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For union battling Amazon, victory could bring a stalemate

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For the union trying to organize nearly 6,000 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, a successful election in the coming weeks could only be the beginning of the struggle to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the company.

Workers at the fulfillment center in Bessemer, a Birmingham suburb, have been voting since late February on whether to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union — an election that has drawn nationwide attention because it could result in Amazon’s first unionized facility in the U.S. The National Labor Relations Board will begin tallying the votes on Tuesday.

But initial collective bargaining agreements usually take years to hammer out at the negotiating table. More than half of workplaces that form unions are unable to reach an initial contract within a year, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, and 37 percent of newly formed private-sector unions still have no contract after two years.

“It’s so difficult to hold an employer accountable,” said Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs and labor counsel at EPI. And even if the union engages in “this protracted legal battle, you know the penalty that the employer is facing is quite frankly minimal.”

The outcome of the election is being so closely watched because the stakes go far beyond this warehouse. If the campaign in Republican stronghold Alabama is successful, it could spark more organizing efforts at Amazon and other large retailers across the U.S. If it fails, it could galvanize Democrats’ fight to push through one of the broadest expansions of collective bargaining rights in nearly a century. At the same time, it could embolden many companies to take an even harder line against organized labor.

That’s why the Amazon organizing effort has taken on such broad significance politically. Even before the votes in Bessemer are counted, President Joe Biden, other Democrats and their labor allies are using the election to push for their union-friendly overhaul of federal labor law.

If Amazon were to drag its feet on an initial contract, the union could call on the NLRB to order management to bargain with the workers. However, that legal process can span months, even years, especially if the company were to appeal any enforcement moves from the labor board.

Amazon can legally refuse to bargain with the union if it challenges an issue related to the election. The company already sought to delay the union vote and require that ballots be cast in person rather than by mail. The NLRB approved a seven-week mail-in ballot election, instead of an in-person election that typically takes place over a few days, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Heather Knox, a spokesperson for Amazon, said in response: “RWDSU membership has been declining for the last two decades, but that is not justification for its president, Stuart Appelbaum, to misrepresent the facts. Our employees know the truth—starting wages of $15 or more, health care from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace. We encouraged all of our employees to vote and hope they did so.”

The company declined to say how it would respond if the workers voted to unionize.

Union leaders said they are prepared for Amazon to dig in for a fight and are already using their effort in Alabama to promote the legislation in Congress, known as the PRO Act, that would make it easier for unions to organize.

“I wouldn’t put it past Amazon to try to come up with any excuse that it could find to overturn an election where workers win,” said Appelbaum, the union president. “There has never been a greater argument for labor law reform and the PRO Act than this election.”

Whether the e-commerce giant could go as far as to shutter the facility in response to a successful union election is murky.

“The law is clear about one thing, and that is that a business can completely, completely, 100 percent go out of business, even just to avoid a union,” said Andrew MacDonald, a partner at Fox Rothschild LLP in Philadelphia. “But there’s a less clear line, more of a gray area, where the company, partially, says shut down a plant or shut down one facility while others remain open.”

Amazon could also face trouble if it were to transfer some operations from Alabama to a non-unionized fulfillment center elsewhere.

MacDonald pointed to a 2011 labor dispute with Boeing Co., which decided to transfer a second production line for its 787 Dreamliner from a unionized facility in Washington to a non-union shop in South Carolina. The acting general counsel of the NLRB issued a complaint against the company, alleging the move violated federal labor law.

In that case, “the union in Washington and the labor board saw that as being motivated to avoid the union, not just making a business decision of where to make the plane,” MacDonald said.

The union later withdrew its complaint against Boeing after striking a new deal with the company governing other production in Washington.

If a company and a union are unable to reach an initial collective bargaining agreement after a successful organizing effort, provisions in the PRO Act would require them to go to mediation and arbitration.

“The law permits an employer to bargain essentially in bad faith,” said McNicholas. “The remedies are so weak that you can essentially drag your feet through the bargaining and frustrate the workforce such that they’re not getting any contract in the first year.”

Opponents of the PRO Act, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argue that the legislation tilts too far in favor of unions and would harm the economy by costing jobs.

The unusual public attention on the Bessemer union drive has put both political and consumer pressure on Amazon that could keep the company in line, union and worker advocates say.

“Unlike most collective bargaining, this attempt to achieve a first contract is going to be the focus of a lot of public attention,” said Appelbaum. “I think that Amazon is going to be held accountable under the glare of the public spotlight. And that’s going to restrict what it is going to be able to do to prevent workers from getting a contract.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 29, 2021. 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.


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Get the Federal Government to Fund Union Organizing. Now.

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Though you wouldn’t know it from the actions of the federal government over the past half century, it is the stated policy of the federal government to ?“encourage collective bargaining.” It’s right there in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Unions and their political supporters have typically taken this to mean that collective bargaining rights should be legally protected, and the fight to achieve that simple goal never ends. But as the popularity of unions relative to business hits an all time high, the time has come to interpret this directive more expansively. Because the reality is that there can be no collective bargaining without unions. Unions require organizing, and large scale organizing requires money. The money for this organizing can come from the federal government. We need to start demanding it. 

Scarcely one in ten American workers are union members. That figure has been declining since it peaked shortly after World War II. It has fallen by half since the early 1980s, as the Reagan era burst into full gear and the four-decade-long explosion of economic inequality began. You may have seen the chart showing the share of income going to the top earners rising in perfect parallel with the decline of union density, the one chart that more than any other explains the state of America today. This inequality?—?the massive trend that underlies most of our country’s most serious problems?—?will not be reversed until organized labor is strong again. Union density must first stop going down, and then it must start going up. Way up, and fast. 

Why is it so hard to make that happen? Well, part of it is the fact that labor law in America has been hammered into shape by business interests with the goal of weakening labor and making unions hard to build and maintain. The PRO Act, passed by the Democratic U.S. House, would go a long way towards changing those laws. But whether it becomes law or not, the case remains that unions will have to organize not tens or hundreds of thousands but millions of new members in order to move the needle on a national level. The limiting factor to accomplishing that is not public sentiment?—?polls show that tens of millions of workers would like to join a union if they could?—?but rather the raw ability of America’s unions to organize on such a large scale. Simply put, unions don’t have the resources to organize that many people. They don’t have enough organizers. And they don’t have enough money to hire and deploy those organizers. If they did have that money, and they deployed it wisely, there is no doubt that union density would finally turn around.

