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How Businesses Can Better Care For Their Female Employees

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There’s no question that inequality has ruled the workplace for years. Even today, the gender pay gap is holding strong. In 2020, women in the U.S. earned just 84% of what their male counterparts made. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. 

While things may not be “fixed” at the moment, they are finally being exposed with increased public scrutiny of employers who don’t uplift female workers as high as they do their male employees. 

At this point, we need more than equal pay. Employers need to offer increased care and benefits to female employees who have been underrepresented in the past.

Equality in Traditionally Biased Industries

There has been an increased presence of female representation in typically male-dominated industries over the last few years, including the construction industry. In 2018, over 1 million women were working in the industry, and while those statistics are encouraging, it’s important to point out potential areas of inequality. 

Safety measures, training and education all need to be offered to women in male-dominated industries. This includes training women in all technological advances that could improve their careers while keeping them safe on the job. 

Unfortunately, some people believe male-dominated industries should stay that way and may go so far as to sabotage a woman’s success through: 

The trucking industry, another traditionally male-dominated field, is another area where these issues can become problematic. If you’re involved in the transportation field, you can protect your female workers and encourage more gender diversity by offering stable schedules, encouraging a strong work-life balance and having a strong policy against discrimination and harassment. 

Informing Female Employees of Their Rights

Women deserve equal pay and benefits, but they also deserve to know their rights when working for you. 

One of the obstacles many women have to overcome in the workplace is finding ways to make sure their child is cared for at home. For all employees, this is ultimately why a work-life balance is so important and has become a priority among different workplaces. For women, a fair work-life balance goes beyond simply spending more time at home. It’s also about making sure they can provide for their families financially. 

Along with providing adequate pay, business owners should also inform their employees who are parents of tax breaks that can benefit them. You may not be able to offer any of your own, but the federal government provides tax credits to mothers with children at home. 

For 2021, the numbers associated with those benefits have shifted slightly, and they’re likely to change again during the next fiscal year. As an employer, staying on top of those changes and bringing those breaks up to your female employees can put extra money in their pockets as they file their taxes. 

There are countless ways businesses can better care for their female employees, and equality and fairness should be at the very core. Women deserve to feel safe, cared for and represented no matter what industry they’re in. If you’re looking for ways to bolster the women in your workplace, keep these ideas in mind, and create in-house policies designed to ensure equality among your workers.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the author: Dan Matthews is a writer, content consultant, and conservationist. While Dan writes on a variety of topics, he loves to focus on the topics that look inward on mankind that help to make the surrounding world a better place to reside. When Dan isn’t working on new content, you can find him with a coffee cup in one hand and searching for new music in the other.


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No, Striketober Is Not About Vaccine Mandates

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The recent wave of militant labor action has been over workers demanding better pay and working conditions—not opposing Covid vaccine requirements.

This month, the United States has seen a noticeable uptick in the number of strikes by fed-up workers at companies like Kellogg’s and John Deere—a phenomenon many are calling “Striketober.” As a result, the U.S. labor movement is getting an unusual amount of attention. 

But because of the corporate media’s often spotty or ideologically slanted coverage of workers’ struggles, combined with the fact that only a small minority of Americans have any personal experience with unions, there appears to be some confusion among the general public over what Striketober is really about. 

A troubling number of Americans seem to have the false impression that tens of thousands of underpaid and overworked employees are going on strike in order to resist Covid-19 vaccine mandates—when they are actually walking off the job to win decent raises, equitable pay structures and relief from mandatory overtime.

Some of this confusion was on display last week as HuffPost labor reporter Dave Jamieson appeared on C-SPAN to discuss the current wave of strikes. When host John McArdle opened the phone lines for viewers to call up, the vaccine-specific questions started to roll in.

“I wanted to know how much the vaccine mandates are playing in these strikes? What is the role of the vaccine mandate?” asked the first caller, a woman from South Carolina. 

About fifteen minutes later, another caller from Kentucky asked, “Do you think this vaccine is causing most of the strikes?” 

In response, Jamieson patiently explained that, “the vaccine is essentially a non-issue in these strikes we are seeing.”

“As someone who’s been following these strikes closely, I was a little surprised by the assumption that vaccines might be at the center of this,” Jamieson told In These Times. “But I probably shouldn’t have been. There’s been outsized media coverage of workers defying vaccine requirements, even though they seem to be quite a small share of the workforce.”

Indeed, since this summer there have been numerous news reports about unions “opposing” vaccine mandates, and many similar stories about individual workers who would rather get fired than be vaccinated. But in reality, employers across the country are reporting that 90 to 100 percent of their workforces are complying with vaccine mandates. 

And then there’s media coverage that collapses the distinction between workers walking off the job to demand better working conditions and resistance to vaccine mandates, such as this CNN story titled, “Here comes the anti-vaccine requirement solidarity movement,” which spends dozens of paragraphs recounting opposition to mandates before stating that the recent strikes have actually not been over such objections. At the end of September, Fox News published a story falsely claiming that healthcare workers at Valley Health in Winchester, Va., went on strike over their employer’s vaccine mandate, when in fact only a small number of workers protested the requirement, rather than taking part in an official or large-scale walk out. 

Much of the media hype about supposed union opposition to the mandates stems from general misunderstandings about the nature of collective bargaining. Unions that have asserted their right to bargain with employers over the implementation of vaccine mandates have inaccurately been accused of opposing the mandates altogether.

Reacting to news that public sector unions in Portland, Oregon were demanding to negotiate implementation of the vaccine mandate, journalist James Surowiecki tweeted: “Organized labor has been on the wrong side of the vaccine issue almost across the board.”

“Maybe some unions have been captured by the cranks in their ranks,” Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell opined in response to unions wanting to negotiate vaccine mandates. “If ‘Big Labor’ obstructs this effort, it will fail not only its own members, but also the many admirers and political allies it worked so hard to win over,” she warned.

But as the Economic Policy Institute’s Dave Kamper explained, “Demanding to negotiate the impact of something isn’t the same as refusing to do it, or even being opposed to it.”

