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How Have Health Workers Won Improvements to Patient Care? Strikes.

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On September 20, 2,200 nurses represented by the National Nurses United (NNU) went on a one-day strike at the University of Chicago Medical Center. The Chicago nurses were protesting unsafe working conditions and forced overtime—and had been in contract negotiations with the hospital for months. The Medical Center has just spent $269 million on a hospital expansion that it, insists, represents an “ investment to improve our community’s health.”

In response to the strike, the Medical Center’s top officials went on a P.R. offensive, accusing  striking nurses of engaging in “shameless behavior,” and insisting they are recklessly endangering their patients.

Nothing could be further from the truth, says Astria Johnson, an Emergency Room nurse who has worked for the hospital for 10 years. “This strike is about providing safe patient care. I can’t do that when I am assigned four patients, two of whom are intensive care (ICU) patients and two of whom are very sick. Someone may be on a ventilator to breathe for them.  Someone may be septic and require intravenous antibiotics and require constant monitoring.  Some people are getting their first diagnosis in the ER and I can’t educate them about their disease or medication.”

In response to the strike, management locked nurses out of the hospital for four days. The nurses went back to work Wednesday morning, and bargaining is expected to continue now that they’re back on the job.

Healthcare professionals like Johnson do not view striking as their first option.  Most spend years going through “the proper channels,” speaking with management, and engaging in endless internal negotiating sessions to resolve patient care problems.  When they do finally go public with their concerns, their actions often result in improvements to patient care.

In California for example, the California Nurses Association (CNA), the organization that was the founding member of NNU, spent 13 years fighting and winning the first—and thus far only—legislated safe nurse-to-patient staffing ratios in the country: In 1998, California Government Pete Wilson vetoed a safe staffing bill that was passed by the legislature.  In 1999, after more intense lobbying and activity by the CNA, legislation was passed and signed into law by Governor Gray Davis. Ratios were finally implemented in 2004. According to one study, in California, mandated ratios had a positive impact on patient deaths as well as nurse burnout.

Other healthcare workers have gone on strike to address vexing patient care issues. Since 2010, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which represents 4,000 psychologists, social workers, and other mental health clinicians at Kaiser Permanente in California, has mounted a campaign to publicize and remedy a critical shortage of mental health workers at the state’s largest HMO.  In 2011, the NUHW filed complaints to the California Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) charging Kaiser was violating a regulation that requires that HMOs must see mental health patients within 10 business or 14 calendar days of their request for an appointment. The complaint was accompanied by a 34 page report entitled “Care Delayed, Care Denied.”

In 2012, the NUHW went on strike to expose Kaiser’s failure to hire sufficient mental staff and give patients access to timely care.  These mental health workers pushed the DMHC to take action to fulfill its mandates to protect patients.  In March of 2013, the DMHC released the results of its investigation. It found that up to 40 percent of patients at various Kaiser facilities experienced appointment delays that violated California law. In June of 2013, the state of California fined the system $4 million, issued a cease-and-desist order against Kaiser, and ordered the HMO to correct the problems. In 2015, a follow up survey by the DMHC, based on a sampling of hundreds of individual patient charts, revealed that, in Northern California alone, 22 percent of patients suffered excessive appointment delays. The DMHC called the violations “serious.”

In 2015, one of these serious violations resulted in the death of, 83-year-old Barbara Ragan, according to her husband Denny Ragan. Barbara had worked for Kaiser herself for more than two decades. She’d been seeking mental health care from Kaiser and, according to her husband, faced lengthy delays for treatment and ultimately died by suicide.  Kaiser has said it is not responsible for Ragan’s death and insisted that she had received adequate care.

In 2017, the state ordered follow-up inspections to make sure Kaiser was in compliance with state laws and regulations. As a result, Kaiser has also hired hundreds more therapists.

Even though the union’s actions have played a role in forcing Kaiser to improve patients’ access to an initial visit or assessment, workers say problems continue when it comes to providing follow-up care. “Kaiser has not hired enough staff so that, after an initial telephone appointment, patients get needed follow-up care.  Today patients have to wait up to two months for a follow up in person visit,” says Kirstin Quinn Siegel a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Kaiser Richmond. “People who have been suffering in silence, perhaps for years, and finally call to get help should be seen immediately not in two months.”

After experiencing delayed care, another Kaiser patient, 19-year-old Elizabeth Brown, died by suicide in 2018. Kaiser has declined to comment to the press about Brown’s care.

Peter Ly, a psychologist on the Child Team at San Jose Kaiser, says that “A teenager struggling with depression, or who is self -harming or has suicidal thoughts needs to be seen right away and then consistently every week or two.  We can’t do it.  We are asked to put people into groups when what they need is individual one-on-one therapy.”

That’s why he and roughly 4,000 other workers went on a five-day strike in December 2018.  Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D, RI) the sponsor of the mental health parity and addiction Equity Act flew to California to join striking therapists on the picket line.

“We do not go into this work to make money,” says Susan Whitney, a marriage and family therapist at Kaiser in Bakersfield. “There is no cap on our caseload.  In order to help patients we keep accepting more and more of them. We can’t take lunch or even bathroom breaks.  We don’t act until we and our patients are at the breaking point.  And our number one concern is “how will this affect patient care?”

In a response to union allegations, Kaiser has issued a public statement insisting that, “Kaiser Permanente is committed to finding solutions and creating a model for mental health care that meets the growing demand for mental health care and responds to the shortage of qualified professionals.”

But according to Whitney, “We’ve been going through official Kaiser channels for years and the only way we’ve seen any enforcement or improvement is when we go public and enlist the support of patients, community leaders and political representatives.”

In July of 2019, Kaiser  announced that it had added 300 more mental health staff statewide and was continuing to recruit staff. NUHW members have proposed that they participate in decisions about where new staff are assigned both geographically and to which clinical teams.

In 2004, two researchers investigated management claims that healthcare workers represented by unions jeopardize patient care.  Michael Ash and Jean Ann Seago found instead that patients on cardiac units in hospitals where RNs were represented by labor unions had a reduced cardiac mortality rate.  They concluded that, “The protections offered by unionization may encourage nurses to speak up in ways that improve patient outcomes but might be considered insubordinate and, hence, career-jeopardizing without union protections.”

What was true 15 years ago is even more so today as healthcare corporations consolidate through hospital mergers and acquisitions, gain more power, and act to protect the bottom-line rather than patient care.

This article was originally published at Inthesetimes on September 30, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Suzanne Gordon is a healthcare journalist and researcher.  She is the co-author of Safety in Numbers: Nurse to Patient Ratios and the Future of Healthcare (Cornell University Press) and most recently, Wounds of War: How the VA Delivers Health Healing and Hope to the Nation’s Veterans (Cornell University Press).