Take, for example, the Amazon warehouse union drive in Alabama that has so captivated the world. The union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), has flooded that warehouse with organizers, and other unions have thrown in organizers as well. All this, to try to unionize around 6,000 workers. Amazon has 1.3 million workers, and hundreds of warehouses across the country. The RWDSU says it has received a thousand inquiries from other Amazon workers interested in organizing. Do they have the organizing resources to run, say, ten or twenty or fifty more warehouse campaigns like the one in Alabama simultaneously? No, they do not. Not because they don’t know how, but because there are simply not enough organizers to do it, and there is not enough money in union budgets to hire the vast army of organizers necessary to do the job. Not even at Amazon?—?a single company. 

Unions are funded by member dues, but those dues do not start coming in until a first contract has been signed. That means that organizing new unions requires a large up-front investment of resources that is gradually paid back over time. Not even the biggest unions can front the money to organize a million new workers, despite the fact that the money would eventually come back in the form of dues. But you know who could give us that money without breaking a sweat? The federal government. No problem. A billion dollars to hire the organizers to unionize a million new workers is out of the reach of any union, but it is just a rounding error to Uncle Sam. 

This is not welfare. This is an investment in the ability of workers to collectively bargain, which, as you recall, is a priority of the government. It is also an excellent investment in the promotion of social and economic equality?—?handing money to the working poor is only a momentary solution, but helping those working people get a union gives them a tool that will allow them to gain money and power for decades to come. I do not want the federal government to pay all the operating expenses of a union, or to pay the six-figure salaries of union presidents. I want the federal government to provide the money necessary to organize new union members on a scale that will benefit everyone. A simple, direct investment with well-understood tangible benefits. Most good union organizers make modest salaries, work extremely hard, and achieve surprisingly powerful results. A billion dollars a year could revolutionize the balance of power between labor and capital in America. I challenge you to find a better deal anywhere. 

When you consider the fact that every industry in America has a well-funded lobbying program designed to extract money from the federal government, it is shocking that unions have not done this already. (Christian Sweeney, the deputy organizing director of the AFL-CIO, said he knows of no such efforts to get government organizing money.) Unions, of course, do all sorts of business with the federal government, and lobby for all sorts of laws and perks for their members. Airline unions just won tens of billions of dollars to cover member salaries during the pandemic, and unions just won an $86 billionrescue of their failing pension plans in the latest relief bill. Unions can get money from the government. They just do not focus in an honest way on the question of how to achieve large-scale organizing. But they could. 

While researching this, I learned that I am not the first person to come up with this brilliant (and obvious) idea. Will Bloom, a labor lawyer in Chicago, wrote an essay in 2017 calling for the government to subsidize labor organizing. His suggestion was that a grantmaking board be established under the NLRB or another agency which would fund organizing projects. One can also imagine funding with strict guidelines going directly to major unions, or even to a central organizing body created by the AFL-CIO to fund major organizing campaigns. In any case, the specific disbursement structure is less important than the fact that money is flowing from the government into labor organizing. 

Bloom told me he sees no legal reason why this funding could not exist?—?if it came in the form of government grants, it would just be reported by the union on its disclosure forms like any other grant. I also asked the labor lawyer Brandon Magner about this idea, who told me ?“I am unaware of any obvious legal obstacles that would bar such subsidizing or invoke a strong court challenge.” In other words, the barrier to getting this money does not seem to be a legal one, but rather a political one. 

At our present political moment, the failure of political will and imagination here actually rests on the shoulders of organized labor itself. Joe Biden has shown himself to be the most pro-union president in decades. The Democratic Congress and the Biden administration have shown themselves to be willing and able to appropriate trillions of dollars in social spending to promote the same sorts of goals that an increase in union density would achieve. On top of that, Congressional earmarks?—?pet funding programs that each Congressperson can request be added to bills?—?are coming back, meaning that labor-friendly members of Congress could be pressed to fund labor organizing projects in their own districts. It is no exaggeration to say that there has never been a more opportune time to get this money. It is equally obvious that this opportune moment will pass. 

A billion dollars is nothing to the government. But America would be staggered to see what 10,000 new union organizers could do with it. Please: get this money, before it’s too late.

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on March 30, 2021. 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.


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Universal Health Care Is a Popular Idea in America—Will Biden Keep Enriching Private Insurance or ‘Go Big’?

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on people’s lives, President Joe Biden has been on a victory tour to promote the American Rescue Plan, a hefty $1.9 trillion spending package that not only sends direct stimulus payments to struggling Americans, but also greatly expands health care options through the Affordable Care Act (ACA). “We’re becoming a nation where health care is a right and not for the privileged few,” said Biden in his remarks at a hospital on the campus of Ohio State University. Eleven years after the ACA was first passed into law as President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform, it has survived relentless Republican attacks in the form of legal challenges and defunding attempts. Preserving and expanding it under Democratic leadership certainly constitutes a win against Republican obstructionism and a refusal to offer better alternatives. But this latest strengthening of the ACA is first and foremost a victory for the health insurance industry.

The American Rescue Plan includes tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to substantially lower premiums for insurance options purchased through the ACA health exchanges. Additionally, it covers 100 percent of the cost of COBRA coverage for those who have been laid off during the pandemic. Even the New York Times characterized it with the headline, “Private Insurance Wins in Democrats’ First Try at Expanding Health Coverage.”

Dr. Paul Song, co-chair of the Campaign for a Healthy California, and board member of Physicians for a National Health Program, explained to me in an interview that, “that’s money that’s just going to the private insurance industry.” He asked, “why not say to anyone who lost their job during the pandemic and lost their health care coverage, that you would automatically be enrolled in Medicare until you found your new job?” Such a move would cost significantly fewer taxpayer dollars but would have boosted the arguments in favor of a Medicare for All program, which centrist Democrats like Biden have vehemently railed against for years. Ironically, insurance industry loyalists cite high costs as central to their opposition to Medicare for All.

new poll by Morning Consult and Politico finds that a majority of Americans—55 percent—support Medicare for All. Strangely, the pollsters headlined their results by saying, “Medicare for All Remains Polarizing.” Nearly 80 percent of all Democrats support it, and even among Republicans, more than a quarter back the idea of a government-run health plan for all.

As Biden touts the success of the ACA (without mentioning the high cost of supporting it), a growing number of Democratic lawmakers are refusing to fall in line. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) dismissed the health care subsidies in the American Rescue Plan, saying, “I don’t think this was the most efficient way to do this,” and had instead called for exactly what Song suggested: that unemployed Americans sign on to a Medicare plan rather than their former employer’s plan.

Jayapal recently introduced the Medicare for All Act of 2021, which was co-sponsored by more than half the House Democratic Caucus. Her office released a statement explaining that the bill “guarantees health care to everyone as a human right by providing comprehensive benefits including primary care, vision, dental, prescription drugs, mental health, long-term services and supports, reproductive health care, and more with no copays, private insurance premiums, deductibles, or other cost-sharing.”

