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4 Recent Victories Signal Hard Truth About Rebuilding Labor Movement

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Mike ElkFor the first time in my journalism career, during one week I wrote four stories about workers winning tough fights. The victories include GE and Cablevision workers unionizing after several failed organizing attempts, the end of the bloody Longview Port longshoremen dispute and the State Department issuing new rules governing student guest workers after last summer’s strike by young Hershey foreign workers.

This extraordinarily rare string of victories leads me to believe that despite major attacks on workers’ organizing and collective bargaining rights, unions can take advantage of workers’ backlash against these attacks and win big victories. They can still organize.

This is not to say the tide is turning for labor because of the overreach of anti-union forces. During the same period of these small but significant victories for workers, others suffered a number of large defeats. Indiana passed right-to-work legislation aimed at gutting the power of private-sector unions, and Senate Democrats passed a bill rolling back the organizing rights of airline and rail workers.

But the key lesson of these these small victories is this: When workers develop individual strategies for their own workplace—rather than rely on gran master plans from union leaders—they’re more likely to win. It’s to study the GE, Cablevision and the the longshoremen union (ILWU) campaign in Longview to understand what works.

In one of the smartest union campaigns I have ever covered, the Communication Workers of America organized 282 Cablevision workers in Brooklyn that had been trying to organize into a union for 13 years. CWA first built a strong shop floor committee to build solidarity in the workplace before even attempting to file for an election.

Then CWA employed the support of prominent Democratic politicians to make statements against the intimidation these workers were experiencing as they attempted to unionize. The result was that Cablevision couldn’t stymie the organizing drive by firing workers, and workers voted 3-to-1 to join CWA.

Not only did CWA win the Cablevision union election, but it inspired another a group of 120 nonunion Cablevision contractors to go out on a wildcat strike in Bronx demanding union recognition and the restoration of a 30-percent wage cut proposed by the company. (See my story here).

After a bitter seven-month struggle that sometimes involved breaking the law, the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union (ILWU) was able to prevent port company EGT from opening the first terminal on the West Coast not to be represented by the union. On one occasion last July, more than 100 union members were arrested for breaking down a fence and invading the grain terminal in an effort to shut it down. On other occasions, hundreds of ILWU members confronted baton-twirling riot police as they attempt to blocked railroad tracks to prevent goods from moving; workers at ports in Vancouver and Tacoma went on wildcat strikes to show solidarity with the Longshoremen. On another occasion unionists vandalized trains carrying grain to the port. Throughout the confrontations, more than 125 protesters were arrested.

Union leaders, of course, rarely encourage union members to vandalize property and break the law. Workers in Longview decided that that’s what they wanted to do. Ultimately, the prospect of more confrontations between the company, police and union members prompted Washington Governor Christina Gregroie to finally push the company to settle.

Also earlier this month, I covered how GE workers in Kansas City won an organizing drive by a margin of 44-41. The workers at a small service plant in Kansas City had attempted to organize three times before; finally on the fourth time, pro-union workers won an election.

The organizing success was the result of older pro-union workers on the first shift who were willing to stay late into the night after their last shift to talk to younger workers, as well other unionized GE workers from different plants visiting to talk to workers about joining a union. There was no big master plan in the GE organizing victory. The organizing success was the result of rank-and-file worker action.

Likewise, last year I covered how cultural exchange guest workers at one of Hershey’s warehouses in Pennsylvania decided to strike by themselves after receiving only $20-40 a week (after housing and other costs were deducted from their paychecks). They reached out to the local labor community to support them, but the plan to strike came from workers themselves.

The action was wildly successful receiving widespread media attention. It ultimately caused the State Department to announce it will review all policies regulating the J-1 student guest visa program, and will limit the type of work that nearly 350,000 “cultural exchange” workers who enter this country annually are allowed to do. (The State Department also debarred guest worker recruiter Council for Educational Travel from  the J-1 program; CETUSA had provided the students to Hershey.)

People inside of America’s labor movement are always searching for the big solution of how to organize lots of workers quickly, or win fights quickly through a grand leverage scheme designed to force employers to agree to voluntary union recognition through card check neutrality, rather than hard-fought NLRB union elections.

A few years ago, I traveled to Boston to cover an attempt by top SEIU strategist Stephen Lerner to organize bank workers at Santander, a foreign-owned company. The organizing committee meeting I attended had nearly twice as many union organizers and community allies in the room as actual bank workers. It was clear that the campaign to organize Santander workers was driven mainly by SEIU staffers, not by workers. The campaign collapsed, and is now largely forgotten.

“Organizing right now is characterized by great ideas, fancy power points, one-year investment and then moving on to grand scheme. It works for professional organizers, but it doesn’t work for actually organizing workers,” ILWU Organizing Director Peter Olney told me earlier this year. “The fundamental moving force in any labor struggle has to be the workers. [But] the art of listening to workers and analyzing their power is gone in the labor movement today.”

All too often I see unions announce huge organizing drives that intend to organize a whole group of workers. A plethora of press releases are released, millions of dollars are committed to organizing an industry, even before the union has organized committees of workers in the industry. Whether it’s SEIU’s bank industry plan or UAW’s strategy to organize foreign-owned auto plants in the right-to-work South, it seems that union leaders often have big strategies to win huge gains—but rarely are those strategies crafted by the workers unions seek to organize. Often, these campaigns involve getting an employer not to intimidate workers instead of working to help people overcome anti-union intimidation campaigns. As UAW President Bob King recently told Reuters about how the struggling union will organize southern plants: “It really is ultimately up to the companies.”

But perhaps the best way to make large gains is to focus on a lot of small workplaces where workers really want to organize. These victories show that the key to success is  giving them the skills to organize, and sticking with the organizing campaign of workers, whether it takes four years like it did with the GE shop in Kansas City, or 13 years like it did with Cablevision workers in New York City.

