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Minimum Wage: Is $15/Hour Enough?

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Minimum wage debates are never-ending and often polarizing. What I can say with certainty is that the stagnation of the minimum wage for the last 12 years is unfortunate when we see the quick uptick in inflation. In the latest report from June 2021, inflation jumped to 5.4% year-on-year, compared to last year’s rate of 0.6%. 

Minimum wages leave even the hardest of workers struggling to make ends meet. The simplest thing that we can do is to advocate for decent, livable wages for all to ensure the opportunity for economic security no matter who you are, where you work or where you live. 

That, however, begs the question: how do we set the new minimum wage? In reality, how can we settle on one number, such as $15/hour,  when each individual city has dramatically different costs of living and each state has a unique tax burden? 

Today’s Wages

Stuck at $7.25, the reality of the federal minimum wage is that in the largest U.S. cities, this kind of wage just won’t cut it. Even $15/hour isn’t enough in most areas.

Some might boast of a news release from the BLS declaring the increase in average hourly earnings rose 3.6% in June 2021, but this is likely not true for every worker and definitely does not keep up with inflation. 

It’s a complicated issue but there are many places in America where people aren’t making enough to buy necessities or even pay rent. They opt out of health insurance or simply going to the doctor for fear of what they may owe when all is said and done. 

Sure, many states and cities have mandated higher local minimum wages. Unfortunately, those increases often aren’t enough. 

For example, New York City’s minimum wage is set at $15-an-hour. According to this data study, factoring in local taxes, utilities, food, rental costs and transit as part of the core budget, a single New Yorker would be left with around $70 for hobbies, insurance, student loan payments, emergency expenses or simply to save. (Case in point: this homeless Amazon worker making $19.30 an hour.)

Inflation and City-Adjusted Wages

One minimum wage movement that has made the most waves across the nation is the Fight for $15. An estimated 26 million workers have been positively impacted by changes made in response to this demand for more livable wages. 

This movement was launched 12 years ago. If we used the current rates of inflation that would mean that this movement should now be pushing for $17.75 an hour.  

I’m no economist or financial expert, but it seems reasonable to me that taking inflation and each city’s cost-of-living into account, a minimum wage formula could be devised and additional wages could be adjusted according to some city-specific metrics such as the local price parity.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the Author: Kristen Klepac is a writer and content specialist who really misses music festivals. She currently resides in France where she often works on creating data-focused content that reveals unexpected trends on everything from crypto to city-based demographic reports. 


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Striking Alabama Coal Miners Want Their $1.1 Billion Back

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Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) | Twitter

History repeated itself as hundreds of miners spilled out of buses in June and July to leaflet the Manhattan offices of asset manager BlackRock, the largest shareholder in the mining company Warrior Met Coal.

Some had traveled from the pine woods of Brookwood, Alabama, where 1,100 coal miners have been on strike against Warrior Met since April 1. Others came in solidarity from the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania and the hollows of West Virginia and Ohio.

Among them was 90-year-old retired Ohio miner Jay Kolenc, in a wheelchair at the picket line—retracing his own steps from five decades ago. It was 1974 when Kentucky miners and their supporters came to fight Wall Street in the strike behind the film Harlan County USA.

“Coal miners have always had to fight for everything they’ve ever had,” Kolenc said. “Since 1890, when we first started, nobody’s ever handed us anything. So we’re not about to lay our tools down now.”

The longest that miners ever went on strike was for 10 months in 1989 against the Pittston Coal Company in West Virginia, defending hard-won health care benefits and pension rights. Some 3,000 miners got arrested in that strike. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who passed away on August 5, was president of the Mine Workers (UMWA) at the time.

In Manhattan, mixed in the sea of camouflage T-shirts outside BlackRock was a smattering of red and blue shirts—retail, grocery, stage, and telecom workers. The miners and supporters circled the inner perimeter of four police barricades, chanting “Warrior Met Coal ain’t got no soul!” and whooping it up.

Postal and sanitation trucks honked in solidarity. “You’re in New York City,” Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts told the crowd. “When somebody comes by driving a trash truck, they’re in a union. Chances are, somebody comes along with a broom in their hand, they’re in a union.”

‘WHERE’S OUR MONEY?’

The strikers are fighting to reverse concessions that were foisted on them in 2016 when newly formed Warrior Met Coal bought two mines and one preparation plant from Jim Walter Resources during bankruptcy proceedings. BlackRock became one of the three majority shareholders in the new company.

Since then, the union calculates that workers have forked over $1.1 billion in pay, overtime, vacation, safety, health care, and other benefits to help the company regain solvency. Today 26 hedge funds have investments in Warrior Met stock, signaling their confidence in its profitability.

“We want everything back. And then some. That’s the message we’re trying to send to BlackRock,” said Michael Wright, a miner for 16 years.

Warrior Met produces coal used in steel production in Asia, Europe, and South America. In response to the strike it has scaled back production, left one mine idle, and stopped stock buybacks, Bloomberg reported. The strike has cost the company $17.9 million, according to its second-quarter earnings report.

Shortly after the miners walked out, management returned to the table with an offer that would have recouped just $1.50 of the $6 cut in wages from the 2016 contract and left intact punitive disciplinary policies and benefits concessions. The miners voted it down, 1,006 to 45.

“We come back to the table and they’re offering less what we were making originally,” said Brian Seabolt, another 16-year coal miner.

“We go underground to sacrifice our lives for our families,” said Wright. “They’re making billions of dollars. Where’s our money?”