Dr. Song is hopeful, saying there is “more momentum every year” for such a program. Whereas in previous years Democrats like former Congressman Joe Crowley would have railed against Medicare for All, “they’ve all been voted out by the AOCs, by the Jamaal Bowmans,” said Song, referring to the freshmen representatives from New York who in recent years ousted centrist incumbents like Crowley from their party in primary challenges. Now, “for the first time, the entire New York delegation has supported Medicare for All,” he said.

The timing for a bold and comprehensive health care plan is ideal. According to Axios, Biden “loves the growing narrative that he’s bolder and bigger-thinking than President Obama.” Democrats are looking to distinguish themselves from Republicans in willingly spending what it takes to care for a population battered by the pandemic after years of austerity measures that have whittled away safety net programs. Criticism of Medicare for All from a cost perspective will not only be deemed hypocritical, but it will also sound Republican-like in its callous calculation to prioritize private interests ahead of human needs.

According to the advocacy group Public Citizen, the U.S.’s private health insurance-based system put the nation at such a deep disadvantage during the pandemic that according to a new analysis, “millions of Americans have contracted COVID-19 unnecessarily and hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been prevented.” This estimate is not based on people dying because they did not have health insurance. On the contrary, the government rightly stepped up to ensure that COVID-19 related treatments for the uninsured would be covered by taxpayers (yet more proof that lawmakers are willing to cover everyone’s health care costs if the crisis is dire).

Rather Public Citizen found that our entire health care infrastructure failed because “hospitals focused on profit and revenue were unable to respond to COVID-19 while safety net hospitals faced closure.” The patchwork of private health insurance systems and limited public systems left the nation in a confusing mess at a time when streamlined approaches to a deadly pandemic required systematic testing, contact tracing, and now, vaccine distribution. In contrast, as per Public Citizen, “Countries that had more unified systems were better able to roll out testing, track the spread of the disease via a central information hub, and intervene appropriately.”

Given the fact that Democrats require either some Republican support or an end to the Senate’s filibuster rule in order to pass any major legislation, Jayapal’s bill is likely to remain aspirational. However, newly seated Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra may be able to offer another pathway to a government-run health system. Backers of such a system ought to take heart from Becerra’s confirmation hearing where the likes of Republican Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said to him, “Your long-standing support for single-payer, government-run health care seems hostile to our current system from my perspective.” Of course, Becerra said what he had to in order to win confirmation and toed the Democratic party line by responding that he would be enacting President Biden’s agenda, not his own.

Still, according to Dr. Song, “Secretary Becerra has been very public in saying that he thinks states should be afforded waivers, and now he has the ability to do that.” One of the positive aspects of the ACA is that states have the right to apply for federal waivers and that the HHS secretary oversees the granting of such waivers. According to the New York Times, “Because these waivers do not require congressional approval, they could become a crucial policymaking tool for the Biden administration,” regardless of which party controls the Senate.

“States like California could set up their own state-based health care system if it at least met the standards determined by the ACA,” explained Song. Just like their federal-level centrist Democratic counterparts, California Governor Gavin Newsom (and before him, Jerry Brown) spoke out in favor of Medicare for All while they were candidates only to back off from taking a strong stand on the issue once they had the power to do something about it. Newsom, who is facing a Republican-led recall effort, is now facing a push from his Democratic colleagues in California’s legislature to keep his promise on health care.

Regardless of how we arrive at a government-run health care plan, there is growing momentum for it. Scientists worry that the next pandemic is just around the corner. Instead of throwing taxpayer dollars into the pockets of private health insurance industry executives, a government-run plan would not only be more efficient and cheaper but also save lives—which is ultimately what should be the most important consideration.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.


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Rebuilding U.S. Manufacturing Is the Only Path to an Economic Renaissance

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Brad Greve knew it was just a matter of time before the computer chip shortage disrupting the auto industry had a ripple effect on aluminum manufacturing in Iowa.

Greve and his colleagues at Arconic Davenport Works—members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105—supply the Ford F-150 pickup and other vehicles.

Automakers forced to cut production because of the semiconductor crunch scaled back the amount of aluminum they take from the facility, just as Greve expected, posing another potential setback to a plant already fighting to rebound from the COVID-19 recession.

America cannot afford to jeopardize major industries for want of parts.

The nation’s prosperity depends on ensuring the ready availability of all of the raw materials and components that go into the products essential for crises and daily life.

That will mean ramping up domestic production of the semiconductors—now made largely overseas—that serve as the “brains” of automobiles, computers, cell phones, communications networks, appliances and life-saving medical equipment.

But it will also require building out supply chains in other industries. For example, America needs to produce titanium sponge for warplanes and satellites, pharmaceutical ingredients for medicines and the bearings that keep elevators and other machinery running.

The failure of just one link in a supply chain—as the semiconductor shortage shows—has the potential to paralyze huge swaths of the economy. That’s why it’s crucial not only to source components on U.S. soil but also to incorporate redundancy into supply lines so that an industry can survive the loss of a single supplier.

“It’s that ripple effect,” said Greve, president of Local 105, recalling the time when a fire at a die-cast parts supplier disrupted production of the F-150. “If you shut down a car manufacturer—or they can’t get one part—you can affect a whole lot of jobs around the country.”

COVID-19 interrupted computer chip production even as demand for televisions, home computers and other goods soared among consumers locked down in their homes. Now, neither U.S. automakers nor manufacturers of other goods can obtain adequate amounts of the semiconductors they need.

Because of the shortage, carmakers cut shifts and laid off workers. The production cuts come when the nation needs the boost from auto sales—and other items containing semiconductors—to climb out of the recession.

Although the decreased aluminum shipments haven’t resulted in layoffs at Davenport, the automotive supply-chain meltdown couldn’t have come at a worse time. When the pandemic curbed air travel last year, airplane manufacturers cut back on the aluminum they get from Arconic.

“Automotive is what kept us going,” Greve said.

America was once a leader in computer chip manufacturing. But as with many other industries in recent decades, the U.S. frittered away the upper hand while other countries boosted production.

The nation’s share of chip manufacturing capacity fell from 37 percent to 12 percent over the past 30 years. And although demand for chips continues to grow, the U.S. stands to gain only a fraction of the additional capacity currently in the pipeline.

That leaves the country overly reliant on foreign suppliers who can encounter their own production shortfalls, as happened during the pandemic, or who can cut off shipments for political or economic reasons at any time.

“If you’re going to war with somebody, they’re not going to sell you anything,” Greve said, noting dependence on overseas supplies threatens the nation’s ability not only to make cars and other consumer goods but also to obtain the chips needed for defense and intelligence purposes.