“I think there is a lot of truth in that model of moving slowly forward. You play small ball and all of a sudden that starts adding up to a lot of workers,” says CWA District 1 Organizing Director Tim Dubnau.

The truth is—and it’s a tough one for labor leaders to accept—is that there is no real strategy to rebuild the labor movement other than to support workers to the max in their attempts to organize – however small or unsexy they are. If we are going to rebuild this labor movement, workers are going to have to do it themselves.

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

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached atmike@inthesetimes.com.

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Trader Joe’s Caves to Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Signs Fair Food Agreement

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eidelson-headshotMonths-long pressure campaign pays off

On Thursday, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers announced it had signed a Fair Food Agreement with Trader Joe’s, a significant step forward its efforts to bring fairness and accountability to the food industry.  “We are truly happy today to welcome Trader Joe’s aboard the Fair Food Program,” CIW’s Gerardo Reyes said in a joint statement issued by CIW and Trader Joe’s.  “Trader Joe’s is cherished by its customers for a number of reasons, but high on that list is the company’s commitment to ethical purchasing practices.”

The same statement, which the company has posted as a letter to customers on its website, hails Fair Food as “a groundbreaking approach to social responsibility in the U.S. produce industry that combines the Fair Food Code of Conduct…with a small price premium to help improve harvesters’ wages.” Trader Joe’s did not respond to a request for further comment.

But it wasn’t long ago that activists were carrying “Traitor Joe’s” banners, and Trader Joe’s wascondemning Fair Food Agreements as “overreaching, ambiguous, and improper.”

Trader Joe’s’ reversal follows a months-long campaign. As Michelle Chen has reported for In These Times, it included “Trader Joe’s tours” last summer that picketed stores, educated consumers, and met with allies along the East and West Coasts.

In Boston, a group of fifth graders organized a rally outside a store. In New York, activists held a 1.6 mile run between two stores. The announcement of the settlement came on the eve of two planned days of coordinated protest pegged to the grand opening of Trader Joe’s’ first-ever Florida location. That store, the company’s 367th, is located on Immokalee Road in Naples, 35 miles from the fields where the CIW was born.

CIW announced Thursday that Friday’s and Saturday’s demonstrations, planned for Naples and 32 other cities, were being cancelled or replaced with actions targeting Fair Food holdout Publix instead.

CIW is a workers’ organization that partners with faith, labor, and consumer groups to push improvements in farm workers’ working conditions and voice on the job. It’s part of a growing trend of labor activism that takes place outside of the protections and restrictions of the National Labor Relations Act. CIW’s Trader Joe’s agreement is the latest in a series of victories achieved through comprehensive campaigns that leverage consumer and media pressure at strategic points in the tomato supply chain.

CIW achieved national prominence during its multi-year boycott of Taco Bell, which successfully forced the fast food giant to absorb the cost—a penny per pound—of modest labor reforms for workers in the fields. The three other largest fast food chains later followed suit.

CIW took the momentum from these victories—and the promise of an extra penny—and turned its focus to the growers who directly employ tomato growers.

As Kari Lyderson has reported for In These Times, agreements with major growers in 2010 mean that 90 percent of U.S. tomatoes come from growers who have signed Fair Food agreements. CIW estimates that more than 10,000 farm workers are now covered by these agreements. They include basic standards on wages and working conditions as well as a complaint procedure, independent auditing, and meetings between workers and management to monitor compliance. CIW is currently training farm workers on their rights under Fair Food Agreements, and how to enforce them.

Following its agreements with fast-food chains and growers, CIW turned its attention to another point the tomato supply chain: supermarkets. For these companies, signing a Fair Food Agreement means a commitment to absorb the penny-per-pound cost, source tomatoes only from growers that are complying with a Fair Food Agreement, and meet with CIW regarding compliance. Absent buy-in from supermarkets, CIW warned, growers that are currently abiding by Fair Food Agreements could violate them in the future, secure in the knowledge that noncompliance would not cost them supermarket business.

Throughout the months that it rebuffed CIW’s call for a Fair Food Agreement, Trader Joe’s insisted that it was already paying the extra penny-per-pound. Given that major growers were already signed on, that may well have been true—which suggests that Trader Joe’s true objection may have been less about spending money than about sacrificing power.

Although CIW never called a boycott of Trader Joe’s, “it was always a possibility if we needed to get there,” says CIW staffer Julia Perkins. In November, CIW sent an e-mail promoting a campaign by the New York Community/ Farmworker Alliance to send “Dear Joe” letters breaking up with the company over its refusal to sign a Fair Food Agreement. “The persistence of fair food activists,” says Perkins, “and of their consumers too, who kept going over and over to them…helped to show them that this was something they wanted to do.”

In August interviews (for Alternet) during their East Coast Trader Joe’s Tour, Immokalee tomato workers Oscar Otzoy and Wilson Perez described how the 2010 agreements had, along with improving their wages, changed their working conditions: managers stopped rampantly stealing wages, denying breaks, and demanding sex in exchange for less strenuous assignments.

Their pay remains well short of a living wage.  But for the first time, said Perez, “We have a voice in the camps.”

Whole Foods was the first major supermarket to sign a Fair Food Agreement; Trader Joe’s is the second. Perkins says Trader Joe’s “didn’t agree to anything less” than Whole Foods had in its own agreement. CIW’s next major target is Publix, which has been refusing requests to sign an agreement.

CIW and religious allies have announced a six-day protest fast outside Publix headquarters that will begin March 5. Publix, charges Perkins, is “not just turning their back and refusing to meet with us, but really being a blockade in the road to truly changing conditions for farmworkers.”  But she expects Publix will eventually follow Trader Joe’s and Publix in signing on to the Fair Food model.  “It’s really the future of the industry.”

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

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet.  After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years.  His website is http://www.josheidelson.com.

