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Jobs Crisis Spreads to Young Workers Worldwide

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Credit: Joe Kekeris

Young workers in the euro zone have been among the hardest hit by the global economic crisis, and now even those in regions like East Asia, where economies have remained strong through the recession, are struggling to get jobs, a new International Labor Organization (ILO) report shows (click chart to enlarge).

As the euro area crisis continues in its second year, the impacts are spreading further, slowing down economies from East Asia to Latin America. Other regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, that had expected faster improvements in their youth labor markets will now take longer to revert to levels seen prior to the global financial crisis.

As a result, young workers in Europe (ages 15 to 24) are turning to part-time employment and increasingly finding work in the informal sector (jobs not taxed by the government or included in the gross domestic product [GDP]). Some 17 percent of young European workers are in the informal sector, compared with 7 percent for prime age workers. The report also points out there is a vast disparity among European countries: Youth unemployment rates range from more than 50 percent in Spain and Greece to less than 10 percent in Germany and Switzerland.

In the United States, nearly 24 percent of young workers between ages 16 and 19 are unemployed. The employment picture also is bleak for young workers with college degrees. Only half of those who graduated between 2006 and 2011 have full-time jobs. More than half are saddled with college debt (the median amount is $20,000) that is shaping their life choices. For example, more than one-quarter live with their parents, and more than half get help from their families to meet basic needs.

The ILO is calling for countries to provide employment or training guarantees for targeted groups of young people, citing estimates that such programs cost less than half a percent of GDP among European countries.

Check out the ILO’s full report.

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

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union (the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism (covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia) she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

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Typo stands between Albuquerque workers and a minimum wage increase

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Let the uncertain fate of a proposal to raise Albuquerque, New Mexico’s minimum wage be a lesson to you: Proofreading matters. Groups pushing to raise the minimum wage from $7.50 to $8.50, with tipped workers receiving 45 percent of that, collected 25,000 signatures, more than 12,000 of which were certified by the city clerk. But they apparently didn’t proofread what they gathered signatures on.

The signatures were gathered for a proposal reading: “Starting in 2013, employers of tipped employees like waitresses and waiters be paid at least 45 percent of the minimum wage in cash wages from their employers.” Did you catch that? “Employers” and “employees” are reversed at the beginning of the sentence, suggesting that restaurant owners would be the ones getting paid.

With restaurant owners typically among the biggest opponents of raising the minimum wage (or offering paid sick leave, or anything else that benefits workers), if the measure passes as written, or if the typo is corrected and the measure passes, lawsuits against it taking effect are a guarantee. City law does in fact allow for typos to be fixed, but that wouldn’t necessarily prevent a lengthy legal battle.

The typo is not the only confusion regarding the measure:

The city charter says once the petitions for an initiative like the one OLE used are submitted, the city clerk has 10 days to certify the signatures. After that, city council has two weeks to act on it or the proposal goes on a ballot 90 days from when it was submitted.

No action was taken at Wednesday’s city council meeting so according to the charter, voters should get a say before November 9.

However under state law, city council needs to pass an election resolution to put the issue on the ballot, something it hasn’t done yet.

Whatever it takes, this is a fight worth having. Raising the minimum wage is popular, it’s the right thing to do for workers struggling to make ends meet, and it definitely doesn’t hurt job creation—in fact, evidence suggests it helps job creation. Nationally, the workers who benefit from a minimum wage increase are overwhelmingly at least 20 years old, with majorities being women and full-time workers.
And if it’s a fight worth having, it’s worth proofreading. Twice, if necessary.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on September 7, 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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Sickened South African Mine Workers Seek Justice in Courts

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South Africa’s mining industry has been plastered across international headlines in recent days following the massacre of 34 protesting platinum mine workers in Marikana. This week, thousands of striking workers marched to protest the assault on labor rights and economic security by both the police and corporations.

But while the media’s gaze has fixed on roiling unrest at Lonmin, the more insidious crisis of safety conditions in the mines remains mostly buried below the surface. Over the years, perhaps hundreds of thousands of workers have been gradually sickened or killed by an epidemic that has largely gone ignored by the industry and the post-Apartheid government.

But now, some workers are resisting injustice in the mines by going to court, with a group of lawsuits alleging that three gold mining companies sickened many employees with toxic exposures that are tied to “varying degrees of silicosis”–a disease that causes chronic breathing problems–as well as tuberculosis and lung cancer.