Although the current crisis centers on semiconductors, neglect of the nation’s manufacturing base decimated America’s capacity to produce parts and components for many other industries.

“It affects everybody,” Libbi Urban, vice president of USW Local 9231, said of hollowed-out supply chains that threaten jobs and access to goods. Because of the semiconductor shortage, automakers now take less of the galvanized steel she and her coworkers make at Cleveland-Cliffs’ New Carlisle, Indiana, Works.

Shortages of medical and safety equipment during the pandemic revealed how much manufacturing power the nation let slip away.

But it wasn’t only the finished products, like face masks, America found itself ill-equipped to produce. Makers of hand sanitizer and cleaning products struggled to obtain adequate supplies of the hand pumps and spray triggers made overseas.

“How much time and money are being lost waiting on overseas companies to get products and supplies to the U.S.?” Urban asked.

President Joe Biden took the first step toward rebuilding manufacturing power with an executive order in February requiring immediate reviews of supply chains for the semiconductor, pharmaceutical, electric-battery and rare earth minerals industries as well as longer-term reviews of other sectors.

But after identifying weaknesses, America needs to implement a strategy for restoring supply lines and ensuring long-term resiliency.

That will include direct investment in U.S. manufacturing facilities, such as the $37 billion Biden proposed to ramp up chip production.

It involves strategically using tax incentives to encourage employers to expand operations and invest in new technology. And it means building strong markets for U.S. products, partly through policies that encourage federal contractors and other companies to buy domestic goods.

Besides cutting shifts, Greve noted, automakers have been trying to weather the semiconductor shortage by allocating chips to their most popular models or leaving vehicles partially completed until chips arrive.

GM even eliminated an important feature, an advanced fuel management system, in some models just to save chips and get vehicles to market.

“We shouldn’t have that happen in this country,” Greve said. “If we don’t make the supplies here, then we have no control.”

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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


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‘Bellwether’ for unions: Amazon battle could transform Biden’s labor revival

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Sen. Bernie Sanders on Friday thrust himself into the middle of a bitter labor dispute at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama where union leaders are locked in a two-month drive to organize workers.

But the stakes in this battle go far beyond the struggle involving nearly 6,000 workers at the fulfillment center in Bessemer.

“What you’re doing is for workers across the country,” Sanders declared during a rally of dozens of workers at a union hall in Birmingham, just a 20-minute drive from the Bessemer facility. “They know if you succeed here, it will spread all over the country.”

If the push in red-state Alabama is successful, it could galvanize more organizing efforts at Amazon and other large retailers across the country. If it fails, it could become a lightning rod for Democrats’ efforts to push through one of the broadest expansions of collective bargaining rights in nearly a century — yet, at the same time, embolden a triumphal business community to harden its stance against organized labor.

“The implications of this election transcend this one warehouse, and even this company,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is organizing the workers. “It’s about the future of work, and how workers are going to be treated.”

The visit by Sanders, a Vermont independent, comes at a pivotal moment for Democrats’ and President Joe Biden’s sweeping efforts to rebuild the middle class by empowering workers and unions. Their proposals to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 and make it easier for employees to unionize are being met by a wall of opposition from Republicans and the business lobby, who say such moves would cripple the economy and bleed American jobs. And the Democrats’ lack of a clear majority in the Senate will make passage of any far-reaching legislation difficult.

The employees at the Amazon warehouse — a majority of them women and minorities — were considered “essential” during the coronavirus pandemic and ordered to continue working as much of the rest of the economy shuttered. Workers say they began organizing over concerns about the spread of the virus, and their frustration over racial injustice sparked by the George Floyd protests last spring. But the complaints go beyond the pandemic to what some say are onerous conditions.

“Amazon is a big plant, about the size of a football field. They want us to go to the bathroom and come back to the machine in five minutes,” said Linda Burns, who was injured on the job at the Bessemer facility. “They say we have quote unquote good insurance. I’m still getting bills in the mail off y’alls good insurance.”

Jennifer Bates, who also works at the facility, brought her case to Washington.

“Amazon’s going to poor communities claiming that they want to help the economic growth,” Bates said during a recent congressional hearing. “That should mean … a living wage and benefits that truly match the cost of living, and ensur[ing] workers work in safe and healthy conditions, because we are not robots designed to only live to work.”

Amazon responded to the union drive by requiring workers to attend “union education meetings,” Bates told members of Congress, as well as posting “anti-union” signs around the fulfillment center and sending messages to workers’ phones.

Amazon declined to comment for this article. But the e-commerce giant’s corporate Twitter account in recent days has directly addressed Democrats’ criticism about working conditions at its facility.

Sanders “has been a powerful politician in Vermont for 30 years and their min wage is still $11.75,” the company tweeted on Friday. “Amazon’s is $15, plus great health care from day one. Sanders would rather talk in Alabama than act in Vermont.”

The National Labor Relations Board will begin counting the votes on March 30, a process that could take a week or longer. The voting itself spanned two months because it was done by mail-in ballot as a safety precaution during the pandemic. In-person voting might have taken a few days.

Those critical of labor unions caution that such drives are often heavily influenced from elsewhere and can leave local workers caught in the fray.

“There are definitely concerted, planned, well-financed campaigns by major labor unions to come in from the outside and organize new, high-profile workplaces, and the Amazon campaign is a great example of that,” said Maxford Nelsen, director of labor policy at the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit that’s critical of unions. “And employees are in the middle of trying to pick between the two sides.”

Nelsen rejected the idea that the union vote carried any broader significance for American labor policy.

“If the employees at the end of the day vote against unionization. I think that means a majority of the employees weren’t convinced by the union’s arguments,” Nelsen added. “That doesn’t mean anything more, anything less than that.”

The landmark labor law overhaul bill backed by Biden and unions, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, would prohibit companies from requiring their workers to attend anti-union meetings, Sanders told reporters after the rally.

It would also call for management to go to mediation and arbitration with the union if the two sides are unable to reach an initial collective bargaining agreement.

That bill passed the House earlier this month with just five GOP votes in support, making it a long shot in the 50-50 Senate.

But union and worker advocates say the unusual public attention on the union drive and the conditions at the fulfillment center have captured the moment and are emblematic of how weak federal labor laws and widening economic inequality have stacked the odds against workers.

“There has never been a greater argument for labor law reform and the PRO Act than this election,” said Appelbaum, the union leader.

Alabama is one of 27 states that have enacted right-to-work laws, meaning that workers can opt out of union membership if they choose. The PRO Act would allow unions to override those laws and collect “fair share fees” from non-members for the costs of collective bargaining.

