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Respect at Work Has to Become the New Normal: ILO Convention 190 and Rebuilding for a Fairer Economy

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The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief the direct correlation between the exploitative labor model that fuels our global economy and the systemic racism and discrimination that leads to attacks on Black people’s bodies and lives. It is a system rooted in discrimination and oppression, one that strategically devalues and dehumanizes Black and Brown workers, particularly women. Returning to “normal” is not an option or even desirable—we must instead rebuild an economy designed to meet human needs and protect fundamental rights, including safety and respect on the job.

After years of campaigning by the global labor movement, workers, governments and employers came together June 21, 2019, at the International Labor Organization to negotiate a global standard to end violence and harassment in the world of work. The ILO Convention that resulted from those discussions, C190, was the first international treaty to recognize the right of every worker to be free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment, and the responsibility of governments and employers to ensure safe, respectful workplaces. Uruguay recently became the first country to ratify the convention, and others are soon to follow its lead. One year later, as we confront racial, economic and health crises, the convention takes on an even greater role in addressing the many forms of work-related violence and harassment workers are reporting related to the pandemic. 

With increased incidence of domestic violence and health and safety violations during the current crisis, unions are using the C190 framework to negotiate with employers and governments for policies that address the forms of violence they confront. Female workers throughout the global economy often are the first to lose their jobs as the economy contracts or are forced to work in low-paid positions with few health and safety protections. C190 requires that employers recognize gender-based violence and harassment in their safety and health protections. It is clear the convention provides an important framework for addressing the systemic discrimination and exploitation workers face around the world.

Rebuilding our economy will require that we proactively design and implement systems that empower and protect workers and address systemic power imbalances. As countries shape policies for reopening and rebuilding economies, the C190 framework provides guidance on how to ensure workplaces are safe and address the continuum of violence workers often experience. C190 calls on all governments to address the root causes of violence and harassment at work, including discrimination, and develop strategies to address the underlying factors that support these systems.

Women, particularly women of color, have been on the front lines of the pandemic, many working for very low wages. Overall, front-line workers are 64% women and disproportionately people of color. According to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, 73% of Black immigrant domestic workers report not being provided with any form of personal protective equipment (PPE) by their employers. Women particularly are overrepresented in care work, making up more than 85% of child care workers and 75% of health care workers. Caring for others sustains our communities and allows our economy to function, but it has long been dismissed as women’s work and systematically devalued, informalized and underpaid. Not coincidentally, these professions also face high rates of violence and harassment on the job. 

In addition, women, along with marginalized groups such as migrant workers, Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming individuals, are disproportionately pushed into the precarious workforce. And while precarious work arrangements—aka corporations using subcontractors, franchises and gig models to avoid a formal employment relationship and escape liability for some or all labor rights—predate COVID-19, the pandemic has spotlighted how these jobs operate with little to no regard for worker safety. 

C190 explicitly requires governments to address precarious work arrangements and ensure that everyone in the working world has legal protections from violence and harassment. It also contains protections for others in the workplace who are often left unprotected by labor laws and social protection systems, including people looking for work, unpaid interns and apprentices. As unemployment rises and state reopenings foreclose many from qualifying for emergency assistance, people will become increasingly desperate for income and can be forced into more dangerous and exploitative situations.

Critically, C190 also recognizes the importance of addressing underlying power relationships at work. Ending violence and harassment requires shifting more agency and control into the hands of workers themselves. This pandemic has made clear that far too often, workers are not viewed as human beings deserving of dignity and safety, but as expendable cogs in a machine. Violence and harassment exist in this system not as a glitch, but as a feature—tools of control used to reinforce hierarchy both in the workplace and in society.

To get all of this done, we need to build alliances across our movements. Feminist, worker, climate, racial justice, migrant and human rights organizations must build joint analysis and campaigns that work toward ratification and implementation of C190. All workers must have the ability to organize collectively to proactively shape their own working conditions. A union is how change is made, and one of the few inspiring outcomes of the pandemic has been the rise of new waves of worker and community organizing. Going forward, we must create an enabling environment for organizing to demand respect on the job by protecting everyone’s fundamental right to come together and act in concert to demand better. 

One of the most heartbreaking elements of the COVID-19 crisis is that so much of the suffering is the result of political choices, made to prioritize the stock market and uninterrupted markets, rather than human life. C190 provides us a framework for a worker-centered response and recovery that builds systems for all workers and addresses the power imbalances created by systemic discrimination. We can and must make different, better choices—choices to recognize the inherent dignity and value of all workers, to require respectful, safe working conditions, and to allow people more agency in shaping their working lives.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on June 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Cathy Feingold is a leading advocate on global workers’ rights issues. As director of the AFL-CIO’s International Department, Feingold is a committed and passionate advocate, strategic campaigner and policy expert. In 2018, Feingold was elected Deputy President of the International Trade Union Confederation, the organization representing 200 million unionized workers worldwide. She brings more than 20 years of experience in trade and global economic policy, and worker, human and women’s rights issues. Her work in both global and grassroots fora reflect her commitment to strengthening the voice of working people in global policy debates.