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Closing Time at Chicago Libraries Hits Women and Minorities Hard

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kari-lydersenBudget austerity trims library staff and hours, as Mayor Emanuel and AFSCME trade accusations

Sara Doe was hired as a page at a Chicago library in 2007, and immediately fell in love with the job. Earning $11.18 an hour without benefits for shelving books, directing customers and other basic tasks might not be glamorous work, she told In These Times, but she loved the human interaction and the chance to spend time in libraries, which since she was a kid have been “like museums for me”—oases of calm and knowledge.

Doe’s mother worked in a city library, and since her parents were divorced, Doe considered the library her “third home” and has fond memories of stamping due dates in books. But this year visiting the library has been a somewhat painful experience since December 31 was her last day on the job at the northwest side library where she had worked since fall 2009. She was one of 181 library staff laid off because of city budget cuts that hit the library system particularly hard. Along with the layoffs, libraries are now closed on Mondays, cutting total weekly hours from 48 to 40.

After an intense campaign by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31, some library staff were called back to work and Monday afternoon hours were restored, bringing the weekly total to 44 hours. But more than 100 library staff including all the pages are still out of work.

The library cuts—along with planned layoffs at city mental health clinics and Chicago O’Hare International Airport—have become part of a protracted and bitter battle between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and public-sector unions, as Emanuel has blamed AFSCME for forcing schedule cuts and using the library system as a bargaining chip.

The union held “People’s Library” hours with book readings outside several libraries during the Monday morning hours when they are now shuttered. Late last month, popular longtime library commissioner Mary Dempsey resigned amidst the controversy. The Chicago Sun-Times wrote of her departure:

She met her match in Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was more concerned about cutting spending than he was about preserving library services…She was apparently unwilling to preside over the dismantling of a library system she helped to build, but agreed to postpone her departure to minimize the impact of the cuts. The only surprise was that she didn’t walk out the door sooner…

Doe, 30, is desperately hoping to be called back to her library job. She has been applying for other positions—”anything and everything,” including food service at the city’s Wrigley Field baseball stadium—but she hasn’t had any luck. She qualifies for disability payments and has applied for unemployment, but she would rather be working at the job she loves so much that “the hours go by too fast.”

She told In These Times:

It’s not just a job, it’s something I really enjoyed. Even though it was low-status I felt really good and made some good money…Now I feel like I’m work-sick. I’m one of those people who like to work their butts off.

AFSCME Council 31 spokesman Anders Lindall said Doe’s attitude is typical:

People don’t give their working lives to public service to get rich. Library employees love their communities, their patrons and the role of their libraries as hubs of learning, research, culture, community and much more.

Like other layoffs resulting from city budget cuts, the library cuts have disproportionately impacted minorities and women. Lindall said 72 percent of the staff initially laid off were women and 77 percent were people of color, including 78 African Americans and 40 Latinos.

Library workers and patrons said they think the city administration is underestimating the important role that libraries play for city residents, even in the digital age. Mother Natasha Nicholes attended the People’s Library protest and has been blogging about the library cuts, which were a major disappointment for her four kids, including her three-year-old daughter whose weekly story hour was cut.

The library is an especially valuable resource for Nicholes, since she homeschools her daughter, providing needed books and also a social outlet. As a child in Chicago, Nicholes spent almost every Saturday at the library with her younger sister. She told In These Times:

I won’t let this pass without saying something, especially since libraries played such a large role in my growing up…I don’t think it’s a dying art, and I definitely don’t think eReaders will replace the feel of having a book in your hand.

Lindall said the Monday morning cuts are a serious impediment to customer service, and he noted that several years ago city libraries were open 64 hours a week, compared to 44 now. He told In These Times:

Any reduction in hours is a barrier to access…Weekday morning hours are especially popular with families and caregivers for preschool-aged children, seniors, shift workers and the unemployed. Monday mornings are the most crucial time for people looking for work, as new job postings come out in the Sunday paper but libraries are closed on Sundays. Unemployed folks line up at the branches waiting for the libraries to open on Monday morning, to look at the job listings in the Sunday paper or most commonly, to search them online, then submit resumes.

During a “Facebook town hall” I blogged about last month, Mayor Emanuel portrayed his executive order that restored some library hours as a way to bypass an out-of-control union. But Lindall said he thinks the union and library supporters should be thanked for the avoidance of more severe cuts:

In October, Mayor Emanuel introduced a budget that would have cut $10 million from the library budget, forcing 363 layoffs and untold reduction to hours. After a huge public outcry galvanized 28 aldermen to send a letter opposing these and other cuts, the mayor restored funds to rescind half his proposed layoffs.

As public criticism continued from all corners in January, he “found” money to restore more hours and positions. So he has taken two steps in the right direction. Our union and the people of the city want to work with him to finish the job, fully open and fully staff the branches.

Doe, whose first library job came after a promised position with the city park service helping special needs people fell through, said the mayor’s actions on the libraries don’t jibe with his high-profile push to lengthen the school day at public schools. She says:

I don’t know why he wants to extend the school day and short-change the library system. And with shorter library hours the longer school day makes it harder to get there on time. It doesn’t make sense.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 10, 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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Catholic Hospitals Can’t Discriminate Based On Sex In Hiring, Shouldn’t Discriminate Based On Sex In Coverage

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Igor VolskyDemocrats took to the House floor last night to defend President Obama’s regulation requiring employers and insurers to provide a wide range of health care benefits in their insurance plans, including contraception coverage. Houses of worship and non-profits primarily employing and serving those of the same faith are exempt from the requirement.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) made a particularly persuasive case, arguing that the federal law treats Catholic affiliated institutions like colleges, universities, and hospitals as employers and requires that they follow standard employment laws and regulations and treat all employees fairly. And while the government would never muddle in a church’s religious operations — for instance, it would never ask that it take on female priests, it would object to it turning away female doctors from its hospitals or refusing to perform a certain medical procedure that undermines the liberties of the patient.
These organizations — which receive tax benefits from the federal government — can’t discriminate in their hiring practices or general operations and they shouldn’t discriminate against sex in the coverage they offer to their employees. Here is how Nadler put it:

NADLER: The difference here is that churches are and should be protected in their religious role. Protected against having to violate their religious views. But they must not be protected in their role as employers. We permit a church, for example, to discriminate a religious practice. No one asks the Catholic Church how come you do not permit women priests, that’s their business. But we do not permit them to discriminate as employers. We do not permit a religious hospital or university to say we will not permit the hiring of female doctors or female professors or black doctors or nurses because that would impinge on liberty. […]

The church can preach its views, it can seek to persuade people, but it cannot coerce people who may work for a church affiliated university or hospital that they may not use contraceptives if they want to. The liberty here is the liberty of the employee that must be protected. The liberty of the church must be protected in its churchly function and in its function as a religious institution. In its function as an employer, the liberty belongs to the employees and that is the distinction that is made here. It is the proper distinction.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on February 9, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Igor Volsky is the Health Care and LGBT Editor for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Igor is co-author of Howard Dean’s Prescription for Real Healthcare Reform and has appeared on MSNBC, CNN, Fox Business, Fox News, and CNBC television, and has been a guest on many radio shows. Prior to joining the Center, Igor interned with Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), hosted his own political radio show at Marist College, and edited and published a political newspaper in high school. Igor grew up in Russia, Israel, and New Jersey.

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I Couldn’t Afford to Go to Work Today

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It’s crazy, but it’s true: I could not afford to go to work today.

I have a 45-minute commute to and from work, which costs me about ten dollars in gas each day. I’m down to six whole dollars, after paying what bills I could with my last paycheck. There are still unpaid bills, but there’s nothing I can do about them right now. I’m mostly worried about how the hell I’m going to feed my daughter until my next check on Friday.

This is not a position I ever expected to find myself in. I have a full-time job at a distribution center for a well-known retailer. The company has weathered the Great Recession pretty well, all things considered: overall sales are off by only 1%, a variance which until recently would have been seen as a business hiccup. But I find that the recession itself has given the Powers That Be at my job an excuse to do whatever they damn well please to their full-time employees.

The infuriating details are below the squiggle.

What frustrates me the most is that I shouldn’t even be in this position. I’m employed full-time, and I’ve been with this company for over five years–yet I cannot get ahead, no matter what I do. The reason why has much to do with the company’s recently-adopted position that full-time employees aren’t really an essential part; that is, they’ve come to believe that only salaried employees really matter. They don’t even call us non-salaried workers “associates” any more. Now they refer to us as “unskilled labor.”

About a year ago, my company announced a pay freeze for all full-time employees. This was done, we were told, in response to the economic dowturn. The reasons made sense at the time, and we took the news in stride. But lately, it’s starting to seem like something else. It seems there is money to be had…but not by most of us.

The pay freeze occurred at about the same time that the outgoing CEO was receiving a million-dollar severance package. Salaried employees–supervisors, managers, and such–were ostensibly included in the pay freeze, although they would continue receiving their monthly bonuses, typically three to five hundred extra dollars per paycheck. The Director of Operations (enjoying a salaried position, of course) actually joked out loud, “Whew! I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to buy that new car!” Ha-fuckin’-ha, asshole. Turned out, it wasn’t just a joke: two months later, he was coming to work in a shiny new Lexus convertible.

The average worker on the floor makes $8 or $9 an hour, which is barely enough to support any size family. Supervisors, meanwhile, start out at the equivalent of $25 an hour (with bonuses and other perks on top of that); managers and up are pulling six-figure salaries, at least. Now, on the face of it, I don’t mind that they make more. It’s how they go out of their way to make sure they get most of what’s left as well, to hell with everybody else, that has me and my co-workers silently enraged and visibly demoralized.

Following the pay freeze, management has raised the productivity bar on us twice: that is, we must do more work in less time to avoid getting disciplined or fired. How much we produce beyond the 100% “standard” determines our “incentive” pay. Whenever they raise the productivity bar, our incentive payouts go down. Those who can’t keep up are let go; those who do keep up are bringing home chump change. And few of us want to work very much harder than necessary to keep our jobs, since working at 200% production yields a paltry $45 (not much of an “incentive” there). So they’ve fired several people and not hired replacements, leaving the rest of us to double-up–and in some cases, triple-up–on the workload and attendant responsibilities. From 150 people a year and a half ago, we’re now down to fifty; those of us left are still doing the work of 150. In the end, the reduced staff just further fills their pockets.

After that, they eliminated sick time for all non-salaried employees, telling us it was because the old sick-time policy was being “abused” (abused how–by people getting sick?!) It’s all to “save some money,” we’re told…even though the company, as I said, isn’t doing much worse than years past. And over the last couple of months, it’s become clear where all that “saved” money is going: directly into the pockets of the supervisors and managers.

We’re no strangers to this company’s cold calculations, and how little they care for anyone but the precious few who belong to the Salaried Class. They use this state’s “right to work” status to do whatever the hell they want and get away with it. For example: they fired an epileptic for being “unreliable.” They fired another woman for trying to get our insurance to cover infertility treatments. The company has been sued many times, but, unbelievably, has yet to lose a case.

And that’s not the half of it. But for now, let’s just say that management and HR routinely cover each others’ asses, so they can do whatever they want and get away with it. It’s a comfy little clique they’ve made for themselves, and apparently all that matters is their special little group.

