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Not Your Father’s Pope: Francis Calls for ‘Legitimate Redistribution’ of Wealth

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Kenneth-Quinnell_smallIn yet another example of Pope Francis being awesome and talking about the excesses of capitalism, the Catholic leader said on Friday that governments should redistribute wealth to the poor and fight back against the “economy of exclusion” taking hold across the world with a new spirit of generosity. Pope Francis has been much more outspoken than many previous popes about doing more to help the poor in the face of a global economy.

The pope asked the United Nations to promote a mobilization of solidarity with the poor and called for more equal economic growth that can be created through “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.” The new words are consistent with his prior statements that he wants a church that “is poor and for the poor.” He said the United Nations should attack the root causes of poverty and hunger, protect the environment and promote dignified labor for everyone. “Specifically, this involves challenging all forms of injustices and resisting the economy of exclusion, the throwaway culture and the culture of death, which nowadays sadly risk becoming passively accepted.”

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on May 9, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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Brooklyn Teachers Strike a Blow Against Excessive Testing with May Day Boycott

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sarah jaffeOn May Day 2014, a group of teachers at the International High School at Prospect Heights (IHSPH) in Brooklyn stood outside their school building and informed gathered reporters that they would not be administering the New York City English Language Arts (ELA) Performance Assessment Exam scheduled to take place that day. The test, which is part of a new teacher evaluation system imposed by the state last year, exists solely to rate teacher performance; unlike, for example the Regents Exam, which dates back to 1866 and determines whether students graduate. Thirty people—nearly all of the teachers and staff at the small public school—signed a statement declaring they would not participate.

The date was a coincidence—May Day, the internationally recognized workers’ day, happened to be the day the test was scheduled—but it could not have been better for the teachers’ action. Amid growing unrest among teachers, parents and students over high-stakes testing and the new Common Core educational standards, these teachers’ action is another step in challenging what new Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni (whose recent victory I cover in a forthcoming piece) calls “predatory education reform,” driven by private companies that aim to run schools like corporations and pocket the profits.

“This is taking back the whole conversation around education,” Rosie Frascella, a 12th grade English teacher at IHSPH, tells In These Times. That conversation has been dominated by heated rhetoric from “reformers” and anti-union elected officials about “bad” or “lazy” teachers, but Frascella and her colleagues challenged that idea by putting themselves on the line to do what they believed was right. “I’d rather take a zero, you can fail me in my evaluations but you are not going to hurt my students. You can say I’m a bad teacher but I’m standing up for my students and what I know is right for them.”

After their press conference, the teachers proceeded into the building, where, according to Emily Giles, who teaches ninth- and 10th-grade science at IHSPH, they taught class as they would have any other day. Although 50 percent of the students had already been opted out of taking the test by their parents, Giles says administrators still attempted to give the test to a small handful—with little success.

“By that point, kids got wind of the fact that other kids didn’t have to take it. There were two rooms of testing happening; one room was empty within half an hour,” she says. “Kids just went in, put their name on the test and walked out.”

Giles points out that the abandoned testing gave teachers the chance to do just that—teach. “The school was just functioning, like it wasn’t even happening, which is how it should feel. When kids finish or opt themselves out, they go back to an educational setting where they’re actually using their time to do something meaningful,” she says.

A crying shame

The ELA Performance Assessment Exam has provoked student, teacher and parent anger from its first appearance in New York City schools this past October. According to Frascella, students were “traumatized” by the test, which requires them to read two short texts and write an essay in English. That’s not so horrifying for native English speakers, but the students at IHSPH, like other International schools across New York City, are almost all English language learners. To attend the International school, a student has to have lived in the United States for four years or less; according to Frascella, students from more than 30 different countries who speak more than 20 languages are currently enrolled at IHSPH. The school works on a collaborative model—Frascella explains that new students are partnered with an older student who speaks their language to help them translate and make it through the day.

But there’s no collaboration allowed on standardized tests. Instead, Frascella says, confronted with material they couldn’t read (the tests are written at a ninth- and 10th-grade reading level), students put their heads down. Some cried.

“These exams, overall, what they do is they hurt our community,” she says. “They stress our students out, they make them cry. They make them get upset in class because they feel like failures, even though they work so hard.”

Students at IHSPH complete portfolios in a variety of subjects on which they are graded; like other English language learners, they have to take the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test. And like all other New York public school students, they also have to pass Regents Exams. That’s already, teachers argue, far too much testing. In the letter that the IHSPH teachers sent to Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, they ask her to remove this test and replace it with an assessment that was created by educators.