Unions say they are already seeing momentum from the effort in Bessemer, and that the drive could also mobilize hesitant workers in states with stricter collective bargaining laws as well as younger workers who may be unfamiliar with unions after years of declines in membership.

And their next target may not be far away. Amazon already has plans to expand in Bessemer and neighboring Birmingham later this year.

“I think this campaign can be seen as a bellwether for things to come,” said Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director for the AFL-CIO. “We’re seeing more interest on the part of workers in the South in lots of different sectors, from manufacturing to higher education to health care.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 26, 2021. 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.


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New Hampshire Republicans Are Using Covid to Ram Through Right-to-Work Legislation

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As fellow Democrats reveled in Donald Trump’s presidential defeat, New Hampshire State Rep. Doug Ley (also president of the American Federation of Teachers-New Hampshire) watched the election results with unease. Republicans captured both chambers of the General Court of New Hampshire, and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu handily won a third term. 

In New Hampshire, a unified right-wing government is on a collision course with organized labor. And, aided by poor pandemic safety protocols (deterring Democratic officials from the State House), the GOP has its best chance in a generation to remake the Granite State. 

Right-wing interest groups like the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperityhave long pushed for conservative reforms such as so-called education savings accounts, which critics say will divert public funds toward private and religious education. But their true prize?—?and the greatest source of consternation for unions like the American Federation of Teachers?—?is a Senate bill known as SB 61.

SB 61 would make New Hampshire the 29th right-to-work state in the country, creating what Ley calls an ?“entering wedge into the Northeast.”

Right-to-work laws, which originated in the Jim Crow South, prohibit unions from negotiating contracts that require dues from non-union members for the benefits provided by the union?—?in practice choking off union funding. Over the past decade, the laws have expanded into labor strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin. New Hampshire has debated becoming a right-to-work state since former President Reagan took office, but more labor-friendly Republican state officials have resisted.

Legislators like Democratic State Rep. Brian Sullivan say there is now a new extremism in the Republican caucus. The Free State Project—“an effort to basically turn [New Hampshire] into a libertarian island”?—?is part of a larger ideological shift that is, he says, ?“definitely growing.” 

Campaign spending has helped shape the New Hampshire legislature, too. A report in the New Hampshire Union Leader finds political action committees contributed nearly $100,000 to Republican state Senate candidates by exploiting a loophole that allows special interests to make multiple contributions. In this case, every contribution was traced to a single advocacy group, the New England Citizens for Right to Work, and to its out-of-state donors. 

Glenn Brackett, president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO, says legislators who accepted ?“out-of-state money” should have to answer to the public. “[It was] an abdication of their sworn constitutional duties to the citizens of New Hampshire and their constituents,” Brackett explains. ?“Right to work is not an organic program. … It’s being driven completely by out-of-state special interests, and [people] are accepting basically campaign contributions for their votes.”

New Hampshire also has a requirement for legislators to attend sessions in person, despite the risks posed by Covid-19. That requirement could pave the way for right to work this year, despite past defeats. ?“We have a lot of Democrats that are not going to the general sessions because of concerns about Covid,” according to Democratic State Rep. Dan Toomey. ?“If everything were normal, I wouldn’t be worried about [right to work] at all.” 

House Democrats, led by House Minority Leader Renny Cushing (who has stage four cancer), sued Republican Speaker of the House Sherman Packard over the requirement, alleging Packard violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to make remote accommodations for legislators with serious health risks. But a district court dismissed the suit February 22.

Toomey’s fears appear to be warranted. Other controversial bills have already advanced despite several state lawmakers being unable to cast votes, including anti-choice legislation passed two days after the district court’s ruling. According to the Union Leader, House Republicans also reversed the previous Democratic majority’s positions on education aid, gun control and redistricting that same week. The New Hampshire AFL-CIO has since distributed personal protective equipment in an effort to address the safety concerns of legislators from both parties. 

Montana’s legislature voted down right-to-work legislation March 2, and a similar bill has been reintroduced in the Missouri state legislature, but New Hampshire would become the first right-to-work state in the Northeast?—?with potentially far-reaching consequences. 

“When states like Wisconsin and Michigan went down to right to work, it was a message to the entire country that states that have a long labor tradition can be vulnerable to anti-labor legislation,” Sullivan says. ?“Wisconsin had the first public-sector bargaining law, and now they don’t have one.” 

Although hopeful that unions and legislative allies can stop right to work and other conservative priorities, Ley is preparing for a fight. 

“Labor unions lead the way,” Ley says. ?“The gains that we’re able to make often get transferred to and aid those who are not members of our unions. [This is] a corporate assault on working families and working people across the United States.”

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on March 29, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: C.M. Lewis is an editor of Strikewave and a union activist in Pennsylvania. 


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A Year in the Life of Safeway 1048

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Tekele Abraha does not run marathons, but she wears Hoka shoes. This thick-soled choice of elite runners can cost more than $150a pair, nearly a day’s pay for Abraha, who wears them to cushion the long hours she spends on concrete floors, six days a week. She hopes the shoes will stave off the grinding joint and back pain that afflicts many of her coworkers. 

Abraha is a grocery worker. The shoes mark one of many unseen tolls of her job. 

We talk in an airless, subterranean breakroom at Safeway store 1048 in Arlington, Va., a typical, prosperous suburb of Washington, D.C. The low-slung store sits partially submerged next to an underground parking garage on the main drag of the Rosslyn neighborhood, full of gleaming office buildings and apartment towers that look like office buildings. The store’s staff is as diverse as Embassy Row, just across the Potomac River: Black and white, Eastern European, East African. 

Abraha, a 42-year-old single mother of two, grew up in poverty in Ethiopia with her mother and four brothers, unable to afford three meals a day. She came to the United States at 17, without knowing English, and worked three fast food jobs. Sometimes, she slept in a McDonald’s to save time. Eventually, Abraha scraped together $15,000, enough to buy her mother a six-bedroom house in Ethiopia, which fills her with pride. 

For the past 18 years, Abraha has worked at Safeway. Six days a week, late into the night, she helps run the front of the store. Her diligence is matched by the toll it has taken on her during the pandemic. In fear of bringing home coronavirus, she has not kissed her two college-age children since March 2020, even though they live with her. 

“Every time I go home, I was insecure,” she says. ?“I thought, ?‘I’m gonna take something with me. I’m gonna get sick. I’m gonna lose my children.’” Tears well up in her eyes when she contemplates the past year. But she is not one to complain. 

“I don’t have any choice,” she says. ?“That’s life. I have to pay the bills.” 

For many people, the past year has been a shocking break from the normal rhythms of their personal and professional lives. And then there are grocery workers. 