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink has burnished his public image as a benevolent capitalist concerned about climate change and social justice. The strikers hope to gain leverage by tarnishing that image.

BlackRock has a shield that makes that harder: two-thirds of its investments are in index funds, passively managed portfolios that bundle together investments regardless of social impact.

But it’s even harder to hit it hard enough in the pocketbook to have an impact: Warrior Met makes up just a tiny fraction of BlackRock’s portfolio. The asset manager had a record $9.5 trillion in assets under management at the end of June.

Nonetheless, to hurt profits, strikers were blocking scabs from entering the mines—until the company obtained an injunction to stop them. Despite that, the mines produced only 1.2 million tons of coal during the second quarter—a million less than the same period last year.

A GRUELING JOB

Another striker on the Manhattan picket line was Tammy Owens, a former steelworker. She switched to mining because it had better pay and benefits, though the job was grueling. “And then a few years later, I ended up with worse benefits than what I had at the steel plant,” she said.

Since the strike, she has picked up a side job to provide for her family. The union has also distributed $4.3 million to miners to cover health care.

Besides pay and benefits, the 2016 concessions included a punitive attendance policy that one miner’s wife described to journalist Kim Kelly as “four strikes and you’re out.”

“If I had a heart attack, they can give me a strike,” Owens said. “They don’t accept a doctor’s excuse. Even if I have something contagious that I can give to other people—pneumonia, the flu, strep throat, you name it—you have to come to work.”

Excessive overtime is another flashpoint (shades of Frito-Lay and Amazon). Miners have been forced into 12-hour shifts stretching into weekends—without the double pay on Saturday and triple pay on Sunday that they used to get.

And health care looms large. Costs shot up; the company now covers only 80 percent of the premium. “We need 100 percent,” said miner Dedrick Gardner. “Considering the work conditions in a coal mine, health care is vital. You’re dealing with silicosis, black lung, diesel, smoke.”

Black lung is caused by breathing in coal dust. The dust silts up the lungs, scarring and destroying them.

“Health insurance went from $12 for seeing any doctor in the world to $1,500 family deductible and co-pays up to $250,” said Local 2245 President Brian Michael Kelly.

TOXIC AND DANGEROUS

Safety is a perennial concern. “I work 2,200 feet underground in one of the most gaseous mines in the world,” Owens said. “If something goes wrong, it could blow the top off the ground.”

In 2001, 13 workers died at one of the mines now owned by Warrior Met after a slab of rock fell and set off a methane gas explosion, burning and pounding miners to death with chunks of rock.

Despite that tragedy, the 2016 contract eroded safety standards. And the situation is presumably even worse for the scabs inside now.

“Nonunion mines are continuously known for cutting corners and creating unsafe working environments in order to increase production,” said union spokesperson Erin E. Bates via email. “Warrior Met Coal is currently mining and processing coal with unskilled workers. We are concerned it is only a matter of time until someone gets seriously hurt.”

Without the union watchdog, apparently the company’s environmental practices slipped too. Shortly after the strike began, wastewater from one of the mines suddenly turned local creeks black with pollution.

This post originally appeared at Labor Notes on August 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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NLRB Hearing Officer Recommends Rerun of Amazon Bessemer Election

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Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) | Twitter

A National Labor Relations Board hearing officer has recommended a rerun of the union election that Alabama Amazon warehouse workers lost by more than 2 to 1 in April.

The hearing officer sided with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which argued that Amazon had interfered with a fair election by pushing the Postal Service to install an unmarked mailbox as a ballot-drop site, within view of company surveillance cameras. The mammoth warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, employs more than 5,000 workers.

In the hearing report, released today, NLRB field attorney Kerstin Meyers also agreed with RWDSU that Amazon had threatened employees, hired private police, and even changed the county traffic lights to impede the union’s access to voters.

“The question of whether or not to have a union is supposed to be the workers’ decision and not the employer’s,” said RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum in a statement.

Meyers’ recommendation will most likely be upheld, but that decision rests with the Board’s regional director in Atlanta. This decision in turn could be appealed to the full board in Washington, D.C., explains labor lawyer Brandon Magner, but new Democratic appointments on the Board will tilt the balance in favor of a rerun election.

Magner concludes, “the union is probably getting a second election if it wants to wait for one”—meaning if the union doesn’t pull the petition and give up.

A do-over will likely stretch into next year. Given Amazon’s more than 150 percent turnover rate, it will likely involve an almost entirely new workforce.

Shortly after the April election defeat, Labor Notes spoke to Amazon worker Darryl Richardson, who described how Amazon had bolted him down in place, making it hard to organize on the job even after he emerged as a workplace leader.

“At Amazon, we were designated to a station,” Richardson said, comparing restrictions on mobility within the warehouse to his previous job at a unionized auto parts plant. “We couldn’t roam. We was tied down.” This made it difficult to talk to co-workers, he said. The pandemic-related social distancing measures only exacerbated these limitations.

Richardson’s freedom to roam was even more severely curtailed when he was assigned to exclusively pick items out of bins, whereas before he had toggled between roles. Previously he had worked in such roles as “water spider,” which, in Amazon lingo, is someone who goes into the trailers with pallet jacks, pulls pallets of packages, and stages them to be unloaded onto the conveyors.

“Receivers, packers, and sorters are the least mobile. They typically stand in one place and do the same tasks over and over again,” said a member of the collective Amazonians United, who asked to remain anonymous and has held numerous roles at Amazon facilities. Amazonians United is a network of rank-and-file worker committees stretching across the U.S. and Canada.

