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‘We Want to See Our Families’: Frito-Lay Workers Strike Over 84-Hour Weeks, Meager Raises

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Dan DiMaggio | Labor Notes

Frito-Lay workers in Topeka, Kansas, have been on strike since Monday over low pay and forced overtime.

Some workers have been forced to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, for weeks on end due to short staffing. They want to see that change.

“Nobody I know loves Frito-Lay enough that they want to live there,” said Monk Drapeaux-Stewart, a box drop technician, responsible for keeping the plant’s machines supplied with cardboard. “We want to go home and see our families. We want to have our weekends off. We want to work the time that we agreed to work—and hopefully not much more than that.”

‘BOTTOM OF THE LADDER’

The last several contracts have featured lump sum bonuses most years, leaving wage rates stagnant for most classifications. Drapeaux-Stewart said he’s only gotten a 77-cent increase over the last 12 years.

Meanwhile, the Topeka area has attracted several new manufacturing facilities and large warehouses over the past 20 years, taking advantage of its location smack in the center of the country, with access to a number of highway arteries. The Frito-Lay facility, which has been around for 50 years, now competes for workers with a Mars chocolate facility, a Bimbo bread bakery, and Home Depot and Target distribution centers, as well as a Goodyear tire plant that opened in 1945 (workers there are members of the Steelworkers). A Walmart distribution center is slated to open in September.

“Between all those industries, Frito-Lay sits at the bottom of the ladder as far as wage scales,” said Mark Benaka, business manager for Bakery Workers (BCTGM) Local 218, which represents workers at Frito-Lay and Bimbo. Other local facilities have offered significant wage increases in recent weeks, Benaka said, but Frito-Lay continues to offer pennies.

“Fifteen, 20 years ago Frito-Lay had a really good reputation—all you need is a high school diploma and you’ve got this job with good pay and benefits,” said Drapeaux-Stewart, who started working at the facility 16 years ago. “But slowly all of that has been whittled away.”

That’s made it difficult to maintain workers—and led to the mountains of forced overtime.

“Conditions are really just deteriorating as each contract rolls by,” said Cheri Renfro, an operator in the Geographic Enterprise Solutions department, where workers fulfill orders for smaller mom-and-pop shops and gas stations.

Renfro estimated that the company brought in more than 350 employees in the last year—and lost the same amount. “You have to wonder as a company why wouldn’t you question that—say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’”

CONTRACT VOTED DOWN

Last week, workers voted down the latest contract offer from the company, which included a 2 percent wage increase this year and a 60-hour-a-week cap on the amount of hours a worker can be forced to work. The wages weren’t enough and the overtime cap would have meant more senior workers being forced in on weekends, workers say.

Other issues fueling workers’ anger include safety, a punitive attendance policy, and pressure from inexperienced supervisors competing for promotions. “This storm has been brewing for years,” Renfro wrote in a letter to the Topeka Capital-Journal, in which she outlined examples of the plant’s “toxic work environment,” including management keeping the line going after a worker collapsed and died and refusing bereavement leave for a worker whose father passed away during the Covid lockdown, since there was no funeral.

In late June, Local 218 members voted 353 to 30 to approve a strike.

“In the past people were afraid to go on strike—you keep hoping every contract is gonna be better,” said Renfro. “But as time has gone on the company has proven they are not gonna get better and they are not gonna work with us.”

SNACK SURGE

Frito-Lay is a division of PepsiCo and has been a major contributor to the company’s bottom line, earning $1.2 billion in profits on $4.2 billion in revenue in the first quarter. Last year, the division was responsible for over half of PepsiCo’s operating profits, with profits of $5.3 billion on $18.2 billion in revenue. PepsiCo also owns brands including Mountain Dew, Quaker Oats, Gatorade, Tropicana, and Aquafina.

Topeka is one of the largest of Frito-Lay’s 30 U.S. manufacturing facilities; most are nonunion. The 850 workers there make, package, and ship nearly every type of Frito-Lay snack: Lays potato chips, Tostitos, Cheetos, Sun Chips, Fritos, every flavor of Dorito, and more. Six hundred are members of Local 218 (Kansas is a right-to-work state).

The plant never slowed down during the pandemic, workers said. Instead, production increased, as people ate at home more and bought more comfort foods like chips. “I’ve learned that when something’s hitting Americans beneath the belt, the two main items that never suffer are snack foods and alcohol,” said Benaka, who retired from the plant in 2017 after 37 years.

Workers were at one point given an extra $20 a day to work during the pandemic, up to $100 a week—but that only lasted a few weeks. “I don’t know if they were afraid we were gonna get used to the higher wage,” said Renfro.

Production at the plant fluctuates seasonally—it’s busier in the summer and around big holidays and the Super Bowl. Workers are used to overtime during those periods. But recently the overtime has become constant. “Now we’ve having overtime when we shouldn’t be,” said Renfro—and a lot more of it.

‘I’M DONE WITH GIVING EVERYTHING TO FRITO-LAY’

Renfro said she worked 73 hours during the week leading up the Fourth of July, and then worked from 3 a.m. until 3 p.m. on the holiday. “I went to sleep—I didn’t even hear the fireworks, I was so tired.”

