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In West Virginia, Safety Violations That Kill Miners Carry Smaller Penalties Than Violating A School’s Trademark

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waldron_travis_bioNearly two years after Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, the deadliest mine accident in nearly 40 years, the West Virginia House of Delegates has just passed a mine safety reform bill that should, in theory, strengthen some of the lax laws that made the tragedy possible. Through the legislative process, the bill, already mild to begin with, has been further weakened to appease coal industry lobbyists and legislators who fear them.

Part of the bill attempts to raise the maximum fine that can be levied against mine operators who violate safety laws. While coal state legislators kowtowing to the industry isnothing new, the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. uncovered a statistic that highlights the state’s shocking disregard for the safety of miners. Under West Virginia law, the maximum fine for a safety violation that results in the death of a coal miner is one-tenth of the maximum fine for violating West Virginia University’s trademark:

Better yet — why should someone face more serious punishment if they use the WVU logo without permission (see here and here) than if they kill a coal miners? That’s right, WVU trademark violators? Up to 10 years in jail and a $100,000 fine. Mine safety criminals? Up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The new mine safety bill makes an attempt to raise both civil and criminal penalties for mine safety violations, but even the higher fines would be incredibly weak. The maximum civil fine for most safety violations would rise from $3,000 to $5,000 — weakened from $10,000 in the original draft of the bill — falling woefully short of the $70,000 maximum fine under federal law. And while it seeks to impose new criminal penalties on violations resulting in deaths, Ward couldn’t find a single example of county prosecutors bringing criminal charges under the existing statutes.

Last week, the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training released its report on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster last week, and though its tone was “tepid” compared to other reports, it became the fourth such investigation to find that lax mine safety laws and regulations were responsible for the explosion that killed 29 miners. After the disaster, West Virginia politicians and coal industry big-wigs vowed to never let such a disaster happen again.

If recent efforts to enhance mine safety on both the state and federal levels is any indication, though, the promise from the coal industry, industry lobbyists, and coal state legislators that such a disaster will never happen again is just another example of empty rhetoric.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on February 28, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Travis Waldron is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Travis grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and holds a BA in journalism and political science from the University of Kentucky. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he worked as a press aide at the Health Information Center and as a staffer on Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway’s 2010 Senate campaign. He also interned at National Journal’s Hotline and was a sports writer and political columnist at the Kentucky Kernel, the University of Kentucky’s daily student newspaper.

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Wisconsin Legislature Votes To Repeal Employment Discrimination Law

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Ian Millhiser Wisconsin prohibits employers from discriminating “on the basis of age, race, creed, color, disability, marital status, sex, national origin, ancestry, arrest record, conviction record, military service, use or nonuse of lawful products off the employer’s premises during nonworking hours, or declining to attend a meeting or to participate in any communication about religious matters or political matters,” and it ensures that this law has teeth by allowing victims of discrimination to hold their employers accountable in state court. That’s about to change, however, as the Wisconsin legislature recently voted to strip the state’s workers of their ability to actually enforce this law — leaving anti-worker Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) as the only obstacle to the law’s total repeal:

The Equal Pay Enforcement Act was meant to deter employers from discriminating by giving workers more avenues to press charges. Among other provisions, it allows individuals to plead their cases in the less costly, more accessible state circuit court system, rather than just in federal court.

In November, the state Senate approved (SB 202) rolling back this provision. On Wednesday, the Assembly did the same. Both were party-line votes. The legislation is now in the hands of Gov. Scott Walker (R). His office did not return a request for comment on whether the governor would sign it. . . .

Women earn 77 cents for every dollar that men make. In Wisconsin, it’s 75 cents, according to [the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health], which also estimates that families in the state “lose more than $4,000 per year due to unequal pay.”

Walker, of course, has no power to repeal federal law, so he cannot strip Wisconsin workers of their right to be free from race, gender and other forms of discrimination that are banned by national civil rights laws. Nevertheless, Wisconsin law provides additional protections, such as safeguards for people with criminal convictions, that are not available under federal law.

Moreover, as Amanda Terkel points out, Wisconsin state courts can enable victims of discrimination to receive swifter justice instead of waiting for an increasingly overburdened federal judiciary to act. And this problem is only likely to get worse as Walker’s political allies in the U.S. Senate wage an unprecedented campaign of obstruction against President Obama’s nominees to the federal bench.