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Unpaid Prison Barber Made to Work During Covid Says, “We Aren’t Properly Disinfecting Anything”

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Each morning at 8:30, Ron begins trimming hair and beards at a barber shop from hell. As soon as he walks in, someone is waiting for a cut in a little plastic chair. Over the course of the next three hours, he flies through about 35 cuts, and another 35 in the afternoon, alongside several other barbers.

“It’s roach-infested, the mirror isn’t cleaned,” says Ron, who asked In These Times to withhold his real name for fear of retaliation. “There’s no brooms, no mops, there’s no dustpans, the sinks are clogged with hair. Dis-gust-ing.”

On a regular day, a long line forms outside the shop. Everyone is sweaty in Florida’s heat. “The barber shop doesn’t have much ventilation or air conditioning and there’s a lot of hair everywhere,” one “client” says. “Hair is stuck to everything, the capes are reused, they are wet and sticky with other people’s hair. The chairs are broken.”

Such an enterprise in a normal setting would swifty receive harsh reviews. But Ron is a barber at a prison in Florida. (In These Times is not revealing his specific location in order to protect him from retaliation.) He’s been clipping hair for about 20 years at compounds across the state, and he has never had any control over his labor conditions. Like “essential workers,” incarcerated laborers must risk their well-being for their jobs. Unlike essential workers, in Florida, they aren’t paid. “I gotta go to work every day,” Ron says. “They don’t care. They are telling us that we are doing social distance, but I’m a foot away from the next man trimming his beard, shaving him, cutting his hair…I could complain about it till kingdom come and they don’t care.”

After an outbreak at several facilities, the Florida Department of Corrections used uncompensated prison labor to make masks for the other 176,000 incarcerated people and staff across the state. But the masks are small, fragile and barely cover the nose and mouth, according to Ron. He says he was lucky to purchase a N95 mask from the custodial staff to use instead.

As of June 21, 1,704 incarcerated people and 365 prison staff have been infected with the virus in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. At least 548 incarcerated people in the United States have died from Covid-19.

Diseases were likely spreading in the barber shop long before Covid-19 hit. Per federal barber shop regulations, all tools “that come in contact with the head, neck or face of a patron, should be disinfected before use upon any patron.” But prison barber shops in Florida typically don’t allow time, and in some cases, sanitizing supplies for proper disinfecting, Ron says. Florida regulations specify that barbershop tools must be disinfected by a product registered with the Environmental Protection Agency “as a bacterial, virucidal and fungicidal disinfectant, and approved by that agency for use in hospitals, for one to five minutes.” Then, tools should be stored in an ultraviolet ray sanitizing cabinet.

According to Ron, Florida prisons aren’t abiding by these regulations. “If we did what we are supposed to do, per OSHA, we would only be able to cut one every fifteen minutes because it takes fifteen minutes to disinfect,” explains Ron. Since he only has one clipper, he wouldn’t be able to trim everyone’s beard on a weekly basis if a proper procedure were in place. And they don’t have the disinfectants registered with the EPA or UV sanitizing cabinets. “We aren’t properly disinfecting anything,” Ron says. “That’s mandated by the state of Florida. I don’t know how they passed inspections.” He says staff won’t address his concerns. “When you bring it up they say they don’t care…cut hair, or else.”

The “client,” who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation, describes haircuts in prison as “scary,” citing tools “not being sanitized, and some of these blades are not properly adjusted.” He explains, “you get cut, the guy before you gets cut, the guy after you is getting cut and you don’t have a choice because you have to get a haircut.” Every incarcerated person in Florida must keep a clean shaven, or up to a half-inch, beard. Men in solitary confinement at Ron’s prison get haircuts in their cells while standing, says Ron.

Meanwhile, a right-wing, astroturfed “reopen America” movement guided by corporate interests has been pushing for reopening non-essential businesses, while scientists urge them to remain closed.

Controversy around haircuts have become symbolic of the American culture wars sparked by the movement. In May, the Michigan Conservative Coalition, which has ties to the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, organized an “Operation Haircut” demonstration with free haircuts, a line that has inspired some Americans to complain that their shaggy hair is a violation of their constitutional rights.