The legal claims, which target AngloGold Ashanti (formerly Anglo American), Harmony Gold Mining Company, and Gold Fields, have been advanced by a recent landmark ruling by the South African Constitutional Court. The decision affirms that injured workers have the right to sue employers for occupational health-related damages.

The principle behind the litigation, according to Richard Lewis, an attorney with Hausfield LLP who is assisting the South African counsel, is that that the country’s mining regulations, some stretching back decades, as well as common law and the constitution, “impose a duty on the employer to provide safe and healthy working conditions.”

Lewis notes the decision is “uniquely” progressive, even compared to the legal framework in richer industrialized countries like the United States, because the recent court decision effectively offers an alternative to the traditional workers’ compensation system, which is known for woefully inadequate payments to sick workers–and for discrimination against black claimants.

“Usually one’s claim against an employer is limited to the workers’ compensation system,” Lewis says. “You can’t go to court in the civil common law system and sue for damages. But here… in South Africa the miners do have that right, to go beyond the compensation system and into the common law courts.” (In the United States, injured workers often face dysfunctional state workers’ compensation bureaucracies that tend to get ensnared by severe budget pressures.)

Even when workers aren’t being mowed down by police, death is never far from South Africa’s mines; workers have been routinely exposed to toxins with appallingly minimal physical protection. In a Reuters investigation published in March, a mine worker interviewed in Lesotho, who had worked for Gold Fields for more than three decades before being laid off in 2008, explained the do-it-yourself safety protocol:

“The only safety gear they gave us was gloves,” said 55-year-old Tele Nchaka… “We didn’t have masks. To stop the dust, we just had old T-shirts that we used to make wet.”

The impact of the gold miner litigation could be massive: According to Hausfeld, “between 320,000 and 500,000 black southern African gold miners have contracted silicosis and other occupational lung diseases in prior decades. The highest recorded rates of TB in the world have been found in the gold mines of South Africa and the disease figures have remained unconscionably high for decades.”

The next step for the current plaintiffs is to press forward with certification as a legal “class” and move toward a trial. The structure of the litigation leaves the door open for more workers to join the suit down the line, and some experts anticipate an explosion of claims due to the size of the workforce, the widespread presence of migrant workers from countries like Botswana and Malawi, and the prevalence of silicosis.

As with many other countries, including the United States, the health threats plaguing mine workers aren’t so much a product of lax laws; regulatory conditions have somewhat improved in recent years. The problem, says Lewis, is systemic failure of enforcement:

There is no lack of knowledge on how to prevent occupational lung disease. [It’s] not so much that the laws are weak, but that they’re not enforced. And so in reality they become weak and the workers don’t get the protection they deserve and that they need. And I think that’s true around the world.

This is the tragic subtext to many of these mine safety crises–from the chokehold of black lung in Appalachia to the Chinese mine explosions that regularly bury workers alive. The laws on the books aren’t applied on the ground, and workers are generally left at the mercy of the regulatory bodies that lack the staff and institutional capacity to hold employers accountable or prevent future hazards.

The claimant at the head of the compensation lawsuit that led to the breakthrough ruling, Thembekile Mankayi, died just before the court issued its decision in March 2011, as a result of respiratory illness attributed to his work at an underground mine near Johannesburg. Mankayi had toiled for Anglogold from 1979 to 1995, but although his career spanned through the fall of Apartheid, his body ultimately expired before he could see justice served in a democratic South Africa.

But some redemption may be on the horizon for many others sickened by the mines if the legal system finally provides them fair compensation. Under a neoliberal economic regime, South Africa’s mines remain haunted by the ghosts of Apartheid. But at least for some of the workers whose bodies bear the scars of that history, justice is no longer so far out of reach.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 12, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

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Chicago Teachers Strike for Fair Contract (But Really for Better Schools)

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Early this morning, Chicago teachers organized picket lines at all entrances to William H. Ray Elementary School in Hyde Park on the city’s South Side. They were joined by dozens of students, parents and local community residents. It was the first day in 25 years that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)–the first teachers union in the country–had gone out on strike, and picketers banged drums, gobbled doughnuts, waved at passing motorists (and the driver of a passing waste truck), and chanted with militant cheeriness: “Lies and tricks will not divide/parents and teachers side by side.”