It’s tough to imagine something more fundamental to a just society that a guarantee that employers will not discriminate, which is why it is so baffling why Wisconsin lawmakers do not believe that their state should protect against such discrimination.

*Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author’s and not views expressed by Today’s Workplace/Workplace Fairness.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on February 27, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Editor of ThinkProgress Justice. He received a B.A. in Philosophy from Kenyon College and a J.D., magna cum laude, from Duke University. Ian clerked for Judge Eric L. Clay of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and has worked as an attorney with the National Senior Citizens Law Center’s Federal Rights Project, as Assistant Director for Communications with the American Constitution Society, and as a Teach For America teacher in the Mississippi Delta. His writings have appeared in a diversity of legal and mainstream publications, including the Guardian, the American Prospect and the Duke Law Journal; and he has been a guest on CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera English, Fox Business and many radio shows.

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Workers Hold Key to Reigniting Egypt’s Revolution

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Michelle ChenTo commemorate the first anniversary of the overthrow of the dictatorship, activists in Egypt called for a general strike earlier this month. But compared to the massive uprising of 2011, the response on the ground was muted. The military regime that has succeeded Hosni Mubarak was predictably dismissive of the anti-government “plotters,” and even activists acknowledged what seems to be a sort of protest fatigue.

But a year ago, when the Arab Spring was still fresh, labor activists were on the frontlines across Egypt, leading a massive wave of strikes and demonstrations. Today many ordinary Egyptians appear deflated or disilllusioned. With the new political structure divided between Islamist factions and a military junta, the country may be drifting back toward the familiar trade-off between democratic aspirations and political stability.

Reuters reported:

It was business as usual at Cairo’s railway station and airport. Buses and the metro ran as normal and an official said the strike call had no impact on the Suez Canal…

“We are hungry and we have to feed our children,” said bus driver Ahmed Khalil, explaining why he was not taking part in the labor action called by liberal and leftist groups, together with some student and independent trade unions.

“I have to come here every morning and work. I don’t care if there is a strike or civil disobedience,” he said.

The tepid response doesn’t necessarily suggest people have given up on systemic change, but it does represent the challenges of sustaining hope in the face of state oppression and economic crisis. At this stage, worker-led initiatives might again provide a vital boost, but activists haven’t yet channeled workers’ everyday grievances into a comprehensive political vision.

Noting that workers are often not politically organized, even if they’re willing to strike, Hossam el-Hamalawy, journalist and organizer with the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists, told In These Times:

The general strike was successful in the universities because of the existence of independent student unions and student groups on the ground that could mobilize for this. In the case of the workers, we do not have (yet) either an independent trade union federation or a labor party that could pull this together. General strikes cannot be organized via Facebook calls.

But labor was a vibrant force of dissent in Egypt long before the Arab Spring. Worker-activists were involved both in the nationalist movements of the early-twentieth century and later on, in struggles under the authoritarian rule that was enforced by the state union apparatus. When neoliberal policies took hold of the economy during the 1970s, workers confronted a convergence of capitalist exploitation and state repression, fraught with low wages, gender discrimination and crackdowns on labor organizing.

The upheaval that began last January was in some ways an extension of this tradition. In his research on Egypt’s labor movement (published in an AFL-CIO Solidarity Center report), historian Joel Beinin has documented hundreds upon hundreds of strikes and protests over the past several years. Uprisings often responded directly to workplace conflicts, with particularly strong mobilization in the textile industry and public sector. The pattern of wildcat strikes continued in 2011.

Still, more radical opposition movements haven’t deeply engaged the working class. Though groups like the Revolutionary Socialists push class-struggle rhetoric and pro-worker economic and labor policies, their image is still affiliated with the intelligensia.

Beinin told ITT that, since civil society was so suppressed under authoritarian rule, many workers today–

aren’t used to sitting down and talking about politics and the country in a reasoned, logical kind of way… What they do is they [say], “Our management is corrupt, it was a crime to sell this public sector enterprise to these private investors who then reneged on their contractual obligations anyway–things like that. They don’t usually say, “The problem is, the IMF and the World Bank are trying to shape the Egyptian economy along vicious, vulture, private-sector capitalist lines.”

In the process of building a grassroots political movement, he noted, “There’s been this problem of trying to get workers in general to believe that there is a broader problem than whatever the issues are at their workplace.”