The lives of grocery workers have continued as usual, but with an added dose of deadly risk. They never really signed up for it. Though less celebrated than nurses or paramedics, grocery workers are quintessential frontline workers?—?the ones who have kept showing up so the rest of us can survive. 

Like their counterparts across the country, the employees of Safeway 1048have kept on working through a dangerous year. Their employer has given them mask policies, more cleaning in stores and a fleeting dose of hazard pay, but their lived experience has shown them the safety net has holes big enough to fall through. The experience has left many of them bitter. 

Safeway is neither an outlier on safety issues nor a uniquely bad employer. It has given out personal protective equipment and established a contact-tracing program with up to two weeks of quarantine pay. The company also says it intends to offer the vaccine to every worker as soon as their city or county makes it available to grocery workers. The workers at Safeway 1048, despite being eligible per state guidelines, had not been offered the vaccine by early March. (The company said that ?“our pharmacies in northern Virginia are under the direction of the [Virginia Department of Health] not to vaccinate anyone under the age of 65.”) 

A review of policies at some of Safeway’s biggest direct competitors?—?Walmart and Costco, as well as grocery conglomerates Kroger, Publix and Ahold Delhaize (Food Lion, Giant, Stop & Shop)?—?shows that Safeway’s policies on hazard pay, sick leave, masks, worker safety and vaccinations are very much in line with the industry. It almost seems as if the grocery industry’s employers, customers and regulators have settled on a set of standards without bothering to ask the workers whether they think those standards are adequate. 

The one thing Safeway’s workers have going for them is their union. They have seniority rights, pay minimums, guaranteed vacations, a grievance procedure and other basic protections their non-union counterparts lack. Safeway has been unionized since at least 1935, when it signed an agreement with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters, which later merged with the Retail Clerks International to form today’s United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Today, more than 6,000 Safeway workers in D.C. and the surrounding states are part of UFCW Local 400. Since Virginia is a so-called right-to-work state, no worker is required to pay union dues; about three-quarters of the 65 employees at Safeway 1048 are dues-paying members. 

Their longtime union rep is Heith Fenner, a solicitous, ruddy-faced man who roams the store greeting everyone by name and checking in on new issues weekly. A former grocery worker who has served as a union rep at seven different grocery chains, Fenner is a virtual encyclopedia of the industry’s problems. 

“Safeway runs a skeleton crew,” he says. ?“They run almost short-handed, particularly in key positions. When you get a small [Covid-19] outbreak in the store, that leaves you shorthanded. Even worse, it becomes a catastrophe for trying to run the store when you have four or five people out.” 

It is not hard to imagine how this corporate dedication to reducing costs could create a strong disincentive for Safeway to pay close attention to safety measures, because safety measures can be expensive. Paid sick leave while workers quarantine will inevitably raise labor costs. Employees say, over the past year, their store’s management has shown little institutional concern for worker health and safety, consistently prioritizing profits and corporate reputation over the lives of workers.

Anthony Sistrunk, a fast-talking, 39-year-old D.C. native who has worked for Safeway since he was 17, had a rough 2020. 

“The year started off fucked up,” Sistrunk remembers. In January 2020, just as he was coming off a cancer scare, he had to have his appendix removed. He returned to work after recovering, but one day soon after he felt so dizzy he went home after only a couple of hours. He slept all day, woke up at night feeling bad and passed out on his floor. After a trip to the emergency room, Sistrunk got the bad news: He was the first employee of Safeway 1048 to test positive for Covid. 

Dehydrated, coughing and his head throbbing, Sistrunk went on Facebook and made a quick post so his friends and coworkers would know he tested positive. He was primarily concerned about the health of his coworkers?—?masks were not yet mandatory, even for employees. 

“And then,” Sistrunk says, ?“all hell broke loose.” 

Shortly after his social media post, he says, he received a call from the Safeway human resources department, asking pointedly if he was ?“badmouthing” the company. 

“I was offended,” Sistrunk says. ?“I felt like Safeway was trying to stop any kind of bad media. They didn’t want any kind of uproar.” 

Sistrunk was so sick he didn’t return to work for seven weeks. He lost his sense of taste and smell and had trouble breathing. ?“The worst thing was the fatigue,” he says. ?“I felt like someone snatched my soul.” 

Fenner called him every other day to check in. Sistrunk did receive paid sick leave?—?two-thirds of his average wage?—?as a benefit of his union health insurance plan. ?“God forbid if you’re not a union member,” Sistrunk says with the tone of someone looking back on a narrowly avoided disaster. ?“You’re screwed.” 

When Sistrunk began with the company 22 years ago, he says it felt like an exclusive and highly valued job. He had to write an essay with his application about why he wanted to work there. There were employee outings: summer cookouts, bowling parties, crab feasts. But all of that faded away as the years went by and, it seemed to Sistrunk, management focused more and more intensely on profits. He sounds wistful when he reflects on his years there. ?“It’s not that family bond anymore,” he says.

Safeway is one of 20 grocery chains owned by Albertsons Companies, whose biggest investor is the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, named for the three-headed dog of Greek mythology that guards the gates of hell to make sure no one gets out. According to Andrew Whelan, a spokesperson for Albertsons, ?“When we learn that an associate has a confirmed case of Covid-19, our crisis response team conducts a close contacts investigation and may recommend that additional members of the store team self-quarantine.” The company offers up to 80 hours of ?“quarantine pay” for those who meet its standards. Whelan says the store is ?“appropriately staffed.” 

Safeway uses the definition of ?“close contact” provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of an infected person per day. It’s an extremely high bar in a store where everyone is moving around. Consequently, employees and the union say management at Safeway 1048 rarely tells a worker to quarantine. 

I got a firsthand view of this dynamic in action. When I went to the store to talk with workers, nearly everyone was discussing that an employee from the cut-fruit section had tested positive. I saw where the fruit-cutting happens: a windowless corner of steel tables in back by the breakroom, where several people work at once. If I worked in such close quarters with a Covid-positive person, I would certainly be worried. 

Fenner says, after management was alerted to the situation by the union, they ?“cleaned and sanitized” the store but did not order any quarantines or alert employees to the positive test. Whelan disputes this, saying that one employee was quarantined due to ?“close contact.” Whelan also says the company informs the staff when an employee tests positive, but workers say they usually hear through word of mouth or from the union.

Then there is the matter of customers who shop without masks. Every employee I spoke with cited this persistent minority of customers as a threat to their health, particularly because workers are not empowered to do anything about the situation except to offer a mask to customers. 

“I’ve been called ?‘bitch’ so many times” for asking customers to wear a mask, Abraha says. ?“I wish the company took it seriously.” 