So while most of us have spent the last year trying to keep up with inflation, our bills and the crazy cost of gasoline, supervisors and managers have continued receiving hefty monthly bonuses. The rest of us get to enter a raffle for a chance to win a $25 “in-house” gift card for all our hard work–just enough to get one piece of merchandise. Gee, thanks. Some of my coworkers could barely cover monthly expenses in December, much less afford Christmas gifts. At least a lucky few of us had gift cards, though. Now we can take home the same crap we push out the door all day. It’s nice to know they care.

But here comes the real smack in the face: just before the holidays, the supervisors and managers had themselves a big party at work. They tried to keep it secret by calling it a “closed-door, high-level meeting,” but we “nobodys” have eyes and ears everywhere and it wasn’t long before we learned the truth. It was a catered lunch, at which the holiday bonuses were handed out. These were thousand-dollar checks, mind you, and separate from their usual monthly bonuses. On top of that, they were given not-inexpensive gifts like fancy heated car-seat covers and custom-embroidered coats (which they now wear around like status symbols). And after that, they had an “everybody wins” raffle in which MORE monetary prizes were handed out, ranging from $500 to $2000.

Must be nice. Tell us again…why can’t we have annual cost-of-living raises? Oh, right: because the company’s strapped for cash, and reinstating our raises might drive down the stock value. Can’t have that, now, can we?

A week after the higher-ups had their big shindig, management announced that this year’s annual holiday party was cancelled…”Because the company can’t afford it.” Gee, I wonder where all that money went?

So here I sit, at home, with six bucks to my name and no way to afford both a Chef Boyardee dinner for my daughter and the commute to the job that used to support me. I’m left to wonder how I’m going to afford gasoline, power, the car payment and and the house payment while they can somehow afford new motorcycles and sportscars.

It’s the same old “Austerity for thee, but not for me” mentality. It’s twisted, and it’s wrong.

I see in this the 99% vs the 1% in microcosm: those who labor the least literally get almost everything there is to be had, while those who actually DO THE WORK get exactly jack-shit. Management can operate with complete impunity, doing whatever the hell they want with no consequences, while the rest of us work in fear that the next cut might include our jobs. There are two sets of rules: one for them, and another for the rest of us (salaried people, for example, can show up late and leave early without penalty). There is no place for those who get ill, because they simply “cost too much.” The working class is worthy only of mockery, because if they were “somebody,” they’d already be part of the Salaried Class. In this environment, $25 gift cards are metaphorical slaps in the face.

We need something we can LIVE ON. I need a wage that allows me, at the very least, to afford to go to work! Many of us, myself included, are looking for another job; some fortunate ones have left already, but I don’t need to describe how tough it is to find something else. And there’s no guarantee that we won’t find the same kind of bullshit still going on, wherever we might end up.

No…it seems that we blue-collar Joes and Jills won’t ever get what we need–what’s FAIR–until those who mind the coffers–in both business and government–stop enriching themselves at the expense of everyone else.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on February 7, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

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Laborers Train Society’s Left Behind for Green Jobs; Launch Green Local

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adele_stan_140x140With the graduation of seven newly certified weatherization technicians from its Eastern New York Laborers Training Center, the New York State Laborers’ Union (NYSLIUNA) is blowing holes in several right-wing myths all at once, proving that jobless people do want to work, government programs can spur the creation of good jobs and labor unions can lead the way to prosperity.

Working in partnership with Peter Young Housing, Industries & Treatment (PYHIT), a non-profit that provides treatment, housing and vocational training to disadvantaged people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, the Laborers trained these first members of Green Jobs Local 58, chartered by the Laborers (LIUNA) as the first local in the Albany, N.Y., region dedicated exclusively to green jobs. Participants in the training had to be clean and sober for at least six months in order to be accepted into the program.

Thanks in part to the state’s 2009 Green Jobs/Green New York Act and a new program launched by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the demand for the retrofitting of homes to be more weather-resistant and energy-efficient is expected to climb. (Through the NYSERDA program, residents will be able to finance the weatherization of their homes via their monthly utility bills.)

The new Local 58 members will work for Eagle Street Construction, one of PYHIT’s vocational enterprises. Local 58 Business Manager Frank Marchese Jr. told the Albany Times Union that the workers would earn $14 per hour, plus a benefits package. He told the paper:

We are taking people involved in social programs who are now moving into being viable taxpayers.

Pete Wilcox, one of the local’s new members, expressed his enthusiasm to the Times Union this way:

I am very thankful for the opportunity to get green jobs training. I live in Albany and it means a lot to me to be able to have the skills to weatherize homes in my own backyard.

Sounds like a win for everybody.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on February 6, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Adele Stan writes: “My first union job was as a cashier at a New Jersey supermarket when I was 17, where I fell in love with the labor movement. My journalism career began at Ms. magazine (where, in the 1990s, I represented freelancers on an NWU arbitration team). I’ve covered the right wing of American politics for Mother Jones, The Nation, The American Prospect and, currently, for AlterNet, where I report on the tea party movement and cover the presidential campaign. I also served as a communications specialist for AFGE, 2001-2005.”

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Exploited Hershey Students Win Small Victory Against Guest Worker Exploitation

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Mike ElkWASHINGTON, D.C.—Last week, in a small victory for guest workers activists, the State Department announced that it had debarred guest workers recruiter Council for Educational Travel USA (CETUSA) from the J-1 cultural exchange guest worker visa program. CETUSA had provided student guestworkers to work in Hershey warehouses in Palmyra, Penn. As I reported last summer, these workers went out on strike with the help of local unions to protest being paid only $20-$40 per week after having pay deducted for high rent and other services.

“The State Department’s ban on CETUSA is a big win for the students, and a blow against the larger trend of labor recruiters and companies using guestworkers to hollow out industries and undercut wages and conditions all over America,” National Guest Worker Alliance (NGA) Director Saket Soni said. “Corporations like Hershey’s and labor recruiters like CETUSA have turned the J-1 cultural exchange program into the country’s largest guest worker program, and profited from captive workers earning low wage.”