Others, like a small coalition of Rhode Island restaurants, have pointed out that sheltering in place and bankruptcy are a false dichotomy: “Rather than call on workers and customers to risk their lives for a livelihood and social experience that we all have been deprived of,” the coalition wrote. “We instead suggest that this energy and effort be directed at our government and its officials to do their job and protect this extremely important and equally vulnerable industry during this crisis.” The coalition suggests rent and mortgage freezes and unemployment benefits as two such efforts.

Prior to the reopening of some salons in Florida on May 11, Ron questioned the inconsistency of the labor situation. “If my sister can’t get her hair and nails done, and she is dying to get them done, why should we not walk around with an afro? It doesn’t make any sense.” 

But he answers his own question: “I know what’s going on, it’s all about control, it’s all psychological. We outnumber them. But as long as we are killing each other and fighting each other we’re not looking at the problem which is them. We will always be losing, and they will always be laughing at us.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ella Fassler is an independent writer, researcher and prison abolitionist.


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Should Work-From-Home be Mandatory Even after the COVID Pandemic?

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As the pandemic wanes and the world fights to claw its way out of the economic drain, leaders and company executives are trying to figure out how to change with the changing economy. To put the situation in perspective: In 2019, only 3.4% of employees worked remotely. Working from home was considered a job perk and only a select few enjoyed this privilege. Fast-forward to 2020, the percentage of individuals working remotely is now more than 43%. This has been an unanticipated change. People had to adapt as quickly as possible because many businesses were at risk of failing, and leaders needed to act fast!

Adapting to the Setbacks of the Pandemic by Promoting Remote Work

As companies and employees adapt to this new world, executives and team leaders are faced with a harsh truth: the office is not needed after all! A lot of tasks can be accomplished remotely. This realization placed many traditionalists in a tight spot. A decade ago, team leaders countered the idea of remote working by saying workers needed constant supervision for them to be productive. The opposite has now been shown to be true. Remote workers are happier and more productive than their counterparts who commute to the office. With productivity tools readily available, a lot of team leaders now use time tracking apps to monitor their employees remotely. Technology has made it clear that employees do not need an office to be productive.

Should Companies Continue to Pursue Remote Work?

While it’s true that some jobs require physical presence and can’t be done remotely (think of delivery personnel and field workers), the figures are clear on this one, with 77% of remote workers saying they want to continue working from home after the pandemic. Companies are now making policies to accommodate remote working. Workers who can work remotely should be allowed to do so.

Tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Google are setting the pace in this regard. Google and Facebook are looking for ways to create a hybrid environment that will allow workers to choose when to commute or telecommute, while Twitter is going for a wholly remote-working team. Other companies are following this path or at least they are considering the possibility. The logic is simple: why waste money on renting office space and paying for employee transport if the job can be done from anywhere? Allowing for remote work also means employers have the advantage of hiring talent from different parts of the globe.

However, not everyone is suited for remote work. 23% of individuals currently being forced to work out of office because of the pandemic cannot wait to resume commuting to the office. This group of people consider themselves to be more productive when in the office and they are eager to leave the house post-pandemic. Trying to figure out how to manage time while working from home isn’t the best idea for this set of individuals. This creates a question: How can companies create a balance and allow for diversity?

Offering Job Flexibility Even After Lockdown Restrictions

The answer to this question is not far-fetched. Building a hybrid team is a great way to create a balance between remote and office work. By giving people the option to choose when to work from home and when to be in the office, companies can build flexibility and make themselves more attractive to their workforce. One way to boost productivity for remote work is to realize that flexibility is important to employees. Even if some of them choose to commute to work daily, knowing they have the option to work remotely whenever they want will increase their loyalty for the company. A research conducted by Owl Labs shows that remote workers stay longer with a company than their counterparts who commute to the office. Individuals who have no option to telecommute are more likely to look for new jobs sooner than later. This means employers who do not allow telecommuting tend to lose more employees. They will also spend extra time and resources trying to hire new talent to fill the vacancy.

In the end, making it mandatory to either work from home or the office is not the answer. Instead, company leaders should look towards implementing policies that can allow employees to choose what works for them. Every employee should have the option to choose when to work from home and when to go to the office. It is time to embrace the new and let go of the old.

About the Author: Ikechukwu Nnabeze is a tech expert and a successful freelancer whose main area of interest is to improve people’s lives with the help of modern technology. His interest in providing practical solutions to real-life tech problems has led him to a successful career in creating content for Traqq. His passion is to help individuals and organizations from all over the world to embrace the life-changing beauty of modern technology. He enjoys poetry in his spare time.


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AFL-CIO Leader Richard Trumka Defends Police Unions by Comparing Them to Employers

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As the AFL-CIO struggles with a growing debate over its alignment with police unions, the disagreement inside of the labor coalition itself is becoming more pointed. At an internal meeting of the Executive Council on Friday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke out against the idea of kicking police unions out of the coalition—confusingly, by comparing them to the employers that unions bargain against. 