These roles are randomly assigned, so the company can’t be charged with retaliation, workers say. Meyers, the Board’s hearing officer, rejected claims by pro-union workers in Alabama that the company had isolated them, corroborating what workers told Labor Notes about being routinely reassigned. “Employees are regularly moved to areas where they are needed,” wrote Meyers in the 61-page recommendation.

But it’s an expression of the arbitrary and dictatorial power that Amazon exercises over its workers. Sometimes, according to Amazon workers, even when they bring doctor’s notes certifying that they have plantar fasciitis or stress fractures and need relief from the repetitive motions of picking, the company doesn’t accommodate these requests; it might just move someone to pick another floor.

While the Board has found that Amazon pressured its workers in Alabama to vote against joining RWDSU, many of the company’s practices—including captive-audience meetings where workers were forced to listen to management’s anti-union rants—were within the purview of the law. One exception was the anti-union “vote no” pins—featuring Amazon’s warehouse mascot, Peccy—and “vote no” tags for workers to hang from their cars’ rearview mirrors.

Meyers called the anti-union onslaught “propaganda.” The company festooned common areas with banners declaring “speak for yourself” and “vote no.” It also sent emails saying “Don’t Give Up Your Voice.”

Even if the Atlanta regional Board director calls for a rerun of the election, Amazon’s control over the workplace must be overcome in the worker’s courtroom: the shop floor.

“I thought the outcome was going to be totally different. In the facility, every day, everybody was complaining. Ain’t nobody got anything good to say. I’m just still overwhelmed about how the outcome came out,” Richardson told Labor Notes in April. “Due to Amazon’s anti-union tactics, they was confused, didn’t know what was going on. [Amazon] put pressure on ’em.

“They didn’t want to lose their jobs,” he said. “They didn’t want [Amazon] to take away their wages and benefits. They didn’t want [Amazon] to relocate.”

And now? “1 more round, I’m ready,” Richardson said on Twitter yesterday.

This post originally appeared at LaborNotes on August 3, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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Fight for $15 Movement Has Won $150B in Wage Raises for 26M Workers in Less Than a Decade

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Home - National Employment Law Project

New York, NY—The worker-of-color-led Fight for $15 and a union movement has won $150 billion in raises for 26 million workers to date, according to a new report from National Employment Law Project (NELP).

Twelve million of the 26 million impacted workers (46 percent) are Black, Latinx, or Asian American; and of the $150 billion in total raises that workers have secured, $76 billion has gone to workers of color and $70 billion to women workers.

New York City fast-food workers first walked off their jobs in November 2012, demanding a $15 minimum wage and union rights. Since then, the movement for higher wages has become one of the most successful workers’ movements in recent memory, leading to higher wages in dozens of states, cities, and counties; putting pressure on some of the world’s largest corporations to raise their pay scales; and transforming public opinion.

“Since 2012, the Fight for $15 movement has brought together thousands of workers across the country, who organized and called for higher wages and union rights. Our report quantifies the impact of this movement in terms of the number of workers who have benefitted, and the higher earnings they have won,” says NELP Senior Researcher and Policy Analyst Yannet Lathrop, who co-authored the study along with San Jose State University Professor T. William Lester and University of North Carolina doctoral candidate Matthew Wilson.

Lathrop continues: “What’s most impressive is that workers have won these wage increases despite every imaginable obstacle­—from a system increasingly stacked against workers and labor unions, to interference from some of the most nefarious corporations, who deployed well-paid lobbyists to fight tooth and nail against higher minimum wages. But workers won in the end. That should tell us that when workers organize, they win.”

These massive wins—amounting to $5,700 in additional annual income per worker—have made a real material difference in the lives of the nation’s millions of underpaid workers and their families. The impact is particularly significant for workers of color—for example, the report finds that state minimum wage increases boosted the earnings of Black workers by $5,100 annually on average; and that local minimum wage increases raised their earnings by $7,300.

While the Fight for $15 movement has been successful, many members of Congress have refused to heed the demands of their constituents and raise the federal minimum wage. July 24 marks 12 years since the federal minimum wage last went up, leaving the millions of workers in the 20 states with wages at the federal minimum—or with no state minimum wage—with income that has not been livable for a very long time. This is structurally racist in design and effect, as most Black workers in the U.S. live in these states.

Congress must listen to the demands of the workers and communities of color leading the movement for higher wages and immediately pass the Raise the Wage Act of 2021, which would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, with One Fair Wage for tipped workers, workers with disabilities, and youth workers.

“The Black and brown workers leading the Fight for $15 and a union have heroically transformed public discourse on wages, worker power, and workplace democracy—while achieving major policy wins and taking on exploitive corporations,” says NELP Executive Director Rebecca Dixon. “Longstanding racist policy choices have created labor market inequities, segregating workers of color and women—most of all Black women—into jobs with low pay, stagnating those wages. Now Congress must deliver on the demands of this movement, which would advance racial and gender equity in the U.S. and improve the lives of all workers, their families, and communities.

Along with the campaign to pass the federal Raise the Wage Act, workers in the Fight for $15 are organizing to win just-cause employment protections across the country, protections from sexual harassment and violence on the job, living wages above $15, and crucially, the union rights that will help secure all of these demands.

Members of Congress must urgently follow workers’ lead as a matter of civil rights and racial and gender justice.

Read the full report here.