“I’ve had to miss going to so many holidays because I’m getting forced,” said Renfro. “I’ve had to call my mom and tell her I couldn’t make it. I don’t want to miss those moments anymore. I’m done with giving everything to Frito-Lay—my time, my holidays.”

One of the most hated forms of forced overtime at the plant is being forced to work a “suicide.” That’s when the company makes a worker stay four hours on top of their eight-hour shift, and then forces them in four hours early before their next shift—leaving them only eight hours off.

Drapeaux-Stewart said these shifts have become increasingly common, especially in departments with the worst understaffing, like the warehouse. “It’s crazy that this has become the blue-collar everyday [worker’s] new normal.”

EMPTY SCAB BUSES

The company has set up a parking lot a mile from the plant. It’s running coach buses from the lot every 15 minutes to shuttle in temporary workers and out-of-state scabs.

But strikers suspect that the buses are a ruse. “Most of these buses are completely empty, or have one to three people, not counting the driver,” said Drapeaux-Stewart. “It’s psychological warfare—they’re trying to demoralize and dispirit the men and women of the union in the hopes we’ll come groveling back for whatever crumbs they offer us.”

Benaka said the company also appears to be pulling empty trailers in and out of the facility to intimidate workers. “You’re talking about folks who’ve worked at this facility 30 or 40 years—they know what an empty trailer looks like.”

Strikers are also monitoring the facility’s smokestacks to get a sense of the strike’s impact. “There’s been no smoke, no steam, no nothing, no sign of production at all,” said Drapeaux-Stewart.

“Usually there’s always an odor coming out of Frito-Lay, but it’s been smelling really good outside,” said Renfro.

Local supporters have been donating food and water to the picket line. Some local restaurants have said they will stop serving Pepsi products. A local magazine, 785, has set up a fund to help strikers pay their water bills.

“I’m really amazed at the community support,” said Renfro. “It makes you proud to be a part of this community.”

“It’s scary but it’s exciting,” said Drapeaux-Stewart. “I have so much hope for this strike that we will finally get what we’ve needed—the guarantee of getting to see our families, and earning a living wage to support those families.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dan Dimaggio is an assistant editor at Labor Notes.


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Women in the Workplace: Advancing Your Career Post-Pandemic

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Economic conditions during the pandemic took an especially difficult toll on women, with nearly 2.2 million females leaving the workforce between February and October 2020, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center.

Of course, this difficult environment doesn’t mean women should shy away from asserting their rights in the workplace or pursuing better opportunities. In fact, it means just the opposite. It’s more vital than ever that women speak up against discriminatory practices and for equal pay and equal opportunities for advancement.

As the pandemic eases, many employees are likely to return to an office environment in the coming months, although there’s some disconnect between leaders (who tend to prefer more office time) and workers (who have become accustomed to working from home).

With all this in mind, the question arises of how best to advance your career as a woman post-pandemic. Here are some ideas to consider.

Support union efforts.

Women have long lagged behind men in terms of union membership, which is a key mechanism for promoting wage equality

Indeed, research indicates that unions help narrow the wage gap between men and women in the workplace. In 2016, for instance, women working in unions received 94 cents on the dollar compared with unionized men. Alternatively, non-union women were paid just 78 cents on the dollar, compared with their non-union male counterparts.

And yet, as of 2020, men continued to have a higher union membership rate (11%) than women (10.5%), with the overall rate at 10.8% — barely half of what it was in 1983 — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The conclusion: Joining unions where they exist and advocating for unions where they don’t can help women narrow the wage gap and advance their careers.

Actively fight stereotypes. 

Women in the workplace are often characterized unfairly and, as a result, burdened with unrealistic expectations that go beyond those placed on their male counterparts — all while receiving less pay. 

Stereotypes are rampant and need to be continually challenged, both with evidence and active pushback against sexism. For example, the pervasive myth that men are better than math was debunked by a study in which women who focused on identifying themselves as being enrolled at an exclusive private college did as well as men on math tests. Other key research put to rest a different fable: that men are better at negotiating than women.

Not surprisingly, it is societal prejudices – not a lack of ability – that tends to hold women back. These stereotypes persist, and need to be confronted at every turn. 

Be willing to change jobs.

According to the research, changing jobs frequently can benefit you financially and allow you to advance your career more quickly. 

Staying in the same job might get you an annual cost-of-living raise, say 3%. But moving to a different position can give you a lot bigger boost: an average increase of 10% to 20%. In fact, if you stay at the same company for an average of more than two years, you’ll earn at least 50% less over your lifetime than you would have if you’d changed jobs.

Getting that new job or embarking on a new career path might require you to step out of your comfort zone and learn new skills, but it will be worth it.

Enhance your skill set.

Speaking of enhancing your skill set, continuing education is always helpful, and it doesn’t have to mean going back to school for an advanced degree. Many short-term seminars and virtual opportunities are available, too.

With tech skills especially in demand, look for marketable proficiencies in areas that translate well to multiple positions, such as familiarity with an array of commonly used software (such as Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint, etc.). Familiarity with grant writing and internet marketing, particularly search engine optimization (SEO) can help you advance, as well.