When the teachers realized that it was coming time for the ELA Performance Assessment Exam to be administered again (it is given twice a year), they began talking amongst themselves about how to handle it. Many parents, fueled by their children’s bad experiences with the fall test, chose to opt their students out entirely. One parent, Teresa Edwards-Lasose, said, “The test is meaningless. [My child] doesn’t read and write enough English yet to do the test and it doesn’t count for his grades. Why should he take it?”

Chancellor Fariña told principals that they had to respect the rights of parents to opt out, as nearly 30,000 parents have across the state. But the teachers felt they had to do more.

For Giles, the testing battle is “a clear moment where the rights and concerns of parents and teachers, everything intersects, we agree with each other, we’re fighting for the same thing.”

As teachers at a small International school, she says, IHSPH teachers occupy a somewhat privileged position—though their students are uniquely harmed by the exam, they have a tight-knit staff and it’s easier to organize. “That means that we have a responsibility to be the people who are willing to stick our necks out a little bit,” she says.

Originally, just four instructors were in favor of not giving the test. The more they talked, though, the more people joined in, and eventually they drafted their letter to the chancellor. They discussed the risks they would be taking—that their evaluations would suffer, that the principal and the Department of Education might discipline them–and decided that it was important to go forward with the refusal.

“It’s not just about this assessment,” Frascella says. “It’s about the larger vision against high-stakes testing. It was an opportunity to really have our voices heard in the hopes that the new administration would listen to us.”

At the press conference on May Day morning, Giles says, she felt good. Then during the school day, things felt even better. Support poured in at their website, where parents and educators from around the country left messages. Someone even sent a fruit basket to the school.

Support wasn’t universal, though. The United Federation of Teachers, the union to which the IHSPH teachers belong, issued a statement saying that while it believes “that our schools have been the victims of a testing culture that has focused far too much attention on test prep and too little on strategies that will actually lead to student learning,” that “[T]his protest is not a union-sponsored event.”

Giles, who along with Frascella and two other teachers at IHSPH, belongs to a reform caucus within the union called the Movement of Rank-and-file Educators (MORE), was disappointed in this response. Still, she sees their action as an important rank-and-file organizing project that drew the staff closer together.  And as Frascella notes, “In this movement to save our schools we need to create as many opportunities for teachers, for parents, and students to feel that their voice actually matters and that they actually have power.”

The bigger picture

This year’s struggle over the ELA Performance Assessment also takes place against the backdrop of a new contract between the UFT and New York City that 100,000 teachers are set to vote on soon. Passed through the UFT’s delegate assembly on May 7, the new contract spans nine years. Five of those are retroactive, covering the years for which the union has had no contract with the city. Though the contract includes retroactive pay raises, they’re spread out across that nine-year period—which comes out to about 2 percent a year.

More importantly, according to Frascella and Giles, the contract doesn’t appear to change the teacher evaluation process away from the heavy focus on testing. MORE has begun a “Vote No” campaign on the contract; in their press release, teacher, chapter leader and MORE member Kit Wainer writes, “UFT members never got to vote on ‘Advance’ (the new teacher evaluation system) or the resulting high stakes tests, but we will all vote on our contract this year, so it is important that each UFT member makes an informed vote. The contract is not just about our ‘bread-and-butter’ issues. It is a legal document that dictates working conditions in our schools.”

Teachers at IHSPH already use what they call the “solidarity method” for the 20 percent of teacher evaluation that is done at the school level (another 20 percent comes automatically from state tests, and the rest from observations by administrators)—they are all graded on the Regents exams for all of the students, meaning that each teacher at the school receives the same ranking. “My community of educators, we don’t want to be competitive,” Frascella says. “As a school we tried to align our assessments to be as equal as possible so that our scores would be as close as possible because we didn’t want to be divided and ranked.”

Fariña and the man who appointed her, new mayor Bill de Blasio, have both expressed reservations about high-stakes testing. De Blasio told this reporter before his election that “We should use the standardized tests to the most minimal level possible.” Yet as with his attempt to push back on charter schools, he runs into the issue of the state requirements, and Governor Cuomo has shown himself to be firmly on the side of the predatory reform crowd.

Still, for a union and a city Department of Education who ostensibly agree on important points, that the proposed contract does little to change a test-based evaluation system is frustrating.