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GM strike continues and Chicago teachers gear up for a strike, this week in the war on workers

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Nearly 50,000 striking auto workers remain on the picket lines after close to two weeks, and the Detroit Free Press reports that a tentative deal is likely at least a week away. Meanwhile, teachers in Chicago are gearing up for a strike.

The striking UAW workers are fighting to regain ground after they made concessions when General Motors faced bankruptcy in 2009. They want livable raises and affordable health care, sure, but they also want to reduce the use of temporary workers who get a much worse deal, chip away at the two-tier system in which newer hires make less money, and re-open plants that the company has “unallocated,” a weasel word for closed. And make no mistake that this is about what the mass of workers want: “The tentative agreement they negotiate will have to be good enough to sell itself,” Wayne State University’s Marick Masters told the Free Press. “The (UAW) leadership will not be able to sell an agreement that the membership will ratify, because they will not have confidence in the leaders.”

In Chicago, 94% of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted in favor of a strike, which could start as early as October 7 and draw the support of 7,000 school workers who are members of SEIU. Teachers are looking far outside the classroom to improve the schools for their students and communities. They want a raise, and deserve one, but they also want a nurse at every school and at least one social worker for every 50 students in high-trauma areas; more “community schools” that feature wrap-around services such as health care and GED programs; protection against ICE for immigrant students and families; and taxes on the wealthy to provide funding for affordable housing. “The money is there,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates told Labor Notes. “Our city leadership makes choices. They choose to give $1.3 billion to build development in what they call a ‘blighted area’ in one of the richest parts of Chicago.”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on September 28, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.. Laura at Daily Kos

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A Pregnant Target

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Those bundles of joy cost bundles of money, so Victoria Whipple, a quality control worker at Kumho Tire in Macon, Georgia, had been working overtime to get ready for her new arrival.

She also got involved in union organizing at the plant, and management decided to teach her a lesson. It didn’t matter that Victoria had seven kids ranging in age from 10 to 1. Or that she was eight months pregnant. Those things just made her a more appealing target.

On Sept. 6, the day Kumho Tire workers wrapped up an election in which they voted to join the United Steelworkers (USW), managers pulled Victoria off the plant floor and suspended her indefinitely without pay, solely because she was supporting the union. In a heartbeat, her income was gone.

“It kind of stressed me out because of the bills,” she explained.

What happened to Victoria happens all the time. Employers face no real financial penalties for breaking federal labor law by retaliating against workers during a union organizing campaign. So they feel free to suspend, fire or threaten anyone they want. Workers are fired in one of every three organizing efforts nationwide, and the recent election at Kumho Tire was held only because the company harassed workers before the initial vote two years ago.

Legislation now before Congress—the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—would curtail this rampant abuse.

The PRO Act would fine employers up to $50,000 for retaliating against workers during organizing campaigns. It would require the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to go to court to seek reinstatement of workers who are fired or face serious financial harm because of retaliation, and it would give workers the right to file lawsuits and seek damages on their own.

It’s important that members of Congress understand exactly what’s at stake: Families like Victoria’s that might be only a couple of missed paychecks away from financial ruin.

They can’t afford to be pawns in a company’s sordid union-busting campaign.

Victoria began working at Kumho Tire a year and a half ago, after being laid off from her dispatching job at a distribution center. Her husband, Tavaris Taylor, recently started an over-the-road trucking job. They didn’t have much of a financial cushion for emergencies, and the suspension put their backs against the wall.

Instead of focusing on her family in the final weeks of her pregnancy, Victoria had to worry about money. It wasn’t healthy for her or her unborn child. And it wasn’t right.

When Victoria’s eldest child asked why she wasn’t going to work anymore, she just said she needed some time off. It would be wrong to burden a 10-year-old with the truth.

Victoria began borrowing gas money from her mom. She cut back her spending. She prioritized the bills and paid only those—rent, electricity and so on—that she considered absolutely essential.

She kept going to her doctor appointments, hoping the company’s insurance still covered her or that Medicaid would kick in if it didn’t. Victoria qualifies for Medicaid even though she works full time. The need for better pay is just one reason Kumho Tire workers voted to join the USW.

But Victoria’s main concern was giving workers a bigger voice in the workplace. She went to a union meeting and thought: “Maybe representation would help.”

That’s how she became a union supporter—and got crossways with a company that couldn’t care less about its workers, their families or federal labor law.

Victoria didn’t know how long her suspension would last or if management’s next step would be to fire her. That would be Kumho Tire’s kind of baby gift.

Then, out of the blue last week, a manager called Victoria and told her to return to work.  On Friday, her first day back after two weeks without pay, managers had the brass to ask her if she understood why she had been suspended.

Yeah, she understood all right.

Companies will do almost anything these days—even suspend a pregnant woman and escort her from the premises—to keep out unions and hold down workers. That’s especially true of Kumho Tire. Its egregious union-busting activities derailed workers’ attempt to join the USW two years ago.

Back then, Kumho Tire threatened union supporters’ jobs, interrogated employees about their union allegiance, threatened to shut down the plant if the union was voted in and made workers think they were being spied on. The conduct was so extraordinarily bad that an NLRB administrative law judge ordered Kumho Tire to assemble the workers and read a statement outlining the many ways in which it had violated their rights and federal labor law.

The NLRB also ordered this month’s election, in which workers voted 141 to 137 to join the USW. Thirteen challenged ballots will be addressed at an upcoming hearing.

The mistreatment of Victoria shows that Kumho Tire hasn’t changed its ways over the past two years. Unfortunately, employers have no incentive right now to follow the law.

The PRO Act would help to level the playing field. Besides fining companies for retaliation and giving workers the right to sue, the legislation would prohibit employers from holding mandatory anti-union presentations like the “town hall” meetings Kumho Tire forced Victoria and her co-workers to attend. Employers conduct the meetings to bully employees into voting against a union.

The legislation also would provide new protections once workers voted for representation. For example, if a company dragged its feet during bargaining for a first contract, a regular ploy to lower worker morale, mediation and arbitration could be used to speed the process along. And the PRO Act would prohibit employers from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers.

Members of Congress need to understand something. Workers aren’t looking to pick fights with their employers. They just want to do their jobs well, work in safe environments and earn enough money to care for their families. And some companies work productively with unions, including the USW, to improve working conditions and product quality.

But employers like Kumho Tire too often exploit their employees and resist any effort that workers make to improve their lot. When that happens, workers like Victoria will stand their ground. Now more than ever, they need the protections of the PRO Act backing them up.

This blog was originally published by AFL-CIO on September 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).

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New Trump Overtime Rules Will Cost Workers $1.4 Billion in First Year Alone

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The Trump administration’s Labor Department issued new overtime rules this week that take away $1.4 billion of workers’ pay every year compared to the Obama administration rules they replace. The amount of this pay cut for working people will increase enormously over time.