Late Sunday night, the union leaders decided that, despite some progress in the nearly year-long contract negotiations, the school board had failed to satisfy the union’s 29,000 teachers and support staff in several key areas.

CTU president Karen Lewis, leader of an internal reform movement that took the union’s top offices in 2010, said the offer from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) did not preserve medical benefits and did not provide adequate job security in a system thrown into turmoil by school closures and charter school openings. CTU also objects to a new system for evaluating teachers that relies heavily on improvement in student test scores.

Lewis said the two sides are not far apart on the issue of pay, including compensation for a longer day that CPS imposed this year. Sources differ as to the amounts on the table: Mayor Emanuel said the board offered a 16 percent raise over four years; board president David Vitale described the proposal as 3 percent in the first year, then 2 percent each of three following years; and the CTU characterized neither its latest proposal nor the CPS response.

But at its heart, the strike is over the union’s deep opposition to what it calls a “corporate reform agenda” that pursues a competitive or punitive relationship with teachers, rather than a collaborative one. Examples include blaming teachers and unions for educational shortcomings, promoting private but publicly financed charter schools, focusing on high-stakes tests and tying pay to merit.

CTU has instead pushed for smaller classes, enriched curriculum, better supplies and facilities, fairer and fuller funding (including the return of some public revenue long diverted into “TIFs” to subsidize developers), more counselors and support staff, respect for teacher professionalism, and a bigger say for teachers in their schools.

That clash puts the union at odds with CPS, the mayor and President Obama–whose education secretary, Arne Duncan, boosted the corporate-reform agenda as former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s school superintendent. It also represents a more forceful rejection of such reforms than espoused by the national union, which nonetheless supports the CTU strike.

Unfortunately, CTU’s leaders have not pierced effectively through the cloud of misinformation coming from the mayor and allies (including groups with a financial stake in charter schools) to make clear what they’re for and against. Also, a new state law limits the union’s ability to negotiate many of the most important policy issues.

But Emanuel’s unpopularity among unions has lifted union support, including backing from UNITE-HERE members working in the school lunchrooms, who offered to join teacher picket lines even though the food workers’ earlier negotiation of a contract precludes their joining the walkout.

Emanuel said the strike was unnecessary, unwanted (by him), and wrong–“a strike of choice.” But one teacher tells In These Times it was virtually inevitable given Emanuel’s insulting, disrespectful attitude towards teachers and the union, his unilateral imposition of major changes without consultation and his hostility towards most public schools. I asked John Cusick, a union delegate who has taught fifth grade for 12 years at Ray School, what he thought of Emanuel calling teachers’ action a “choice,” not a necessity. After a long pause, he said, “We don’t have a lot of choices in CPS. We had no input into the longer school day. We’re given no input into how the day is structured. We’re given no input into whether the barrage of testing our students are undergoing makes sense. We have no choice in electing a school board. That’s a choice we’d like to have.”

Instead of experienced professionals having a voice, the board consists of rich people such as billionaire hotel heiress Penny Pritzker, whose businesses benefit from TIF funds that divert money from schools. Meanwhile, she sent her children to the private University of Chicago Lab School (as Emanuel now does), which she praises for its generous, well-appointed facilities. Lab is a few blocks from Ray (a fine public school that my kids attended), but worlds apart in amenities.

“We’d like to be involved in discussing class size,” Cusick adds. “We’d also like more social workers and youth guidance counselors. We’d like to be funded to the hilt like [the rich northern suburb of] Winnetka. Last year Ray had classes with as many as 41 students. Let’s have those choices.”

And beyond those strictly educational policy choices, there are the critical environmental issues–violence and poverty. “We do think there’s a crisis in American education,” Cusick says, “and it has to do with poverty, but officials offer charter schools. In ten years they’ll realize charter schools don’t solve the problem. We don’t need quick fixes. We need long-term commitment and investment.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 10, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

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10 Tips for Becoming a Workplace Politics Rebel

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The other day, I read an article on Forbes called “Tips For Dealing With Lazy Co-Workers.”

It’s a fun topic, isn’t it, because we all love to feel like we are the only ones working hard. And it’s such a hardship to put up with lazy old Joe in the next cube over. Ugh!

Time to review one of our favorite words: Sludge.