Look for training opportunities, both in person and virtually, and once you’ve mastered a skill, update your physical and online resumes to reflect your expertise.

Find your tribe, and network.

Thanks to the internet, professionals looking to advance their careers can network across far greater geographic distances than ever before. Take advantage of sites like Alignable and LinkedIn, as well as your personal network on social media, to forge alliances with others on your career path. This will allow you to share tips and ideas that have brought you success and learn the same from others. 

Furthermore, you should stay in touch with former supervisors and co-workers who can advocate for you in your quest for a new position, if and when the time comes. If your list of trusted colleagues includes a potential mentor, be sure to pursue that relationship. According to three decades of research, mentorship leads to higher pay, faster advancement, and greater career satisfaction for mentees. 

Burnish your reputation.

Prospective employers look at a range of factors in considering new hires, including your employment history (this is an instance where changing jobs too frequently can hurt you) and even your credit rating.

You can combat any negatives in your employment record by seeking out positive recommendations from past employers and colleagues. This proactive step helps ensure that nothing in your past can undermine your goals. You should also carefully curate your social media accounts, as many employers will check public posts and photos before they offer you a position. 

Although they can’t get access to your credit score, employers may view your credit history in an attempt to learn how responsible you are, especially if you’re being considered for a financial position. If you’re thinking of applying for a new role, it’s worthwhile to check your report yourself and to take the steps to build or rebuild your credit. Then employers won’t be able to use that as an excuse to pass you by. 

These are just some of the ways you can advocate for yourself and advance your career in the post-pandemic world. Other opportunities are available, too. Be on the lookout for ways to move forward in boldness and confidence, so nothing can hold you back.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the author: Molly Barnes is a full-time digital nomad. She works remotely, travels constantly, and explores different cities across the U.S. She started her site, www.digitalnomadlife.org as a resource for travelers, nomads, and remote workers. Molly writes resources that help office and remote workers alike reach their personal and professional goals of becoming more successful. Follow along with her and her boyfriend Jacob on their blog as they pursue a nomadic lifestyle while freelancing and traveling across the country. 


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Portillo’s Food Chain Walk Out on Strike

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Jeff Schuhrke (@JeffSchuhrke) | ??????

A group of non-unionized workers at the Chicago-based chain staged a week-long walk out, part of a growing wave of strikes in the area.

Alleging unfairly low pay and employer mistreatment, a group of non-unionized workers at Portillo’s?—?a popular Chicago-based restaurant chain serving hot dogs, Italian beef and Polish sausages?—?staged a seven-day strike last week. 

“All we want is to be treated decently, to be treated fairly, to be paid fairly,” said striking worker Armando Huerta.

The strikers?—?all Latino?—?work at Portillo’s Food Service in suburban Addison, where the food served at the company’s nearly 50 Chicago area restaurants is prepared. They say that management has failed to replace their coworkers who left during the pandemic, instead expecting them to perform more labor while offering only a $0.35-per-hour raise.

“I was working before four days a week, and now I’m working six days a week,” explained Paty Córdova, another striker. ?“The company refuses to give us overtime. We are tired of the injustice of having us work double.”

Out of 25 employees at the Addison facility, 17 participated in the work stoppage, which lasted from June 28 to July 5. Most say they have been with Portillo’s for over a decade. According to Córdova, they have been trying to address workplace issues with management for the past four years.

“Thanks to the company for the good years, but enough is enough,” Huerta said last Friday at a rally outside Portillo’s flagship restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

The strike was organized by the workers themselves with support from Arise Chicago, a 30-year-old worker center founded by diverse faith leaders. The employees, who don’t have a union, first reached out to Arise Chicago last November. They soon formed a workplace committee to collectively bring their concerns to management.

“We have tried to engage in talks with management at several levels?—?corporate, the plant manager, human resources?—?and none of them have responded to us,” Córdova said. ?“So we created this committee, this group, and we go by the motto: ?‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’”

On June 28, the committee attempted to deliver a set of demands around safe working conditions and higher wages to the company. Managers refused to meet with them and allegedly said, ?“if you don’t like it, go home.” The workers responded by hitting the picket lines.

“The Portillo’s leadership team is committed to hearing from each of our team members individually and will continue to do so,” the company said in a statement. 

But Córdova said that this approach isn’t good enough: ?“They keep insisting on meeting with them one-on-one, individually, but we are not going to allow that because we don’t want to be intimidated at those individual meetings.” 

Portillo’s management described the strikers as ?“a small group…[that] does not speak for our team members,” but was clearly shaken by the work stoppage. The company had to bring in temp workers to ensure food production continued, and allegedly resorted to intimidation by sending letters to some strikers threatening to fire them if they didn’t return to work. Arise Chicago says the latter is an Unfair Labor Practice and has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The company eventually agreed not to discipline any of the strikers, and they returned to work together on the morning of July 6. Concerned that management might attempt to lock them out, the workers were accompanied back into the Addison facility by faith leaders from Arise Chicago. 

“I have mixed emotions because we know the struggle isn’t over yet,” striker Jesus Victoria told In These Times. ?“But walking in after our strike, I felt capable and courageous demanding what is just.” Victoria and the other strikers report that they did not face any immediate discipline after going back to work, but they noted that the company held one-on-one meetings with each of them.