Although the economic recovery that started in 2009 under then-President Obama is now officially more than 10 years old, workers’ wages are still barely budging. Something is clearly wrong with the economy. Workers are not getting our fair share of the profits we help produce.

The Obama administration tried to do something about this problem by making millions more workers eligible for overtime pay, restoring protections that have eroded in recent decades.

Instead of defending the Obama administration’s overtime rules against a poorly reasoned and seriously flawed district court decision, the Trump administration decided to replace them with a new set of rules that protect millions fewer workers.

The Obama rules would extend overtime eligibility to 3.2 million more workers than the Trump rules that replace them. In addition, the Obama rules would make it harder for businesses to misclassify millions of overtime-eligible workers?—5 million more than the Trump rules.

The Obama rules would extend overtime eligibility to millions more workers by raising the salary threshold, which is used to determine which workers are eligible for overtime. Workers who earn less than the salary threshold are automatically eligible; so the higher the threshold, the more workers covered. Under the Obama rules, the threshold would be $51,000 in 2020. This would actually be a lower threshold than if you simply adjusted the 1975 level for inflation?—which comes out to $56,500. By contrast, the Trump rules now set the threshold at only $35,568.

The Trump overtime rules also protect fewer and fewer workers every year as inflation eats away at the value of the salary threshold. The Obama overtime rules would put a stop to this constant erosion of overtime coverage by providing for regular automatic updates of the salary threshold. The Trump rules leave out this essential safeguard for working people. This is why the annual pay loss to workers of $1.4 billion in the first year alone will keep getting bigger every year.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on September 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kelly Ross is the deputy policy director at the AFLCIO.

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Income inequality went up again in 2018, and the Republican tax law may have made it worse

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U.S. income inequality continued to grow in 2018, according to new Census Bureau figures. That’s a continuation of a decades-long trend—and a problem several of the Democratic presidential candidates have plans to combat.

The biggest rises in inequality came in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Texas, and Virginia, making increasing inequality a nationwide phenomenon hitting red states, blue states, and swing states across regions of the country. But it’s not something that’s just happening in a vacuum. It’s a product of policy and of choices that giant corporations, unfettered by government, are making to transfer wealth upward. Candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have offered plans from a wealth tax to a $15 minimum wage to strengthening unions to combat the continuing trend. Republicans, meanwhile, are looking for ways to make it worse.

“In 2018 the unemployment rate was already low, and the labor market was getting tight, resulting in higher wages. This can explain the increase in the median household income,” University of Florida economist Hector Sandoval told the Associated Press. “However, the increase in the Gini index shows that the distribution became more unequal. That is, top income earners got even larger increases in their income, and one of the reasons for that might well be the tax cut.”

We’d need more data to know for sure, but we can be sure that it’s an outcome Republicans wouldn’t object to—except selectively during campaign season.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on September 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.. Laura at Daily Kos

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Now’s the Time to Be Loud. Register to Vote.

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Image result for Nakisha M. Lewis

We’re not staying quiet anymore.

Working people hit the streets last week, marching for climate justice and picketing alongside nearly 50,000 striking General Motors workers.

It was far from a one-off demonstration of our power. Those actions followed in the footsteps of activists, strikers, organizers and countless others who, all this year, have refused to accept a rigged, broken system.

Worker solidarity is at a boiling point. Hundreds of thousands of working people are joining the labor movement, and millions more say they’re ready to follow suit if given the chance.

Americans are driving a moment of collective action unlike anything we’ve seen in decades. From the workplace to the picket line to our communities, we’re making our voices heard and fighting for the justice that we’re owed.

It’s a fight to peel back corporations’ stranglehold on our economy and eradicate the inequities that still define our society. This is a struggle for massive changes in the way we work and live, putting our lives and future back into our own hands.

That sort of structural change requires new economic and political rules. And to win those new rules, we have to win some elections.

We’ve made plenty of noise in the streets. Now, it’s time to make sure that noise is heard loud and clear at the ballot box.

The work of electing genuine advocates to office—from the White House to city councils—starts now. Our success in 2020 won’t be secured through ad buys or corporate fundraisers. Ultimately, it will be decided by the size and makeup of the electorate.

Who will be registered to vote, and who will turn out to cast a ballot? That’s the game. The other side is already playing, and we need to get moving.

In states across the country—including battlegrounds like Ohio, Wisconsin and Georgia—right-wing forces have changed registration rules, restricted access to polling places and even purged hundreds of thousands of people from the voter rolls.

They want us to be quiet. They want us to stay home. Because if we aren’t silenced, they know we will decide this election.

We can’t afford to sit this out. So, I have three asks for you this National Voter Registration Day.

First, check your voter registration status. You can do it right now. Go to your secretary of state’s website to see whether you’re registered to vote. And if you’re not, change that today.

Second, register your people. Talk to your family and your neighbors. Your friends. Your co-workers. Talk to young people and newly eligible voters. Talk to people who haven’t voted in years. Ask them if they’re registered to vote. If they don’t know, help them check. And if they aren’t, help them register.

Third, remember those conversations and make sure all of those people in your life turn out to vote.

That’s the game plan. If we follow through with it, we can make sure that the votes cast next November represent who we are. We can make sure that our elected officials represent our communities. And we can make sure the policies they enact represent our best interests.

It’s on us to mobilize our communities. Nobody’s going to do it for us, and plenty of deep pockets are doing just the opposite.

We have the power to overcome that opposition and be heard. We do it every day. Let’s do it some more.

This article was originally published at AFL-CIOs on September 24, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Nakisha M. Lewis is the Director of Civil, Human and Women’s Rights at the AFL-CIO. She is an experienced philanthropic and political impact strategist with deep roots in community organizing. She comes to the Labor Movement after more than twenty years organizing for racial justice, women’s rights and LGBTQ equality at the local and national levels. Prior to joining the AFL-CIO, Nakisha spent ten years in philanthropy working with individual donors and foundations to develop grantmaking strategies that address inequities and strengthen marginalized communities. Most recently, she served as Program Officer and Senior Strategist for Safety at the Ms. Foundation for Women where she created a national portfolio for women and girls with a Black, queer, feminist lens. Her work on women’s rights also includes the co-founding of the #SheWoke Committee—the catalyst for the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls; established in 2016 and the co-convening of “Power Rising” – a national conference to build an agenda for Black women and girls.

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Graduate Workers Are Going to Fight Like Hell to Stop the Trump NLRB’s New Rule

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At universities across the country, graduate student workers perform essential labor. We teach classes, grade exams and assignments, tutor and mentor undergraduates, maintain labs, and perform clerical duties. Some 66,000 graduate employees at over 30 universities in the United States are currently represented by unions and protected through collective bargaining agreements, because public-sector labor laws in many states recognize the obvious—we are workers.