“Sludge” is the toxic language we use to judge people for how they spend their time. It’s based on old beliefs about how work should happen.

Sludge is when someone says, “10:00 a.m. and you’re just getting in? I wish I could come in late every day.” The belief being expressed here is that work happens between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. The person who isn’t in the building at 8:00 a.m. is therefore not working.

Focusing on lazy co-workers is a waste of time. It’s Sludge.

Changing Workplace Culture

No one wins when you play office politics, so stop playing the game! For all the lists out there that we’ve seen lately (ahem.. “Tips for Pretending Like You’re Really Working” or “Tips for How to Dress Like a Really Serious Professional” or “Tips to Fake Being ‘On’ 24/7”), I present to you a Results-Only perspective: 10 Tips for Becoming a Workplace Politics Rebel

10. Remind yourself that you are an adult.

That’s right. Ask yourself why, as an adult, you have to ask your boss for permission to do the following:

Take a longer lunch
Leave early
Arrive late
Use the restroom (Yes, some clients of ours used to be required to ask for a hall pass!)
Explain why you’re not putting in extra hours

9. What is fair? Getting paid to deliver results. Period.

Remember college? If you didn’t know the material, you got a bad grade. If you skipped every class and had no clue what classes you were even taking and got a bad grade, you were accountable. No results? No GRADE. You are getting paid to deliver something for the organization. At work, what it should come down to is this: “No results, no job.”

8. Get clear on measurable results.

What isn’t measurable is subject to interpretation. This puts you as an employee in a bad spot and tempts the boss to reward face-time and presenteeism.

Not sure what you’re supposed to be doing or delivering? Do not waste another minute filling time. Go to your boss and be relentless about identifying–in writing–how you are going to measure your work. What is success? And then run from anything that is subjective.

“I’d like you to work on being a team player” is absolutely not a business goal. It’s up to the interpretation of everyone around you and you’ll never win that one.

7. See old beliefs for what they are. Old.

Relationships are best built face-to-face. Some people just need more supervision. People who are in the office are more dedicated. The best collaboration happens in the office. Core hours are important to the customer. People who telework are slackers.

If any of these beliefs made you say “that’s so true”’ then you’re six degrees of separation away from focusing on what is important. There’s a new definition for the social aspect of work.

6. Stop talking about “availability”

It’s time to cease the wasted energy surrounding these phrases: “Who is available?”, “When will you be available?”, “Are you available from 8-5?”, “Will you be available next week?”, “What time this afternoon will you be available?”, “We need to be available for our customers.”

Get a grip! We have voicemail and email–the superheroes that work 24/7 to gather information for us. So that we can get work done. Voicemail and email are on 24/7, but that doesn’t mean you should be! In response to all that gathered information, what people need to do is…coming up in the next point.

5. Respond. Not fast…not slow…but based on the work.

Respond to the needs of the business – the work. Who best knows your job? You. And according to #6, you have superheroes gathering information for you so that you can respond to the needs of your business. Only you know how speedy that needs to be.

An on-call surgeon has a different response time then an accountant (unless it’s April 15th). If someone asks “will you be available on Friday?” respond politely, but firmly, with the magic phrase: “is there something you need?

6. Let go of the clock. Just… let… it… go!

Time only matters if it is about a deadline. Or if you decided to meet at 1:00 p.m., 1:00 p.m. is relevant. Anyone who thinks 8 a.m. is some magical time that work should begin and 5pm is some magical time work should end – for most people – is seriously living in 1952.

If you find yourself looking at the clock and barking out comments like “It’s nine o’clock! Where the heck is Bob?!” please go back and review all of the points in this post.

3. Only ‘meet’ if the work requires meeting.

Find yourself getting caught up in unproductive meetings that are wasting your time and going nowhere? It’s not the meeting organizer’s fault. It’s yours. Look at all the meetings you have on your calendar. For each meeting, ask the following questions:

Is there a clear, measurable outcome that will affect the measurable outcome of your work? Do you know your role? Is a meeting the best way to accomplish the outcome?

If the answer is yes, then meet. If not, ask the meeting organizer to clarify these things for you and if they can’t, politely decline.