This post originally appeared at NELP on July 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting underpaid and unemployed workers.


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Jobs Report: Despite Job Growth, as Benefit Cliff Approaches, Renewing and Reforming Unemployment Insurance Is an Urgent Racial Justice Matter

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Home - National Employment Law Project

This month’s jobs report released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, continues to tell the story of an uneven labor market recovery rife with longstanding inequities.  In this context, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) is dedicated to transforming the system and paving the way for a more just economy that meets the need of those most impacted today and historically: Black workers and in particular Black women, who through racist policies, have been segregated into systemically low-paying industries, making it difficult to build up savings over time and be economically stable.  

 According to today’s BLS report: 

  • The economy added 943,000 jobs in July, and the unemployment rate dipped 0.5 percentage point to 5.4 percent.  
  • The jobless rates for teenagers (9.6 percent) and Asians (5.3percent) showed little change over the month. 
  • The unemployment rates declined in July for adult men (5.4 percent), adult women (5.0 percent), and white people (4.8 percent).  
  • A marginal 1 percentage point unemployment rate decline for Black and .8 percent for Latinx workers, continues to show a stark disparity. The still-too-high numbers 8.2 percent for Black workers, and 6.6 percent for Latinx workers, point to high unemployment prior to the pandemic, and the beginning of yet another an unjust economic recovery cycle unless major racial equity interventions are made.  
  • More Black workers were driven out of the workforce this month. This drop can be attributed to longstanding systemic racism and the absence of systemic support in integrating Black job seekers back into the labor market, which can result in Black workers being considered by BLS to be disconnected from the labor force. (1)
  • Today’s job report reveals one of the largest job gains since last August, but we are still far below pre-pandemic levels with 8.7 million people still unemployed and the economy still down 5.7 million jobs.   

“An uneven recovery is not a just recovery because the UI system was grafted onto the structurally racist foundation that undergirded much of the New Deal programs. Our solutions on unemployment must be structural and transformative, intentionally bringing in underpaid Black and Latinx workers, permanently and not just on a temporary basis in times of crisis,” said Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. 

Today’s job report continues to demonstrate that as NELP, workers, and our partners have pointed out, unemployment insurance programs have been a lifeline throughout this crisis in supporting people to meet basic needs while searching for work and in stimulating the nation’s economic recovery by supporting consumer spending.   

As vaccine rates lag, COVID-19 variants rise, and the job market steadily improves, the looming benefit shutoff on Labor Day, September 6th, leaves an estimated 7.5 million workers without support and leaves millions of others at the mercy of an uneven patchwork of state coverage. Notably, in July, 1.6 million workers were prevented from looking for work due to the pandemic.  

With the looming expiration of successful pandemic unemployment programs and as Congress approaches the reconciliation process and infrastructure bill, Congressmembers must remember that investing in workers is a vital infrastructure investment. NELP, workers, and allies are calling on Congress to enact bold, structural UI reform beginning with expanded coverage, minimum benefit duration that aligns with the needs of every worker, and increased benefit amounts that are in line with basic living expenses.   

Workers need bold reform that will lay the groundwork for an equitable unemployment insurance system and labor market making it possible for all workers and communities to thrive.   

ENDNOTES

  1. According to Table A–2, the Black employment to population ratio declined by .1 percentage point to 55.8 and the labor force participation rate declined from 61.6 to 60.8. 

This post originally appeared at NELP on August 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting underpaid and unemployed workers.


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Child care is a crisis screaming out for investment. Can Manchin and Sinema hear that?

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

Affordable, available child care was a major problem for many U.S. families even before the coronavirus pandemic—and now it’s a crisis. President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have plans to fix that if Senate Republicans will get out of the way, or Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will get on board with a budget reconciliation package that includes child care. But even if funding was passed into law tomorrow (which it won’t be), the child care crisis would persist, at least for a while. 

The U.S. child care system has so many problems that simply scaling it up would take time as well as money. Scaling up requires adding both facilities and workers, and both of those are challenging. In Portland, Oregon, for instance, child care providers told local news station KOIN about their difficulties setting up new facilities, from finding appropriate spaces to zoning and permitting to finding the funding to pay for renovations. 

“It gets costly to borrow, you know, and childcare—there’s a fine line in what you can charge and what makes you competitive in the marketplace for families who do need childcare and how much you can ultimately profit to pay off a loan,” said one provider who had already spent $200,000, with the help of grants, renovating a space to set up a new facility.

Then there are child care workers. This was already a high-turnover industry, thanks in part to low wages. A Biden administration fact sheet on the American Families Plan lays out the gruesome situation for these workers: “More investment is needed to support early childhood care providers and educators, more than nine in ten of whom are women and more than four in ten of whom are women of color. They are  among the most underpaid workers in the country and nearly half receive public income support programs. The typical child care worker earned $12.24 per hour in 2020—while receiving few, if any, benefits, leading to high turnover and lower quality of care.”

The Biden plan would pay a minimum wage of $15 an hour for child care workers, as well as supporting professional development and training. At the same time, subsidies to families would ensure that “families earning 1.5 times their state median income will pay no more than 7 percent of their income for all children under age five,” while care would be free for the lowest-income families. 

But, again, such a dramatic increase in capacity would take time to put into place, and we’ve been seeing how slowly funds can make their way to the people who need them: Emergency rental assistance, for example, has gone out at a glacial pace in many states, even with an eviction crisis looming.