The Safeway store does not have a security guard, meaning regular workers and supervisors become de facto security guards and mask-checkers. Calling the police doesn’t feel like an option. ?“By the time you call the cops,” Sistrunk says, the maskless shoppers ?“are out of here.” 

Whelan acknowledges that while the store has signs telling customers to wear masks, ?“If a customer refuses to wear a mask and to leave the store, we permit the customer to continue shopping in order to avoid conflicts that would put the store director or other employees and customers at risk.” 

Jason Winbush, a bearded, 44-year-old food clerk who has been at Safeway for 28 years, has a wife and five children at home. The combination of management’s failure to alert employees directly about positive tests or to find a way to make customers wear masks has convinced him the company does ?“not at all” take the safety of its workers seriously. Winbush has even used some of his vacation days to get time away from the store because the mask situation worried him so much. 

“It’s starting to get [to be] too much,” Winbush says. ?“It’s stressful. Very stressful. It’s written on the wall: Money is more important than your employees. And that’s not right, cause you don’t know if we have preexisting conditions, if my kids have preexisting conditions.”

Stuart Allison, a man with a pleasant Southern drawl and the enormous hands of a heavyweight boxer, has been cutting meat at Safeway 1048 for 25 years. That is less than half of the time he has been working for Safeway, where he began as a meat cutter in 1968. (After more than a half-century with the company, Allison makes $24 an hour.) He is 79, works six 8?hour shifts a week, exercises regularly and appears perfectly capable of wrestling a man half his age. 

Allison remembers seeing people die during a flu epidemic in the 1940s, and those experiences have left him a remarkably calm person. Even though Allison contracted a mild case of Covid in summer 2020, he has never allowed the events of the past year to throw him into a panic. ?“Things come up like that; they don’t disturb me,” he says. ?“Whatever it is, I just take it. I guess I’m more a positive thinker than a negative thinker. This is not my first time being around a virus.” 

But even Allison, a pinnacle of equanimity who has little fear for his own health, finds his hackles raised by what he sees as management’s lax attitude toward customers shopping without masks in the midst of a pandemic. ?“They were saying, ?‘You gotta wait on people that don’t have masks on,’” Allison says. ?“I think management is going along with what their superiors are telling them. But that doesn’t work, to me. … I told all the checkers, ?‘If they come in without a mask, don’t wait on ?‘em.’”

The stress over worker health reached a high mark in the days surrounding the January 6 Trump rally and storming of the U.S. Capitol. Many of former President Donald Trump’s supporters who had come to Washington for the event stayed in the hotels that dot the blocks around the Safeway in Rosslyn. Many of them came into the store with an aggressive disregard for safety. 

“We had a really rough time that week,” says Michele Miler, a 61-year-old file maintenance manager who has served as Safeway 1048’s union shop steward for the past 25 years. ?“They were coming in without no mask.” 

In fact, the employees I spoke with remember the week of January 6 as one in which they were left to fend for themselves. As our nation’s political insanity invaded their workplace, some workers say they refused to serve maskless Trump supporters; one says she just argued with the maskless and endured insults; most said they were constantly uncomfortable and disappointed that Safeway did nothing to save them. 

Sistrunk says that when he asked a manager to intervene, the response was that the company didn’t want bad press in an age when everyone has a cell phone. 

Abraha says some of the Trump supporters ignored her request to wear a mask; one even handed her his used mask and demanded she throw it away for him. ?“If I call the police, I don’t know what’s gonna happen, because of politics,” Abraha says. ?“What about if I lose my job? … It’s crazy.”I think management is going along with what their superiors are telling them. But that doesn’t work, to me. … I told all the checkers, ‘If they come in without a mask, don’t wait on ‘em.’” —Stuart Allison

The pandemic has been good for business at grocery stores. Everyone remembers the empty shelves in spring 2020 as people stocked up, just in case. Albertsons saw its sales rise a remarkable 47% in March of 2020; by December, year-over-year sales were still running 12% higher. All of these sales were enabled by the fact that thousands of grocery workers, just like those at Safeway 1048, continued to come to work, putting their own health at risk to ensure stores could sell food. 

What did those workers get in return? At Safeway, they got a $2 ?“hazard pay” wage bonus from March 15 to June 13, 2020, with two one-time bonuses adding up to about $350 for full-time employees (less for part-timers, the vast majority of the workers). In other words, hazard pay ended when the country was seeing around 22,000 new daily cases of the coronavirus. Even when cases rose to 300,000 per day by January 2021?—?a 1,264% increase in risk?—?hazard pay never came back. 

Whelan, the Albertsons spokesperson, justified this discrepancy by saying, ?“We are not currently offering appreciation pay at this time because businesses large and small across our operating areas have reopened and resumed operations.” 

This argument is a bit of sleight of hand?—?right down to the use of the phrase ?“appreciation pay” rather than hazard pay. First, state governments ignored public health risks and reduced business restrictions (which fueled Covid surges and increased the number of hazards for workers). Then, companies used those policies as an excuse not to take more action or offer workers more compensation. Poof: Thanks to poor public health policies, businesses made their own obligations disappear. 

The flagrant hypocrisy of praising frontline workers as heroes while denying them payment for their heroic work is a textbook example of corporate greed and the primacy that shareholders have over labor. 

And that so few grocery workers emerged from 2020 with long-term raises is a textbook example of union workers squandering their labor leverage. The moment certainly marks a national failure by the UFCW, the nation’s biggest food and retail union, which has been unable to secure any real lasting gains for its members, even as public regard for grocery workers soared. 

Every Safeway employee I spoke with thought that, at a minimum, the $2 hazard pay increase should have become permanent. They wish everyone would wear a mask. They wish they did not have to rely on word of mouth to learn someone from work has Covid. 

They live in fear of getting their families sick. They rise at 4 a.m., work six days a week and casually discuss the many ways the job has destroyed their bodies. 

They do this whole routine for decades for, if they are lucky, a $20 wage. 

If they had stopped?—?if they had shut down the nation’s groceries?—?there would have been panic. But they worked. 

We ate.

From the perspective of the workers themselves, 2020 was a year of swallowing harsh insult after harsh insult. When I asked Marilyn Williams, who has worked at Safeway 1048 for the past eight years, what she thought of the quick disappearance of hazard pay, she paused for a long moment, then said, ?“Ha. Ha. 

“That’s my reaction. 

“Ha. Ha.”

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on March 26, 2021. 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.