While workers are consumed with immediate problems of economic instability and unemployment, labor activists struggle to find unity as organizations jostle for representation in the fractious post-Mubarak political landscape. Meanwhile, reactionary political forces and state violence have narrowed the public sphere for dissent.

Yet new pro-labor coalitions are emerging–across sectors, political communities, and even national boundaries (though collaboration with international civic groups remains intensely controversial). In areport on a recent Egyptian trade union conference, Ben Moxham of the UK-based Trades Union Congress observed promising diversity among the participants, including women and rural workers:

What impressed me greatly is that these folks aren’t waiting for some legislative silver bullet to deliver a union movement to them. They are going out there and making it under laws that haven’t changed since Hosni Mubarak owned the country.

Kamal Abbas, leader of the advocacy group Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, reflected with cautious optimism on the prospects for strengthening independent unions and worker-led movements in June 2011 interview with Toward Freedom: “The challenge now that the revolution has succeeded is to be able to build a society of social justice.”

Months later, that vision is shadowed by a creeping sense of frustration and futility, especially among struggling communities that, for now, are more focused on survival than on political ideals. Egyptians haven’t given up on their revolution, but to bring people back to Tahrir Square, labor and activist groups need to rekindle faded solidarity on the ground level, before the counter-revolution stamps out its last embers.

This blog post originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These TimesColorlines.com, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in The Nation, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen@inthesetimes.com

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Ex-NFL Player Can’t Score Medical Records

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Steven WardAnyone who watches NFL games each week is witness to organized warfare, with players delivering excruciating and merciless blows to the opposition. To deal with the frequent injuries, players are often given a shot of the painkiller Toradol, known medically as Ketorolac, before games.

A dozen former NFL players have filed a class-action in U.S. District Court in New Jersey against the league, claiming that they weren’t warned of the consequences of taking the drug. The players allege that among other side effects, Toradol masked pain, which masked the symptoms of concussion. Playing through their head injuries, the suit states, has brought on long term debilitating conditions, such as “anxiety, depression, short-term memory loss, severe headaches, sleeping problems and dizziness.”

If the NFL is taking these allegations seriously, it has a funny way of showing it: it still permits the painkiller to be administered during play.

In a recent NY Times op-ed, former Denver Broncos player (2003-2008) Nate Jackson, who is not a party to the lawsuit, wrote of his own experiences with the drug, which included routinely lining up with his teammates before games for injections. He was never quite sure why.

As to how much Toradol he was given during his tenure with the Broncos, or the results of any tests given at the time of his playing, the op-ed was silent — not because Mr. Jackson didn’t want to tell us, but because he couldn’t.

He can’t access his medical records: “Even after I filed a workers’ compensation lawsuit against the Broncos a year ago that later included a request for that folder,” he writes, “I still don’t have it. The team hasn’t released it to me.”

How can this be? All of us have an absolute right to our medical records, right?


In the leading case on the subject, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1975 that that we patients don’t have a constitutionally protected rights to direct and unrestricted access of our medical records.

Partly to remedy that incongruity, in 1996 the Department of Health and Human Services passed Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a federal regulation granting people a general right to access (not ownership) of their medical records. This regulation requires a “covered entity” to furnish either a copy or access to the records within 30 days of a patient’s request.

OK, now we’re talking. So Mr. Jackson has a legal right to see his records immediately, right?

The medical care model in professional sports has made for an interesting dynamic among the doctors, teams, and players. The current trend is for the doctors to be supplied by hospitals who pay the team to use their services in exchange for advertising and other perks. If this is how Mr. Jackson was treated, and he’s made his request to the doctors and hospitals that cared for him, he has a valid claim under HIPPA to view his records.

But if a full-time team physician employed exclusively by the Denver Broncos treated him during his NFL years, it doesn’t seem as though the Denver Broncos would be considered a “covered entity”.

State laws may provide more access rights than the floor set by HIPPA and most states have medical access statutes that recognize patients’ right to access their records. In Colorado, for example, where Mr. Jackson’s medical treatment primarily took place, state law recognizes the patient’s right to access his medical records “at reasonable times and upon reasonable notice.”

We’ve found no case law that directly pertains to Mr. Jackson’s situation – and we tried.

Anyone with comments or thoughts, we invite you to weigh in.