”We estimate hundreds of thousands of new children will benefit … in the first year, and even more children will start to immediately benefit from increased quality and access,” a White House official told Politico, “by providing funds to states to build on their existing child care systems in a way that is tailored to the needs of communities in the state and provides parents with options to send children to the setting of their choice.”

Hundreds of thousands is good—but millions of children were without affordable, accessible child care prior to the pandemic, and the situation has only gotten worse.

The fact that Congress can’t just snap its fingers and create a whole new, wonderful U.S. child care infrastructure isn’t the reason to start working on it, though. It’s a reason to start working on it now, with major funding directed at the problem that’s become a crisis. The pandemic has showed us how critical child care is to the ability of parents to do their jobs. Too many women have dropped out of the paid workforce or scaled back their paid work to take care of their children, and if we want to reverse that rather than let women’s progress be set back by decades, this is a massively important intervention. Raising wages for workers—overwhelmingly women and very often women of color—doing an important job should also be a priority, and it’s one that would benefit children by reducing turnover of their caregivers. Funding child care is a key economic, educational, and moral intervention. Manchin and Sinema need to embrace it.

This post originally appeared at DailyKos on August 4, 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 Climate Crisis Is Coming for Undocumented Farmworkers First

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Maurizio Guerrero -

Facing deadly heat waves and few protections, undocumented agricultural workers are being pushed to their limit.

In July 2020, Claudia Durán felt compelled to complete her shift harvesting blueberries in the fields of Allegan County, Mich., before driving to the local hospital’s emergency room to be treated for dehydration, where she arrived dizzy, with an acute headache and chest pain. That same month, at least three of her coworkers also ended their shifts in emergency rooms to be treated for dehydration, she says. Durán and her coworkers get paid by the hour, 50 cents for every pound of fruit they pick, and they cannot afford to miss work time and lose income. That is why Durán, who is undocumented, rations her water intake throughout the day?—?to avoid going too often to the restroom, which is far removed from the harvesting fields.

“I have asked for medicines for the headache, and he [the supervisor] says, ?‘No, nothing is happening, nothing is wrong,’ and does not give you medicine,” said Durán, who in 2004 emigrated from poverty and violence in the state of Zacatecas in Mexico. For fear of retaliation, she declined to provide her employer’s name. ?“Until the workday is over, if you feel very unwell, then you go to the emergency room,” said Durán, who is 35 years old and has four children to support. 

During the last several years, Durán says she has been treated at the emergency room around twice a summer for dehydration, with July 2020 marking her last visit. Toiling under difficult heat conditions, she and her coworkers have been forced to gamble with their health: Chronic dehydration can cause kidney damage.

The effects of the climate crisis on the more than 1 million agricultural workers in the United States, already severe, have been worsened by profit-driven employers. The increasingly severe heat waves ravaging the country damage some crops, so to protect the market value of their produce, the agricultural industry is accelerating the harvesting season?—?and in many instances forcing longer shifts on workers. 

With no access to shade and for wages often below the poverty level line, agricultural laborers are being pressured to harvest at a higher pace than in previous years, according to workers and advocates who spoke to In These Times. This work is increasingly done in temperatures that soar above 100 degrees and, with growing frequency, in the midst of wildfire smoke. 

Undocumented immigrants, often too intimidated to denounce mistreatment for fear of losing their jobs or being placed in deportation proceedings, are generally the most seriously abused and exploited. Between 50% and 75% of all farmworkers in the United States are undocumented. Meanwhile, 99% of farmworkers do not belong to a union. Without the support of organized labor or federal regulations that protect agricultural workers from heat and smoke, undocumented laborers are left to the mercy of employers in the midst of the climate crisis. 

At the peak of the heat season, when the fruit is ripening, Durán’s employer implements longer shifts, she said. This season, she says, ?“we were already asked to work more than 12 hours a day.” She starts working at seven o’clock in the morning. ?“They want us working until eight at night, and Sundays too,” she added in a phone interview in Spanish at nine o’clock at night, just after she arrived from work. In the background, one of her small children could be heard asking questions in English and Spanish, eager for attention. 

“All those hours, you are under the sun because you don’t even have a shade to eat your lunch,” Durán explained. 

Dangerous heat

This kind of abuse can be fatal. On June 26, 38-year-old Sebastian Francisco Perez, a Guatemalan, died while working on a tree farm in St. Paul, Ore., at the height of the hottest June in U.S. recorded history. Scorching temperatures are bringing new dangers to a job that was already dangerous. According to a 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, from 1992 to 2006, 68 crop workers died from heat stroke, representing a rate nearly 20 times greater than for other U.S. civilian workers. Most of the deaths were of adults aged 20 to 54 years, a population not typically at high risk for heat illnesses. Those tallies, advocates agree, are gross underestimates: They exclude workers on small farms, and heat deaths wrongly recorded as heart attacks or strokes unrelated to the workplace. 

The impact of extreme heat on farmworkers’ health has also been downplayed, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Apart from kidney problem, heat stress has been linked to adverse mental health outcomes and increased risk for traumatic injuries for agricultural laborers, who mostly work without commonplace benefits like sick leave, paid vacation or health insurance. At least 33% of farmworkers’ families are not even paid a wage above the poverty line —the annual income for farmworkers’ families usually does not exceed $24,500, according to data from 2015?–?2016. This stark economic reality undoubtedly increases pressure on farmworkers to endure exploitive and dangerous heat conditions.