The debarment of CETUSA is a small victory for NGA, as there are many other recruiters still operating in the J-1 guest worker visa program that abuse workers, according to the organization. Advocates say that in order to stop further abuses of guestworkers the J-1 program needs to be reformed to provide greater rights to guest workers and more oversight of recruiters and companies using guest workers.

“I hope this sends a clear message to other recruiters like CETUSA: we will NOT be your captive workers,” said Harika Duygu Ozer, an NGA member and former J-1 student worker  at the Hershey’s plant from Turkey. “Now the State Department needs to make laws so that the next group of workers that are made captive by recruiters don’t have to risk being fired and deported or go on strike, just to get their basic rights respected.”

The State Department also announced that it will begin a review of how to restructure the oversight and will announce new regulations of the guest workers programs this summer.  It’s unclear what the rules or regulations will be.

Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Rick Ruth, however, told The New York Times that the new rules will expand the list of occupations that cultural exchange guest workers would be barred from working, including “construction and roofing” and other hazardous industries. State Department officials also told the Times “they were also considering a ban on most factory and industrial jobs” for cultural exchange guest workers. The State Department also pledged to increase their staff overseeing the cultural exchange guest worker program by 15 from its current level of 40.

“The real question, though, is whether the State Department going to include real workers’ protections in the regulations—in particular, workers’ right to organize” says NGA Communications Director Stephen Boykewich. “What we found is that the ability of guest workers to organize without fear of intimidation is the most important thing necessary to prevent what we saw at Hershey.”

In an effort to pressure the State Department to crack down on more guestworkers who violate the program, the NGA is releasing a list this week of 10 companies that have abused guestworkers that they would like to see the State Department crack down on.

“Getting CETUSA debarred is an important short-term victory but a larger fight is just beginning,” says Boykewich.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 6, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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Economy Adds 243,000 Jobs, Unemployment Drops to 8.3 Percent

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Image: Mike HallThe nation’s unemployment rate in January fell to 8.3 percent, down from December’s 8.5 percent, and the economy added 243,000 jobs, according to the latest figures released this morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The nation’s unemployment rate continues it steady decline, dropping by 0.8 percentage points since August and to the lowest  point since February 2009. The number of jobless workers dropped to 12.8 million, down from December’s 13.1 million. But the number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was little changed at 5.5 million, about 42.9 percent of the unemployed.

The unemployment insurance program for the nation’s jobless workers expires Feb. 29.  A conference is now under way between the Senate and House over two very different one-year extensions of the UI program passed late last year and the Republican bill would slash federal benefits, impose harsh new restrictions and move to dismantle the essential lifeline of unemployment insurance.  Click here for details.

Economic Policy Institute (EPI) economist Heidi Shierholz says today’s figures show “a labor market where all the moving parts seemed to be moving in a solidly good direction.”

Strong payroll employment growth was matched by a falling unemployment rate, strong employment growth in the household survey and a growing share of the population with jobs…It’s important to keep this growth in context, however—the jobs deficit is so large that even at January’s growth rate, it would still take until 2019 to get back to full employment.  We need reports this strong and stronger for the next several years to get back to good health in the labor market.

Private-sector jobs grew by 257,000, and government employment was essentially unchanged, but over the past 12 months 276,000 public employee jobs have been lost.

In January, professional and business services add about 70,000 jobs. The leisure and hospitality industry added 44,000 jobs and health care jobs grew by 31,000.

Manufacturing saw an increase of 50,000 jobs, mostly in durable goods, and the construction industry added 21,000 jobs.  There were 10,000 new jobs in the mining industry in January.

The unemployment rates for adult men (7.7 percent) and African Americans (13.6 percent) declined in January. The unemployment rates for adult women (7.7 percent), teenagers (23.2 percent), whites (7.4 percent) and Hispanics (10.5 percent) were little changed.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now blog on February 3, 2012. 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 my collar was still blue, I 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. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.”

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Catholic Teacher Fired for Having a Baby

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Katherine LazarowIn one way or another, we agree to contracts with fixed terms every day: before downloading music on iTunes, buying a cell phone plan, or taking out a student loan. More and more, another area in which the terms of contracts may be non-negotiable is in the area of employment, as individuals desperate for a job agree to an employer’s conditions or risk not being hired. But what if—in addition to a set number of vacation days and an agreement not to publically disparage the employer—potential employees were also asked to commit to other, more fundamental provisions?

In fact, many employees already do.

For example: When Christa Dias of Cincinnati, Ohio, was hired as a part-time technology teacher in 2008 at Holy Family School, and in 2009 at St. Lawrence Catholic School, she had to sign employment contracts agreeing to comply with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

Ms. Dias is not, herself, Catholic.

In October 2010, shortly after Ms. Dias asked for maternity leave, she was fired from both schools for breaching her employment contracts. Her violation? Well, it’s confusing.

Ms. Dias alleges that the schools first informed her she was being dismissed “for becoming pregnant outside of marriage,” but upon realizing that this might violate federal and state anti-discrimination laws, the schools quickly changed their tune. They now claim that they fired her for having undergone artificial insemination, which the Church views as a grave immoral act, and, they say, is in direct violation of her employment agreements, which require employees to “comply with and act consistently in accordance with the stated philosophy and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church,” part 1F. (According to Catechisms 2353, 2366, and 2376, premarital sex and pregnancy outside of marriage are frowned upon, but only artificial insemination is labeled “gravely immoral.”)

In response, Ms. Dias filed an employment discrimination suit against the two schools and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in the U.S. District Court in April.

Does Ms. Dias have a case? Are these employment contracts enforceable? If a teacher can be fired for engaging in behavior that violates Catholic teachings, can she lose her job for using birth control? What if she has an abortion? How do courts balance employment discrimination laws against the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom? Questions the press did not tackle. LASIS will.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids employers from firing employees because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In 1978, through the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Congress amended Title VII to include pregnancy discrimination within the definition of sex discrimination; women can’t be fired solely because they’re pregnant.