This blog originally appeared in Legal as She is Spoke, a project of the  Law and Journalism track at New York Law School, on February 22, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steven Ward (3L) proudly hails from the Jersey Shore. He graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a bachelors degree in Sport Management. Steven has completed internships with Major League Baseball, the Washington Nationals, the NYC Office of Emergency Management and the NYPD. Steven looks forward to working in the sports and entertainment industry.

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Another Victory for Southern Calif. ‘Carwasheros’

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kari-lydersenImmigrant “carwasheros,” who often earn below minimum wage with no benefits, scored an historic victory this week by unionizing two Los Angeles car washes, Vermont Car Wash and Nava’s Car Wash. They were the first in the city limits to unionize. The workers are now members of the United Steelworkers, with the move likely gaining them significantly improved wages, protections and benefits while also scoring a symbolic and tactical win for organized labor as a whole.

Last summer, three car washes in Santa Monica recognized unions and then in October Bonus Car Wash in Santa Monica became the first in the country to sign a union contract, as Akito Yoshikane and Michelle Chen reported for Working In These Times.

The California car wash campaign begun in 2008 has been a major focus of the national labor movement, with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka joining L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in person to cheer the achievement on Tuesday. The Carwash Organizing Campaign, affiliated with the United Steelworkers, has rallied much community support and called for boycotts of local car washes, formerly including Vermont, and also including ones with the names Celebrity, Hollywood, Five Star and Magic Wand.

In January, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris announced a settlement for more than $1 million among eight northern and southern California car wash owners that “underpaid workers, denied rest and meal breaks, and created false records of time worked,” according to a press release. The office had filed a lawsuit against the car washes in 2010. In December 2010, workers from Marina Car Wash who lost their jobs right before Christmas performed a play about their plight at a celebrity-heavy restaurant whose owners have family ties to the car wash owners.

In Chicago a campaign by some car wash workers and labor rights activists has been underway for close to a year, with organizers and workers in close contact with their L.A. counterparts. Workers at Little Village Car Wash gained citywide attention with a campaign supported by the group Arise Chicago to get back pay due a number of workers who had worked for years for little more than tips. Workers and supporters bearing squeegees took over the car wash in November.

Car wash workers are emblematic of a significant and stable or even growing sector of the labor economy – people who obviously work in a fixed location, for a given employer, but are often treated as independent contractors, frequently working only for tips with no job stability or benefits. Dish washers, night club dancers, graphic designers and IT professionals are among the diverse range of occupations wherein people often find themselves in similar situations. These workers have traditionally had difficulty unionizing, since they are treated as independent contractors and/or their economic and potentially immigration status make them vulnerable and afraid to anger the employer.

study by the Community Labor Environmental Action Network (CLEAN) found that while California car washes brought in $872 million in revenue in 2002, workers often earned well below the state minimum wage of $8 an hour. 

In addition to paying wages that are illegally low, Los Angeles carwash owners often deny their workers the most basic workplace rights and protections required by law.?Analysis of case files of the California Occupational Health and Safety Administration (Cal/OSHA) reveal numerous citations of carwash owners in Los Angeles.

Working at a carwash can be difficult and even dangerous, especially during the hot summer months when temperatures in Los Angeles approach 100 degrees.

Workers are frequently forced to work without safety equipment, training on how to deal with hazards and chemical exposures in their workplaces, clean drinking water, breaks for rest and meals, minimum wages, overtime pay, health insurance, or respect and dignity on the job.

A study by the University of Illinois at Chicago regarding working conditions at Chicago area car washes is also in the works.

The CLEAN campaign also points out that car washes can be serious local polluters, allowing chemicals to run off into storm sewers that often lead directly to rivers or in California the ocean, while also potentially exposing members of the public to toxics.

As Michelle Chen noted, the car wash bears important cultural symbolism, especially in Southern California:

The car wash is the quintessential symbol of American exuberance. Nothing speaks to our freewheeling consumer culture like our obsession with shampooing, waxing and pimping our rides for the world to see. But in the gleaming car capital of the world, Los Angeles, carwash workers are driving a movement to expose rampant abuses in one of the city’s dirtiest jobs.