For now, Giles says, the IHSPH teachers have not been disciplined and are looking forward to expanding on the momentum they’ve built. She expects the test refusal to be discussed at the next Parent Teacher Association meeting, and wants to talk about what they can do next fall when the test comes around again. She’s hoping that the other 15 International schools across New York will take action as well; teachers at IHSPH had been in contact with teachers at other Internationals before the action, though none of them managed to coordinate refusal. Other possibilities include putting out a petition against the test that would not obligate teachers to refuse to give it, in hopes that a larger number would sign on.

The teachers at IHSPH took the step of refusing the test in a climate where they were warned against alienating “allies” like Fariña and de Blasio, but they went forward anyway. Even so, the circumstances are very different now than they were under Bloomberg. “I think the question is, how do we work together?” Frascella says. “We may not have the money that the Right has, or the reformers or privateers have, but we have very good organizers, we have very smart people, and we have a lot of people on our side, so how do we use that both to hold de Blasio accountable and to support him in keeping the promises that he makes?”

“Actions, collective actions, they hold people accountable. And they inform the public,” she adds.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on May 12, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.


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$2.13 Often Means Zero-Dollar Paychecks for Tipped Workers

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Laura ClawsonThe basic facts of the tipped worker minimum wage are appalling:

  • It’s $2.13 an hour, and has been since 1991, because whenever the minimum wage is raised, the restaurant industry launches a massive lobbying effort to keep tipped workers from being included.
  • The median wage for tipped workers is $8 an hour, and one in five lives in poverty.
  • While restaurants are supposed to make up the difference when workers’ tips don’t raise them to the full minimum wage of $7.25, they often don’t.

What the absurdly low tipped worker minimum wage combined with restaurants not following the law by bringing workers up to minimum wage when their tips fall short means is this:

Like millions of Americans across the United States, 23-year-old Anna Hovland worked a waitressing job earlier this year to make ends meet. Her restaurant in Washington, DC, paid her the local minimum wage for tipped workers, $2.77 an hour, which meant that after taxes, her paycheck was usually zero. Her tips, never dependable, ranged from $20 to $200 a shift. “In a city as expensive as DC, I’ve been able to make ends meet by the skin of my teeth,” Hovland says. “Sometimes it will only be in the last week or two of a month that I’ll realize I’ve made enough to pay all my bills.” […]Hovland tells Mother Jones that before she got in touch with the Restaurant Opportunities Center last fall—to find out why she was getting zero-dollar paychecks—she had no idea that her employer was supposed to make up the difference in tips. “We never logged our tips or reported them to our employers,” she says, unless they were on credit cards. She adds, “Even after I shared information about the minimum wage difference with coworkers, nobody felt comfortable asking employers about it.”

Forcing workers to ask to be paid the minimum wage is a recipe for wage theft. Any worker who asks has to know that they’re putting a target on their back and any halfway savvy employer knows that, while they can’t admit they’re firing a worker for asking to be paid minimum wage, it won’t be hard to find an excuse to fire the worker for something else.

A few states have the same minimum wage for all workers, and recently, Hawaii included tipped workers when it raised its minimum wage to $10.10. So clearly a tipped minimum wage above $2.13 doesn’t spell doom for the restaurant industry, contrary to the industry’s lobbying efforts. Whereas the current state of affairs genuinely does spell poverty for an unacceptable number of workers.

This article was originally printed on the Daily Kos on May 12, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at the Daily Kos.


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It’ll Be Mother’s Day Every Day in Minnesota!

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seiu-org-logoIf you’re still looking for a last minute gift for Mother’s Day? Get her a place in Minnesota so she’ll have an opportunity to enjoy a dignified retirement.

It’s no secret that American women are twice as likely to retire into poverty largely due to gender inequality. Working mothers tend to earn less and take on more family obligations than their male counterparts, leaving them more vulnerable to elder poverty.

Minnesota lawmakers are closer to evening the playing field for working mothers through the Minnesota Women’s Economic Security Act of 2014. This bold legislative package includes provisions to close the gender pay gap, expand family leave and sick leave, and study and create new private sector retirement savings models for workers.

Congratulate Minnesota working mothers by sharing this on Facebook. Click the image below.

Happy Mothers Day Minnesota

Although the bill still requires the signature of Governor Mark Dayton, Minnesota workers are already celebrating.

“By moving the dial on issues like closing the gender pay gap, strengthening workplace protections, and working to provide options for retirement security for those currently without access, this bill will help strengthen families throughout Minnesota,” said SEIU Local 284 Executive Director Carol Nieters.

“Our members clearly understand that women should not pay a price simply because of their gender,” said Javier Morillo, President of SEIU Local 26. “There is much work to be done, but passing the Women’s Economic Security Act will be a great victory for all workers in our state.”