2. Mind your own business.

Now that you’ve accomplished #8, this is your focus. What time Susie is coming in, or how much vacation Bob is getting, is not important. Each and every day, reach out to people and tell them exactly what you need and when you need it in order to accomplish what you’ve agreed to deliver, and the rest will take care of itself. Whether Jill is working from home, a cabin, or a cube is irrelevant. And how much vacation time Bob gets – yep. Irrelevant.

1. Focus on what matters

At the risk of sounding a bit Pollyanna-ish, your life is what matters. The old adage “nobody on their deathbed ever said ‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office’” had it right. If we continue to play the old workplace politics game that includes who stayed the longest, who put in the most time, who looked the busiest and who was the most effective at sucking up to the boss, then we’re all losers.

This blog originally appeared in ROWE on September 2, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Cali Ressler is co-creator of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). She’s the co-author of the bestselling Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, and a nationally recognized keynote speaker.

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Fewer Workers in Unions = Growing Income Inequality

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Credit: Joe Kekeris

The U.S. public is painfully aware of the growing income inequality in this nation.

Now, a new report shows a big reason why the gap is growing: fewer workers in unions.

Declining unionization was responsible for roughly one-third of the growth of wage inequality among men from 1973 to 2007, a new Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report finds. Declining unionization can explain roughly one-fifth of the growth of wage inequality among women over the same period (click to enlarge chart).

As the study points out, income inequality has increased not only because union members earn higher wages and have better retirement and health coverage, but with fewer union members, nonunion employers feel less pressure to raise wages and provide family-supporting benefits.

The percentage of the workforce represented by unions was stable in the 1970s but fell rapidly in the 1980s and continued to fall in the 1990s and the early 2000s, a period that corresponds to the nation’s growing income inequality.

EPI’s upcoming “The State of Working America” report, to be released Sept. 11, includes more on this study. (Read more previews from EPI’s biannual report.)

  • The union wage premium—the percentage-higher wage earned by those covered by a collective bargain­ing contract—is 13.6 percent over­all (17.3 percent for men and 9.1 percent for women).
  • Unionized workers are 28.2 percent more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance and 53.9 percent more likely to have employer-provided pensions.
  • From 1973 to 2011, the share of the workforce represented by unions declined from 26.7 percent to 13.1 percent.

Much of the decline in union membership stems from employers’ war on workers and their unions, a refrain echoed loudly this week at the Republican National Convention.

Chris Tilly, director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, writes today:

It’s U.S. employers who have perfected the art of the anti-union campaign, in which they ratchet up the tension, one-sided arguments and flat-out intimidation to the point where most workers will vote “no union” just to end the discord. Unfortunately decades-old U.S. labor laws do little to curb such tactics.

Big Business works hand in glove with its political puppets to quash the ability of workers to gain a voice at work because the union movement is one of the few forces that have the ability to politically challenge billionaire bankers through our grassroots mobilization efforts.

But Big Business and the billionaires who fund extremist politicians need to understand this, Tully writes:

It’s anti-American to be anti-union.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on August 31, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union (the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism (covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia) she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

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Lawsuit Sheds Light on Murky and Dangerous Warehouse Sector

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Working In These Times has frequently covered the warehousing industry and the way that complicated layers of different companies using, owning, operating and staffing warehouses make the sector ripe for labor abuse.

A motion for sanctions filed August 23 in a workers’ class action lawsuit against southern California Wal-Mart warehouses sheds more light on this structure and alleges that defendant Schneider Logistics failed to provide legally mandated evidence to avoid culpability for workers’ wages and working conditions.

Last October, workers affiliated with the group Warehouse Workers United filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. district court in California alleging labor law violations at Mira Loma warehouses operated solely for Wal-Mart stores. The lawsuit names Schneider Logistics Inc. (SLI) and its subsidiary Schneider Logistics Transloading and Distribution (STLD) along with the companies Impact and Premier, which hired people to staff the warehouses. Schneider took over operation of the warehouses in 2006.

The initial complaint said:

Plaintiffs bring this action on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated to recover the wages that defendants stole — and are continuing to steal — from them in violation of federal and California law. Plaintiffs also seek redress for other consequences of defendants’ unlawful conspiracy, including defendants’ wrongful scheme to hide and then cover up the extent of their wrongdoing by failing to keep mandatory payroll records, falsifying records of hours worked and compensation owed, and concealing, denying and/or misrepresenting to the workers the amount of their earnings and on what basis these earnings were calculated.