A press release from Harris’s office about the lawsuit against car washes notes that:

The car washes required employees to report to work several hours in advance and be available, unpaid, until business picked up. When workers were paid, many received paychecks that could not be cashed because of insufficient company funds. Additionally, the car washes operated for years without licenses from the Labor Commissioner, which are required under California law.

The two-year contract signed by workers at Bonus Car Wash in Santa Monica addresses many of the problems with the industry, as Yokishane summarized:

Workers at Bonus Car Wash will see a 2-percent wage increase. In addition to health and safety measures, the contract prohibits the employer from firing workers without just cause or discharging those who voice safety hazard concerns. There is also a grievance and arbitration procedure to settle disputes.

On Tuesday, Mayor Villaraigosa was quoted saying:

What these contracts represent are a good paying job, a better standard of living, and a voice on the job for some of our City’s most exploited workers…In an industry rampant with wage theft and abusive conditions, these businesses have stepped up to do the right thing.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 22, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, 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 isRevolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached atkari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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Corporate Margins And Profits Are Increasing, But Workers’ Wages Aren’t

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Image: Pat GarofaloAs we’ve been noting, corporate profits have made it back to their pre-recession heights (even if corporate tax revenue hasn’t followed suit). In fact, in 2011, corporate profits hit their highest level since 1950. But as Bloomberg News noted today, this hasn’t translated into wage growth or more purchasing power for workers:

Companies are improving margins and generating profits as wage growth for the American worker lags behind the prices of goods and services…While benefiting the bottom line for businesses, the decline in inflation-adjusted wages bodes ill for the sustainability of economic growth as consumers may eventually be forced to cut back. […]

Of the 394 companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index that have reported since Jan. 9, earnings for the quarter ended Dec. 31 increased 5.1 percent on average and beat analyst estimates by 3.2 percent. Some 70 percent of the companies have posted better-than-projected results.

This pattern has become all too familiar during the slow economic recovery. In fact, real wages fell in 2011, despite record corporate profits. “There’s never been a postwar era in which unemployment has been this high for this long,” explained labor economist Gary Burtless. “Workers are in a very weak bargaining position.”

Between 2009 and 2011, 88 percent of national income growth went to corporate profits, while just 1 percent went to wages, a stat that is “historically unprecedented.”

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on February 22, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Pat Garofalo is Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Pat’s work has also appeared in The Nation, U.S. News & World Report, The Guardian, the Washington Examiner, and In These Times. He has been a guest on MSNBC and Al-Jazeera television, as well as many radio shows. Pat graduated from Brandeis University, where he was the editor-in-chief of The Brandeis Hoot, Brandeis’ community newspaper, and worked for the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life.

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‘There Is Not Enough Work’: Nearly Half of Mexicans Now Officially Poor

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Stephen FranklinOAXACA, MEXICO—The night is long and lonely and taxi driver Fernando has no choice but to endlessly troll the streets. It is the only way he can earn a living, driving from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. seven nights a week, and even then it’s barely enough to get by. “It is difficult. The salaries are low. There is not enough work. And everything is more expensive,” says the middle-aged driver as he cruises the streets of this historic southern Mexican city.

The latest figures about poverty and Mexican workers’ fate show that he understands the nation’s financial reality as well as any economist. The ranks of Mexico’s poor grew from 48.8 to 52 million between 2008 and 2010, according to figures recently released by the National Council for Social Development Policy, a federally funded agency. That meant about 46 percent of more than 112 million Mexicans were living in poverty in 2010. The government says someone is poor if they earn less than $181 a month in an urban area, and $113 in a rural area.

But the growth in poverty was uneven, according to news reports. Much of the increase was spread across large cities and in the northern states. And Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states, was one of the five states with the greatest increases in poverty.

What caused the upward spiral in despair?
Unemployment, low wages and rising food costs are the answers offered by most experts.

The growing poverty, experts add, is a reason for a number of problems such as high dropout rates among youths, and many youngsters’ northward flight to the United States in search of work.

A recent study pointed to poverty as a major reason why youths between 15 and 29 years old accounted for more than two thirds of the 660,000 Mexicans who left the country in 2011. The report was produced by a research arm of the PRI, which had ruled Mexico for seven decades and is hoping to win back the Mexican presidency this year. It was based upon figures from the Mexican Ministry of Education, according to the daily newspaper LaJornada.

Backing up the point that low-wage jobs are a growing dilemma and disruptive force for the economy is another report from the Mexican Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare.