The non-unionized Portillo’s workers got the attention of Association of Flight Attendants International President Sara Nelson, who tweeted about the strike last week, saying: ?“Workers are the Labor Movement, the power and purpose. They don’t have time for leadership to catch up. They are showing us the way. We have to run hard to help them form their unions that will mean lasting change and sustainable rights.”

Meanwhile, at least two other groups of Chicago-area workers were also on strike over the Fourth of July weekend. 

At Dill Pickle Food Co-op?—?a member-owned grocery store in the Logan Square neighborhood?—?workers unionized with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) staged a two-day strike on Friday and Saturday. 

The IWW says Dill Pickle management has been violating the collective bargaining agreement that’s been in place since last November, and is refusing to settle over allegations of unfair discipline, retaliation and unilateral of implementation of new policies brought to the NLRB. 

I’Talia McCarthy, the co-op’s general manager, called the union’s allegations ?“unfounded” and said that eight cases with the NLRB have been closed ?“with no enforcement action or adjudication.” 

“Their distrust, and the repeated suggestion that the Co-op is violating its contract with the union, is not only a misrepresentation?—?it is damaging sales,” McCarthy said. ?“At this time, the Co-op could really use support, not suspicion.”

But according to the IWW, the labor board ?“found merit” in the workers’ complaints.

“Dill Pickle Worker’s Union is on strike to save the co-op,” the union said on Saturday. ?“They demand that management settle rather than fight the National Labor Relations Board and bankrupt the store in the process.”

At the same time, 2,500 Cook County workers with SEIU Local 73 kept up their indefinite strike that began on June 25. The strikers include frontline employees who continued coming into work throughout the pandemic, including technicians, medical assistants, custodians, clerks and others at the county’s hospitals, health clinics, offices, courthouses and jail.

The striking Local 73 members?—?primarily Black women?—?are some of the county’s lowest paid workers. Now on day 14 of their strike?—?and nearly nine months into contract negotiations?—?they say Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s bargaining team is pressuring them to accept minuscule raises while simultaneously increasing their health insurance costs by 70 to 80 percent.

The county workers have received widespread support from the local labor movement, community organizations, faith leaders, and socialist and progressive elected officials?—?and have received hundreds of individual donations to their strike solidarity fund.

On July 7, a group of Local 73 workers held a sit-in outside Preckwinkle’s office after neither she nor her staff accepted a letter from allies in the faith community.

Preckwinkle’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Cook County nurses with the National Nurses Organizing Committee also held a one-day walkout over staffing shortages on June 24. Afterward, they won a new contract that includes a commitment from management to hire 300 new registered nurses over the next 18 months, along with 12 to 31 percent pay raises.

For their part, the Portillo’s workers who were on the picket lines for a week plan to continue organizing now that they’ve returned to work.

“We are in this fight together and we will be fighting until the end,” Córdova said.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst


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New York City holds parade honoring essential workers—but many essential workers boycott

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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week  in the war on workers | Today's Workplace

Wednesday was “a day to celebrate and appreciate the heroes who often go unsung,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last month in announcing a parade to honor the essential workers of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re going to sing about them this day.” 

Many of the workers, though, feel so unappreciated that they boycotted the parade supposedly held in their honor, saying a better way to honor them would be with better pay and working conditions. One of the groups with the biggest complaint is emergency medical technicians and paramedics. Those workers, who are more than half people of color and more than a quarter women, are paid dramatically less than firefighters, three out of four of whom are white and 99% of whom are male—and the truly essential role they played in the pandemic response did not stop de Blasio from opposing a move toward pay parity.

“A parade does not bring this workforce out of the poverty wages they are now being paid,” Oren Barzilay, the president of a union that represents more than 4,000 first responders, told the New York Daily News, describing attendance at the parade as like crossing a picket line. “It is far past time that the city gives this workforce the respect they deserve in livable wages. If taxpayer dollars can be allocated to put on this parade, then Mayor de Blasio, you can easily find the means to financially support our FDNY EMT’s, Paramedics and Fire Inspectors.”

The union has been in contract negotiations with the city since before the pandemic, and the city appears to remain intent on treating these workers as second-class first responders.

Another union representing social workers, contact tracers, health inspectors, and other workers similarly boycotted the parade, citing struggles to get personal protective equipment during the pandemic and saying in a statement, “To participate in a parade is an injustice to how we have been treated and continue to be treated. The Early Retirement Incentive was not passed, and Essential Worker pay seems to have disappeared.”

The parade included 14 floats and 260 groups of essential workers, including first responders (some of them, anyway), child care workers, transit workers, delivery workers, and more. Funeral industry workers who had to deal with the many, many bodies the pandemic produced were initially left out, then included after protest.

Eric Adams, the newly announced winner of the Democratic mayoral primary, did attend the parade, telling reporters, “We need to honor them [essential workers] with pay equity … we need to show them the respect they deserve.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Joe Biden Says He Stands With Unions. This Is His Moment to Prove It.

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Mark Dudzic on Single Payer

The longest national nurses strike in over a decade could also be a “watershed moment” for Medicare for All.