Unions seeking to bargain over vaccine mandates want to determine specific policies like whether workers can use paid sick time to get vaccinated, what they will be expected to show as proof of vaccination and whether those working remotely will also need to be vaccinated.

“Even when an employer offers something unmistakably good to employees…unions still can, will, and SHOULD demand to negotiate it, get it down in writing, formally agree to it,” Kamper wrote. “At its very heart, collective bargaining isn’t about money. It’s about power. It’s about WHO DECIDES. The principle of collective bargaining is the boss is not and should not be the unilateral decision maker. That’s what a demand to negotiate means.”

Indeed, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and Tyson Foods recently hammered out an agreement on implementation of the mandate, and now report that 96 percent of the company’s workers have been vaccinated, exemplifying that negotiating over vaccine mandates does not mean opposition to them.

“Working together, the UFCW and Tyson set a new standard with this vaccine mandate and have proved what’s possible when we listen to workers and negotiate the implementation of vaccination mandates fairly and responsibly,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone.

Meanwhile, it is true that some unions have been extremely vocal and adamant in their total opposition to vaccine mandates—but these are almost entirely right-wing police unions like Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, which are already pariahs to many in the labor movement. Importantly, while these police unions may be holding protests and making noise, they are not on strike and are therefore completely unconnected to the current wave of work stoppages.

“I think people are conflating the labor strife they see with these highly politicized mandates,” Jamieson said. “Unfortunately, that can overshadow the important labor story that’s unfolding: workers finding their leverage and demanding a better deal.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 28, 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. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke


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Mississippi Believes It Can Be Organized. Does Anyone Else?

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Under-resourced and overlooked, the South is tired of waiting for organized labor.

Two blocks from the Mississippi State Capitol in downtown Jackson, Robert Shaffer, head of the state AFL-CIO, sits on a couch in his office trying to explain how unions could become more powerful in Mississippi. “It’s just,” he says, then pauses for an uncomfortably long time. “It’s difficult.” It’s not that Shaffer doesn’t know how to do it. His problem is getting anyone to believe him.

In 1946, full of vigor from the postwar boom of organized labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations launched Operation Dixie, the most ambitious project to unionize the South ever undertaken. Hundreds of CIO organizers fanned out across the region. The challenges of Southern racism and the frenzied anti-Communism of the McCarthy era ultimately caused Operation Dixie to fail in its goal of ending the South’s status as a haven for cheap, nonunion labor, but the unions did notch some successes along the way. One of the places they were able to interest workers in organizing was in West Point, a small town in northeast Mississippi. There, employees at a Babcock & Wilcox boiler factory began holding union elections in 1952. They lost, but they continued calling elections almost yearly until 1967, when they were victorious by a single vote, joining the Boilermakers.

By the mid-1980s, the plant had 100 percent union membership—no easy task in a right-to-work state where anyone can opt out of paying union dues.

In 2016, the plant shut down. The last of its jobs were shipped to Mexico.

“NAFTA took care of Operation Dixie,” sighs Shaffer, who has a bristly white mustache and the philosophical air of a man who has seen a once-great thing taken away from him. He began working at that Babcock & Wilcox plant in 1969 and became head of the union local in 1984. Today, Shaffer is organized labor’s chief lobbyist in a state where barely 7 percent of working people are union members.

The ultra-Republican Mississippi legislature has made the laws so politically hostile to unions that it’s difficult to think of how it could get any worse. “It’s more defensive than anything else,” Shaffer grumbles about his dealings with state politicians. “Hell, I think they got everything. How do you get any lower than the bottom of the damn ocean?”

Every state in the South today has so-called right-to-work laws on the books—anti-union legislation that makes it harder to build and maintain strong unions. They serve to drive down already paltry union density and exacerbate the region’s high poverty rates.

Periodically (and with great regularity), the labor movement holds a fevered conversation with itself about “how to organize the South.” Implicit in these conversations is the greater question lurking just below the surface: Can the South even be organized?

Like all questions about the South, there is nowhere better to find the answer than Mississippi. Mississippi is the place most defined by the twin struggles of racial justice and labor rights that date back to slavery. Mississippi is also the most impoverished state in America. Nearly a fifth of all Mississippians live in poverty, including more than 30 percent of the state’s Black residents. Working in Mississippi is what inspired the invention of the blues. And the state still seems to live by the words of Delta musician Skip James: “Hard times is here, and everywhere you go, times are harder than ever been before.”

The most recent spasm of interest in the possibility of an organized South arose earlier this year, when the nation’s attention was momentarily drawn to the unsuccessful effort from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to organize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. Another recent major union vote in the South was August 2017, when the United Auto Workers (UAW) failed in their attempt to unionize thousands of Nissan workers at a plant in Canton, Miss. Both attempts included enormous campaigns targeting more than 5,000 workers in a single location.

The UAW spent more than a decade on the Nissan campaign, only to lose the vote by nearly 2–1. Those devastating figures in such a high-profile campaign (coming on the heels of a similar UAW loss at a factory in Tennessee in 2014) fed a grim narrative of skepticism about whether the South was simply a dark and impenetrable place that would never yield to organized labor. Many in the union world think the South’s difficult political atmosphere and its long history of union-busting make it too risky to spend large sums of money on big organizing drives.

Successful organizing in right-to-work states simply takes more ongoing work—and with limited resources, it is easy for unions to want to focus elsewhere.

The actual lessons of that Nissan campaign are far more nuanced, however, and somewhat hopeful. The UAW’s lead Nissan organizer was Sanchioni Butler, a long-time autoworker herself who went to Canton in 2003 to lay the groundwork for unionization. She is candid about the obstacles the union faced from the very beginning, ones that plague the South broadly: a workforce divided between full-time employees and a throng of temps doing the same job for lower pay; thinly veiled threats by management and state politicians to close the plant; and widespread lack of knowledge about unions among workers themselves. One of the reasons the Nissan campaign went on so long is that the union, recognizing what it was up against, was trying to organize not just a single workplace, but the surrounding community.