It showed that the country lost 257,000 higher-paying jobs in 2011 while it picked up 625,000 jobs barely paying above the minimum wage, according to the daily newspaper Mileno. The minimum wage for 2012 is 63 pesos (about $4.80) a day in the Mexico City area, a rate slightly higher than elsewhere in the country.

But these low-paid workers are not in the worst shape, the article noted. There were about 5 million workers in Mexico last year who did not receive a salary. They get just enough money to survive.

Driving a taxi on the nightshift gives Fernando enough to support his family of five. But it is barely enough to pay the costs of his 20-year-old who is in the local university or to buy all the things needed for a two-year-old.

He came back to Mexico not too long from Atlanta, Ga., where he had lived for a handful of years, working as a welder and earning $18 an hour. He lived without papers and didn’t mind the dangers he faced. The money was worth the risks.

What brought him home was his wife’s hunger to be close to family, a desire he easily understands. But he also understands the difference in his life style and the pain he feels for what more he wants for himself and his family.

And so, as he drives across the cobblestones and then the broad avenues, he wonders aloud about going back north. There’s not the slightest fear in his voice of what that could mean. There’s only the memory of doing better.

“We’ll see. This is so hard,” he says.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 19, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for theChicago Tribune, is ethnic news director for the Community Media Workshop in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans(2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East. He can be reached via e-mail atfreedomwrites@hotmail.com.

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Restaurant Industry Screws Women, While $2.13 Tipped Worker Minimum Wage Makes it Worse

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Laura ClawsonRestaurant workers who make the federal minimum wage for tipped workers are pretty well screwed: That minimum wage is just $2.13 an hour, the theory being that tips will be enough for these workers to get by. When tips don’t bring workers up to the full federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, their employers are supposed to make up the difference, but in practice, that’s an invitation for bosses to pressure workers to just accept below-minimum wages. That’s not the only abuse of this rock-bottom minimum wage, though, and as a new report from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United shows, these abuses and high poverty rates fall most heavily on women.

The statistics pile on top of each other in creating the picture of just how badly women in the restaurant industry have it:

“The median wage for restaurant workers in 2010 was $9.02, meaning that well over half of these workers earned less than the wage of $10.75 that a family of four needs to remain out of poverty.”

Almost half of all workers making below minimum wage are restaurant workers; 19 percent of restaurant workers earn less than minimum wage.

Five of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in the country are tipped restaurant jobs.

Women are 52 percent of all restaurant workers, but 66 percent of all tipped workers in restaurants and 71 percent of servers. That means that women are far more likely to face the uncertainty and poverty of tipped work.

“The typical full-time, year-round female server is paid just 68 percent of what her male counterpart is paid ($17,000 vs. $25,000 annually).” This disparity is in part because women are concentrated in the kinds of restaurants that pay less, while men are more likely to work in fine dining restaurants.

Basically, the restaurant industry is taking an abysmally low base wage, adding in employers who pressure workers not to demand their legal right to make at least the full minimum wage, and crowding women into the lowest-paying occupations and sectors of the industry. Few restaurant workers have either paid sick days or employer-provided health insurance, of course. As well, at slow times, restaurants may send home workers who earn the full minimum wage or above, keeping servers who are only paid $2.13 an hour to staff the restaurant, as one woman profiled in the report experienced:

One night, Claudia was one of three servers on a slow night. Claudia was told to roll silverware into napkins for two hours straight, not taking any customers except for one table. Claudia knew she wouldn’t make any tips, and she’d still be asked to report that she made the minimum wage in tips. Meaning, with taxes, she’d have worked for free. After two hours, Claudia approached the manager, saying, “I’m done with the silverware, and other servers are getting tables. Can I serve a table now?” The manager berated Claudia on the dining floor. She told her to punch out and go home, and to tell her table that someone else would serve them.

Women in the restaurant industry also frequently face sexual harassment:

More than one in ten of the more than 4,300 restaurant workers ROC-United surveyed nationwide reported that they or a co-worker had experienced sexual harassment in their restaurant.100 This figure is very likely an undercount. A recent MSNBC review of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) data revealed that from January to November 2011, almost 37 percent of all EEOC charges by women regarding sexual harassment came from the restaurant industry, even though less than 7 percent of women work in the restaurant industry.