A key question is whether Schneider or STLD directly employed–and is therefore responsible for the working conditions of–the plaintiffs, including lead plaintiff Everardo Carrillo. The plaintiffs allege that Schneider is their “joint employer” along with the other defendants.

Schneider Logistics initially argued that it had “no connection with or responsibility for the operation, oversight, or supervision” of the workers at the Mira Loma warehouses, as quoted in the recent motion. It notes that Schneider Logistics Secretary-Treasurer Amy Schilling signed a sworn declaration saying the company had “no business or contractual relationship” with co-defendants Impact and Premier. And the motion alleges that Schneider sought to continue this image by failing to turn over documents during the discovery process that would have indicated otherwise.

In April Schneider attorneys responded to a discovery request without actually looking for the requested documents, according to the motion. In other words, they allegedly were either sloppy or intentionally avoided turning over evidence to which the plaintiffs have a legal right.

This became clear when documents turned over by Impact and Premier included highly relevant Schneider documents which Schneider attorneys had specifically said did not exist. The motion notes:

Schneider has now produced thousands of documents it previously claimed did not exist, including over 12,100 pages of personnel files it maintained for the Impact and Premier class members (whom it claims not to jointly employ), and the workplace rules and training requirements it imposed on all class members.

The plaintiffs say the new documents show that “Schneider’s top managers knowingly made material false statements” to the court, including claims that the warehouse employees are not subject to Schneider employment policies and that Schneider does not keep personnel files on them or set productivity quotas. The documents showed that Schilling herself signed contracts with Premier and Impact, on behalf of STLD and “its affiliates.” Meanwhile, Schilling is also vice president and controller of Schneider National, the parent company of the other Schneider groups, which actually negotiated the contracts with Impact and Premier.

Once it was clear that Schneider did indeed have contracts with Impact and Premier, General Manager Vince Redgrave told the court that the contracts gave Schneider no say over work terms or conditions. The court ordered that Schneider actually produce the contracts, and when it did, as the motion says, “they proved the exact opposite of what Vince Redgrave had testified.”

The federal district judge, Christina Snyder, wrote in a preliminary injunction ruling that the “contracts dictate nearly every material term of plaintiffs’ employment including how Impact and PWV (Premier) must conduct pre-employment screening and new employment training.”

The documents also showed that, contrary to Redgrave’s previous testimony, Schneider did set specific productivity quotas for the warehouse workers and in fact complained to Premier when the rate of cases unloaded per hour dropped. Schneider officials also talked about how to remedy Impact’s “low productivity levels.”

Warehouse worker groups have long argued that unrealistic and escalating productivity quotas are among the things that lead to high chronic and acute injury rates in warehouses. In July, Warehouse Workers United filed a complaint with California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration office.

The recent motion also alleges that Schneider or its attorneys did not order employees to preserve emails relevant to the case, as is standard required legal procedure. It says the company has an automatic delete email function for emails from the Mira Loma warehouses, meaning emails are deleted automatically after a short period of time, and employees also have “absolute discretion” over whether to save or delete emails. The motion says Schneider was slow to issue a memo instating a “litigation hold”—meaning employees should preserve relevant communications. And it alleges even after such a memo was issued, Schneider never enforced it.

The motion also alleges that Schneider destroyed and denied the existence of security camera footage that would aid the plaintiffs’ case. The motion demands that Schneider turn over video footage and also a log of any video that has been destroyed since October 2011.

The motion asks that the court make note of Schneider’s alleged misconduct, tell Schneider that further misconduct will result in sanctions, and provide relevant attorneys’ fees and costs to the plaintiffs. It notes that the court could also decide to inform a jury of Schneider’s false statements and other discovery violations, and asks that the court establish a “rebuttal presumption” that Schneider is indeed a “joint employer” of the plaintiffs.

Overall, the lawsuit is part of WWU’s and individual workers’ ongoing campaign to improve conditions in warehouses and shed light on the complicated employment structure that allows major companies like Wal-Mart to benefit from the low-paid, dangerous work of a largely temporary workforce.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 4, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

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Canada Labor Laws Support Workers’ Freedom to Form Unions

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Credit: Joe Kekeris

In 1960, the same number of workers were in unions in Canada and in the United States. After that, unionization in this country started a steep decline. Yet Canada’s unionization rate has held fairly steady. By 2011, 11.8 percent of U.S. workers were in unions, compared with 29.7 percent in Canada (click chart to enlarge).