Whatever the current impact of the increased temperature on agricultural workers, the costs are expected to rise sharply in the coming years. According to a 2020 study led by the Stanford University professor Michelle Tigchelaar, the number of unsafe days in crop-growing U.S. counties will jump from 21 per season to 39 per season by 2055, and without mitigation would triple by the end of the century. 

While heat waves continue to break records across the country, resulting in dozens of deaths throughout the Pacific Northwest this year alone, many agricultural workers remain unprotected by regulations and reluctant to denounce abuse for fear of being deported. And unions face significant barriers to organizing this workforce. This past June, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a California law, in place for more than four decades, that allowed union organizers to enter farms to speak to workers during nonworking hours for a set number of days each year. By a 6?–?3 vote along ideological lines, the court ruled that the law amounted to an illegal taking of private property, setting a chilling precedent against union organizers.

“[Agricultural workers] are human buffers protecting the middle class and white-collar America from the effects of climate change,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns of United Farm Workers, one of the largest unions for farmworkers in the country. Those most affected, she said, are the poorest and most vulnerable?—?undocumented immigrants who are often coming from Indigenous communities in Mexico and Guatemala. 

A 2018 study conducted by researchers at the CDC found that non?U.S. citizens had three times the risk of dying from heat related-illness compared to citizens, and that the risk was higher among those younger and of Latino ethnicity?—?the vast majority of the U.S. agricultural workforce. 

Protecting companies, not workers

Congress has been slow to act to protect farmworkers. Last March, progressive members of the House and the Senate introduced versions of the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2021, named for a worker who died in California in 2004. The day of his death, after harvesting grapes for 10 hours straight at 105 degrees, Valdivia fainted, and instead of calling an ambulance, his employer asked the worker’s son to drive his father home. 

The bills in Congress require employers to institute paid breaks for their workers in shaded areas and make water available. They also stipulate emergency response procedures and heat-stress training in a language that workers understand. It is not clear, though, when the bills will be scheduled for a vote. 

At the beginning of the year, California had laws similar to the Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act. Oregon approved earlier this summer its own emergency protections, while Washington updated its own rules. Minneapolis mandates employers to provide training for its workers to avoid heat stress. But overall, advocates say, more protections are needed on a nationwide level.

The agricultural industry has largely responded to the heat waves by protecting its business, not workers. Advocates have detected nocturnal harvests of cherries and blueberries in Oregon and Washington?—?done with headlamps and imposed by employers to minimize the damage to the fruits caused by the intense heat.

“Just in the past four days alone, I have talked to farmworkers in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Arizona who are working either very early or nocturnal harvests this summer as a result of the heat,” said Strater. Nocturnal harvests increase the number of children working in the fields because there is no child care available when shifts start at two o’clock in the morning, she said. ?“So we are seeing more 9, 10 and 11-year-olds working in these really dangerous workplaces.”

The increasingly hot summers also mean agricultural workers toil while breathing the smoke from the progressively intense wildfires spreading throughout the U.S. West Coast. Only California has protective regulations for smoke in place.

Despite the massive wildfires of the season?—?Bootleg, one of the largest in Oregon’s history, had razed more than 400,000 acres by early August?—?the Oregonian agricultural industry is resisting common-sense protection for workers against the dangerous particles caused by the ’ smoke, said Ira Cuello Martínez, climate policy associate of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste or PCUN, the largest Latino union in Oregon. 

Advocates are pushing for employers in Oregon to provide farmworkers with respirators once the Air Quality Index (AQI) hits 151 —a level considered ?“unhealthy” by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, the state’s agricultural industry has voiced resistance to the required usage of respirators at levels below California’s, which mandates employers to provide respirators after the index reaches 500, even though at 301 the air quality is already ?“hazardous” by federal standards. At levels beyond 300, Cuello Martínez added, ?“I don’t think anyone should be outside.” 

However, even in an environment that could potentially cause long-term health problems to workers, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not have the authority to suspend outside work. 

Under these circumstances, agricultural laborers, especially those who are undocumented, say they will continue to be pushed by the industry to ensure the country’s residents have food on their tables amid the climate crisis. 

“The supervisor does not regard workers as anything of importance,” Durán said. ?“He already told us that we have to work more hours, and every day.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York City. He covers migration, social justice movements and Latin America.


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At a Massive Union Rally, the Promise of a Better South

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Striking mine workers in Alabama bring together the whole wide world.

To get to the big ballpark in Brookwood, Alabama, you drive down the Miners Memorial Parkway The road goes by the local headquarters of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and close to the Miners Memorial monument, which remembers 13 miners killed in a 2001 explosion. A lot of coal miners work in Brookwood, and a lot have died here. Right now, more than a thousand are on strike there, at the Warrior Met Coal. It sits just off the same road. 

On Wednesday morning, a line of buses lumbered down the winding road through the woods, and a line of pickup trucks piled up behind them. All passed the ?“We Are One” UMWA signs lining the road for miles before turning into the ballpark, where the sprawling open grass was dotted with tents and a stage. Entire families, most of them in camouflage UMWA t?shirts, lugged their folding camping chairs and shade umbrellas out past the low white tornado shelters and down to the grass. The strike at Warrior Met has been going on for four months. But on this day, the rally was on. 

Several thousand people showed up for what was billed as the ?“Biggest labor rally in Alabama history,” a claim too good to check. What was certain was that this was not a single rally for a single local of a single union. This was the entire labor movement, showing up to say that they have not forgotten a long and grinding struggle. 