The full minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is already too low, and doesn’t protect workers from sexual harassment or a range of abuses, including the practice, common in retail as well, of not giving workers more than a day or two of notice on their work schedules, or calling them in to work only to send them home almost immediately. But increasing the minimum wage for tipped workers would be an important step: Some states have eliminated the subminimum wage for tipped workers, calling for these workers to be paid the basic minimum wage. These states have the same overall poverty rate as states that use the federal rate—6.7 percent—but “Servers in states that follow the federal subminimum wage have a poverty rate 43 percent higher than in states without,” 19.4 percent to 13.6 percent. Even raising the wage for tipped workers to 70 percent of the federal minimum wage would make an enormous difference for many. The federal government should also follow the lead of states that have instituted “show-up” pay requirements, so that employers have a disincentive to call workers in and then send them home quickly.

And between now and whatever far-off day when those much-needed laws are passed, the government should enforce the laws that are already in place, rather than letting employers get away with intimidating workers into accepting less than they are legally entitled to.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on February 19, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

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Not So Sweet: The Intricacies of Big and Little Sugar

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kari-lydersenThe lede on a story by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) attacking import limits and other government protections for the U.S. sugar industry was an attention-grabber: “That Valentine’s Day hand on your back pocket billfold is not your sweetheart’s, it’s the sugar lobby’s.”

There are plenty of reasons for less-than-sweet feelings about the sugar industry, from the big sugar cane producers that have decimated large swaths of the Everglades to American Crystal Sugar Company, the sugar beet producer which has locked out 1,300 workers at its North Dakota plant this winter. On February 22, thos workers are joining other locked out workers for a 1,000-mile-plus “Journey for Justice” from Fargo, N.D. to the site of a tire factory that’s locked out workers in Findlay, Ohio. (In These Times staff writer Mike Elk will be along for the ride.)

But the AEI doesn’t usually ally itself with labor or environmental causes, so I was surprised to see the conservative, pro-business think tank attacking the powerful sugar industry with a recent study saying import limits and other federal protections for sugar beet and sugar cane farmers are costing jobs and hurting consumers. AEI’s position does fit with its larger politics, once one considers that artificially high domestic sugar prices increase costs significantly (or so they say) for other parts of the food industry. AEI authors Michael Wohlgenant and Vincent H. Smith explain in their article:

The “no-romance” sugar program has largely been ignored by legislators and groups concerned with tax burdens because there are no direct federal subsidies for the sugar industry. Instead, U.S. sugar policy raises prices indirectly by taxing consumers through the marketplace. A system of import quotas and domestic supply controls works to raise sugar prices for households and food processors to a target level of 23.3 cents per pound of raw sugar when world prices fall below that amount. This system drives up consumer food prices and destroys jobs in the food processing sector because of reduced competitiveness in the global marketplace… In most years, the program also hurts many of the poorest farmers in developing countries by lowering the world price of sugar and reducing their already meager incomes…

In 2006 I wrote in The Washington Post about Chicago-area candy companies closing or moving out of the country; they blamed sugar price supports.

But it’s possible attacking the government sugar program is partly an excuse to justify outsourcing that would have happened anyway. That’s the view expressed by U.S. Sugar spokesperson Judy C. Sanchez, who spoke to a group of reporters I was part of touring sugar cane fields and refineries in Florida in October.

She said U.S. producers make about 1.5 million to two million tons of sugar a year, compared to about 32 million tons in Brazil, which it could “dump on the world market” and in the U.S. if it was allowed to.

“We’re all for global free trade, but other countries have subsidies,” including the European Union and Brazil, Sanchez told the group, part of the Society of Environmental Journalists conference. In contrast to the American Enterprise Institute’s report, she said sugar costs make up such a small part of total food prices that the sugar program doesn’t have a significant impact. She said it might mean a 5 cent price difference in a box of cornflakes or 2 cents on a Hershey bar. She said the price of a bag of sugar in a grocery store “hasn’t gone up in 30 years.”

About half of the sugar we use in the U.S. is produced from sugar cane and half from sugar beets. The cane sugar industry is dominated by a few large powerful companies, including U.S. Sugar and the Fanjul Corp. Opponents often highlight the sugar lobby’s power by pointing out that then-President Bill Clinton reportedly interrupted an infamous encounter with Monica Lewinsky to take a phone call from sugar magnate Alfonso Fanjul.