So what happened here?

According to the authors of a new Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) report released today, that question can be answered in two words: employer opposition.

Compared to Canada, many workers in the United States are not able to exercise their right to freely join and form unions and participate in collective bargaining, in large part because of employer opposition, which current labor law fails to adequately address.

Protecting Fundamental Labor Rights: Lessons from Canada for the United States” finds that Canada has two labor practices the United States does not:

1. Card-check recognition. Several jurisdictions in Canada have card-check authorization, in which a majority of employees at a workplace join unions by signing union authorization cards and submitting them to the labor board for verification. In the United States, petitioning the labor board with signed cards is typically just the first step in the process. Unless an employer chooses to voluntarily recognize a union, an election will be scheduled and held. During the time between the petition and the election, which is often delayed by employer opposition and can last for months, employers usually run anti-union campaigns— often committing illegal acts of coercion, intimidation or firing—in an attempt to discourage their employees from voting to unionize. The research presented here suggests that decreasing the opportunities for employers to conduct illegal practices—by implementing card-check authorization in the United States—would be the most effective way to curb this behavior.

2. First contract arbitration. Even after a union has been formed, employers continue to erect barricades in the face of employees’ wishes to collectively bargain. Although employers are required by law to bargain “in good faith,” in reality, they can delay the process with little to no penalty for doing so, with the hope of remaining “union-free.” First contract arbitration allows for a way through stalling tactics and bargaining impasse.

Check out the full CEPR report.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on August 28, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union (the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism (covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia) she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

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How Houston Janitors Got 25 Cents a Year

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After a dispute that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) called a threat to the future of the Houston janitors’ union, workers have ended their month-long strike with a deal for a new four-year union contract. The agreement, which includes concessions from both sides, calls for annual 25-cent hourly wage increases and the maintenance of workers’ current healthcare plan. It will tweak, but not transform, the stark reality that SEIU highlighted in its campaign: In the “Millionaire City,” cleaning the offices of the nation’s top banks and oil companies is a poverty-wage job.

“It’s a start in the right direction,” said Alice McAfee, a janitor of 30 years, of the deal.

The contractors also expressed satisfaction. In an e-mailed statement, Tim Reily, the lead negotiator for the Houston Area Contractors Association, which represents three of the largest janitorial contractors involved, said “We’re pleased to reach an agreement that is fair and in the best interests of our clients and employees, which has been the goal all along.” An HACA spokesperson declined further comment.

The deal

Elsa Caballero, the Texas State Director for SEIU Local 1, called the deal “a huge win for these workers when you look at the overall picture they were facing.” She noted that the raise is more than double what was previously offered by management. Workers, she said, “were able to protect their rights” and also “keep the benefits that they’ve [previously] bargained.”

The contract, which covers 3,200 workers cleaning the offices of companies like Shell Oil and JP Morgan Chase, was first negotiated between SEIU Local 1 and janitorial contractors in 2006 after a 1,000-janitor strike. When a 2009 contract renewal expired in May, it set off a series of shorter work stoppages; then hundreds of workers went on strike indefinitely in the second week of July. After a tentative agreement with major contractors was announced on August 8, the strike ended. Workers ratified the contract three days later (one contractor, Pritchard Industries, was not part of the deal).

According to SEIU, over 500 workers attended the ratification meeting and voted unanimously to accept the new contract. McAfee said the meeting was “super fantastic…we had all come together to congratulate each other for standing, and keeping standing, and thanking the others that were with us. It was kind of like being at a family reunion.”

Janitors currently make $8.35 an hour. Under management’s final pre-strike proposal, they would have been paid $8.85 in 2017; under SEIU’s, they would have reached $10.00 in 2016. As Local 1 President Tom Balanoff wrote in a July 30 letter to pension funds, neither proposal would have brought the janitors above the poverty level. Under the final deal, janitors’ hourly wage will rise to $9.35 in 2016.

“Getting this raise,” said McAfee, “we will be able to do not all that we want to do, and not all we was wanting to do, but we’re looking forward.” She added that despite management efforts “to take us backwards,” the deal meant that “we’re moving forward.”