If signed into law, the Minnesota Women’s Economic Security Act could also be a national model for other states and Congress for how to solve the retirement security crisis for women.

That being said, it’s ok if you don’t want to move your mom to Minnesota this Mother’s Day. But in that case you might want to consider urging your state lawmakers to introduce their own version of the bill.

This article was originally printed in SEIU on May 9, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Keiana Greene-Page


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288,000 New Jobs Drop Unemployment Rate to 6.3% in April

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Image: Mike HallThe economy added 288,000 jobs in April, a big boost over March’s 192,000 new jobs. The unemployment rate dropped to 6.3% from last month’s 6.7%, according to figures released this morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Over the past year, the number of jobless has decreased by 1.9 million and the unemployment rate has fallen from 7.5%. While the improved jobs numbers over the past several months show the economy is beginning to recover, job growth is still not robust enough to provide jobs for the millions who remain out of work or to boost wages for most Americans.

AFL-CIO Government Affairs Director Bill Samuel said, “Today’s strong job numbers represent a significant step in the right direction for working families.” But he added:

Yet with wages stagnant and too many still out of work, our job is not done. As our economy recovers, it is important that everyone reap the benefits of our shared recovery by ensuring we are not simply creating new jobs, but good jobs. Our leaders in Congress must work quickly to build on today’s good news by passing comprehensive jobs legislation, extending unemployment insurance, and raising the minimum wage, so that growth can not only continue, but provide everyone a fair chance at the American Dream.

The number of long-term unemployed people (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) declined by 287,000 to 3.5 million in April. While the problem of long-term joblessness continues to plague the economy, House Republicans continue to refuse to allow a vote on the extension of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits program that was approved by a bipartisan Senate majority. House Republicans allowed emergency help for jobless workers to expire at the end of last year.

So far, nearly 3 million jobless workers have lost benefits and that number continues to rise.

Call your representative at 845-809-4509 and her or him to pass the emergency unemployment benefits extension.

Last month’s biggest job gains were in professional and business services (75,000), retail trade (35,000), food services (33,000), construction (32,000), health care (19,000) and mining (10,000).

Employment in other major industries, manufacturing, transportation and warehousing, wholesale trade, financial activities and government, changed little over the month.

Unemployment rates for the major worker groups declined in April: adult men (5.9%), adult women (5.7%), whites (5.3%), blacks (11.6%) and Latinos (7.3%).

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on May 2, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland 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.


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College Adjuncts Union Scores Victory at Maryland Institute College of Art

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Bruce VailBALTIMORE—Part-time college faculty members at the historic Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) scored an impressive win on Tuesday when they voted overwhelmingly to bring a labor union on campus for the first time since MICA’s opening in 1826.

In secret ballot voting supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the pro-union votes number 160, compared to 75 anti-union ones, reports Katherine Kavanaugh, one of the leaders of the faculty group. This unofficial count has been confirmed by a NLRB spokeswoman, who adds that the agency normally takes about a week to confirm an election of this kind. Once the election is formally certified by NLRB, the part-time college instructors will be represented by Gaithersburg, Md.-based Service Employees International Union Local 500.

Though the election period itself took only seven weeks, the victory represents a major benchmark in the part-time professors’ sustained campaign to improve job conditions and the overall quality of campus life, says Kavanaugh. The professors, also known as adjuncts, began meeting informally in 2011 to discuss ways to raise pay, provide access to health insurance benefits and ensure job security, she says. Those early meetings developed incrementally into a formal part-time faculty committee, she continues, which itself eventually became the MICA Adjuncts Union.

“This wasn’t at all about unionization when we started,” Kavanaugh tells In These Times. “It was about teachers who felt strongly that change was needed both for the benefit of the adjuncts and for the benefit of the students at MICA. … We wanted to work with the full-time faculty and with the administration.” While the full-time faculty remained neutral, Kavanaugh says, the administration ducked the adjuncts’ attempts to discuss the issues—and that’s what prompted the moves toward formal organization.

“It was only when the administration continued to stall us, when they made it clear they wouldn’t work with us in a serious way, that we started talking about a union,” Kavanaugh says.

The reluctance by administrators to engage with the MICA adjuncts has since continued, adds Joshua Smith, another leader of the adjuncts’ group. The fledgling union had initially hoped that higher-ups, namely MICA President Fred Lazarus IV, would adopt a neutral stance in the union election like the full-time faculty had, he says. As MICA’s president for the last 35 years, Lazarus has earned respect and deference from most instructors and staff—and a relatively positive take on the union from him would have resonated both during and after the election.