In August 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a landmark decision recognizing that graduate employees at private universities—who do the same labor as their counterparts at public universities—are also workers, and therefore also have collective bargaining rights. Since then, private universities have seen an explosion of graduate worker organizing. At least nine now have recognized grad unions, and five of those already have union contracts in place.

But now President Trump is trying to permanently reverse the 2016 decision. His anti-union appointees who control the National Labor Relations Board declared on September 20 that graduate workers at private institutions are not workers at all, but only “students,” and therefore have no right to union representation or collective bargaining. Traditionally, the NLRB settles questions of labor law through case-by-case decisions, but this time it’s exercising its rarely used rulemaking authority to set a definitive policy.

Before the rule can be implemented, there is a 60-day public comment period, which opened on September 23. The unions representing grad workers at private universities—including AFT, SEIU, UAW and UNITE HERE—are teaming up by calling on all graduate workers and allies to submit a public comment to the NLRB expressing opposition to the proposed rule. Their goal is to get 30,000 comments. With enough public pressure, the unions hope to stop—or at least delay—the new rule.

“We’re looking at having flyers, petitions, delegations, rallies, and of course commenting guidelines, to engage as many folks as possible,” says Yiran Zhang a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Loyola University Chicago.

Zhang is co-chair of the SEIU-affiliated Loyola University Chicago Graduate Worker Union, which the university has refused to recognize or bargain with despite a majority of graduate employees voting to unionize in February 2017. The administration has also faced multiple protests, including a civil disobedience action and march this past spring.

“This is a crossroads for Loyola,” Zhang explains. “They must either publicly show they stand on the side of workers who are increasingly coming under attack by bargaining with us, or they will show once again that they eschew their professed social justice values to simply hide behind Trump’s anti-labor policies.”

Nationally, graduate employees have taken on increasingly heavy teaching workloads in recent years while making poverty wages and receiving few benefits. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of graduate workers employed by universities increased by 16.7 percent, while the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty rose by only 4.8 percent. Meanwhile, executive compensation at private universities has sharply increased, with the presidents of 61 private universities now making over $1 million every year.

The argument that graduate employees are not “real” workers is as old as it is absurd. It’s not an invention of Trump’s NLRB, but of university administrators who are determined to profit off of the exploited labor of their grad workers, and don’t want unions to get in the way.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of when the Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison became the first recognized graduate worker union in the country. Since then, graduate workers at dozens of other public institutions—where labor relations are governed by state laws instead of the NLRB—have won union recognition.

Almost every time, administrators fought tooth and nail to prevent unionization by trotting out the same line that grad workers are more “students” than “employees.” That’s because, once they’re required to negotiate with grad unions, administrators are eventually forced to guarantee higher wages, better healthcare, tuition and fee waivers, grievance procedures, protections against discrimination and other rights through union contracts.

After half a century, it should be obvious that the “students not workers” argument is nothing more than anti-union propaganda. In reality, there’s no question that graduate workers are indeed workers who can and should have collective bargaining rights.

While universities claim to be dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and truth, administrators hate unions so much they are now allying themselves with the most anti-intellectual and mendacious president in history. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the same institutions that often cover up campus sexual assault and readily roll out the welcome mat for white supremacists have found common cause with the racist sexual predator who occupies the White House.

For all the talk from universities of fostering collegial dialogue and debate, administrators are afraid to sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate with their own workers. For all the talk of promoting critical thinking, they cling to lazy union-busting talking points. For all the talk of commitment to diversity and democracy, they do everything possible to prevent their graduate student workers from having an independent voice.

If campus administrators and Trump’s NLRB insist that graduate workers at private institutions really aren’t workers, then perhaps they should all decide to collectively stop working—and see just how long the universities can function without their labor.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.

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Bernie Sanders to Chicago Teachers: Worker Militancy Is Key to Fighting the Corporate Elite

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When Chicago teachers led a historic strike in 2012, they boasted the critical backing of the public—but high-profile political allies were hard to come by. With then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel as the teachers’ nemesis, national Democrats stayed far away from the fight, and even a number of so-called “progressive” city council members opposed the walkout, including the now-disgraced former 1st Ward Alderman Proco ‘Joe’ Moreno who referred to the strike as “selfish.”

On Tuesday night, a very different scene was on display inside the headquarters of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—one of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2020—headlined a raucous rally to support the teachers in their ongoing contract fight with new Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration. Sanders was flanked by union leaders, community activists and a number of the city’s newly-elected democratic socialist aldermen, all of whom pledged to back the teachers. As Sanders stated as he took the stage, “I think that the Chicago school board should be very nervous.”

The Chicago visit marked a continuation of Sanders’ unique approach to his second presidential campaign, in which he’s not just supported labor battles, but positioned them front and center—manifestations of the political revolution he aims to foment. He has utilized his vast email and phone lists to turn supporters out to picket lines, and directly targeted bosses such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in order to raise workers’ wages. He has joined rallies of striking workers—as he plans to do Wednesday in Detroit to back the UAW’s ongoing strike. And, fundamentally, he has used his campaign as a vehicle to propel the revitalization of a militant U.S. labor movement.

But these aren’t acts of beneficence. To Sanders, an invigorated movement of the working class is the only way to achieve the type of bold redistributive policies that are central to his campaign, from Medicare for All to the cancellation of all student debt.

As Sanders stated at the teachers’ rally Tuesday, “For the last 45 years there has been a war in this country by the corporate elite against the working class of our nation.” And, he continued, “the only way to win prosperity for working people is when we significantly increase membership in trade unions all across America.”

“It’s about dignity”

Tuesday marked the first day of voting among CTU members on whether to authorize a strike, which could begin as soon as October 7. The union, which claims over 25,000 members, must reach a threshold of 75% of ‘yes’ votes to ratify a walkout. If recent history is any indication, that won’t be a herculean task. Ahead of the 2012 strike, nearly 90% of all CTU members who cast a ballot voted to walk out. In 2016, the figure was even higher—close to 96%—though that action was ultimately narrowly avoided.

Contract negotiations have reached an impasse over demands by teachers for more wraparound services and classroom resources at city schools. The union claims that there remain far too few librarians, social workers, counselors, nurses and paraprofessionals to adequately staff the district’s 514 schools, and that the Lightfoot administration is refusing to address these shortages in firm contract language. Teachers are also calling for smaller class sizes, investments in special education, and support for undocumented students through a “sanctuary school” program.

“This is about way more than just pay,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey to the boisterous crowd of teachers and supporters Tuesday night. “It’s about dignity, and the fact that our schools suffer from critical staffing shortages…It’s about the schools that Chicago’s children deserve.”