In an exchange with a union president who spoke out forcefully against the historic role of police as foes of labor, Trumka defended the police as “community friendly,” and argued that if unions could learn to work with employers to handle contentious issues, they should be able to do the same with cops and their unions.

Since the beginning of the ongoing nationwide protests against police violence, there has been a heated discussion about what role police unions should play in the labor movement. Many progressives want to sever ties with police unions altogether, while others—particularly public-sector union leaders, who fear that any attacks on police unions will translate into attacks on all collective bargaining in the public sector—counsel moderation and “engagement” with police unions to push various reforms. 

The AFL-CIO, a coalition of 55 unions representing 12.5 million members, has found itself in the center of the controversy. On June 8—a week after the AFL-CIO’s Washington headquarters was burnedduring a protest—the Writers Guild of America, East, an AFL-CIO member union, passed a formal resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from the International Union of Police Associations, the coalition’s police union member. (I am one of the 21 WGAE council members who voted on the resolution). 

The leadership of the AFL-CIO received the resolution unenthusiastically. They immediately put out a statement saying that they “take a different view when it comes to the call for the AFL-CIO to cut ties with IUPA. …We believe the best way to use our influence on the issue of police brutality is to engage our police affiliates rather than isolate them.” Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, Trumka’s second-in-command, advocated instead developing “codes of excellence” to encourage police unions to change from within.

But the issue has not disappeared. Union locals and progressive factions within larger unions have taken up the call. The King County Labor Council expelled the Seattle police union last week, and even SEIU leader Mary Kay Henry, the head of the most powerful union outside of the AFL-CIO, said that disaffiliation “must be considered” if police unions don’t reform. Last Friday, the proposal from the Writers Guild received its first serious and direct discussion at a meeting of the AFL-CIO’s executive council, the elected body that governs the group. 

According to a source who was on that call who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of internal deliberations, Mark Dimondstein, the head of the American Postal Workers Union, raised the issue, saying that the AFL-CIO would eventually have no choice but to deal with the issue head on. Citing the WGAE’s resolution, Dimondstein said that the AFL-CIO needed to grapple with “irreconcilable differences” between police unions and other union members, because the role of police is to protect corporate power, not the power of working people. He called for Trumka to distribute the resolution to the Executive Council for further discussion at a future meeting, and then voiced his own opinion that any police who beat union members could not be his “brother or sister.” 

In response, Trumka, who was leading the meeting, pushed back against some of Dimondstein’s points. Trumka, a former leader of the United Mine Workers, said that he had seen anti-worker police violence in the mining industry, but argued that many police officers today are “community friendly.” He also disagreed with Dimondstein’s characterization of labor’s differences with police as “irreconcilable.” 

“I’d just point out that we have irreconcilable differences with every employer we deal with, yet we deal with them,” Trumka said. He told Dimondstein that in the same way that unions use collective bargaining to deal with employers, so, too, could organized labor use the process to “narrow” differences with police unions. 

The disagreement shows that the dispute over the AFL-CIO’s affiliation with police is not going away, and that an internal battle may be looming. Also noteworthy is Trumka’s somewhat baffling comparison of police unions to employers, as an argument against disaffiliation—an argument that would seem to imply that police unions are an opponent to be bargained against.

Employers, of course, are not part of the AFL-CIO.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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Migrant farmworkers are headed north from Florida, afraid of COVID-19 but with little choice

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Florida is hitting one daily high in positive coronavirus tests after another, and now some of the people in the hardest-hit communities are heading out for other states. Not wealthy snowbirds, but migrant farmworkers, who follow growing seasons north for the summer.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), which fights for better wages and working conditions for farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, and beyond, has been sounding the alarm for months. The conditions the workers face, “the result of generations of grinding poverty and neglect, will act like a superconductor for the transmission of the coronavirus,” CIW co-founder Greg Asbed wrote in The New York Times in early April. “And if something isn’t done—now—to address their unique vulnerability, the men and women who plant, cultivate and harvest our food will face a decimating wave of contagion and misery in a matter of weeks, if not days.“ That was April. The Florida Department of Health didn’t even start seriously testing these communities until early May.

While the Coalition of Immokalee Workers did what it could by spreading information and working with the growers in its Fair Food Program to help protect workers with things like hand-washing stations and grocery delivery (Doctors Without Borders has been helping with response), it hasn’t been enough to undo the neglect and irresponsible leadership at the government level.

“You don’t want those folks mixing with the general public if you have an outbreak,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said last week, perhaps seeking to illustrate not only how irresponsible he is, but how vicious and dehumanizing he is as well.