Speaking on the recent National Solidarity Call in support of striking nurses at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, Our Revolution leader Joseph Geevarghese characterized the situation as ?“Biden’s PATCO Moment.” The call was convened by the Labor Campaign for Single Payer to help mobilize national support for the 800 nurses at the Tenet Healthcare-owned hospital who are now engaged in the longest nurses strike nationally in over a decade. Tenet has spent more than $75 million to date to prolong the strike. A fraction of those funds could have easily met the nurses demands for the staffing improvements that are the sole issue driving the strike.

Now Tenet is threatening to permanently replace the striking nurses who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA). This action, by a notorious healthcare profiteer (Tenet leveraged federal bailout funds intended to provide urgent relief to employees and patients to triple its profits at the height of the pandemic last summer), has transformed a hard fought strike battle into a red line issue for the entire labor movement.

For those of us old enough to remember, it evokes the rampage of union busting that followed the Reagan Administration’s mass firing of striking air traffic controllers in the notorious PATCO strike of 1981.

Busting the air traffic controllers’ union sent a signal to employers everywhere that it was acceptable for management to break strikes and bust unions. In quick order, striking workers from copper miners in Arizona to newspaper workers in Detroit found themselves permanently replaced. Even more significantly, it changed the balance of power in labor/?management relations as labor’s most powerful weapon was neutralized. This ushered in a devastating period of concessionary bargaining whose consequences are still being felt today.

Reagan’s decision to fire the striking PATCO members was not some isolated act of pique by an outraged president. In fact, his administration jumped at the opportunity to give teeth to its explicit policy to weaken and undermine the considerable power of the U.S. labor movement. And it was very successful.

The U.S. labor movement was slow to respond to this provocation. Both of us can remember standing on the National Mall on Solidarity Day in 1981 with half a million other union workers. It had taken the AFL-CIO more than six weeks after the initial firings to call the rally and they chose to hold it on a Saturday when Washington was shut down tight for the weekend. As we dozed in the sun listening to endless speeches, we could see the planes taking off and landing unimpeded just across the Potomac at National Airport. What should have been a forceful exhibition of labor power had been turned into a demonstration of our impotence. Like many others who were there that day, we vowed to never let another PATCO moment go unchallenged.

Tenet is a key player in a major strategic sector of the economy. If it is able to make the threat of permanent replacement an acceptable management tool in healthcare bargaining, it will weaken the entire labor movement for decades to come.

That’s why the Labor Campaign for Single Payer and other labor groups are stepping up to support the nurses and their union. They will be joining the MNA at a rally on July 7 in front of Tenet Headquarters in Dallas. They are also circulating a petition urging members of Congress to join Reps. Katie Porter (D?—?Calif.) and Rosa DeLaura (D?—?Conn.) in requesting an investigation into the use of taxpayer-financed Covid-19 relief funds by Tenet and other large hospital systems.

This strike could be a watershed moment for the Medicare for All movement by exposing the corrupt and anti-worker underpinnings of our for-profit healthcare system. ?“The simple fact is that, if we had Medicare for All, we wouldn’t even be in this fight,” said LCSP National Coordinator Rhiannon Duryea. ?“Nurse-to-patient ratios would be set by law, ensuring safe and effective staffing ratios across the country that protect nurses, patients, and the community. Hospitals would not be able to exploit nurses and patients to line shareholder pockets.”

This strike could also be a watershed moment for the Biden administration. Ronald Reagan reversed a 40-year policy to promote the right of workers to organize and to bargain collectively. Before Reagan, corporations feared using the permanent replacement option because the federal government had made it clear that it would not tolerate such brutal behavior in the course of labor relations. After Reagan, it was open season on workers and their unions. Inequality skyrocketed as wealth was massively redistributed upward.

President Biden, to his credit, has vowed to reverse these trends. He has made a number of statements explicitly supporting worker rights and has appointed a number of pro-union advocates to key policy positions.

This is his chance to send a message to Tenet and corporate America that there’s a new sheriff in town. We need to challenge the Biden administration to put its money where its mouth is and to intervene forcefully in this conflict. The president must make it clear that permanently replacing lawful strikers is contrary to the policy of the U.S. government.

Tenet is not alone in trying to pull the rug out from under an upsurge in labor militancy. There are a number of current and pending labor battles where management is engaging in overt union busting, including months-long strikes by coal miners in Alabama and steelworkers employed by Allegheny Industries as well as a nasty lockout of refinery workers at a giant Exxon/?Mobil facility in Beaumont, Texas.

You can be sure that employers everywhere are watching how the Biden Administration reacts to these crises. As Our Revolution’s Geevarghese told the participants on the Solidarity Call, ?“This strike creates the opportunity for President Biden to undo what President Reagan did.” It’s an opportunity that should not be squandered. 

This story was first posted at Common Dreams.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Dudzic is National Coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer.


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Steward’s Corner: How One Union Uses Kitchen Table Economics to Advance Medicare for All

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Kari Thompson (@UEKariT) | Twitter

Our union, the United Electrical Workers, represents a diverse range of workplaces. Our members manufacture locomotive engines in Erie, Pennsylvania, and soap in Orange County, California; provide social services from Connecticut to Iowa to Los Angeles; and work in grocery stores from Vermont to Wisconsin. They also have a wide spectrum of political opinions.