“It was a community campaign before it was an actual worker campaign,” says Butler, who is now a political campaign organizer for the Mississippi AFL-CIO. “Labor has had a bad rap of, ‘They come in, organize and leave the town in shambles.’ So that was something the UAW was trying hard not to [do].”

In Canton, that meant nurturing an entire parallel campaign to bring along clergy and community leaders to support the union drive—an attempt to build some friendly allies in a conservative, venomously anti-union state. One of the leaders of that effort was Frank Figgers, a bearded, owlish descendant of Mississippi sharecroppers. Figgers, a well-known civil rights activist in Jackson, was a co-chair of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, which pulled in clergy members and groups like the NAACP to try to make the soil more fertile for the union drive. 

First, the group educated church leaders about the benefits of collective bargaining. Then, workers from the plant spoke up in church to let the congregations know the troubles they had on the job. 

For Figgers, there is a straight line from the legacy of slavery to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s to the labor movement today.

“Black workers were the free workforce in this country,” Figgers says. “It took abolishing slavery for Black workers to get anything for their labor. When a union comes in, when collective bargaining comes in, that brings about equity in the workplace. That’s probably why Mississippi as a state has fought against unions for so long.”

Mississippi’s 1890 state constitution definitively snuffed out most Reconstruction-era gains for Black people, ushering in a regime of legalized white supremacy. With it came separate, unequal, racialized pay scales, the effects of which have never been mitigated. 

Though the civil rights movement is often misremembered as solely about voting rights, Figgers says, it was also about rights at work—in particular, winning pay equity in the racist South. There is only the barest sliver of daylight between what civil rights heroes Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers were fighting for in Mississippi a half century ago and the task of empowering Mississippi’s vast, low-paid, largely Black workforce today. After years fighting for voting rights, Hamer started a farmers’ co-op in Sunflower County in a bid for economic empowerment. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his later years focused on economic justice and was in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers’ strike when he was assassinated. 

While the civil rights movement has now been fully adopted as part of America’s mainstream mythology, the labor movement in Mississippi remains threadbare. Butler says the fear Nissan workers felt when signing union cards is the same fear their parents and grandparents felt registering to vote.

On the other hand, Butler also knows unions are one of the most effective ways to unite Black and white workers in Mississippi—not in a magical sense of making centuries of racism disappear, but in a practical sense of being virtually the only institution in the South capable of making white and Black people work for a shared purpose despite antiBlack racism. Butler says she saw suspicion and resentment between Nissan workers of different races melt away as she talked with them about their shared suffering due to high healthcare costs and job injuries. “At the end of the day, everybody was being mistreated,” Butler says. “They have their own ‘aha’ moment: ‘I didn’t know you went through that. I went through the exact same thing.’”

Despite the union’s loss, the decade-plus of community education work instilled a hunger for labor rights in thousands of people, priming the region for future campaigns. The union is still present in Canton, but has not filed for another union election. (The UAW did not respond to inquiries for this story.)

Mississippi is a state with an infinite capacity for not learning from its own history. Today, when you visit the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in downtown Jackson to learn about the bloody struggles for freedom, you can get a refreshment at the Nissan Cafe—courtesy of a $500,000 donation Nissan made while fighting the unionization campaign.

It is not impossible to build strong unions in Mississippi. Robert Shaffer will tell you it can be done the same way they did it at Babcock & Wilcox: Create a strong culture around being in the union. Stay in constant contact with members. Don’t take any shit from the boss. Be ready to strike.

And never, ever stop fighting.

What Shaffer cannot do is make unions flower across Mississippi; he does not have the resources. The AFL-CIO has no statewide army of staffers to put any organizing plans into action. Sometimes, even the AFL-CIO itself can’t get the attention of unions. Shaffer says that a few years ago, AFL-CIO independently organized a group of hotel workers in Jackson, only for the effort to die out because they couldn’t find a union to take the workers on as members. (The AFL-CIO is a federation of unions and typically does not do direct organizing; the workers needed a union to represent them in order to move ahead and get a contract.)

Offshoring pressures after NAFTA closed many of the state’s big factories, and today Mississippi is made up of relatively small workplaces. Shaffer says most unions don’t find it economically feasible to organize groups of less than 200 workers. The result is very few unionized workplaces for the hundreds of thousands of retail, healthcare, restaurant, warehouse and manufacturing workers in the state, despite the fact that everyone I spoke with firmly believes unionizing could be done if only they had the resources.

Shaffer dreams of another Operation Dixie to produce a new generation of believers. “You can take a group of 25 to start with, and you start building that, and you make them proud of their union,” he says. “It expands. Especially somewhere like Jackson, Mississippi, man. Damn!

“I just get so frustrated, because I don’t got the power to do that shit,” he says. “It’s a business decision now. A hundred years ago, it was a decision for the people.”

Even in Mississippi, there are some islands of union power. One is in Carthage, where the RWDSU represents a large Tyson poultry factory. Since the plant unionized in 1993, more than 1,100 of its current 1,800 workers have become union members. Latunya Love, a friendly, resolute woman from the nearby crossroads town of Sallis, has worked at the plant for 16 years. She spent 15 of them as a union rep.

A union is still not a panacea for a Mississippi poultry worker. Love, who works on the line, knife in hand, checking breast meat for bones, makes $15.05 an hour—if she hits her incentive pay. The biggest complaint among workers at the plant, she says, is the pay. The plant has stayed open through the entire pandemic, despite Covid-19 outbreaks and deaths. When the company hung up a wreath, Love knew another worker died.

Still, the union helps make the job of standing shoulder to shoulder all day slicing and dicing poultry more tolerable. Workers at the Carthage plant get more vacation days and better benefits than their nonunion counterparts, and Love’s position as a union rep gives her a direct line to management she didn’t have at other jobs at McDonald’s and AutoZone. Every week, Love talks to the plant’s orientation class, urging dozens of new workers to sign up and join the union. She has even traveled to Alabama to help RWDSU organize workers at a car rental chain.