As a result of that failure to lead, farming communities in Florida have alarming rates of COVID-19. Collier County, where Immokalee is, has a positive test rate about double the state level, and, the Times reports, “Lake Worth, a suburban Palm Beach County community of about 39,000 that has a large population of Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants, has 1,367 confirmed cases, slightly more than St. Petersburg, a city six times larger.”

The danger of the virus and the economic pressure to follow the jobs—low-paying and often abusive though they may be—is weighing heavily on workers. 

”We’re afraid,” Angelina Velásquez, a single mother, told the Times. “But where am I supposed to go? There is no work here.” Other workers are also making the very difficult decision to stay put. “I’m trying to take care of myself—for my wife, for my baby,” one said.

These migrant workers are in a no-win situation they didn’t create. And while it’s a systemic problem, the people who lead and benefit from that system are treating the workers as essentially disposable. This time, that may lead to the coronavirus spreading even further.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Trump expected to extend limits on foreign workers

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The executive order, blocking most people from getting permanent residency, will stretch restrictions through the end of the year.

President Donald Trump is expected to extend through the end of the year foreign-worker restrictions that were initially enacted in April because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

Trump will expand on the executive order blocking most people from receiving a permanent residency visa, or green card, by including most guest workers who come to the United States for temporary or seasonal work. That will encompass skilled workers in specialty occupations, executives, and seasonal workers who work in industries such as landscaping, housekeeping and construction, according to the two people, as well as a Department of Homeland Security official. Agricultural workers and students will not be included.

The new order is expected to continue to have broad exemptions, including for health care professionals and those entering for law enforcement or national security reasons, which will be expanded to include those with economic interests. New exemptions will probably include au pairs.

We’re going to be announcing something tomorrow or the next day on the visas,” Trump told Fox News on Saturday. “You need them for big businesses where they have certain people that have been coming in for a long time, but very little exclusion and they’re pretty tight.”

The end-of-the-year extension makes it likely that the president will try to make immigration a focus of his reelection campaign, just like in 2016, when Trump promised to build a wall on the southern border and deport millions of migrants who arrived in the country illegally. In his inaugural address, Trump promised to build with American labor. “We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American,” he said.

Conservatives and hard-line immigration groups had been urging Trump to do more for months, contending that the initial order didn’t go far enough because of the skyrocketing unemployment rate and an election only months away. Four Republican senators — Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Josh Hawley of Missouri — sent a letter to the president asking for a pause in guest worker visas for 60 days to a year, “or until unemployment has returned to normal levels.” Six House members, including the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), followed with their own letter.

Trump’s first executive order, signed in April, is due to expire on Monday. It’s unclear whether he will sign one or two additional orders. The White House did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

The new executive order will probably anger business leaders who insist that foreign workers are still needed, even with so many Americans out of work, in order to keep vital industries staffed.

As the coronavirus outbreak initially spread, the Trump administration quietly continued to allow foreign workers to enter the country, even easing requirements for immigrants to get certain jobs — allowing electronic signatures, waiving the physical inspection of documents and extending deadlines. Then Trump abruptly tweeted that he would stop all immigration into the U.S. as the unemployment rate soared to nearly 15 percent. But the next day he agreed to scale it back.

Trump has already restricted foreign visitors from China, Europe, Brazil, Canada and Mexico, and paused most routine visa processing and refugee cases — meaning the new actions may not have been necessary. 

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Anita Kumar serves as White House correspondent and associate editor, covering President Donald Trump and helping organize and guide coverage for POLITICO’s White House team. Kumar joined POLITICO in 2019 after covering the White House for McClatchy’s chain of newspapers for six years. She reported on Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president in 2016 and Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012.


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Celebrating Juneteenth, Labor Finds Its Voice for Racial Justice

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In work stoppages, rallies, motorcades and a spectacular West Coast port shutdown, labor tied itself to the movement in the streets.

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—The enormous white stone arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza is a memorial to the Union’s victory in the Civil War. Confederate monuments are toppling across the country, but the arch is only getting more popular. At 11:30 on a hot Juneteenth morning, Kyle Bragg stands in its shade, wearing a red T-shirt, a New York Knicks-branded face mask, and a purple hat with the logo of 32BJ SEIU, the 175,000-member union that he leads.

“My son is 25, and my daughter is 29. I worry every single time they’re out of the house,” says Bragg, a Black man who has spent decades as a labor leader. “The most important conversation I had with them when they were young was not about sex or drugs. It was about how to deal with the police.” 

The uprisings that have swept America this month are spontaneous, massive and often leaderless, and the structured world of unions initially seemed puzzled as to how to react. The burning of the AFL-CIO’s headquarters in the early days of the protests was symbolic of the disconnect between organized labor and the streets. But as the days went by, labor rallied to the cause. In the week leading up to Juneteeth, the June 19 holiday commemorating the end of slavery, it seemed unions found their voice.