To make a case of sex discrimination based on pregnancy, a woman must show that she was pregnant, she was qualified for the job, she was fired, and there is a connection between her pregnancy and the termination of her employment. If she makes her case, then the burden shifts to the employer to provide a nondiscriminatory justification for firing her, maybe because she bribed her students, fell asleep in class, or posted inappropriate comments on Facebook. You can figure out how things play out from here. If the employer can’t come up with a legitimate reason for firing the employee, she wins. But if the employer offers a legitimate reason, the employer wins . . . unless the teacher proves that the school’s explanation was merely an excuse to hide its discriminatory conduct.

If she weren’t working for religious institutions, it appears that Ms. Dias would have a clear case of sex discrimination: she was pregnant, by all accounts she performed her job well, she was fired, and there is a connection between her termination and pregnancy.

But Ms. Dias did work for religious institutions, and so we continue our way through this legal maze, and ask: When a religious institution claims that it fired an employee for a religious reason, should courts look into whether the stated reason is just a pretext to hide its discriminatory conduct? This investigation into the employer’s motivation can entangle the government in religious issues, and some courts are not so keen to engage in this inquiry. For example, in 1991 the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that, under the First Amendment, a court must accept a church’s religious justification for dismissing an employee without question. Fortunately for Ms. Dias, the Sixth Circuit is more willing to explore whether an employer’s stated reason for firing its employee is genuine.

In cases when a school initially told its teacher she was being fired for certain conduct and then changed its reason to a religious one, some courts are more likely to disbelieve the school’s “on-second-thought” religious reason for dismissal. This may bode well for Ms. Dias.

In addition, the provision of Ms. Dias’ employment contract in which she agreed to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church doesn’t necessarily doom her case. Employment contracts and handbooks requiring employees to follow specific church teachings are common in religious schools, but the terms of the contracts are still subject to Title VII. A court will refuse to enforce a contract if an employee can show that it was not applied equally to men and women, in which case the court will view the policy as a ploy to engage in sex discrimination.

In a 1999 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case, the court explained that for a school to enforce its policy against premarital sex solely by observing the pregnancy of its female teachers would constitute a form of pregnancy discrimination. So Ms. Dias can win if she demonstrates that the schools only enforced this provision against women. The fact that in 2002 the Archdiocese of Cincinnati suspended, rather than fired, a teacher (who was also a priest) accused of sexual misconduct with two male students might weigh in her favor. We think it’s safe to wager that this kind of behavior went against church teachings and would have been prohibited under his employment contract.

Now let’s take things a step or two further. Could an employer of a religious institution regulate whether an employee uses birth control? Has an abortion?

Unlike premarital sex or artificial insemination, which may result in pregnancy, these activities are private matters that are probably difficult for an employer to discover. But suppose a teacher in a Catholic school confides in a coworker that she had an abortion and this coworker tells the school administration. Under Title VII, could the school fire the teacher, if the teacher agreed to these terms when she was hired? If the policy is applied equally to men and women, the answer will most likely be “yes.”

You may be thinking, “But doesn’t the fact that men can’t have abortions automatically make any policy against abortions discriminatory?” Not necessarily (!)

If the policy doesn’t target abortions specifically but rather requires employees to abide by Catholic teachings in general, it’s not discriminatory on its face. So the only way to maintain an employment discrimination claim is to show that, although the policy is “facially neutral,” it’s not applied equally to men and women. This can be demonstrated with proof that a male teacher who also violated the employer’s policy was not fired even though the school was aware of his misconduct as well.

But before you start breaking out the champagne for Ms. Dias: There is an ever-expanding exception to employment discrimination cases against religious institutions that may negate the possibility of Ms. Dias winning her case altogether. In 1972, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals first recognized the “ministerial exception” to Title VII, holding that the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment prohibit the government from interfering in a church’s decision to fire a minister. Basically, religious institutions must be free to dismiss ministers for any reason, without worrying whether their decision will subject them to employment discrimination claims.

If the schools can prove that Ms. Dias served as a minister, she will be barred from bringing a Title VII claim. And courts have expanded the ministerial exception to include many employees who aren’t ordained ministers, as long as their primary duties are ministerial.

Unfortunately for Ms. Dias, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission broadened the definition of ministers under the exception even further. In that case, the plaintiff, a teacher, instructed her students on mostly secular subjects with the exception of approximately 45 minutes each day, when she taught religion and led the students in prayer. The plaintiff also completed eight college-level theological courses in order to obtain the title of “called” teacher (as opposed to “lay” teacher). According to a unanimous Supreme Court, those activities were sufficient to label the teacher a minister and dismiss the suit based on the ministerial exception to employment discrimination claims.

In her complaint, Ms. Dias states that she worked as a technology coordinator, teaching computer classes and overseeing the computer systems at the schools. There is no indication that she instructed the students on religious topics or led them in prayer. So Ms. Dias will probably not be considered a minister and the school won’t be able to use the ministerial exception as a defense to her discrimination claim.

Regardless of the outcome of her case, Ms. Dias has no regrets about having artificial insemination, and is delighted with her little girl. “I would do it all over again for her,” she said.

This blog originally appeared in Legal as She is Spoke on January 25, 2012. Legal as She is Spoke is a blog produced by New York Law School’s Program in Law and Journalism. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Katherine Lazarow is a staff editor for the New York Law School Law Review, a member of the Justice Action Center, and an intern at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project. Katherine graduated from McGill University in Montréal with a Bachelor’s in Sociology.