Though Love is part of one of the state’s few large union companies, she knows working people in the South are a long way from the promised land. “It’s like they’re scared of the union in Mississippi,” Love says. “The South is very scared. They’re scared of change.

“If where I work at took that union away, everything that we have negotiated in this contract is gone. They can put you back to whatever they want to give you for money. They can take away your vacation. And you won’t have nothing.”

In the summer of 1965, farmworkers in the Mississippi Delta went on strike. With the help of civil rights organizers, more than 1,000 people formed the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union and launched a momentary wave of labor activism that saw poor agricultural workers walking off the job and building Strike City, an encampment where dozens lived in tents for months to protest low wages. Today, near a curve in the Bogue Phalia, a tributary of the Big Sunflower River outside of Leland, Miss., you can find the neatly mowed vacant field where those workers made their stand. The tiny street it sits on is called Strike City Road. Aside from that, all that is left is the memory of an extraordinary, quixotic stand for justice. In the end, the only thing they won was a footnote in history.

For poor Black farmworkers in the Mississippi Delta, some things have not changed in the past half century. Agricultural workers were excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act when it was passed in 1935, and they still are. Traditional labor unions for Delta farmworkers are virtually nonexistent. As those who stubbornly held out at Strike City realized, the path to building power here must be conceived of very broadly (or not exist at all).

Mississippi’s agricultural economy remains one of large white (now corporate) landowners and poor Black workers. But there is a movement to turn that dynamic around. Down a long dirt driveway off a country road outside of Clarksdale is the lovely farm of Ernestine and Dorfus Young Sr. Along with vegetables, they grow their own grapes, sell their own wine and have an idyllic, enclosed space to host local events. There, I met a group of women who are part of Mississippi’s only Black women’s farming cooperative, a project of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative (SRBWI) that aims to help the small farmers scattered across the Delta region turn their farms into viable businesses.

The women in the co-op each have their own reasons for becoming farmers. Ernestine Young left Mississippi as a child in 1965, part of the migration of Black people to the North in search of better opportunities. After 20 years in Minnesota, she was drawn home and bought a piece of land to grow almost everything you can think of.

Likewise, Nadean Randle grew up on a farm, left to have a career, then came home to take care of her sick mother and returned to farming, lured by love of the land. After 25 years of working for the Department of Veterans Affairs, “I bought a tractor, a pickup truck and a shotgun, and called myself a farmer,” Randle laughs.

Cora Burnside, mayor of itty-bitty Arcola, Miss., began growing veggies because her town is a food desert; she wanted fresh produce to hand out to local elderly people who have a hard time buying healthy groceries.

Patricia Porter and Lillie Melton, who each raise poultry on small farms near Lexington, share a lifelong love of chickens that is as strong as any career passion in the world. “I didn’t realize I cared so much about chickens until my father passed away,” says Melton, who grew up watching him tend to the birds when she was young. “I realized I enjoyed dealing with poultry!”

The SRBWI began nearly 20 years ago, funded by foundation grants and at times, the federal government, as a broad project to help Black women in the South improve their lives. The farmers’ co-op grew out of conversations with women about what they needed and has helped farms get state certifications, offered tech support and helped combine products for market. The group has a commercial kitchen in Clarksdale to help women turn their home cooking into food businesses. The co-op also has a goal of building enough capacity to sell produce to major grocery chains.

The SRBWI sewing collective, like the farming co-op, is another effort to turn the skills of women in the region into sustainable income. “Both of these organizations have been moving forward for laying the groundwork for potential ways for African American women in these communities, where so much has been [extracted], to make a living,” says Carol Blackmon, a consultant who helps run the SRBWI. “To make a way out of no way for themselves.”

Co-ops are one way Mississippi’s historically poor working people can build collective power in a land where unions are few and far between. Another is through a worker center, the catchall term for labor rights groups that aim to serve people unions don’t reach.

In 1995, Jaribu Hill, an attorney from New York, went to Mississippi on what she thought would be a two-year fellowship. She’s still there. Hill was so struck by the suffering of working people in the Delta that, in 1996, she founded the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights (MWCHR), an organization she still leads. It does organizing, advocacy and training work on human rights issues ranging from housing to healthcare to workplace safety to support for big union campaigns—whatever is most pressing for poor Black workers in what Hill calls “a really hellish region and a horrifically backwards state.”

Decades spent running the MWCHR have given Hill ample firsthand knowledge about why the labor movement in Mississippi can feel so anemic. The nonprofits and funders who pay attention to the deep South, she says, tend to focus on issues of race and economic development—important, but often lacking in a working-class and labor focus. Mississippi’s poverty and racism can, in a bit of bitter irony, suck up all of the attention and effort necessary to build the kind of worker power that could be the most effective tool for addressing Mississippi’s myriad inequalities.

Hill is passionate on the subject of organizing the South— its possibility and its absolute necessity. She wants Mississippi’s workers to be in unions. Until they are, she insists, the entire labor movement must devote itself to the task of changing the South in a way that it never has since Operation Dixie died an untimely death.

“If the South is not being organized, there is no real labor movement,” Hill says. “You cannot say with a straight face that you’re organizing workers, and you’re not organizing the South.

“You can’t call yourself a true revolutionary if you say the struggle is too hard. … If you think it’s hard for you, think about those who have to suffer through it!”

There is a widespread sentiment within organized labor—often spoken only in private—that investing a large amount of money in the South is irrational because there is more bang for the buck in less hostile regions. Proof of the ubiquity of this belief is in the fact that big union campaigns in the South are so rare that each one becomes major national news.

But not a single person I met in Mississippi thought workers there could not be organized. Again and again, those on the front lines said with absolute certainty that labor organizing in their state—where working people are intimately familiar with racism, poverty and political hostility—is an opportunity just waiting to happen. The project of organizing the South is not waiting for the South itself to change; it is waiting for the resources to make the change happen.

