Urrutia and his executive committee. (The move is called a “toma de nota.”) When workers went on strike at a steel plant in April 2006 protesting Urrutia’s removal, hundreds of police fired shots killing two and wounding many – the beginning of lethal and bloody violence that has characterized mining struggles for the past five years.

A strike has bitterly divided the copper mining town of Cananea just south of the Arizona border, where labor unrest played a major role in sparking the Mexican Revolution a century ago. (See In These Times’ in-depth coverage in here). Last summer, thousands of troops descended on Cananea to forcibly take back control of one of the world’s largest open pit copper mines.

Meanwhile, in 2009, the Mexican government essentially dissolved the public electrical utility and its powerful union, laying off 44,000 people. At the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), government officials are refusing to recognize a union.  And the union representing workers in the state-owned oil company PemEx has also been targeted, with top leadership ousted.

Violence and repression also prevail at private workplaces. At call centers run by the company Atento and at Continental Tire factories, hired security guards and police have used violence to try to dislodge independent unions and replace them with company unions.

A fact sheet from explains:

The government supports a system of employer-dominated unions, known as “protection” unions, to prevent workers from democratically choosing their representatives. Workers who try to organize independently normally face intimidation, violence and retaliation by their employers.

Workers’ attempts to hold elections that would establish their right to administer collective bargaining agreements through their authentic organizations are permanently blocked and subjected to multiple requirements, while employers sign agreements with company controlled unions, often without any knowledge of the workers covered by the agreement.

The increasing attacks on unions come in light of general economic decline and chaos, exacerbated by the economic crisis, the reduction of jobs in and remittances from the U.S. and the increasing drug-related violence in Mexico.

The factsheet (PDF link) from the International Metal Federation says:

Over the last two decades, the income of Mexican workers has lost more than half of its purchasing power and the Mexican government estimates that 40 million people live in poverty and 25 million in extreme poverty. Well before the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994, the value of Mexican wages were stagnating. In the 1970s Mexican wages were a quarter of those in the U.S.

Even with the decline in U.S. wages, Mexican wages are now an eighth and in some sectors as low as one-fifteenth as compared with the U.S.

It describes a “serious escalation in the systematic and brazen violation of the trade union rights of Mexican workers over the last five years,” and says:

Instead of creating more jobs and guaranteeing workers’ rights, the Mexican government is intent on extinguishing the democratic unions that do exist, particularly the few unions that are successful in gaining better wages and a higher standard of living.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for various publications, including the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

This Blog originally appeared in http://www.inthesetimes.com on February 14, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

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Minnesota Union Members Rally Against Anti-Worker Bill

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Image: Mike HallSome 400 members from dozens of Minnesota unions—backed by more than 1,000 e-mails and phone calls—helped score a victory for working families last week. They jammed a state House hearing room in opposition to a bill that called for a wage freeze for state employees, elimination of vital parts of the state’s Public Employment Labor Relations Act, a 15 percent cut in the state workforce and a so-called “Right to Work” provision.

The bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Keith Downey (R), removed the right-to-work for less provision and the 15 percent workforce cut. But a bill with the remaining provisions passed the committee on a party-line vote and the “right to work” and job cut proposals remain alive in other legislation.

That’s why on Wednesday, the Minnesota AFL-CIO will rally with thousands of union members and community supporters at the state Capitol for Working Families Day to tell lawmakers to focus on jobs—some 200,000 Minnesotans are unemployed—not a radical, corporate agenda that attacks worker rights and wages.

So-called “right to work laws” prevent employers and employees from agreeing to ”union security clause” agreements. These laws would require unions to fully represent workers who choose not to pay their share of the costs. For example if the union had to file a grievance or even go to court on behalf of a non-paying worker, the other workers would have to pick up the tab.

Also by making unions weaker, these laws lower wages and living standards for all workers in the state. In fact, workers in states with these laws earn an average of $5,538 less a year than workers in other states.

Testifying against the bill, Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson told lawmakers:

I’m sure you would agree with me–we shouldn’t ever be asking middle-class families to work for less.

For more on the hearing click here to read Workday Minnesota’s coverage and for information on Wednesday’s rally visit the Minnesota AFL-CIO here.

This blog originally appeared in http://blog.aflcio.org/wp-rss2.php on February 14, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He has also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold his blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.

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