But wherever they work, and no matter their political views, chances are that they’re frustrated with the health care system.

Since the 1940s, UE has supported universal, single-payer health care, popularly known today as Medicare for All. Under this policy, everyone would have access to medically necessary care that is free at the point of service, and coordinated by the federal government instead of profiteering insurance companies.

We have found that education on this idea gives members an opportunity to see how their frustrations with the health care system, such as the expensive cost of care and confusion over what kinds of care are covered, are rooted in corporate control of society. It also creates a space to win back some workers who have been influenced by right-wing propaganda.

Our key vehicle for this conversation is an interactive workshop, “How to Fix Health Care.” The workshop succeeds because it gets members talking together about their own shared experiences and provides them with a tool to break down a complicated economic question.

DIAGNOSE THE PROBLEM

We start the workshop by asking members to talk about the problems they encounter in our current health care system. They know these issues well.

Even if they happen to be in a shop that has been able to retain a good, affordable plan, they still have complaints about all the hoops they have to jump through to see a doctor or to make sure their bill gets paid.

But far too many of our members have been forced into paying too much. And all of them know family and friends who lack affordable care.

Then we ask, “Why is the health care system like this?” and lead them through a discussion of for-profit health care. This includes looking at facts like the rate of premium increases over the last 20 years—consistently higher than wage increases—and that we spend more money per person on health care in the U.S. than in other countries, but have poorer health outcomes. Members have no problem understanding that the enemy is the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations that are trying to profit off of our illnesses. This activity gets everyone on the same page.

From there, we discuss how a single-payer system could fix the problems they’ve identified and describe the basic outlines of how it would work, including that the plan would be for everyone, be affordable, provide high-quality, comprehensive care, and create good jobs.

HOW WILL WE PAY FOR IT?

The kicker is always paying for it. Members assume this kind of system will cost too much, but that assumption comes from not fully understanding the costs of health care in our current system—and how much they’re already paying. We pay for our health care in premiums deducted from our paychecks, provider bills, and co-pays for prescriptions and office visits, but how often do we actually take the time to add up what we’re paying for our current ineffective system?

At this point, we pull out a helpful tool: our Health Care Cost Calculator (a simplified web version is available at healthcosts.ueunion.org). Members are given time to fill out a form where they write down how much they spend each year on premiums, deductibles, co-pays, prescriptions, and other medical, dental, and eye care costs. Then they tally these costs up and divide the total by their annual salary to calculate what percentage of their income they are already spending on health care.

The results are astounding. Sure, there are a handful of healthy folks with no dependents who are in shops with good plans. They find they’re only paying a small percentage of their income for health care. But it’s really only a handful.

Most of our members are paying between 10 and 20 percent of their incomes for health care, and it’s not uncommon for us to find members paying 20 to 30 percent or more.

Let’s take the example of a member with a good-paying factory job in Connecticut. Including overtime, he made about $85,000 last year. He paid $128 per week in premiums, or $6,656 per year. Additionally, he had a $2,500 up-front deductible, three office visit co-pays at $35 each, a prescription with a $25 monthly copay, and $670 in dental costs. This was a total of $3,575 in out-of-pocket costs. Combine those with his premium payments, and this member spent $10,231 on health care. Dividing his salary by this total means he spent 12 percent of his income on health care.

We even had one member in Wisconsin realize he was paying 60 percent of his income on health care for himself and his family! That realization moved him into action—he joined our lobbying efforts to get his member of Congress to sign on to Medicare for All.

SINGLE-PAYER SAVINGS

Once members see how much they’re paying now, it’s a simple task to swing the conversation back to what a payroll tax might cost them under single-payer—and how much less it would be. Using Senator Bernie Sanders’ projection of a 4 percent payroll tax for employees to pay for Medicare for All, this is a big savings for almost every worker.

We show how the employers would save too—meaning there would be more money available that we could demand back in wages or retirement benefits. We also talk about how Medicare for All would put to rest members’ fears of devastatingly big bills, medical debts or bankruptcy, losing their health insurance coverage altogether if they lose their job, or having to strike to maintain their benefits (or losing their benefits during a strike).

We also take a moment to answer questions and rebut criticisms that the members may have heard, similar to inoculating workers against the employer’s anti-union arguments during an organizing drive. When members raise concerns about long waiting lines or losing their doctors, we discuss what happens in the current system: people experience delays in care because of the need for pre-approval from insurance companies and restrictions on whom they can see because insurance companies don’t work with all providers. We explain that under Medicare for All, there will be fewer hurdles to jump through because all providers will be included in the plan.

SEE THE REAL VILLAIN

Using kitchen table economics is critical for winning workers over to Medicare for All. Before this training, members may be wary of trading something they’re familiar with for something that’s unknown. But in the workshop, they see for themselves that what they have now is robbing them blind—and that Medicare for All would bring them real economic gains.

What threads its way through much of our conversation is that the insurance companies are a big part of why we pay so much for health care. For example, a Center for American Progress study shows that more than 8 percent of U.S. health care spending goes to administrative costs. However, the study put out by the Congressional Budget Office last year indicated that administrative costs under a single-payer system would be 1.8 percent or even less.