The labor movement in Mississippi does not need sympathy. It needs money. It needs organizers. And it needs a long-term commitment to stay until the work is done.

“There has to be some real investment here regarding bodies from unions,” says Sanchioni Butler, who dedicated so many years to the Nissan campaign.

“The bottom line is, somebody’s gotta believe in doing it from the ground up,” says Robert Shaffer, who leads the state AFL-CIO but lacks the resources to create the kind of strong working shop in which he spent most of his working life. “Until then, it ain’t gonna happen.”

“The minute you say, ‘I wanna build this for the union,’ the South is not gonna let you do it,” says Latunya Love, whose 15 years as a union rep have been a labor of love while working the poultry line. “They need some more resources.”

Mississippi is what 200 years without public investment looks like. It is a state in which the power relationship between enslaved people and slaveholders is replicated generation after generation by the descendants of each. It is a state of small towns that comes by its patina of decay honestly, where centuries’ worth of racist atrocities lie barely concealed beneath the rich black soil. The working people who remain in Mississippi, who have hung on after all of that, should rightly be seen as gold for the labor movement. If organizing the South is difficult, there is nobody more ready to do the difficult work than they are.

“Every day while our people were enslaved in this country, from 1619 to 1865, every day people resisted enslavement,” says Frank Figgers, for whom civil rights and labor rights are the same thing. “Every day, people woke up in the morning hoping that today would be the day when slavery would be abolished. Every day, people woke up and did what they could, with what they had, where they were.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 18, 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. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.



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Covid means remote workers can live anywhere. So where’s ‘anywhere’?

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SEATTLE — In spring 2020, just as the first Covid-19 surge was peaking and businesses, schools, and whole countries were shutting down, a young couple named Elizabeth and Anton made a bold move. Little did they know it would put them in the vanguard of a pandemic-enabled geographic dispersion that demographers, economists, employers, developers and local governments are still figuring out.

Elizabeth grew up in a Seattle suburb and, after college and a spell working in Hawaii, returned to settle where she always wanted to live, in Seattle itself. She and Anton seemed to be living the Cascadia dream. Their apartment, in a walkable neighborhood packed with hip restaurants and bars, was small, but it had an iconic view of Mt. Rainier and the downtown skyline. She biked around the city’s scenic Lake Union to her job in the city’s shiny new tech district, helping oversee clinical trials at a biopharma company, and grew vegetables in a nearby community garden. On weekends they escaped to the woods and mountains.

But with each return to the city, her spirits fell. The dark, damp winter days depressed her: “When it rained, I smelled concrete rather than earth. It stressed me out to eat from my plot — two or three times I found needles there. I have a really bad image of leaving work in South Lake Union and seeing a man shooting up in his mouth. People like me were just walking by. It filled me with despair.”

Then the pandemic hit, and everyone who could was told to work at home. Elizabeth and Anton faced the prospect of living and working together, 24 hours a day, in just 550 square feet, or looking elsewhere for more space and the life they really wanted. Suddenly all options were open. They took an exploratory road trip around the Mountain West. “The call to Colorado kept getting stronger,” she recalls.

The tech giant Anton works for reluctantly agreed to let him stay remote indefinitely. Elizabeth asked the same but got shot down. She quit and landed at a smaller biopharma that was glad to let her work from home. They looked at a remote mountain village, but the broadband there was too slow to support online work — a critical factor in remote workers’ relocation choices. So they settled for a ranch house on the edge of Boulder with space for gardening and mountains nearby. Her urban blues evaporated. “Now the stressor of the day is building a barricade to keep the bobcat out of the chicken coop,” she says, laughing.

Just one hitch: Elizabeth and Anton, already priced out of Seattle’s real estate market, hoped to buy in Colorado. But prices have surged in Boulder, as they have in most of the country. They’re now looking south to New Mexico.

Meanwhile, another young tech-industry couple, Andrew and Amy, reached the same decision Elizabeth and Anton did, but it took them in the opposite direction. They’d had enough of life in San Jose, where they lived and worked for a streaming service: the sprawl and freeways, the wildfire smoke and surly neighbors, the general anomie of Silicon Valley. And with a 2-year-old daughter, they dreaded school prospects in California.

So they persuaded their employer to let them go remote permanently and chased their dream up the West Coast. They wanted to stay in a diverse, liberal coastal city; for many on the right and left, ideological compatibility is an important consideration in moving. But they also wanted a safe, cozy neighborhood and beautiful wild places to go camping.

They found it all in a quiet, leafy district of century-old bungalows with a prized public elementary school, a Carnegie library and a plethora of shops in easy walking distance, with water and mountains to east and west. With no income tax, their tax burden fell. Their immaculate three-story neo-Craftsman home cost $2 million, but they say it’s twice the house they could have gotten in a comparable Bay Area neighborhood. They still marvel at how friendly their new neighbors are. “Walking around, we get into conversations with strangers all the time,” says Andrew. “Everyone we pass says, ‘How you doing?’” All in all, the move “was a pipe dream come true.”

And not just for them. “When we sold some stuff we didn’t need on Craigslist, everyone who responded had just come here from California,” says Andrew. “Even Waffles, the neighborhood cat,” adds Amy. “His tag says 408” — San Jose’s area code.

Their dream came true in much-maligned Seattle, just two miles northwest of Amazon’s headquarters and a mile south of the apartment Elizabeth and Anton fled, on a hilltop haven overlooking the same urban landscape that oppressed her. One couple’s ordeal is another’s idyll.

Millions of Americans moved during the last 18 months, many of them spurred or influenced by the pandemic. But these two reciprocal moves to and from Seattle point up just how personal such choices are, and how they’re steered by individual circumstances. Amy and Andrew wanted a more urban setting; by selling the ranch house they’d fixed up in San Jose, they could afford a Seattle that was out of reach for Elizabeth and Anton, who longed for the country anyway.