After the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, and a reverend’s prayer to ?“change the mindset” of scabs and coal mining company owners?—?something even God might find difficult?—?the rally commenced. For hours, a procession of UMWA officials and leaders of other unions cycled across the stage, giving speeches that varied in inspirational quality. Attendees sought to maneuver their seats into the small patches of shadow that moved slowly across the scorching grass. Enormous quantities of bottled water, Krispy Kreme donuts, and popsicles were handed out from supply tents. People chatted, and prayed, and listened to various singers, and were together. 

Many unions had sent buses full of supporters from all across the South. There were more than a dozen CWA members from Atlanta who worked for AT&T, decked out in red shirts. There was a gaggle of UAW members. There were Teamsters, and teachers, and government workers, all proudly in their union t?shirts. There were union officials from Georgia and Kentucky and Tennessee and South Carolina. There were presidents of locals from other states, climbing the stage to present $500 checks to the strike fund. There was an entire tent full of longshoremen wearing custom-made white t?shirts that said ?“Port workers in solidarity with mine workers.” They had come from Charleston, Jacksonville, and Mobile, Alabama, on a single bus that stopped in each city, collecting the comrades. 

In addition to all the union member guests, at least half of the crowd was made up of retired UMWA members and their families, as if to demonstrate the ?“We Are Everywhere” slogan on all the camo shirts. These people also came from all across the country. One 76-year-old former coal miner nicknamed ?“Mouse” had taken a bus the week before from his West Virginia home up to New York City for a protest that the strikers held in front of the Blackrock headquarters in Manhattan; this week, he had taken another bus 18 hours to Brookwood for this rally. Asked why, he jabbed his finger forward and said, with force, ?“It helps my union brothers.” 

Brookwood, Alabama is not a convenient place to get to, even if you live in Birmingham. The fact that thousands of people from across the country had clambered into buses for interminable trips to sit at this rally under the sweltering sun, for people they did not know, was remarkable. I spoke to many of these attendees and, to a person, the question of why they had gone to all the trouble to show up was answered as if it didn’t require any explanation at all. ?“Solidarity,” they said. ?“They supported us, so we’re supporting them.” ?“This is what the union’s about.” To take a 30-hour round trip on a bus was, for them, a no-brainer. This is what the union’s about. For one day, this was just common sense. But in the context of the United States of America in 2021, this was a rare sight to behold. 

The crowd at the Brookwood rally was multiracial. Not multiracial like a fashion ad, or a painstakingly assembled corporate board, but a large group of Black and white people united for a common purpose. The UMWA miners who are on strike at Warrior Met now are an integrated group, and so their supporters in the community are integrated as well. There were both Black and white people serving as Marshals at the rally, and helping to run it, and speaking from the stage, and sitting in the crowd. The majority of the people from other unions who had shown up in support were Black. The longshoremen were almost all Black, the CWA workers from Atlanta were almost all Black, and on and on.

Many of the UMWA members in attendance, and certainly most of the older retirees, were white, religious, and Republican. The entertainment at the rally was almost all gospel and religious music. Singer after singer appeared between speeches to proclaim the glory of the Blood of Jesus. One retired miner made it a point to tell me, at the end of an interview, ?“I’m a Trump guy.” Across the grass, some of the Black CWA members from Atlanta toted ?“Strike for lack Lives” signs. At no point during the long, hot day did I see a bit of animosity?—?or, indeed, even a mention of political differences?—?between the members of the crowd. (The one exception was a single angry interloper who began pushing people and trying to start a fight before being hustled away by a large crowd of miners. I was told that he was a scab worker sent in to try to disrupt the rally. The fact that he walked out in one piece is a testament to the professionalism of the union.)

I am from the South. I was born in the South, I grew up in the South, and my entire family lives in the South. I have never in my life seen a racially and politically integrated crowd of people in the deep South, utterly united for a cause, as I did at this rally. The only things that come close are church events or football games, which I would argue lack the socially redeeming qualities of yesterday’s event. It is possible, down South, to get a racially integrated crowd where everyone agrees politically, but to get thousands of Black and white people whose politics range from strongly pro-Trump to strongly pro-Black Lives Matter together in a single place, in total unity of purpose, with virtually no conflict, and without being the explicit result of trying to assemble such a crowd to satisfy some sort of demographic diversity goals?—?well, that just doesn’t happen that much, ever.

This is the promise of unions. Not just better wages, or better working conditions, but a better society. Unions offer a frame for human interaction that does not otherwise exist. Our everyday experience in a society that is racially segregated, unequal, and politically polarized tells us that getting young and old and Black and white and left and right all together for something should be extraordinary or impossible; but at a union rally, where everyone’s common interest is plain to see, it becomes natural. It is only because the strength of unions within southern communities has become so rare that the sight of yesterday’s rally was so abnormal. Were there more strong unions, the South could be a very different place.

What the UMWA offers to the people of Brookwood is a vision of the world in which your enemy does not have to be someone of a different race or different political party. For those who believe in the union, there is a much more compelling enemy. It is an enemy they can see every day that they sit out on the picket line, watching cars drive by them, towards the mine. The back of the stage at the rally held a large banner with a picture of working people on it, and a header that read ?“Which Side Are You On?” One side of the banner said ?“UMWA,” and the other side said ?“Scabs.”

As the rally neared its end, a folk singer got up to perform a song he’d written to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s ?“All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose.”