To the adjuncts’ disappointment, however, Lazarus came out publicly against organizing last month, inviting part-time faculty to meetings where he lobbied for “no” votes. “The administration wasn’t heavy-handed: Nobody was required to go to the meetings and I don’t think the administration ever crossed the line” of labor law in opposing the union, Smith says. Nevertheless, he continues, Lazarus “made it clear how he felt, and he is a very influential voice.”

Despite the dismay Lazarus’ actions provoked, Smith points out that he is also preparing to retire, suggesting that the entire campus is entering a period of transition. A new president, Samuel Hoi, will take office later this year, and Smith says many adjuncts are hopeful that the change will be a good opportunity to create a more cooperative labor-management atmosphere. (Hoi himself has remained mum on the subject.)

“[Lazarus’] retirement was a really a unique moment” for the formation of the union, Smith remarks, because its imminence provided some cushioning for workers around the president’s push against organizing. “I think that some of the adjuncts felt that they could vote for the union without provoking a confrontation” with Lazarus, he says.

MICA spokesperson Jessica Weglein Goldstein turned down several In These Times requests for an interview with Lazarus or other top MICA officials. Instead, she provided this prepared statement:

We look forward to working with the union that will be representing our part-time faculty and are confident that our adjuncts will continue to join us in making their highest priority the academic and campus experiences of our students.

For SEIU Local 500, the vote marks the latest in a string of union organizing victories for adjuncts at colleges and universities in the region. Last year, the union won an election at Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown University to represent some 650 adjuncts. Another election in 2012 to represent about 700 part-time professors at D.C.’s American University was similarly successful.

Local 500’s organizing efforts are associated with SEIU’s “Adjunct Action” project, which is stimulating union organizing on college campuses in widely scattered sections of the country. Just within the last several weeks, Adjunct Action has been involved in active union election campaigns at Marist College in New York state, Macalester College in Minnesota, and Seattle University in Washington state; all three have yet to be decided.

MICA Adjuncts Union members expect to begin meeting this week to draft out strategy and tactics for negotiating a first contract. Its fundamental goals are those shared by the growing adjuncts’ movement nationwide, Smith reports: Namely, they will strive to improve overall compensation and better integrate the part-time faculty into the traditional college community.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on April 30, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.


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Hawaii Set to Join the $10.10 Club

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Kenneth-Quinnell_smallHawaii looks to become the third state to pass a $10.10 per hour minimum wage, following in the steps of Connecticut and Maryland. Legislators reached a deal on Friday on a bill that would phase in the higher wage by 2018. A final vote on the bill should come Tuesday, and Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) has expressed support for the bill. While the U.S. Senate is set to vote on a minimum wage increase as soon as this week, prospects remain less likely that a bill will even be voted on in the Republican-controlled U.S. House.

Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, commented on the growing trend of states increasing their minimum wage:

There’s one reason why Hawaii, Connecticut, Maryland and other states throughout the country are raising the minimum wage to $10.10—because Congress hasn’t. The fact that a groundswell of states and cities are now taking action to boost pay for low-wage workers underscores the urgent need for Congress to follow suit and pass a long-overdue increase in the federal minimum wage.

Abercrombie said:

“I commend our legislators for advancing the proposal to raise Hawaii’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. It is imperative to provide our lowest-paid workers with the economic stability and security they deserve….I look forward to working with the legislature to bring fairness to the people of Hawaii.”

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on April 28, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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VICTORY: Seattle Raises the City’s Minimum Wage to $15 an Hour

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seiu-org-logoAmazing news out of Washington state today, as the city of Seattle announced that they are raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

There are currently 102,000 workers in Seattle earning less than $15 an hour. This wage increase will put hundreds of millions dollars into the pockets of working-class families that they will invest back into their neighborhoods and strengthen their entire economy.

How did Seattle do it? On May 30th of last year, Seattle fast food workers went on strike for $15 because they knew that raising pay was necessary. Their leadership and commitment helped spark an extraordinary grassroots workers’ movement that rapidly built support across the entire city. Less than a year later, Seattle has achieved a minimum wage that ensures every worker in Seattle can support themselves, afford the basics, and contribute to the economy.

Following Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s announcement that an agreement to lift the minimum wage in Seattle had been reached, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry issued a statement:

“The members of SEIU are thrilled that working people in Seattle have won a landmark victory in their campaign to lift the wage floor in their city and launch an innovative community-based method for making sure workers are paid what they earn.