The rally also featured teachers giving first-hand testimonials of why they are voting to authorize a strike. Jamie Schnall, an educator at Beulah Shoesmith Elementary on Chicago’s South Side, echoed Sharkey’s claims, saying: “Large class sizes aren’t just in my kindergarten classes, it’s the entire building. They take more time to plan, to incorporate into lessons, and more time to get individualized attention. We need class size limits.”

And Adlai E. Stevenson Elementary teacher Norma Noriega highlighted the need for strong contract language guaranteeing safety for undocumented youth. “Our students are terrified of ICE,” she said. “We’re demanding sanctuary for all of our students. We fight for sanctuary because our students deserve to feel—and be—safe in their schools.”

“Everybody is going on strike”

But CTU members aren’t the only school workers on the verge of striking. Tuesday’s rally was also organized alongside SEIU Local 73, a union representing more than 29,000 workers, over 7,000 of whom who work in education-related positions such as custodians, special education assistants and security guards.

Local 73 members are demanding higher pay, increased staffing and an end to privatization deals that purge their ranks—such as the city’s agreement with contractor Aramark that brought private custodians into public schools, and left them in horrendous conditions. The union’s membership has already voted overwhelmingly to go out on strike, which could begin as soon as next month—potentially coinciding with that of the CTU.

Already in Chicago, thousands of nurses have gone out on strike in the past week at the University of Chicago Medical Center. On Monday, teachers at Passages charter school, who are members of the CTU, voted unanimously to authorize a walkout. And Chicago Park District employees announced at Tuesday’s rally that more than 94% of their members have voted to strike.

These actions come on the heels of recent strikes by Chicago hotel workers and orchestra musicians, as well as the first charter schools strikes in the country. Taken together, these displays of collective and concerted worker action represent a new approach for the city’s labor movement, moving into offense after years of being on its heels.

Jeanette Taylor, newly-elected alderwoman of the 20th Ward, summed up the newfound state of affairs at Tuesday’s rally, saying: “Everybody is going on strike in this city, and this is the right thing to do. We’re at a time in our lives when we can’t be silent anymore…we’ve got to stand and fight for each other.”

During his speech, Sen. Sanders urged the Chicago school board to “Sign a contract that deals with the desperate shortage of school nurses, of social workers, of librarians and of other critical staff that keep our schools going.”

“When we talk about valuing work, it’s not the hedge fund managers on Wall Street that we should value,” he continued. “It’s the teachers of this country, it’s the staffing, it’s the school nurses and the librarians.”

Supporting unions from the campaign trail

This isn’t the first time Sanders has used his 2020 campaign to lend support to Chicago workers in the midst of a labor dispute. In June, the campaign used its contact lists to call on supporters to join graduate student workers at the University of Chicago on their picket line. The campaign had previously done similar outreach to support striking workers at McDonald’s, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Mercy Health-St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio. This mobilization, conducted through texts and emails, stands as an apparent first in modern presidential politics.

Directly pressuring employers to raise wages has been another strategy employed by Sanders’ campaign. The senator’s “Stop BEZOS Act,” introduced last fall, aimed to rein in corporate welfare and force large companies like Amazon to pay their workers a living wage. Weeks after the legislation was released, Bezos—the richest man in the world and a longtime target of Sanders’—raised his employees’ starting wages across the board to $15 an hour.

In each of these instances, Sanders did not single-handedly advocate for workers’ rights—he followed the lead of grassroots movements that were already putting forward bold demands. Whether it was grad student union members or the Fight for $15 movement, Sanders merely lent his support and voice to the labor struggles already underway. And the victories, such as Amazon’s wage raise, were made possible by organizers and rank-and-file activists—not simply a presidential candidate. Still, this type of overt worker solidarity has become a trademark of Sanders’ 2020 run.

The appearance in Chicago came the same day Sanders rolled out his wealth tax proposal, which would hit the top 0.1% of households and raise up to $4.35 trillion over the next ten years. Sanders has said that this money could be directed toward early childhood education, his ambitious housing plan and funding a Medicare for All system. Under the proposal, Jeff Bezos would be forced to pay $9 billion a year in taxes. As Sanders told the New York Times of his plan to target the super-rich, “I don’t think billionaires should exist.”

Sanders isn’t the only major presidential candidate to voice support for the Chicago teachers. On Sunday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted, “I stand shoulder to shoulder with the Chicago teachers making their voices heard to demand living wages, smaller class sizes, and all the things teachers need to do their jobs well.” The following day, former Vice President Joe Biden followed suit, tweeting, “I’m proud to support Chicago’s educators as they fight for fair wages, full staffing, and smaller class sizes.”

Seven years ago, Chicago teachers were able to emerge victorious in their strike even without help from the mainstream political class—locally or nationally. But today, following a wave of teacher strikes across the country which has shifted the political terrain decidedly in the direction of rebelling workers, and with all of the top Democratic candidates and an array of left-wing city council members in its corner, the CTU is poised to carry forward what the union initiated in 2012.

As Sanders said Tuesday night of the newfound labor insurgency, “What we are seeing is teachers standing up and fighting for justice.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 25, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is the Community Editor at In These Times. He is a Chicago based writer. miles@inthesetimes.com @MilesKLassin

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Trump’s New Labor Pick Eugene Scalia Will Be a Catastrophe For Workers Rights

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Image result for heidi shierholzWorking women and men need and deserve a Secretary of Laborsomebody who will look out for their interests, protect them from unscrupulous employers, set strong health and safety standards, and

safeguard their retirement security. Unfortunately, corporate lawyer Eugene Scalia, the man named by Image result for Lynn RhinehartPresident Trump to be the next Secretary of Labor, is not that person.

Scalia, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, is a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, where he specializes in labor and employment law and administrative law. He Image result for Celine McNicholasis an active participant in the activities of the Federalist Society—a right-wing legal group. Scalia was nominated in 2001 by President George W. Bush to be Solicitor of Labor, but his nomination was blocked because of opposition over his extreme views against worker health and safety protections. Bush circumvented the Senate and installed Scalia as Solicitor through a recess appointment. Scalia returned to his law firm at the beginning of 2003.

Scalia has built his career representing corporations, financial institutions, and other business organizations—and fighting worker protections like health and safety regulations, retirement security, and collective bargaining rights. Scalia’s reputation as the go-to lawyer for corporations wanting to avoid worker and consumer protections is so notorious that a headline in a Bloomberg Businessweek profile on Scalia read, “Suing the Government? Call Scalia.” Here are just a few examples of cases where Scalia, on behalf of corporations and trade associations, has attacked worker and consumer protections:

Worker Health and Safety

Scalia led the fight on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce against regulations to protect workers from injuries caused by unsafe workplace design—known as ergonomics rules. According to Labor Department experts, the rules would have prevented 600,000 injuries a year. Scalia ridiculed the extensive science underlying the rules as “junk science par excellence” and “quackery,” and suggested that unions supported the rules as a ploy to increase membership. The rules were adopted by the Labor Department in 2000 but were overturned by a Republican Congress after Bush was elected president in 2000.