The ILWU, the longshoremen’s union, spectacularly shut down West Coast ports on Juneteenth. United Auto Workers nationwide stopped work for eight minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd. The AFL-CIO’s headquarters, boarded up but newly festooned with “Black Lives Matter” banners, became a staging ground for marches and rallies. The labor federation organized a set of coordinated “Workers First Caravan” events across the country on Wednesday, June 17, with union members driving around in cars covered in signs demanding racial and economic justice.

It was not quite the socialist dream of melding labor’s class war with the movement for racial justice into one big, huge, perfect revolution, but it was something. It was an effort by organized labor to publicly tie its fate to that of the people marching in the streets, many of whom have no connection to unions. It was a start. 

And in New York City, 32BJ—a union whose purple shirts and hats and banners are familiar to anyone who has been to any protest for economic justice in the city in the past decade—held protests for the entire week. On Tuesday, union members took a collective knee near Rockefeller Center, in honor of the 30th anniversary of SEIU’s “Justice for Janitors” strike in which Los Angeles police infamously beat and injured workers. And on Friday, Juneteenth itself, 32BJ gathered in Brooklyn for a motorcade that would wind through the city, all the way up to the Bronx, a purple river flowing through a landscape of anti-racism rallies citywide. 

The pre-motorcade rally began just before noon at the Grand Army Plaza arch. Three children were assigned to hold up a green banner reading “JUNETEENTH DRIVE TO JUSTICE,” which kept drooping in the middle as the kids’ attention strayed. Assorted local officials had shown up to pay homage to the day, and to the union, and to the assembled media. The twist-the-knife ethos of New York City politics has been heightened by the weeks of uprisings, and the politicians who consider themselves the philosophical brethren of the protesters are enjoying their sudden moment of advantage against the entrenched powers. Jumaane Williams, the public advocate, gave an obligatory nod to the city’s new ban on police chokeholds, but made a point of not crediting city leaders.

“The only reason that’s happening is because the streets have been hot,” he said. “I know the governor said you won and you don’t have to protest any more. Nothing could be further from the truth!”

When 32BJ president Kyle Bragg’s turn came at the podium, he pulled his Knicks mask down to his chin. “It’s our mission to provide economic justice—but there is no economic justice without social justice,” he said. “There’s a triple threat. There’s an economic crisis. There’s a pandemic. And now there’s a racial crisis.” 

As he was speaking, the microphone abruptly cut off; despite frantic effort, it could not be revived. All fell silent. But after a moment, someone handed Bragg a megaphone. He held it up to his mouth, and carried on.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected]


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Teachers union weighs in on reopening schools safely

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Schools are a huge part of the economy—not just a place teachers and support staff and clerical workers and custodians work, but a place parents rely on to care for their kids so they can go to work. That means, as National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement, “The American economy cannot recover if schools can’t reopen.” But reopening schools has to be done right, and without sacrificing students’ education, she continued, saying “we cannot properly reopen schools if funding is slashed and students don’t have what they need to be safe, learn and succeed.”

The NEA has offered its own guidance for reopening schools, calling for decisions rooted in science, with educators included in decision-making (they know their classrooms best, after all), access to personal protective equipment for students and school staff alike, and attention to equity in a pandemic that has hit Black and Latino communities especially hard. The union also calls for school systems to learn from the inequities exposed by the sudden move to remote learning, in which some students had computers and internet access and quiet places to learn while other students had none of those things. The NEA guidance is long, detailed, and thoughtful—and if you have many teacher friends, you may have heard that state reopening plans are … not necessarily those things. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Undocumented Farmworkers Are Refusing Covid Tests for Fear of Losing Their Jobs

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As states reopen for business, the coronavirus is exploding among America’s 2.5 million farmworkers, imperiling efforts to contain the spread of the disease and keep food on the shelves just as peak harvest gets underway.

The figures are stark. The number of Covid-19 cases tripled in Lanier County, Ga., after one day of testing farmworkers. All 200 workers on a single farm in Evensville, Tenn., tested positive. Yakima County, Wash., the site of recent farmworker strikes at apple-packing facilities, now boasts the highest per capita infection rate on the West Coast. Among migrant workers in Immokalee, Fla.—who just finished picking tomatoes and are on their way north to harvest other crops—1,000 people are infected.

The growing numbers reflect the lack of safety guidelines for workers who labor shoulder to shoulder in the fields, travel side by side in vans, and sleep by the dozens in bunks and barracks. On June 2, the CDC and OSHA announced recommendations to help protect agricultural workers, following in the footsteps of WashingtonOregon and California. But there is still no nationally coordinated, mandatory response or tracking of the disease among farmworkers. 

The spike in cases is, in part, a result of increased testing. But that points to a new danger emerging that could make outbreaks even harder to contain: Some farmworkers are refusing to be tested for Covid-19.