The agreement maintains current healthcare benefits: Workers, but not their family members, have access to a dedicated janitors’ clinic and emergency care. The plan will continue to cost workers $20 a month.

One of the thorniest negotiation issues was a dispute over the scope of certain previous contract language, which allowed contractors to bid for some accounts at rates below those in the contract. Both sides made concessions on this. The compromise specifies where contractors can bid at a lower rate based on “geography” and “the size of the building,” according to Caballero. Management, she says, has also agreed to language that ensures SEIU’s standards in the areas where it has the most members, while the union has in turn agreed to language that will make it cheaper for contractors to expand into new areas. She said the language was “something we looked at very hard to make sure it has the least amount of impact on current workers for this contract.”

According to McAfee, if contractors had won on this point, “We wouldn’t have had a union at all. So what we really won is we kept the union.”

Asked whether that language would make it more difficult for SEIU to organize currently non-union janitors in buildings where management would be allowed to pay below the union contract rate, Caballero said, “I don’t believe so. The ability to do new organizing is always there–it’s all about how much workers want to organize.” Caballero added that non-union Houston workers in other industries had been inspired by the janitors’ struggle, and said, “Our future in organizing is not just in janitors.”

Caballero credits the contract settlement to three factors: the persistence of the workers; support from clergy, politicians, and the public; and the backing of “responsible building owners who were willing to call contractors and say, ‘Hey, you need to address it.’”

The causes

The level, and the limits, of SEIU’s leverage in negotiations were shaped by its strategy, the economics of the industry, the state of labor law, and the extent of organizing among union members. Following a trend in modern U.S. strikes, this one was not designed to shut down the operations of the janitorial contractors; indeed, less than a fifth of the bargaining unit was on strike. Rather, the work stoppage provided an anchor for a pressure campaign featuring public protests, media events, and political and religious appeals, whose primary target was the well-known companies that own the buildings janitors clean, not the contractors who directly employ them.

The Taft-Hartley’s Act’s prohibition on “secondary boycotts” could have made it illegal to directly strike against the bank and oil companies, which SEIU saw as the true decision-makers. But the union employed a range of tactics meant to expand the struggle, including solidarity strikes in other cities, organized civil disobedience, research criticizing companies’ tax reappraisals, and a Capitol Hill confrontation with JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon.

During the strike, the contractors also pushed back publicly. They claimed that 98 percent of available workers had “ignored the purported ‘city-wide strike.'” In response, SEIU said that more than 500 of the 3200 janitors were on strike, but that a choice had been made not to strike against all employers as a way of protecting workers from retaliation. All of the strikers were employed by janitorial companies against which SEIU had filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which made them less vulnerable than others to being “permanently replaced” by management.

When supporters did civil disobedience actions, Houston janitors were present but not among those arrested; Caballero says this, too, was part of the union’s tactics to minimize the risk of retaliation by janitorial contractors. Because U.S. labor law offers only weak remedies against retaliation, the likelihood workers will be illegally punished for activism is directly related to the number of workers taking action–“strength in numbers” can reduce, but not eliminate, that risk.

Asked about the level of participation by non-striking workers, Caballero said that demonstrations during the strike consistently drew at least 500 to 600 total workers, including strikers and non-strikers. Texas is a Right to Work state, meaning that union contracts cannot require workers who are represented to pay for the costs of representation. Caballero said that roughly 40 percent of the workers covered by the SEIU contract had chosen to become dues-paying union members by the time the strike started, but added that membership is “a lot higher now” as more workers got involved during the strike.

Asked about the strike and its outcome, University of Texas Law Professor Julius Getman said, “Any kind of significant strike is going to involve a comprehensive effort, trying to put pressure at different points.”

Getman, the author of Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement and a longtime observer of the Houston janitors’ campaigns, added, “It’s a multifaceted effort to be successful, but doing it without the involvement of the workers on whose behalf you’re striking is unfortunate at best.”

“Workers are very proud of the accomplishments,” said Caballero. She added that “to appreciate what this fight was about” requires a comparison to the conditions before unionization: “They were at $20 a day, horrible working conditions, they could be fired on any given day, just because…no voice, nobody to help them.”

Caballero said to expect further improvements when a new contract is negotiated in 2016. So did McAfee: “The next time the contracts comes up, we will get the 10 dollars. And more.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on August 27, 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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