Based on my October tour and another one in 2008 (thanks to the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment), it was hard to feel the Florida cane sugar industry was deserving of government protection.

The refineries and growing operations are highly automated, employing fewer workers than in the past, and even when they did have more workers the industry was infamous for hiring low-paid immigrant guest workers who lived in rural slums like Belle Glade, once home to the country’s highest HIV rate. The industry has also been notorious for displacing and polluting huge swaths of the Everglades, leaving the future of the “River of Grass” in doubt and costing millions in restoration funds.

Much Florida state money has been lost in an ill-fated attempt to buy back sugar plantation land. Since the economic crisis hit and the state was unable to complete the deal, the land in question has largely remained sugar plantations.

However Sanchez noted that U.S. Sugar has improved its environmental practices, including using bagasse – the detritus of the cane – as a clean-burning biofuel to power its refinery. And she described the company as an important job-creator, adding that U.S. Sugar has recently invested $600 million in its Florida operations, which employ about 300 people, “so we can compete with foreign producers paying their workers 20 cents a day.”

The AEI study notes that 60 percent of the sugar cane industry is in the hands of a few major producers; while sugar beet farms are much smaller and there are about 4,000 of them nationwide.

American Crystal Sugar, a cooperative of sugar beet growers that also owns sugar beet refineries around the country, is not necessarily representative of the entire sugar beet industry. In many cases sugar beets are grown by true family farmers who struggle to make a living amidst the general hardships of farming and controversies over the use of GMO sugar beets.

During years of controversy raging over the possibility of genetically modified sugar beets being grown on public land in Boulder, Colorado, social justice and sustainability advocates not normally known for allying with big agriculture have spoken out in support of the generations-long, family sugar beet operations.

Sugar has long been intricately linked to tense international relations and geopolitics. Cuba provided a third of the U.S.’s sugar before the revolution and embargo, and Mexican sugar has been prominent in controversy over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

While sugar protections have bolstered mainland U.S. sugar producers, the policies actually wreaked havoc on Hawaii’s economy and environment in the first half of the 1900s, before statehood, when Hawaii was home to many sugar plantations who sold sugar to the U.S. as foreign producers. The industry ultimately meant an influx of immigrant workers,  declines in Native Hawaiian well-being, and the clearing and pollution of delicate natural areas – many now standing desolate as the sugar operations have closed.

The American Enterprise Institute used Valentine’s Day as a light-hearted peg to point out how consumers are paying for the price supports enjoyed by the sugar industry. But the fact that sugar is best-known as a largely non-essential, often unhealthy though also highly enjoyable component of food, it is ironic to think of all the labor and social strife and environmental harm the industry has wrought.

If the government ends the current sugar support program, as the AEI is demanding, production may be shifted increasingly to other countries. That might be a good thing for consumers and the environment in the United States. But such a shift would do little or nothing to change the historical legacy of big sugar; or to improve the environmental and labor practices of major sugar companies, wherever they end up.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 16, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen 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 isRevolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached atkari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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Missing it Again on the Minimum Wage

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jonathan-tasiniSee, this is a good example of how the conventional wisdom we hear day after day warps the brain. More people are, in fact, being pushed into minimum wage jobs:

The number of workers in New York state earning minimum wage has increased sharply since the start of the recession, one of the driving factors underlying a debate in Albany over whether to raise the hourly rate.

In 2011, the number of minimum-wage earners statewide stood at about 91,000, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The figure represents a significant jump from 2008, when an estimated 6,000 people worked at the lowest rung of the income ladder.

The swelling ranks of minimum-wage earners has lent some ammunition to a push by Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to increase the hourly rate for the first time since 2009. It was boosted that year to $7.25 an hour.

Mr. Silver has backed a bill that would an increase the wage to $8.50 an hour, a rate that would be among the highest in the nation. It would then be indexed annually to the inflation rate.

But, the problem is that the solution is a cruel lie. The minimum wage today, if it reflected productivity gains over the last 30 years, should be between $19-$20 an hour. Raising the minimum wage, then, to $8.50 an hour seems like a big deal–except when you understand that it hides the vast robbery that has taken place of the past 30 years and it certainly will not make it possible for people to live with dignity and respect.

This blog originally appeared in Working Life on February 13, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

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