Eva Galvez is a physician at the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, a clinic that serves 52,000 mostly Latino patients in the agricultural regions that cradle Portland, Ore. When the clinic discovered in April that Latinos were testing positive for Covid-19 at twenty times the rate of other patients, Galvez pinpointed farmworker communities as one of the hotspots. So she worked with the Oregon Law Center to secure statewide hygiene and social distancing rules. (The rules are set to expire October 24.) Provisions include  enhancing safety in employer-provided housing, which In These Times has found is fueling outbreaks among farmworkers nationwide. 

But Galvez has other worries now. “Although our clinic has plenty of capacity to test, many people won’t want to be tested,” she says. “Because if they’re positive they can’t go to work.”

“The virus is a scarlet letter,” says Reyna Lopez, executive director of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos de Noroeste (PCUN). The 7,000-member farmworker union is based in Marion County, Ore., which ranks third in the state for coronavirus cases per capita.

“Not only is there no paid leave [if you can’t work], but no job,” Lopez says. “That tells farmworkers they don’t have an incentive to tell people that they are feeling sick. The biggest fear is not necessarily the virus itself; it’s [not] being able to provide for family.” 

It is an undeniable crisis. But America is reaping what it has sown. Decades of anti-immigrant policies will make the coronavirus extraordinarily difficult to contain for a vulnerable population which has been forced deep in the shadows. 

As workers in an industry with few unions, a lack of basic worker protections, and a workforce that is estimated to be at least 48% undocumented immigrants, farmworkers have many reasons to fear losing their jobs. Most lack health insurance, sick leave, unemployment insurance, and legal status, and they support extended families here and abroad on poverty wages. Testing and social distancing guidelines may help prevent illness, but cannot prevent job loss. Personal protection is no substitute for social protections.

Trump administration policies have exacerbated the situation. Irene de Barraicua of Líderes Campesinas, a California-based farmworker organization for women, says some farmworkers are not seeking health care because of the “public charge” rule that threatens to deny green cards to those who rely on public services. H2A workers, who comprise over a quarter million workers whose temporary visas are tied to their employers, could be deported if they lose their jobs. Even the “essential worker” letters that some farmers provided to undocumented workers to show ICE in the hope of preventing arrests during the pandemic have backfired, Irene says.Workers interpreted the letter as a sign that raids would increase.

Now the coronavirus has upended agricultural production in ways that further threaten jobs. 

The Salinas Valley in California is nicknamed “America’s Salad Bowl” for its 1.4 million acres of farmland that grow everything from artichokes to zucchini. But this year lettuce, strawberriescauliflower, and spinach are rotting in fields as agribusinesses unable to pivot from institutional to consumer sales cut their losses by cutting workers.

Sinthia, 40, whose last name is being withheld to protect herself, her family and her job, is from Guanajuato, Mexico, and supports two children, her mother, a quadraplegic sister, and a brother who is deaf, mute and blind. Before Covid-19, Sinthia, who is a member of Líderes Campesinas, packed boxes of broccoli for up to 62 hours a week in Monterey County. Now her hours have been sliced in half. The restaurants and schools that purchased produce from her employer, PGM Packing, are shuttered due to the coronavirus. “There is no market, no place to sell, no orders,” Sinthia says.

One hundred miles to the southeast, it is the workforce that has been halved at a vineyard in Kern County, where Paola, 30, works. Twenty of 40 workers were fired in order to meet social distancing guidelines. “There is more pressure to get the work done now,” Paola says. A former teacher from Sinaloa, Mexico, Paola says her pay is the same but her expenses have increased. Her two school-aged children eat all their meals at home now and she has to support her recently unemployed parents. Out of fear of infecting them, Paola quit her second, night-shift job at a pistachio packing facility when a co-worker tested positive. “It was worrisome, scary, stressful,” Paola says.

“It’s a very desperate situation. They don’t have food. Many are being laid off,” says de Barraicua . “Farmers are deciding to let their crops rot. They’re also letting the workers rot.”

Farmworkers also fear they could be stigmatized by co-workers and that bosses could fire their entire crew, which often includes family and friends from their hometown. 

“We are hearing from advocates that workers would enter ‘death pacts’ where if they become sick they keep it to themselves because the entire camp will shut down,” says Lori Johnson, managing attorney at the farmworker unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina. 

Rebeca Velazquez is a former farmworker and an organizer with Mujeres Luchadores Progresistas, an organization for women farmworkers based in Woodburn, Ore. One member, she says, was having a coughing fit at work when the owner of the farm walked by and told her to leave. Her supervisor said she needed to get tested for Covid-19. Two days later he told her not to bother: the entire crew of 30 workers had been laid off because of her. Another woman, Rebeca says, was shunned by co-workers upon returning to the workplace after being very ill with Covid-19. She left to work elsewhere and is keeping her illness a secret out of fear of discrimination.