As these divergent moves also suggest, it’s perilous to seek simple patterns and easy takeaways in complex demographic processes such as Americans’ response to Covid-19. But the pandemic has reset the residential choices and aspirations of millions of Americans, in ways that will last long after the Covid-19 emergency recedes. Those millions of individual choices together add up to forces that can sustain, reshape — and sometimes unmake — cities and communities around the country.


In March 2020, as the novel coronavirus spread from its initial beachheads in the Seattle, San Francisco and New York areas, a dire meme also spread: Americans were fleeing en masse from crowded cities to the supposedly safer suburbs and countryside. Island communities from Maine to Florida closed bridges and raised road blocks to keep outsiders out.

It’s tempting to draw early conclusions from incomplete data when something as dramatic as a pandemic intrudes. LinkedIn News’ editor was one of many to call it an “urban exodus.” The Washington Post announced the “Great American Migration of 2020” and predicted that it “might contain the seeds of a wholesale shift in where and how Americans live.” Even then-President Donald Trump weighed in from the debate podium. “New York is a ghost town. … It’s dying, everyone is leaving.”

Such sweeping statements were bound to elicit a counter-narrative. “There is not a widespread movement of people prospecting to move out of urban areas,” Bloomberg’s CityLab declared in September 2020. In April 2021 it stated the case more boldly: “There is no urban exodus; perhaps it’s more of an urban shuffle” — movement within and between metropolitan areas, rather than away from them.

But this conclusion also rested on some shaky foundations. Its first iteration relied on data from Apartment List; the renters it tracks may be more dependent on transit, more rooted to the sorts of fixed, lower-paying jobs deemed “essential” and less able to take advantage of remote working opportunities than homeowners. The second version cited census and postal data showing 84 percent of those moving from cities stayed in the same states, 7.5 percent of them in the same metropolitan areas, while 6 percent moved to other large metros and less than 1 percent left metro and micro urban areas altogether. But that tally left roughly 10 percent unaccounted for. And staying in the same state, even the same metro area, generally means radiating out to suburbs, exurbs, smaller towns and rural areas within metro counties.

It also turned out that some of the headline-grabbing early outflow was temporary — students at closed colleges and laid-off young workers returning home, affluent urbanites sheltering in beach cottages and second homes. And as Brookings Institution demographer William Frey noted this past May, plummeting immigration levels under the Trump administration had already depressed population growth in the large cities where immigrants tend to land. Then, in the words of Matt Mowell, a senior economist at the national real estate firm CBRE, “immigration ground to a halt in 2020” under pandemic restrictions, contributing to steep population dips in New York and other immigration hubs.

That’s just one of the ways the pandemic has mostly reinforced and accelerated trends that were already underway, rather than creating new winners and losers in a grand reshuffle between metropolitan areas. As Frey’s tallies show, Sunbelt and Western cities that were already growing robustly — Tampa, Sarasota, Atlanta, Nashville, Denver, Phoenix, Boise, Sacramento, Riverside — kept growing (with an extra boost from coastal California for the last four). Rust Belt and other post-industrial cities that had lost inhabitants for decades — Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee — kept losing, though the outflow slowed in some. Mowell notes that “people just stayed put” in many shrinking or slow-growth cities, such as Dayton, Ohio. “The chaos of the pandemic and labor market uncertainty likely encouraged many households to delay moving plans,” he said. As a result, despite the much-publicized disruptions in some cities, about the same number of people — 35 million — filed address changes with the Postal Service in 2020 as in 2019 and 2018.

San Francisco, San Jose, New York — in particular Manhattan — and Boston were another story. Their populations, boosted by the tech and financial booms, had held strong until the pandemic, but then suffered the highest out-migration rates among major metro areas.

Boston’s loss has begun reversing as colleges reopen, and New York is showing signs of recovery. “More people are choosing to go there now,” says LinkedIn’s chief economist, Karin Kimbrough, who tracks workplace shifts through its millions of job and résumé listings. The University of Toronto’s Richard Florida, who prophesied the rise of the “creative class” in cities like New York, is confident the Big Apple will get its mojo back: “NYC is special,” he told me via email. “It is the world’s most dominant global center. It has a diverse economy spanning real estate, finance, media and entertainment, tech and more. It is the magnet for the young and ambitious.” And it has ample experience recovering from crises.

But San Francisco, which lost residents faster than any other major city after the pandemic hit, hasn’t gotten them back, and San Jose’s recovery also lags. Tech jobs have continued to proliferate there as in other hubs, but those jobs (unlike New York’s finance and arts) are especially suited to remote work. Florida likens the West Coast’s tech meccas to the once-dominant single-industry towns of yore — more versatile and adaptable, certainly, than Pittsburgh and Detroit were, “but still not New York.”


One of the most timely indicators of how the work-from-home revolution is affecting America’s cities is key card swipes. Kastle Systems, a national office security firm, uses them to track workplace occupancy in its largest markets.

In March 2020, office attendance plummeted from nearly 100 percent to a little over 20 percent in Houston, Dallas and Austin, 10 to 15 percent in Los Angeles, San Jose, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, lower still in New York — and just 4 percent in San Francisco. Those numbers have slowly risen since (aside from sharp drops in Texas during its February cold snap). Kastle clients’ office attendance is now about 50 percent in the Texan cities. It tops 30 percent in most of the others — except San Jose, with nearly 27 percent, and San Francisco, at just 24 percent.

San Francisco’s empty offices reflect other factors as well: its scarce housing, high land-use hurdles, nosebleed rents and home prices, and strict Covid rules (which gave it the lowest infection and death rates among big cities). But even there, the net flight seems to be abating, though not reversing. Apartment asking rents, which plunged 27 percent last year, “are almost halfway back up,” says Ted Egan, the City of San Francisco’s chief economist. “The flow now is both ways.” According to USPS change-of-address records, 12,058 individuals, households and businesses left San Francisco in January 2021, 4,442 more than arrived. By August that gap had shrunk to 1,752.