Where does that money go right now? Insurance company bureaucrats: six health insurance CEOs made more than $15 million each in 2019, led by Larry Merlo of CVS Health, who made $36 million. We have not found much love out there for insurance companies.

This exercise is a good way to start to shift the views of those working-class folks who have been taken in by right-wing populism. Instead of identifying their enemy as the government, or people who aren’t like them, they start training their ire at huge corporations: the insurance companies.

This dovetails with our broader political education goals. We want our members to embrace their shared interests with other workers, not with wealthy elites. By grounding our workshop in our members’ shared negative experiences with our current system and the kitchen table economics of our cost calculator, we get more members on board with advocating for a health care system that benefits the whole working class.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Thompson is the UE Director of Education. 


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June jobs report shows an unexpectedly strong 850,000 new jobs

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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week  in the war on workers | Today's Workplace

The U.S. economy is up 850,000 jobs, according to the June jobs report, and the past two months’ jobs reports were adjusted upward by 15,000. June’s jobs report is the strongest result in 10 months.

The unemployment rate rose slightly, to 5.9%, while the number of people who have been jobless for six months or more rose to 4 million, and “Black unemployment remains in deeply recessionary territory at 9.2%,” the Economic Policy Institute’s Elise Gould tweeted. “What boosted net job growth was an increase in people staying employed,” economist Aaron Sojourner tweeted. “Flows into employment from unemployment and from out of labor force both ticked down. The # of unemployed dropping out of labor force fell 363K=16%. Instead, they continued searching.”

A positive bottom line: “at this pace of job growth, the labor market would be back to pre-COVID health by the end of 2022—a recovery roughly *five times* as fast as the recovery following the Great Recession, thanks in no small part to the [American Rescue Plan],” EPI’s Heidi Shierholz wrote.

Notably, the leisure and hospitality industry gained 343,000 jobs, and that wasn’t just a one-month blip. “Over the last three months, leisure & hospitality has added 977,000 jobs—well over half of the 1.7 million total jobs added over that period,” Shierholz pointed out. Wages have risen in that industry; it’s almost like paying workers better helps draw in more workers. Pay remains abysmally low in leisure and hospitality, though.

There are still 6.8 million fewer jobs than in February 2020. With the jobs the economy would have added since then if the trends in place in early 2020 had continued, there is still a shortfall of more than 7.7 million jobs.

This jobs report cannot be seen as an endorsement of unemployment benefits cut-offs by Republican governors—it’s the June jobs report, but covers mid-May to mid-June, with those cut-offs starting in mid-June. A survey by the jobs search engine Indeed found factors other than unemployment benefits keeping unemployed people without college degrees from looking for work more aggressively.

The economy is rebounding, but the COVID-19 pandemic is not over yet, and the disruptions and trauma it has dealt to workers in all industries will be with us for a long time to come.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on July 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Historic heat wave highlights the need for farmworker protections

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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week  in the war on workers | Today's Workplace

Summer heat is a danger for farmworkers every year, with heat deaths happening steadily. But with climate change and heat waves like the one that hit the Pacific Northwest in recent weeks becoming more frequent, the need for legal protections for farmworkers is becoming more urgent. At least one worker died during that heat wave.

California farmworkers have a right to shade when the temperature reaches 80 degrees (though enforcement remains an issue), and farmworkers are winning legislative victories in the states, including Colorado recently and Washington state, gaining minimum wage and overtime protections. But nationally, farmworkers lack protections and enforcement, and heat is an annual danger. The Pacific Northwest’s record-shattering June heat wave drew renewed attention to that—even as some coverage of agriculture in the heat wave talked entirely about the danger to crops and never even mentioned workers.

The workers picking cherries and blueberries in temperatures over 100 degrees included children as young as 12 and adults in their 70s, with some employers not even supplying water, let alone shade.

“There’s no shade where I work,” a cherry picker in Yakima County, Washington, told Motherboard. “A lot of people who don’t feel well keep working so as not to lose money for lunch or rent. People endure a lot to finish. They give more than they are able to.” Elizabeth Strater, strategic campaigns director for the United Farm Workers of America, told Motherboard’s Lauren Kaori Gurley that “There is a perverse incentive to work as fast as you can not to hydrate to the extent that you’d need bathroom breaks,” because so many workers are paid piece rates.

Workers also often work in heavy clothes to protect themselves from chemicals used on crops, as they do unbelievably grueling, skilled work in dangerous heat. This is already a workplace safety issue that demands national policymaking—and it’s only going to get worse thanks to climate change.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on July, 5 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The Heat Wave Shows Climate Change Is a Workers’ Rights Issue

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Mindy Isser - In These Times

The workers laboring outside in this extraordinary heat are on the front lines of the climate crisis.

The end of June saw temperatures soar all around the United States, with historic heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest and excessive heat advisories, watches and warnings elsewhere. The heat is not just uncomfortable, it’s deadly, buckling roads and melting bridges, with temperatures climbing over 120 degrees in Death Valley, California and British Columbia.