Luis Jimenez, 38, a dairy worker in Avon, New York, says workers are in a bind. They have been told if they get sick and don’t say anything they will get fired. But if they do say something they may still lose their job. “The [bosses] don’t have a plan if workers get infected,” says Luis. “No plan to quarantine, no plan to feed them, no plan to take them to the hospital.” 

An explosion in cases among vulnerable farmworkers could overwhelm rural healthcare facilities and threaten the national food supply. The thin plastic line now separating workers in the fields is not enough to halt a pandemic or cure a diseased system. Increased protections for workers—including paid sick leave, unemployment compensation, and affordable housing and healthcare—are essential if the spread of Covid-19 is to be curbed.

“We don’t want to be called essential.” Sinthia says. “Show us with proof that we are essential. We need better working conditions, better living conditions, a better life.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Fawcett has reported for Truthout, The Nation and The Progressive.

About the Author: Arun Gupta is author of Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction (forthcoming from The New Press).


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Workers filed 1.5M unemployment claims as infections spike

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The continued influx of claims for jobless benefits more than three months into the pandemic is raising doubt among some economists that the U.S. will experience a rapid recovery.

New unemployment claims continued to roll in last week at historically elevated levels, as American workers filed 1.5 million initial applications for aid, the Labor Department reported on Thursday.

On top of that, more than 760,000 people applied for benefits under the new temporary Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program created for those ineligible for traditional unemployment benefits like gig workers and the self-employed. While economists caution that there is likely overlap, added together, the number of new claims filed last week could be well over 2 million.

The number of workers still seeking unemployment more than three months into the pandemic has sparked doubt among many economists that the U.S. is on the road to a speedy recovery as President Donald Trump has proclaimed. 

“The tens of millions that remain unemployed are an increasingly important signal of labor market weakness,” Glassdoor Senior Economist Daniel Zhao wrote in reaction to the report. “The labor market’s path to recovery is littered with obstacles that could smother the rebound, from the expiration of federal support for businesses and workers to depressed consumer demand to the resurgence in Covid-19 cases.”

California reported the largest number of claims last week, with 243,344 new applications filed. Georgia, one of the first states to reopen its economy in April, followed with 130,766 new claims. 

The economic recession triggered by the pandemic has led to nearly 46 million new applications for unemployment aid in a little over three months. But that number likely includes duplicate applications, as some states have instructed workers to reapply if they were first found ineligible.

Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, suggested that the number of workers currently receiving benefits or waiting for them is probably closer to 34.5 million. That number includes the workers who have filed “continued claims” — or those who are still seeking unemployment benefits for another week.

That translates into more than one in five workers relying on the unemployment system to weather the pandemic, according to Shierholz.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Tuesday warned that the economy can’t fully recover until the public is sure the coronavirus has been contained. 

Recent spikes in Covid-19 cases in areas that restarted their economies have also caused some states and localities to hit the brakes on their reopening plans

Trump has seized on recent positive economic indicators to make the case that the country is headed for a sharp rebound. U.S. retail sales jumped 17.7 percent in May, the Commerce Department reported this week. And the unemployment rate unexpectedly dropped to 13.3 percent that month, down from 14.7 percent in April — a rate still not seen since the Great Depression-era of the 1930s. 

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia brushed aside comparisons to the Depression in a speech to the Heritage Foundation’s National Coronavirus Recovery Commission this week.

“We came into our current economic difficulty by a completely different path than prior downturns: It was self-imposed, and purposely short-term,” Scalia said. “It did not result from an economic weakness — the economy had been very strong. The comparisons to the Great Depression have always been misplaced — our circumstance is different.”

Some economists have attributed the better-than-expected economic numbers to the multitrillion-dollar relief programs that Congress created to bolster small businesses and American bank accounts. 

But laid off workers will soon lose the enhanced unemployment benefits provided as part of that aid. 

A $600 additional weekly unemployment benefit created under the massive relief package passed in March will expire on July 31, and Republicans have been opposed to extending it

In a semiannual report to Congress last Friday, the Fed warned that a wide variety of data indicate “an alarming picture of small business health during the Covid-19 crisis,” and suggested small businesses may need more government support.

Yet with police reform taking up much of the discussion on Capitol Hill, Republicans aren’t expected to move on another package for weeks. 

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said over the weekend that Trump is looking for at least $2 trillion in the next round of relief.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to see a much lower price tag. 

Democrats have already forged ahead with another round of aid. The House passed a $3 trillion measure last month, which would provide direct relief to American families and state, local and tribal governments. 

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.


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