“This breakthrough happened because ordinary people in Seattle stuck together to force their elected officials and the employer community to listen to them and take them seriously when they called for higher wages that boost the economy instead of hold it back. Their action led to a remarkable dialogue among workers, local government leaders, and local businesses that produced the agreement.

“This happened because of brave people like Crystal Thompson, a Domino’s Pizza worker who went on strike with other Seattle fast food workers to help build the growing national movement to lift pay in the booming fast food industry.

“This happened because of people like Abdirahman Abdullahi, a car rental worker at SeaTac airport who helped lead the campaign to hold a vote in the community of SeaTac to boost wages for airport workers to $15 per hour.

“SEIU members like Washington’s home care workers, who have stuck together in their union to raise their pay from $7.18 to $11 in less than ten years, were among those who stood with airport and fast food workers who aren’t united in a union to say that low wages are holding back their community.

“Through the Working Washington coalition, people across the state stood up to say that it’s simply wrong that so many families can’t count on real economic security, no matter how hard they work.”

Read Mary Kay Henry’ entire statement here.

“Today, this victory is for Seattle,” says SEIU Healthcare 775NW President David Rolf. “Tomorrow, as thousands of low-wage workers mobilize, we will stand down extremists who want to split apart our communities; we will demonstrate to doubters that middle-out economics benefits all; and we will rekindle the American pledge to leave a brighter future for the next generation.”

The bottom line? When the voices of low-wage workers and community leaders are leading the conversation, we see real progress on fair pay. Share this graphic on Facebook to spread the good news far and wide.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on May 1, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Kate Thomas


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Former Top Woman at Anheuser-Busch Sues for Sex Discrimination

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Laura ClawsonA former Anheuser-Busch executive is suing the company for gender discrimination, and the company’s response is that she wasn’t worth as much as her male predecessor. Francine Katz, who was, as Anheuser-Busch’s vice president of communications and consumer affairs, its top female executive, discovered that while she was paid about $1 million a year in total, her predecessor, John Jacob, had been paid $4.5 million a year. Anheuser-Busch’s defense is basically that Katz just happened to be worth that much less than Jacob, despite holding the same job title:

On Friday afternoon, August Busch III took the stand, verbally sparring with a member of Katz’s legal team as he recounted the company’s methods for paying top executives. Circuit Judge Rex Burlison twice admonished Busch for not being more cooperative.Busch heaped praise on Jacob, a civil rights leader whom he called “one in a million.”

“He had credentials that were unbelievable,” Busch said. “There was no comparison between John Jacob and Francine Katz.”

Katz’s suit also includes allegations that she was excluded from golf tournaments and hunting trips and, on one occasion, made to fly on a different plane than Busch and other top executives. She was not, in other words, allowed to develop the kind of connections and skills Busch claims to have uniquely valued in John Jacob. Such exclusion is a key way discrimination happens—women aren’t included in “social” events because women are assumed not to hunt or play golf or because the boys won’t get to be boys with a girl around, but those social events are key ways people build trust. And remember, Katz was the woman in the highest position at Anheuser-Busch. She was still excluded from the boys’ club, and she’s still being told to this day that she wasn’t worth equal pay. What does that say about other women’s chances?

This article was originally printed on the Daily Kos on May 5, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at the Daily Kos.

 


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Fighting the Big Apple’s Big Inequality Problem

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sarah jaffeNew York City can sometimes feel like ground zero for the battle over inequality.  Up until a few months ago, its mayor was one of the world’s richest men; it is home to Wall Street and movie stars, and it seems as though every oligarch from every country in the world has an apartment here.

Here, too, are the millions of working people who make the city run, and all too many of those working people are barely making enough to get by. In her introduction to the new book New Labor in New York, out now from Cornell University Press, sociologist Ruth Milkman points out that while New York has the nation’s highest union density, the city also has one of thehighest levels of income inequality among large cities.

It is against this background that worker centers and other forms of non-union labor organizing have flourished, won victories, hit setbacks and managed to grow. And it is against that background that Milkman and her colleague Ed Ott, both professors at the City University of New York’s Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, decided to teach a course that would ask students at the Murphy Institute and the CUNY Graduate Center to write an in-depth profile of one worker center or labor organization and its innovations. After two semesters of field research, study, and collaborative workshopping, these profiles were collected into the book. Taken together, they make up a valuable resource for evaluating today’s labor organizing, its successes and failures.