While the 100 million computer workers in this country are more likely to be able to work safely indoors, other urgent and necessary work must continue outdoors, no matter the severity of the weather. The entirety of the working class is (or will be) affected by climate change, but it’s farm workers, letter carriers, construction workers, sanitation workers and other outdoor workers who are unable to escape to air conditioning, and are on the front lines of the environmental crisis. This clarifies the fight against climate change as one not just for environmentalists: Rising temperatures are a workplace safety issue. Relatedly, there is growing awareness among climate activists that workers’ rights and the future of the climate are inextricably linked. Continuing to connect these two existential issues is our best shot at a livable world in which we can all work safely and with dignity.

Between 1992 and 2017, at least 815 workers in the U.S. were killed and more than 70,000 were injured from heat stress injuries. It’s likely that the true number of workers hurt or killed due to extreme heat is much higher than reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Many workers who labor outside?—?particularly agricultural workers and construction workers?—?are undocumented or otherwise vulnerable and precarious, and may not know to report illnesses to OSHA. And of course, their employers are likely to misclassify a heat-related death. As temperatures continue to rise year after year, we can guess that the number of heat stress injuries and deaths will rise too.

On June 29, the United Farm Workers (UFW) slammed reports of heat-wave-related illnesses and deaths as ?“entirely preventable,” called on Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to protect farm workers by issuing emergency heat standards. (At least 63 people have died in Washington and Oregon since the heatwave began.) Even in perfect weather, farm workers do physically demanding labor for very low wages and no benefits. And according to Centers for Disease Control data from 2008, farmworkers already were perishing from heat at a rate of 20 times other civilian workers. Now temperatures have climbed to well over 100 degrees in the Pacific Northwest, and a farmworker in Oregon was killed by the heat on June 26. UFW rightly calls heat protections for workers ?“a matter of life and death.” 

And while farm workers may be among those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, they are not the only workers organizing for safety in our changing environment. After a member of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) died after installing phone service for a customer in 100 degree heat in 2011, the union began negotiating over heat stress workplace standards. An International Union of Painters and Allied Trades local that represents political, nonprofit and campaign workers in the Pacific Northwest fought for heat and smoke safety to protect canvassers in their most recent collective bargaining agreement, which was signed in January 2021 after successive smoky summers due to multiple wildfires.

Even those who work primarily inside have started organizing around these issues. Library workers in New York City bargained for a clause in their 2015 to 2020 contract entitled ?“operation of the library in the event of extreme temperatures,” requiring a temperature and humidity indicator on each level of the buildings, and compensatory time for staff who continue working in weather above 85 degrees and 44 percent humidity. 

As buildings get older with no federal investment to retrofit them, and as summers get hotter and hotter, there will be more pressure on electrical grids, potentially resulting in power outages. We can expect that even computer workers will be expected to work without air conditioning and in dangerous conditions. Amazon, run by the richest man in the world, forced warehouse workers in Washington to work in near-90-degree heat, because the company wasn’t equipped to deal with the current heat wave. (This is not the first time Amazon has allowed their workers to suffer in the heat—multiple workers have collapsed from heat-related causes.)

Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to require OSHA to create and enforce standards to protect workers in extreme temperatures. (Currently OSHA has no specific standards around working in high-heat environments.) The legislation, entitled the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, is named for a 53-year-old farmworker who died after picking grapes for 10 hours straight in 105 degree heat in 2004. The act will require OSHA to establish measures like paid breaks in cool areas, access to water, limitations on time in the heat, and emergency response for illnesses caused by the heat. It will also ask that employers provide training for employees on how to recognize the potential risk factors of working in extreme heat, and ways to respond to symptoms if and when they arise.

While this legislation is important and timely, most workers in this country lack the true ability to safely advocate for themselves in the workplace. Thanks to our backwards labor laws, union density hovers around 11% nationwide, even though unions’ approval ratings are in the clear majority. If workers want to be in charge of their own health and safety, it’s imperative that we pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which will allow workers the ability to unionize without fear of retaliation. (Disclosure: This author has been involved in organizing to pass the PRO Act.) Unionized workplaces are safer than non-union workplaces: They are 30% more likely to face an inspection for a health and safety violation, because union members are more likely to know their rights and have the ability to fight for them. (Unionized workplaces are also much more likely to have health and safety committees, which exist for the sole purpose of ensuring the workplace is safe.) And of course, unions are why we even have OSHA, thanks to the leadership of beloved and dearly remembered labor leader Tony Mazzocchi.

Environmentalists, long seen as either opposed to workers or just apathetic to their plight, have begun to realize that without a strong working-class movement, there’s no real hope of fighting climate change. And with Biden’s deeply disappointing infrastructure legislation, we’re going to need a base of millions to push for a much more aggressive plan to fight climate change. That’s why the Green New Deal Campaign Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America went all in on pushing for the passage of the PRO Act. Unions don’t just protect members’ health and safety in the workplace, they have the ability to turn regular people into political actors with the skills and tools to fight for a dignified life both on and off the job. As workers feel the growing effects of climate change at work and at home, they’ll need to fight their employers for health and safety protections, and they’ll also need to go to battle with the politicians and fossil fuel executives who have allowed temperatures to rise so drastically.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 1, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


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