Fighting ergonomic protections is where Scalia made his mark, but his attacks on worker health and safety protections did not stop there. On behalf of United Parcel Service (UPS), Scalia opposed rules that would have required employers, and not individual workers, to pay for protective equipment that was needed to keep them safe on the job. And he represented SeaWorld when it unsuccessfully tried to fight off an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) citation and fine for failing to protect Dawn Brancheau, a trainer at SeaWorld who was killed on the job by a killer whale.

Retirement Security

Eugene Scalia led the legal work attacking the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule, which safeguarded workers’ retirement security by ensuring that investment advisers are acting in the best interest of workers and do not have a conflict of interest. The rule would have outlawed common practices such as financial advisers steering retirement savers toward investments that provide a good commission, but a lower rate of return. The Department of Labor estimated that conflicted investment advice costs workers $17 billion a year. Scalia attacked the rules on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business interests, and persuaded a federal court to throw them out, leaving workers vulnerable once again to conflicted advice on their retirement investments.

Health Care

In 2006, the Maryland legislature passed a law requiring large corporations to spend 8 percent of payroll on either providing private health insurance or paying into the state’s Medicaid fund. The legislature adopted the law to ensure that large corporations like Walmart were paying their fair share of health care costs for their 16,000 Maryland employees, after studies in other states showed large numbers of Walmart workers on publicly funded health care because of the low wages paid by Walmart. On behalf of Walmart and other business interests, Scalia got the law struck down.

Collective Bargaining Rights

Scalia represented the Boeing Corporation when it was charged by the National Labor Relations Board with illegally transferring work to South Carolina from its unionized plant outside Seattle, Washington in retaliation for workers at the Washington plant exercising their rights under federal labor law, and specifically their right to strike. Boeing and Republicans in Congress embarked on a scorched-earth campaign against the NLRB complaint, holding an oversight hearing in South Carolina and subpoenaing the NLRB’s Acting General Counsel to appear, and introducing legislation to overturn the NLRB complaint even though it had not yet been adjudicated. Boeing eventually settled the complaint in connection with collective bargaining negotiations with the Machinists Union.

Consumer Protections

On behalf of financial institutions and corporations, Scalia has attacked numerous pieces of the Dodd-Frank Act, that was enacted to protect consumers against Wall Street’s power. Scalia challenged the Securities and Exchange Commission’s “proxy access” rule that would have given large shareholders a chance to put alternative candidates forward for a corporation’s board of directors through the corporation’s proxy voting materials. On behalf of business groups, Scalia succeeded in getting the rule overturned, thus denying unions and other institutional shareholders access to the proxy system to inform shareholders about candidates.

Workers with Disabilities

Workers at United Parcel Service who were returning to work following medical leave for on-the-job injuries sued UPS, alleging that the company had illegally failed to provide reasonable accommodations for their disabilities. Workers successfully won certification of a national class of similarly situated workers to pursue their claims, but Scalia, on behalf of UPS, got the class certification reversed on appeal.

Wage Security

Dealers in a Las Vegas casino sued their employer after the employer instituted a new rule requiring the dealers to share their tips with their supervisors. Scalia got the lawsuit thrown out, arguing that the dealers did not have a right to sue for their wages—that their only remedy was through the state commissioner of labor.

Defending Corporations Against Sexual Harassment Charges

Scalia represented the giant bank HSBC when it was sued for retaliating against an employee who reported sexual harassment of some of his co-workers by a manager. According to published reports, Scalia’s questioning of one of the sexual harassment victims was so aggressive that it brought the victim to tears.

Working people do not need a deregulatory wrecking ball as Secretary of Labor. They need somebody who will stand up for strong worker protection rules and aggressive enforcement of them. Unfortunately, the Trump administration seems determined to push through its deregulatory agenda, tearing down worker and consumer protections at the behest of large corporations. Former Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta reportedly lost favor with the Trump White House because he moved too slowly on reversing worker protections issued during the Obama Administration. Given his history of attacking worker and consumer protections at the behest of big business, there is plenty of reason to worry that Eugene Scalia will drive the deregulatory train, to the detriment of working women and men.

Scalia will have a confirmation hearing when the Senate returns in September. It is essential that Senators press Scalia for his views on the role of government regulation—and the role of the Department of Labor—in protecting working women and men. Senators should ask him to identify worker protections that he would promote, and whether there are cases he has been involved in on behalf of working people, not corporations. Senators should discourage Scalia from further weakening worker protections adopted during the Obama administration. These rules were adopted after extensive public input and are supported by comprehensive evidence demonstrating their value and importance to working people. They should not be weakened or overturned simply because anti-regulatory ideologues want it.

At the end of the day, Scalia’s answers to these questions are unlikely to persuade skeptics that he is the right man for the job, because words at a hearing cannot overcome a long career of attacking worker protections on behalf of corporations. But Scalia should be required to state on the record what his intentions are as Secretary of Labor and what he plans to do to protect working people, and, if confirmed, he must be held accountable.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 24, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Heidi Shierholz is Senior Economist and Director of Policy at the Economic Policy Institute. From 2014 to 2017, she served the Obama administration as chief economist at the Department of

About the Author: Lynn Rhinehart was General Counsel of the AFL-CIO from 2009 until her retirement in 2018.

Ms. Rhinehart joined the legal staff at the AFL-CIO as an Associate General Counsel in 1996.  She graduated magna cum laude from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1994.  Following graduation, she clerked for two years for the Honorable Joyce Hens Green of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.  Ms. Rhinehart is a member of the District of Columbia bar.  From 1987-1990, Ms. Rhinehart worked as a professional staff member for the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, chaired by Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH).  Ms. Rhinehart is the Executive Director of the Lawyers Coordinating Committee (LCC), a national organization of 2,000 union-side labor lawyers in law firms and legal departments.  She serves on the Board of Directors of the Peggy Browning Fund and the National Employment Law Project.

About the Author: Celine McNicholas is EPI’s director of government affairs and labor counsel. An attorney, her current areas of work include a wide range of workers’ rights issues, including labor and employment law, collective bargaining, and union organizing. She was a core member of EPI’s Perkins Project on Worker Rights and Wages Policy Watch, an online resource that tracked federal actions affecting working people and the economy during the first year of the Trump administration. McNicholas continues to monitor and analyze the Trump administration’s labor and employment policies.

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When It Comes to Bereavement Leave, the U.S. Is Unspeakably Cruel

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Image result for Julianne TvetenOn March 19, 2018, Cindy Christensen took her husband, who had suddenly fallen ill, to the emergency room. Within one or two days, Christensen estimates, her husband was diagnosed with lymphoma. He was promptly transferred to a hospital that could provide more specialized treatment.