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Replacing Factories With Jails: Just 44% of Milwaukee’s Black Men in Workforce

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Roger BybeeCity has lost three-fourths of its manufacturing jobs since 1960s

MILWAUKEE—Wisconsin’s economic problems are only deepening the political crisis for Gov. Scott Walker, already the target of a massive recall campaign that gathered 1.1 signatures from Wisconsinites.

Despite Walker’s pledge to preside over the creation of 250,000 jobs by 2015, Wisconsin has lost jobs for the past six months as the rest of the country has added them, and job losses have totaled more than 35,000 since he signed his highly controversial state budget last June.

But there is a more specific economic (and social) crisis facing Milwaukee: Just 44.7 percent of African-American males are still part of the workforce, reflecting the long-term decimation and relocation of the city’s industrial based and the lingering effects of the Great Recession.

Even for African-American males in their prime working years (25 to 54), only 52 percent were in the workforce. “That took me aback,” stated Marc Levine, author of the new study illuminating the appalling level of joblessness in the city’s black community.

“The most striking finding was the extent to which black employment rate has declined across all the heavily-industrialized cities of the Northeast and Midwest, like Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Buffalo,” said Levine, director emeritus of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center on Urban Development.

These cities have been hit by three waves of industrial shifts, first to the suburban ring, then to “the right-to-work states of the anti-union South,” and finally offshoring to low-wage, repressive nations like China and Mexico, said Levine.

With 54 percent of Milwaukee’s black workers employed in manufacturing in 1970, “The unraveling of manufacturing affected blacks here more than in other cities,” Levine noted. “All of the old industrial cities have been hit across the board, but Milwaukee with its especially large industrial base was really affected.”

As the study documents,

No metro area has witnessed more precipitous erosion in the labor market for black males over the past 40 years than has Milwaukee. The 2010 data, however, revealed a new nadir for black male employment in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee has lost a three-fourths of its manufacturing jobs since the 1960s, representing a giant canyon of destroyed opportunities. In the city long called “the Machine Tool Capital of the World” in recognition of its highly-skilled industrial workforce, only about 26,000 manufacturing jobs remain.

The loss of these jobs has been accompanied by a substantial drop in family incomes in the city. Milwaukee’s median household income, adjusted for inflation, plummeted
a stunning 21.9 percent since 1999, according to new U.S. Census data. That’s well over twice the national average of 8.9 percent.

But along with the impact of de-industrialization and de-unionization affecting the entire working class, African Americans in Milwaukee have faced “hyper-segregated conditions, with 88 percent of the blacks in the metro area concentrated in the central city, said Levine. With many lacking cars and public transportation to the suburbs—where almost all employment increases have occurred—the inner city economy has radically changed over the past four decades.

“In the new economy of the inner city, there are only 4,800 blacks employed in production now,” a small fraction of a once-huge African-American industrial working class, said Levine. “At the same time, every year we have about 5,000 African-American males entering the prison system. … We’ve seen the twin phenomena of the loss of factory jobs and a poorly-conceived war on drugs. As a result, almost 50 percent of Milwaukee’s black males are in jail, in prison, on probation, on parole, somewhere in the system.”

Milwaukee’s corporate leaders and media have continued to promote job training as the central solution to both high unemployment in the central city and a shortage of skilled workers:

The new chairman of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s biggest and most vocal business lobby, … vowed to tackle an issue that’s infuriated plant managers for years: a chronic inability to fill manufacturing jobs for lack of qualified or willing candidates.

Todd Teske, president and chief executive of Wauwatosa-based Briggs & Stratton Corp., said he would make the skills mismatch his top priority during the two-year rotating chairmanship of the 101-year old business group….

Industrial jobs are the core of Wisconsin’s middle class, Teske said: “But those jobs are threatened by a number of factors including a shortage of skilled industrial workers to fill existing and expected job vacancies.”

But for Levine, the training strategy championed by Teske and WMC is bound for failure. “It represents the tried and true approach for those who won’t face up to the fact that the private sector isn’t filling the need for jobs, but don’t want to challenge the private sector or their investment decisions.”

Briggs, for example, has moved thousands of jobs to Mexico and China.

“It’s not a skills shortage, it’s a shortage of private-sector job creation,” Levine says.

With Corporate America clearly opting out of domestic job creation—2.9 million jobs were eliminated in the United States since 2000, while 2.4 million were created offshore—local, state, and federal officials could confront the jobs crisis with a strategy that directly creates jobs, boosts consumer demand, and repairs America’s deteriorating infrastructure.

“We need Keynesian measures to build consumer demand, said Levine. “We need direct government involvement to rebuild the infrastructure, renovate our transportation systems, and update our communications system. All of these will also build broader consumer demand.”

The absence of jobs and income so acutely afflicting blacks in Milwaukee—and Americans of all colors across the nation—will not be cured by wishful thinking about the “insourcing” of jobs hailed by President Obama in recent speeches.

“Insourcing is a very, very minor trend,” Levine, pointing out that Milwaukee’s Master Lock (also see here ), although much celebrated (sometimes incorrectly) has only brought back a small share of the jobs it sent to Mexico. Still, the vastly-downsized United Auto Workers Local 469 is grateful for the addition of about 100 jobs over the last year;  a minimum of 800 Master Lock jobs had been shipped off to Mexico and China.

The depth of suffering in Milwaukee’s African-American community and elsewhere caused by the jobs shortage demands urgent action, not hope that “the private sector” to step forward. But when President Obama has talked about the need for job creation in recent months, he has stressed the need for private-sector” involvement.

Meanwhile, indifferent CEOs of major corporations sit on unprecedented trillions in reserves, and continue exporting jobs south of the border and overseas.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 1, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications and websites, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. Bybee edited The Racine Labor weekly newspaper for 14 years in his hometown of Racine, Wis., where his grandfathers and father were socialist and labor activists. His website can be found here, and his e-mail address is winterbybee@gmail.com.

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