The workers spotlighted in New Labor in New York share the common trait of precarity, a term that has become something of a buzzword in recent years, particularly since the financial crisis. Precarious work is unstable, irregular; it is part-time or gig-by-gig; it comes without healthcare or other benefits; and it is usually but not always low-paid. Precarious workers in New York include taxi drivers, street vendors, retail and restaurant workers, grocery store clerks, domestic workers and even graphic designers and TV producers. Many of them are immigrants organizing around an ethnic identity as well as a shared workplace. New York is an attractive place for this kind of organizing, Milkman notes, not only because it is dense and has a large number of immigrant workers, but also because the foundations that provide much of the funding for many of these worker centers are based here as well.

The book begins with Benjamin Becker’s look at a fairly traditional union campaign (a loss) at a Target on Long Island in June 2011. The piece sets the tone for the rest of the book by demonstrating the obstacles unions face when they attempt to win a National Labor Relations Board election, even when a fairly active core group of workers are involved. From there, the book pivots to examine a range of campaigns, only some of which have as a goal (or even a legal possibility) of organizing workers into a collective bargaining unit.

For some groups, like the Retail Action Project and the grocery store organizing campaign partnership between New York Communities for Change (NYCC) and Local 338 UFCW-RWDSU, wage theft lawsuits have been a gateway to pressuring employers to recognize the workers’ unions, as happened at the Yellow Rat Bastard retail stores in Manhattan. Ben Shapiro explores the tensions over the campaign’s direction and duration between NYCC and Local 338. When the union controls the purse strings but the community group is doing the work, trouble can arise, but this partnership smoothed out when the union backed off its push for quick results in the form of union elections.

For several other groups and coalitions profiled in the book, legislation, rather than union elections, is the goal. Jeffrey D. Broxmeyer and Erin Michaels analyze the campaign from 2010 to 2012 for a living-wage bill in New York and the similar tension there, too, between unions, accustomed to exercising political power as insiders, and community and faith groups more interested in moral framing and direct action. For the New York Civic Participation Project/La Fuente, the goal is not even necessarily particular campaigns—the goal, instead, is to engage union members around their community, and to bridge the gap between non-union community members and their union member neighbors.

“Many of these groups have been more successful on their sort of ‘air wars’ than on their ‘ground wars,’” says Milkman. In other words, she explains, “All of them have become highly skilled at figuring out how to shine a bright light on abuses and to get public attention sometimes legal attention sometimes media attention to the issues, that turns out to be a lighter lift than actually organizing workers in a sustained way.”

Many of the pieces highlight this tension between advocacy—paid staffers working on behalf of workers—and the kind of organizing where workers are acting on their own behalf. The arguments made by Steve Jenkins, a labor lawyer who has worked in both unions and non-union labor organizations, about the limits of the advocacy model appear in many of these pieces. Jenkins wrote in 2002 that advocacy organizations “mobilize elite institutions … to help clients achieve the changes they are seeking.” Unions, he contends, are a superior form because they organize workers to use “social power” to make change, rather than persuasion. But in her piece on Make the Road New York, organizer Jane McAlevey, also author of the bookRaising Expectations (and Raising Hell), writes, “I argue that what matters most is not whether a group is a formal labor union but instead whether the group’s members are directly defining the changes they seek and whether their own exercise of collective action is the basis of their leverage.” Make the Road, in her view, fits this definition of an “organizing organization.”

Meanwhile, Harmony Goldberg’s thoughtful look at Domestic Workers United, titled “Prepare to Win,” lays out the next steps for the organization after its major victory: the passage of New York’s Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in 2010. Though domestic workers were integral to the campaign, she notes, implementing the law will require “the deployment of worker power and base-building on a much larger scale than was required to win legislative victories.” To that end, she explores DWU’s attempts to train domestic workers to act as something akin to shop stewards for their neighborhoods, and honestly assesses the difficulty of organizing workers whose workplace is behind a private home’s door.

For DWU and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), both of which have spread to become national organizations, working with “high road” employers has become a strategy. ROC is having its first-ever “High Road Restaurant Week” this week to encourage conscious consumers to dine at establishments with good labor practices. ROC in particular asks consumers to be a part of the labor movement, to be as aware of the labor that produces their food as they are of its environmental impact. In some ways this has proved to be a useful strategy, but in others it seems like a tacit admission of the limitations of these organizations: As Jenkins noted, when one cannot demand, one must ask nicely.

“Symbolic victories are good, they do help make people aware of the problems,” Milkman says, “but changing the actual pay and working conditions of precarious workers is a much heavier lift.”

Political education is a part of the deal for many of the groups in this volume, from Make the Road to ROC, which makes racial and gender justice central to its campaigns. MinKwon, a Korean-American civil rights organization that does labor organizing, also works to educate and organize the broader Korean immigrant community around workers’ rights, even pressing small business owners who are members to do better by their employees.