At the time, Christensen had been a unionized production worker at a Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies plant in Necedah, Wisconsin, for over 30 years. Before the diagnosis, she knew she’d have to be available during her husband’s hospital stay, and she arranged to use paid time off she’d accumulated. Shortly after the diagnosis, she began to consider the arrangements she’d have to make with her employer while her husband received treatment.

Christensen says she filed a request for unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), thinking she’d use the time to be with her husband for chemotherapy treatments and other medical appointments after she exhausted her paid leave. The FMLA of 1993 guarantees 12 workweeks of “unpaid, job-protected” leave in a 12-month period for family-related caretaking matters for eligible employees. In Wisconsin, employees qualify if they’ve worked for an organization for at least 52 consecutive weeks and for at least 1,000 hours in the preceding 52-week period; that organization must also employ at least 50 permanent staff members in order for workers to qualify.

“In that week’s time, my husband got worse and worse,” the now-retired Christensen tells In These Times. “He developed sepsis, and his organs shut down.” On March 26, 2018 he died.  She says she canceled the FMLA leave, finding it no longer necessary and fearing it would entail a slog of paperwork and phone calls that would aggravate her distress.

In the wake of her husband’s death, Christensen says she was given three days’ paid bereavement leave, per her contract under the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), with Good Friday, a paid holiday, following on March 30. She estimates she missed two additional days that weren’t covered by paid leave; each of these days resulted in disciplinary “points.” Reaching a certain number of points, she explains, would be grounds for firing. Christensen says she returned to work the following Wednesday, after seven days off.

“I was very close to losing my job,” she tells In These Times. “When things like this happen, you would like to take some time off. There’s so much stuff that you have to do. I would’ve liked to have taken more time off, but [Freudenberg-NOK] told me that I could not, unless I wanted to use the Family and Medical Leave Act,” she says.

Christensen hoped, as an employee of over 30 years, she could devise an alternative with Freudenberg-NOK, in the form of unpaid personal leave of approximately three days. The company had given unpaid leave previously to grieving employees, she says. To Christensen’s surprise, she recounts, the company denied her request, explaining that a broken water heater would warrant such leave, but her husband’s sudden illness and death wouldn’t.

“My husband was gone within a week’s time, and that was just a shock in itself. We didn’t know he had cancer, then we found out, and a week later, he’s gone. That was a lot,” Christensen says. “I thought they [Freudenberg-NOK] were going to be more kind, but they weren’t. It was a battle…They were just nasty about it.”

No right to bereavement leave

Christensen’s ordeal offers a glimpse into the state of bereavement leave for workers in the United States.

Bereavement leave isn’t federally mandated for any workers; thus, it’s largely a matter of whether employers choose to provide it. According to the Department of Labor, the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets standards for minimum wage, overtime pay, record keeping and youth employment, “does not require payment for time not worked, including attending a funeral.” Laws vary by state: Oregon is the only U.S. state to legally require bereavement leave for qualifying employees, though said leave can be unpaid. Meanwhile, some states, such as California, legally require paid bereavement leave for certain public-sector workers, such as state employees.

The extent to which bereavement leave is available is largely limited to the attendance and, to some extent, the arrangement of a memorial service for a loved one. This informs the length of bereavement leave given to workers: Across the private sector, paid bereavement leave typically spans three to five days for full-time employees following the loss of an immediate family member, and one day following the loss of an extended family member or close friend, when it’s offered.

As of 2012, only 60% of private-sector workers were granted paid bereavement leave, per a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Part-time employees were at a particular disadvantage: 29% received paid leave, compared with 71% of full-time employees. (More recent statistics aren’t available, nor are numbers for public-sector jobs.) Additionally, there are no bereavement-leave protections in place for workers in the informal and gig economies, such as nannies and Uber drivers; in most cases, this remains a matter of the employer’s jurisdiction.

In some major capitalist countries other than the U.S., bereavement leave is somewhat more substantial. In Canada, bereavement leave of at least three days is guaranteed for employees under the Canada Labour Code, with pay contingent on duration of employment. The U.K. classifies leave for an emergency involving a dependent as a right, but doesn’t require that it be paid, and doesn’t guarantee bereavement leave specifically. France mandates three days’ paid leave for the death of a spouse, partner or close relative, and five days for the death of a child for all workers via the French Labor Code.

In recent years, certain high-profile companies have broadened their bereavement leave policies. In 2017, Facebook augmented its bereavement-leave allowance to up to 20 days following the death of an immediate family member, and up to 10 for an extended family member. This happened shortly after the company’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, was suddenlyn widowed.

MasterCard and SurveyMonkey followed suit with comparable policies, citing Facebook’s precedent.

At the time of these announcements, corporate  media  outlets  lavished these companies with praise, depicting their actions as beacons of hope for the U.S. labor landscape. What the press failed to ask, however, was why labor policies affecting the mental health of millions of workers should be so fragmented and piecemeal—and why the most generous versions of them should hinge upon the impulses of immensely wealthy executives.

The repercussions of trauma and loss

The answer to these questions, of course, is that these policies are the product of decades of neoliberal governance, wherein employers are given considerable latitude regarding labor practices. Employers benefit from the fact that universal paid bereavement leave isn’t federally mandated: This gives them more control over how much they invest in their workers, and further legal license to ignore their workers’ mental and physical health requirements. Thus, because federal labor law doesn’t guarantee protections for bereft workers, those workers’ wellbeing often suffers.

This was the case for Alex Blank Millard, who, several years ago, lost her father suddenly on the first day of her weeklong vacation from her job at an organization that provided no bereavement leave. (Millard chose not to name the organization.) Millard says that before her vacation, she routinely worked 60 to 70 hours per week and was commended for her job performance. When she returned to work grief-stricken, she was unable to concentrate.

“I spent the whole [vacation] week planning a memorial, dealing with family, figuring out logistics,” she tells In These Times. “I had to ask permission to take one extra day at the end of the week. I came back, and I was understandably a mess.” Millard wrote about her experience in 2018 for the now-defunct publication The Establishment.

Upon her return, Millard says she was expected to resume her regular workload and schedule. She subsequently requested additional unpaid leave. Her employer denied the request, she says, asserting that Millard simply had too much work to do, and placed her on a two-week “performance improvement plan” in order to more closely monitor her work. Millard, who’d worked there for three years, continued to seek leave over the course of two or three months, by her estimate.

“They wouldn’t [provide] that, and then I was fired,” she says. “I was fired for distraction[-related] things, like, ‘Took too long on a project.’”

An employer’s assumption that a worker can return to the workplace with their normal labor capacity intact, immediately following a life-altering form of trauma, is a testament to the necessity of bereavement leave, according to therapist and licensed clinical social worker Melissa Lopez, who specializes in grief counseling. “[Bereavement leave] is crucial. Grief is not only emotional; it’s mental, it’s physical, it’s spiritual in many ways. You’re trying to adjust to all these things, and work is asking you to not only show up, but be super productive. That causes more stress.”