“I’m gonna tell you scabs, we’re gonna win this strike,” he crooned. ?“And I’ll die a union miner, but you’ll be a scab for life.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 5, 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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Viewpoint: We Must Prepare to Strike UPS in 2023

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The year 2023, when the UPS contract expires, seems like a long way off—but in the complex world of contract negotiation, it’s just around the corner.

In the 24 years since the 1997 strike, UPS has become the poster child for corporate greed—demanding more and more from its employees in a quest for profits. And rather than reward those employees, the gains go into the pockets of shareholders and management.

The company reported $4.79 billion in profit in just the last quarter. This has been accomplished by increasing productivity demands and hours of work to the detriment of our safety, health, and family life.

In the Teamsters, the regime change of 1998 gave us two decades of corporate appeasement. Contract after contract was negotiated with minuscule improvements or even givebacks, culminating in a 2018 contract featuring two-tier wages and subcontracting, which was implemented despite being voted down by the membership.

Meanwhile “right to work” (for less) continued its spread across the U.S.; so did the endless corporate campaign to convince the public that unions were a relic of the past. Amazon, Uber, and Lyft, along with the continued consolidation of retail under Walmart and Target, accelerated the decline of wages and working-class living standards generally.

Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope. Union teachers and nurses have taken to the streets. Activism has generally increased. Public opinion on unions is more and more favorable, especially as the pandemic demonstrated how we all rely on workers to survive.

SIGNS OF HOPE

In the Teamsters, signs of change have appeared. Regime change is coming in 2021. The “two-thirds rule” that was used to implement the 2018 contract is no more. Rank-and-file members will be on the 2023 UPS contract negotiating committee. Strike benefits will now begin on day one.

The advantages of social media and the gross failure of the 2018 UPS contract have combined to create a new generation of Teamster activists and leaders.

But to really accelerate that pushback, more is needed. What’s missing is a single galvanizing moment—a struggle that spans the nation and can serve as an example for all of labor to follow.

IT’S OUR MOMENT

That moment, brothers and sisters, should be the 2023 UPS contract fight. This struggle could engage the entire country, pit the greedy corporation against the abused worker, unite the membership, and provide the platform to reinvigorate the labor movement.

No one ever wants a strike. But given the frustration of UPS Teamsters after two decades of stalled progress, and amid signs of a broader labor pushback, a strike seems necessary for the good of the country.

So the time is now to prepare for what may be inevitable. Start saving your money. Start engaging in your local union. Start talking to your friends and neighbors about what life is like at UPS. Because the odds are good that we will have to take this fight to the streets.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on August 3, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Greg Kerwood is a UPS package car driver and member of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston. A version of this piece was originally published by The Teamster Rebel, teamsterrebel.com.


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Black Women’s Equal Pay Day is all the evidence of systemic racism and sexism you need

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Black Women’s Equal Pay Day falls on August 3 this year. That’s the day when, starting on January 1, 2020, Black women have finally been paid what white men were paid in 2020 alone.

Equal Pay Day, the day observing this marker for women overall in the U.S., fell on March 24 this year. Latina Equal Pay Day won’t come until October. 

This means Black women who work full-time all year have to work an extra 214 days—more than seven months longer than white non-Hispanic men—to earn the same amount of money. Obviously, they’re not getting a seven-month discount on their rent and groceries. 

It takes us this long to get to Black Women’s Equal Pay Day because Black women make just 63 cents for every dollar paid to white men, a gross disparity that will cost the average Black woman more than $24,000 a year and more than $960,000 in her lifetime. It’s a disparity that isn’t going away anytime soon: At the rate this pay gap has closed over the past 30 years, Black women won’t be getting equal pay until the year 2130.

”It also has ripple effects that mean Black women miss key opportunities throughout their lifetimes to build wealth and future economic security for themselves and their families,” the National Women’s Law Center’s Jasmine Tucker reports. “The wage gap means many cannot save enough to afford a down payment on a home, cannot afford to pay for their own or a child’s higher education, cannot start a business or save for retirement. It is no surprise, then, that white families have eight times the wealth of Black families or that single Black women own $200 in wealth for every $28,900 single white men own.”

During the pandemic, Black women have been hit especially hard by unemployment. “Nearly one in five Black women (18.3%) lost their jobs between February 2020 and April 2020, compared with 13.2% of white men,” the Economic Policy Institute’s Valerie Wilson writes. “As of June 2021, Black women’s employment was still 5.1 percentage points below February 2020 levels, while white men were down 3.7 percentage points.”

At the same time, Black women in jobs critically important to getting the nation through the pandemic have continued to be paid less than their white male counterparts, from physicians to nurses to teachers to cashiers. Companies can make a difference to the Black women who work for them by prioritizing equity. Unions help close pay gaps for their members. Every data point we have shows that the pay gap is structural, and that means it requires government action to correct on a meaningful scale.

Even if pay inequality were magically eradicated, Black people would still face systemic effects of the wealth inequality that’s been developed over generations of racist policy. But it would be a start. 

Tucker offers a list of policies that would help close the gap: “support policies that expand and strengthen federal and state unemployment insurance programs; expand access to comprehensive health coverage, including reproductive care; bolster equal pay laws; increase the wages of women in low-paid jobs by raising the minimum wage; protect workers’ ability to join unions and collectively bargain; expand the availability of high-quality, affordable child care; and provide paid family and medical leave.” These moves would help a great many workers beyond Black women, of course, but eliminating avenues for employers to exploit and oppress workers especially helps the workers who are now most often exploited and oppressed.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on August 3, 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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