Organizing the community around the labor battle, it turns out, can be just as important as pushing within a specific workplace. This is important to many of the groups featured here, from MinKwon to NYCC to La Fuente. As Milkman points out, “With an immigrant population, there are often connections, very direct ones, between the community and the workplace, because of the social networks that immigrants rely on both to get housing and jobs.”

United New York represents an effort by a labor union—in this case, SEIU—to build an institution to support social movement organizing. Lynne Turner explores the decision by the union to put money into the “Fight for a Fair Economy”—a fight that took off more than anyone expected when Occupy Wall Street appeared in lower Manhattan soon after the founding of United New York as part of the national campaign. Camille Rivera, leader of United NY, pushed the group and other unions to help support the nascent movement.

Some of the more creative tactics in the repertoire of new labor groups are not new at all. Milkman points out, “Prior to the New Deal and the legislation that came along in the mid-1930s, precarious work was the norm too. It’s not surprising that the pre-New Deal forms of labor organizing have some resonance today. Basically we’ve reverted back to that situation with the unraveling of the New Deal-based labor relations system.”

The Retail Action Project (RAP), launched in 2005 as an independent center with support from RWDSU and community organization Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), draws on some of that history to incorporate what historian Dorothy Sue Cobble has called “occupational unionism:” providing workers with skills training and organizing around an industry, rather than a particular workplace. It’s a model that still exists today, within the building trades, though Peter Ikeler in this volume makes clear that RAP is far from being able to have enough power within the industry to control hiring and set wages. Still, Milkman notes, “There’s a lot more interest in that model of unionism being revived than there was in the mid-20th century when it seemed like it was this relic of an earlier era—well, that earlier era is back.”

The Taxi Workers Alliance, as Mischa Gaus writes, has in many ways been the most successful of the groups in this book—not only was it affiliated with the AFL-CIO recently, but perhaps more importantly it has pulled off two strikes. Though the taxi workers are technically independent contractors, meaning they can’t legally form a union, they are an integral part of New York City’s transit infrastructure and as such are highly regulated by the city—which means that the Alliance has been able to insert itself into critical negotiations and win gains for the drivers.

Also important to the Taxi Workers’ success has been their ability to mostly self-finance; unlike many other groups in this book, who are dependent on foundation grants or union money to keep the doors open, the Alliance gets some 80 percent of its budget from dues and other income from services to drivers. As foundations (and yes, unions too) can be fickle about their grant-making, self-funding ensures that the Alliance answers to its members first.

Self-funding has also helped the Freelancers’ Union, in many ways an anomaly in this group of mostly low-wage worker organizations, survive. In their case, it’s health insurance—freelancers can buy insurance from the Freelancers Insurance Company, and this money helps fund advocacy campaigns. The Freelancers do tend to be more affluent and educated than many of the other workers in this book, and more of them are freelance by choice, though that’s not a characteristic solely of well-off workers.

Indeed, at the other end of the income spectrum, Kathleen Dunn’s study of VAMOS Unidos, a street vendor labor organization, found that many of the vendors, mostly immigrant women who operate in a gray area between legal and illegal work (many of them don’t have permits for the selling they do), also chose vending as a better option than other low-wage jobs because of the freedom it offered.

Milkman tells In These Times, “This is not in the book, but a lot of people are talking about basic income policies as a way of making this kind of work more tolerable. If you have some kind of basic economic security then it has many advantages for workers as well as employers.” The street vendors, for example, prefer vending because it allows them flexible hours, to bring their children along, and to meet other responsibilities, as well as to avoid disagreeable conditions in other jobs.

Still, it’s not a good idea to over-romanticize precarity; this has repercussions for the people doing the organizing as well. It cannot be stressed enough that too many of these new labor organizations operate on a shoestring budget, relying on organizers who are also precarious workers in their way. Milkman says, “I don’t think it’s an accident that so many of them are led by women, because unlike the labor movement, which has a lot of resources despite its declining membership, most of these groups operate on a shoestring budget. So guess what? The leaders are women because that’s who’s willing to work for those minimal salaries.”

New Labor in New York raises many questions about the future of labor organizing, but it also provides many examples of concrete victories for workers long ignored by the conventional labor movement. Those victories are often small, but they are building; the organizations may be siloed, but they are aware that they are part of something bigger. Much more will be needed to really change the conditions of precarious work, yet there is much in this book that could be replicated elsewhere, even in cities vastly different than New York.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on April 29, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.


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