Experiences such as Millard’s are symptomatic of a larger problem, according to therapist and mental-health educator Araya Baker. “I don’t think three to five days is sufficient. I think that dismisses the emotional repercussions of grief that an employee might be dealing with. Insufficient bereavement periods speak to the fact that capitalism has conditioned us to accept workplaces with a toxic, unhealthy culture,” he says.

“We romanticize the ability to repress pain and to forego help and rest,” Baker adds. “But we cannot always simply deactivate the part of our brains that cause our bodies and minds to grieve, simply because we’re at work.”

Lopez and Baker state that the individual grief process varies significantly depending on the mourner’s relationship with the deceased, cause of death and other factors. Research shows that acute grief, which commonly results shortly after the death of a loved one, can result in depression, trouble sleeping, feelings of anger and bitterness, anxiety, loss of appetite and general aches and pains—all of which can interfere with, and be exacerbated by—the need to perform a job.

And while there’s no quantifiable, universal grief period, research also shows that traumatic life events can require a recovery period of at least several weeks to months. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, for example, found that older adults who had lost a spouse saw a reduction in their stress after an eight-week program of physical and mental care.

“There should definitely be a conversation about how to accommodate someone’s grief and how to help them adapt both outside of the workplace, but also in the context of professional space, because those things often go hand in hand,” says Baker.

Whose grief counts

In addition to failing to account for the psychological and physiological process of coping with loss, current standards for workplace bereavement leave policies also run the risk of hierarchizing grief and those who mourn.

For example, the standard three-day leave period for immediate family “is dismissive of folks, especially in the LGBTQ community, where a lot of folks have chosen family” because their families have rejected them, says Lopez.

She adds, “A lot of communities of color grow up with extended family. You have uncles and aunts and cousins, everybody who is as close, many times, as immediate family members. But if it’s not an immediate family member, you [often] don’t even get those three days. It completely dismisses the impact of grief for many people.”

These forms of discrimination also surface for workers who don’t have the ability to take extended unpaid leave. Even for those whose work allows unpaid leave to heal from loss, the lack of income disproportionately affects those living in financial precarity, effectively stratifying the grief process.

Thus, at a time when a reported 40% of people living in the U.S. can’t cover a $400 emergency expense, and another reported 40% are one paycheck away from poverty, unpaid leave presents many people with an unfair choice: Take time to grieve but lose desperately needed income, or return to work and repress the repercussions of an extremely raw trauma.

In either case, workers’ mental health suffers. “Financial stress can compound grief, and make the recovery itself traumatic,” says Baker.

“You’re not going to have low-income folks have the ability to take off that much time, even if it’s given to them [as unpaid leave],” says Lopez. “That’s just not a reality. That’s the sad part. Who gets to break down? Who gets to just check out?”

The union struggle for bereavement protections

For many unions, steady, paid bereavement leave is a necessary component of worker protections. Because unionized workers can influence their own labor conditions more than non-unionized workers can, unionized jobs are likelier to offer benefits like paid bereavement leave, sick leave and maternity leave.

UE argues that paid bereavement leave should be universally provided, rather than a matter of corporate discretion. “We believe that [bereavement leave] is a basic sign of respect for workers and their families,” General President Peter Knowlton tells In These Times. He adds that it “should be guaranteed by law to all workers and all types of families.”

According to UE Local 1107 vice president Joni Anderson, the union took a number of actions in solidarity with Christensen, a member of that chapter, amid the company’s defiant posturing. Christensen’s coworkers and fellow UE members circulated a petition calling for her disciplinary points to be revoked and her personal leave to be rendered. They posted signs that said “Stand With Cindy,” and wore t-shirts proclaiming “We Are Not Family”—a direct reference, Anderson says, to the company’s tendency to profess otherwise. Eventually, Anderson says, the union discovered that the company had quietly withdrawn Christensen’s disciplinary points.

In response to the situation with Christensen, a Freudenberg-NOK spokesperson tells In These Times that it offers three days of paid bereavement to all employees at its Necedah plant. “The former employee – who was employed by Freudenberg-NOK at the time of her loss – was given three days of paid bereavement leave. The company further agreed to provide the employee with additional time off through the use of personal days, vacation days and FMLA-sponsored leave, per its contractual agreement. We do not discuss the individual decisions made in these situations.”

Anderson adds that UE Local 1107 has sought to expand paid bereavement leave policies to account for extended family members such as aunts and uncles. Freudenberg-NOK has refused to concede, she says, permitting paid leave only for the loss of family members already designated in the contract. Anderson notes that the next round of negotiations is scheduled for November, during which she expects to bargain for personal leave.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) have waged similar battles. According to Andrea Zinder, UFCW Local 324 secretary-treasurer and president-elect of the UFCW Western States Council, paid bereavement leave between three and five days has been included in her local’s grocery workers’ contracts since at least 1984. Zinder tells In These Times that the local had just closed negotiations with Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs. Previously, employees were granted what was termed “funeral leave” on the condition that they produce proof of attendance of the service, such as a funeral card or program.

The policy soon proved inherently exclusionary and punitive. “A lot of times, there aren’t funerals,” Zinder says. “There are other ways of celebrating [someone’s life]. When there wasn’t an actual funeral, we sometimes ran into problems getting pay. We just changed the reference of ‘funeral leave’ to ‘bereavement leave’ in our retail food contract.”

“You get a hardcore employer, and you get a problem,” she adds. “When there’s no funeral, what do you do?” (Vons, Albertsons, and Ralphs have not responded to In These Times’ request for comment.)

The UFCW has also bargained for increased flexibility regarding timeframe of leave. Zinder says that within recent years, the union had modified certain contracts to allow for leave to be taken any time within a 14-day period.

Unions such as the UE and UFCW offer a formidable infrastructure through which to recognize and establish bereavement leave as a worker’s right. Still, amid the threat of corporate adversaries and a long history of policymaking in their favor, the struggle to secure bereavement leave continues.

“I think that if we truly care about workers, which I’m not sure that we do as a society, but if we want to truly care about workers, bereavement leave is essential,” says Millard. “We have trauma, trauma affects people, people are workers, and yet we’re not doing what we need to do to get them where they need to be.”

Baker adds, “While educating employers and lawmakers about grief is the obvious way to bring about widespread bereavement policy reform, it will take more than mental health advocacy for this idea to catch on. We need to be able to recognize exploitative expectations of workers.”

This article originally appeared on Inthesetimes.com on September 23, 2019.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about technology, labor, and culture, among other topics. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Capital & Main, KPFK Pacifica Radio, and elsewhere.

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