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The ‘Trashman’ Who Became an Influencer

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In the latest instalment of ?“Working People,” we sit down and chat with (former) Philly sanitation worker and Instagram sensation Terrill Haigler?—?or, as listeners may know him, ?“Ya Fav Trashman.” Terrill’s incredible and inspiring story took an interesting turn during the Covid-19 pandemic when he was working for the Philly sanitation department and started an Instagram account where he would post updates from the job and answer residents’ questions about trash pickup. With his platform, Terrill has helped spread awareness of the hard work sanitation workers do, the conditions they face, and what residents can do to clean up their neighborhoods. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 25, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Megan Rapinoe and other soccer stars headed to Congress and the White House for Equal Pay Day

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March 24 is Equal Pay Day—as ever, the occasion for a resoundingly sarcastic “woohoo.” If you start counting on January 1, 2020, Equal Pay Day marks the day on which women have been paid as much as men had been paid by December 31, 2020. Women working full-time and year-round make, on average, 82 cents for every dollar men make.

Soccer stars including Megan Rapinoe are testifying about equal pay before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, as well as meeting with President Joe and Dr. Jill Biden at the White House. Members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team recently settled part of a lawsuit dealing with unequal working conditions, but are appealing to have equal pay addressed in court. They appear in the immediate wake of a scandal over the unequal treatment of players in the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. 

“I feel like I pull on this shirt for equal pay and for the fans and for kids who want to be in my position,” Rapinoe recently told ESPN. “So that never feels in conflict.”

While March 24 is Equal Pay Day for all U.S. women in 2021, inequality isn’t just a gender thing.

  • Asian American and Pacific Islander Women’s Equal Pay Day was on March 9. They’re paid 85 cents for every dollar men are paid.
  • Mothers’ Equal Pay Day won’t be until June 4. Mothers make 70 cents for a dollar earned by fathers.
  • Black Women’s Equal Pay Day is August 3, to reflect the 63 cents they are paid compared to a dollar for a white man.
  • Native American Women’s Equal Pay Day comes September 8—it’s 60 cents for them.
  • Latina Equal Pay Day isn’t until October 21—55 cents for every dollar paid to white men.

This all adds up to huge lifetime losses. If you translate today’s pay gaps into a 40-year working life, the National Women’s Law Center calculates:

This is already a crisis situation, and it’s been compounded by the unequal harms of the coronavirus pandemic, which have hit women especially hard—and especially Black and brown women. Biden’s infrastructure plan, surprisingly, could help undo some of the damage, but women—and the economy they’re such an important part of—need an even broader set of policy fixes, including equal pay legislation, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, anti-discrimination policies with real teeth that will get the attention of employers, and much more.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on March 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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At a Major Education Company, Freelancers Must Now Pay a Fee In Order to Get Paid

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Freelance workers everywhere are subjected to a wide variety of indignities and ripoffs. They are the workers who are most at the mercy of their employers’ whims, and least able to fight back. Now, into the pantheon of freelancer exploitation comes a truly jaw-dropping policy: Forcing freelancers to pay money in order to get paid. 

McGraw Hill (MH) is a multibillion-dollar educational publishing company, with thousands of employees and offices around the world. Beginning in October of last year, the company instituted a new policy for all of its freelancers and independent contractors?—?they are now required to pay a fee of 2.2% every time they file an invoice through the company’s invoicing system, called Fieldglass. (There is no other system, meaning the fee is mandatory.) In other words, if a freelancer does $1,000 of work for MH, they will be paid only $978. The other $22 will be taken as an ?“administrative fee.” 

In effect, the company has imposed an across-the-board wage cut on all of its freelancers and contractors, without having to come right out and say it. An email sent to all freelancers explaining the new fee offered this explanation: ?“McGraw Hill has chosen to align with market standards and transition to a Supplier funded model. The 2.2% Small Supplier fee included on your invoice supports labor market compliance, administrative tasks, and the Vendor Management System (VMS) associated with payment processes.” 

Likewise, the company says that under its new policy, the costs of MH complying with various laws and regulations are now being offloaded onto freelancers themselves. ?“Since October 2020, contractors providing services to McGraw Hill have been charged a fee to cover the cost of third-party vendors that help us ensure that each contractor meets the requirements needed to be classified as an Independent Contractor under various state laws and IRS regulations,” said MH spokesperson Tyler Reed. ?“We need to ensure that those classifying themselves as Independent Contractors are in fact contractors, according to state and IRS guidelines, otherwise there is a legal and financial risk to McGraw Hill and to the contractor.” 

State laws and IRS guidelines were around long before last October, so it is unclear why the company decided then that it was no longer able to bear the costs of compliance. Reed did not respond to that question. 

The new practice of charging workers the costs associated with normal company functions does not sit well with one longtime MH freelancer, who said that it felt indistinguishable from ?“wage theft.” 

“This will cost me a few hundred dollars over the course of this year?—?not the end of the world, but still, it’s a de facto pay cut,” the freelancer said, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal. ?“But I can’t figure out what to do about it, except try to spread the word.”

Though the policy may be unfair, it does not violate any laws, according to the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, and labor law experts. ?“It’s likely that these practices are legal. There is very little regulation of independent contractor relationships, which is precisely why many independent contractors need the rights and protections that come with being an employee,” said Laura Padin, a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project. ?“It’s telling that McGraw Hill unilaterally imposed this fee on its freelancers. A true independent contractor would be setting or negotiating the terms and conditions of their work.”

The ability of a major company like MH to push its own costs onto its most vulnerable workers goes to the heart of the gross power imbalance inherent in the world of independent contracting. The company’s claim that its new fee is a move to ?“align with market standards” is dubious. Dave Hill, vice president of the National Writers Union, which represents freelance writers, said that such a mandatory fee is ?“certainly not the industry standard among freelancers working in media.” 

Nor is it the case that every invoicing platform charges freelancers a cut of their own invoice in order to pay them. Few people can say that more definitively than Matt Saincome, a longtime freelance writer, editor, and publisher of The Hard Times and other publications, who founded the invoice company Outvoice, which specializes in paying freelancers, and does not charge them a fee. Saincome called the MH fee ?“horrible,” and added ?“This is a pay cut.” 

“It’s not market standard to push admin or processing costs off on freelancers,” he said. ?“Employers already save money by using freelance work instead of W?2 employees. It’s shameful and wrong to ask freelancers to pay the already heavily reduced administrative costs related to working with them.” 

In America, the incentive for companies to offload their own costs onto their labor force is embodied in the very fabric of labor law governing the independent contractor relationship. It is, for example, why Uber drivers pay to maintain their own vehicles. Such arrangements are tempting for employers, but never benign from the perspective of workers, who are forced to accept less for no reason other than a lack of bargaining power. 

“Is this McGraw Hill’s 21st Century company store? No one should pay the boss in order to get paid,” said Larry Goldbetter, the president of the National Writers Union. ?“When McGraw Hill freelancers are ready, NWU will represent you and together, end this practice.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 24, 2021. 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.


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