But none of the experts contacted expect San Francisco to fill up again soon. And none expect America’s suburbs to lose their growth edge over San Francisco and other cities. In 2020, according to census data crunched by the Brookings Institution’s Frey, suburbs grew 43 percent faster than central cities in the 55 largest metropolitan areas. The online real estate listing and data firm Zillow recently reported that “the ZIP codes with the highest page views per online listing … became increasingly suburban over the past 18 months.”

Frey’s lone outlier was Seattle, which experienced more growth in its center than its suburbs in 2020. Since then, however, even this exception has fallen into line. The Seattle area has charted record home-price growth even in 2021 — but prices rose more than twice as fast in the suburbs to the north as in Seattle itself, reflecting higher demand for suburban housing. In January 2021, the Postal Service received nearly 2,000 more address changes from those leaving the center city than those entering; by August that gap had grown by a fifth. Incoming and outgoing address changes were roughly balanced in Seattle’s inner suburbs, but arrivals outpaced departures in the outer burbs.

Nationwide, all this accelerated a trend that began in 2015. For nearly a decade before that, central cities had grown faster than suburbs, a trend Frey credits in part to the Great Recession of 2007-2009. He believes it left many new graduates and other young adults “stranded” in the cities scraping together what work they could, putting off forming families, and living “la vie bohème.” Also, the outsize millennial generation, a.k.a. the baby boomlet, was at just the right age to relish trendy cities’ restaurants, nightlife, and meeting and mating opportunities — and to put up with cramped apartments and shared housing. Then, as the economy recovered and the tech boom spread beyond Silicon Valley and Redmond, they were perfectly placed to take advantage. Yesteryear’s barista became today’s six-figure programmer.

But now the suburbs are hot again. As Frey told me, this seeming change actually marks a “return to normal” — to the pattern of suburban growth and urban contraction that began in the postwar years. The late ’00s and early tens, when young people and empty nesters flocked to revitalized urban centers, was actually an anomaly. Now those millennials are mostly in their 30s, ready to seek family-sized houses and yards and fret over schools.

“We know millennials move when they set up households, looking for more space,” says Kimbrough.

Remote working has added a new imperative (and another advantage to the suburbs): home office space. And it’s given those in tech and some other white-collar fields undreamed-of choice in where they look. “Everybody’s kind of dreaming right now,” says Andrew in Seattle, “because you have this opening.”

Employers have pushed back, fearing they’ll lose control and their companies will lose their edge without the secret sauces of spontaneous collision and workplace culture. “We’re hearing CEOs say that creativity and innovation wane as a result of not working in groups, especially for millennials and GenZ-ers, who like socialization and miss the ‘creative collision,’” consultant Jay Garner told ChiefExecutive.Net.


Tell that to the millennials and GenZ-ers. Survey after survey finds that majorities of workers — 68 percent in one study — would choose remote over in-office work. The same survey finds that 70 percent of those who are already working remotely would forfeit benefits to continue, and 67 percent would take salary cuts.

It’s become a point of pride: “The people who want to go back are the ones who don’t do that much work,” one tech worker told me. “Who spend their days in meetings.”

As a result, going remote can give employers a recruiting advantage. In July, only 11 percent of the jobs posted on LinkedIn were remote, but they got 21percent of views. They included about 26 percent of software and IT services jobs and 23 percent in media and communications and wellness (all those Zoom Zumba classes).

A study by researchers at Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México concludes that “the mass social experiment in which nearly half of all paid hours were provided from home between May and December 2020” proves that remote working works. They predict that 22 percent of workdays will remain remote after the danger passes, up from 5 percent pre-pandemic and 1 percent in 2010.

“I think companies are losing qualified applicants, so they’re conceding to that as an option,” says Anton in Boulder; he sees a “much, much higher number of permanently remote jobs advertised in the environmental field” for which he studied than he did in spring 2020. “And they’re saving on office space.” Or seeing the light: 52 percent of bosses surveyed by the consultancy PwC in December said productivity improved during the enforced work-at-home period.

“Remote work is the biggest shift in the nature of work in decades,” says the University of Toronto’s Florida. “It gives some workers more flexibility. And in these cases it shifts the balance of power from companies to workers.” And, to various degrees, from New York to upper New England and the Hudson Valley, from the Bay Area to Boise and Billings. In this way, the world is becoming flatter; remote work is leveling the field of opportunity.

Many more workers in manufacturing, service, retail, and some white-collar fields can’t join this shift. But what Susan Wachter, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Institute for Urban Research, calls “the new urban dispersion” will affect more than just the fifth or so of workers who will join it.

Kimbrough believes it will “be really healthy, a spreading-out of skills across the country” from places like New York. Will cities now compete less for job makers and more for jobholders — lavishing money on schools, parks and arts rather than tax subsidies for new factories and warehouses?

“Towns near amenities are the new hot spots now and for some time to come,” Wachter said by email. “I think cultural capital will be a continuing pull,” says San Francisco’s Egan. “I’ve told people you need to think about office workers as the new tourists. Instead of traveling they commute.” Or don’t.

Egan’s watchword may be prophetic in an unintended way. Well-paid remote workers, like affluent tourists, retirees and other transplants, can drive up property prices, pricing out those dependent on local labor markets. This introduces new class divisions, within rather than between regions. “There’s a widening affordability gap throughout the Mountain West,” says CBRE economist Mowell. “A city like Phoenix never had an affordability problem. Now it does.”

Dispersion may bring other changes, for better and worse. As Florida notes, “remote workers do not just work from home. They work in coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, co-working spaces, libraries, each others’ homes. Communities need to focus on building more effective remote-work ecosystems.”

It takes more than such “ecosystems” to adapt to the influx. The Boise area, with by some measures the nation’s fastest rising rents last year and biggest home price surge in the first half of 2021,is still reckoning with its own success. “This is no longer an affordable city,” says Jeffrey Lyons, a political science professor at Boise State University, who leads the annual Idaho Public Policy Survey. “We’ve asked since 2016, do you think pace of growth is about right or too fast? Responses were evenly split in 2016. Now 75 percent say ‘too fast.’” Longtime residents grumble endlessly about rude, impatient newcomers overrunning the town and spoiling its traditional conviviality, but as Lyons notes, “the same stories about Californians ran here in the ’70s and ’80s.”

“People always think immigrants from places like California will help turn red states blue,” says Erik Berg, the Democratic Party chair in Idaho’s Ada County, which includes Boise. “But those coming here are predominantly conservative.”

Lyons’ research confirms that. “What we see in our survey data is that people who are moving here from California, Washington and Oregon tend to be Republican” — 55 to 60 percent, with 10 to 15 percent independent and 25 to 30 percent Democratic. Idaho and other mountain states beckon to those fed up with what they see as runaway regulation, taxation and disorder in a California where even Republican bastions like Orange County and San Diego have turned blue.

By contrast, argues Mowell, for liberal émigrés like Amy and Andrew, Seattle and Portland are “very easy places to adapt to. It’s the same social and economic ecosystem.” Covid-19, he adds, “has mapped onto these existing political divisions. People who were dissatisfied with government in California tend to be dissatisfied with the way California has dealt with the pandemic.” And attracted by the more permissive, mandate-free approach in Idaho, which has one of the lowest vaccination and highest infection rates in the country.

Such tendencies don’t bode well for any hopes that dispersion will soften the hardening ideological divides between regions. Rather the opposite: “We’ll see more people living in communities of choice as we disconnect from the workplace,” predicts UPenn’s Wachter.

That would reinforce prevailing political cultures, promoting local homogeneity rather than diversity. Work and the downtown areas that once depended on office workers will serve less as social mixing bowls.

So, for all the churn the pandemic has caused, the Great Dispersion may leave us even more economically and politically stratified than before, compounding, rather than easing, Americans’ isolation from people who aren’t just like them.

About the Author: Eric Scigliano is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on October 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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She’s a 64-Year-Old Taxi Driver Drowning in Medallion Debt—And She’s Fighting Back

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Dorothy LeConte is part of a movement of taxi drivers demanding that the city of New York relieve their financial anguish.

NEW YORK CITY—Outside the gated entrance to City Hall, a dozen yellow taxi drivers huddle under the canopy of a tent to take shelter from the pelting rain. They sit alongside a line of their sunflower-yellow parked cars, next to a sidewalk makeshift memorial and protest shrine with a backdrop of signs that read: Respect the Drivers, No More Suicides; No More Bankruptcies, Debt Forgiveness Now! The rain has washed away the chalk spelling out the names of the deceased drivers etched against the cold pavement. The wicks on nine tall red candles are wet. On the previous rainless nights they burned bright, illuminating like a soundless incantation the names of nine taxi drivers who have committed suicide: Danilo Corporan Castillo, Alfredo Perez, Douglas Schifter, Nicanor Ochisor, Yu Mein Kenny Chow, Abdul Saleh, Fausto Luna, Roy Kim, and Driver Brother (unnamed to honor the wishes of the family that survived him). They were lost to the anguish of crushing debts and dissipated earnings.

Dorothy LeConte, 64, wasn’t there that October 4 night, but she feels the anguish of owing a medallion debt of $558,000 with monthly payments of $2,000. “Sometimes, I think about suicide,” she tells me one sunny Saturday afternoon as we sat in foldable chairs beside the protest shrine. “And then, when I come back, I think about my children, and I turn around and say, ‘Dorothy, don’t.’” She reaches for extreme examples of horrible incidents a person can endure to convey the deflated morale of drivers. “This is worse than if a man left me pregnant in the street… What the city did to us, and they don’t care.”

LeConte’s predicament is far from unique among thousands of driver-owners of yellow taxis who the city has left in a lurch as they scramble to piece together enough earnings to payoff insurmountable debts.

Yellow taxi driver-owners and their union, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), representing approximately 21,000 for-hire and yellow cab drivers, have set up a 24/7 protest encampment. They are eyeing October 31, the deadline for when Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council must sign off on a budget modification, providing an opening for drivers to attain debt relief on their terms, not those of the banks. (Disclosure: This author worked for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Democracy NYC Initiative as a communications director from December 2020 to January 2021.) Survey estimates put the median yellow taxi driver-owner debts at $500,000, according to a January 2020 report published by the Taxi Medallion Task Force.

Individual driver-owners account for about 40 percent of the city’s 13,587 yellow cabs. These workers, mainly from countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Haiti and Ghana, purchased medallions from the city in order to operate a taxicab and pick up street hails in parts of Manhattan. The medallion originated in 1937 as a means to control the number of cabs on city streets. For nearly a century, their values were modest, but then a speculative bubble spiked their values to stratospheric heights, reaching above a vertiginous $1 million per medallion in 2014, plummeting to $100,000 in 2019 after the bubble burst, and hovering at approximately $100,000 today. Banks and the city pushed exploitative loan terms with inflated prices to immigrant drivers even as they knew the value of medallions was on a downward spiral.

After years of protest against predatory lenders who, abetted by city agencies, saddled immigrant driver-owners with insurmountable debts, Mayor de Blasio pledged in March to allocate $65 million. Under the mayor’s plan, lenders receive a $20,000 grant to go towards a down payment to restructure the debts of driver-owners. It also includes $9,000 for yellow taxi drivers to use for monthly debt payments. With the pressure mounting on Mayor Bill de Blasio, the union held a press conference on October 13 to announce the support of over 50 elected officials backing its debt relief proposal. Then, on Friday of that week, dozens of yellow taxi drivers snarled traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge in protest, demanding debt forgiveness. On Monday, the union announced plans to begin a hunger strike.

“First of all, the $65 million, just the $20,000 grant won’t even cover that many people,” according to Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the NYTWA. Desai estimates there are between four to six thousand driver-owners who drive for a living and those who may be retired. 

“If you go back to the record six months ago, they basically said everyone’s going to get $20,000 as a cash down payment to restructure the debt and then $9,000 to help you pay for your mortgage for up to six months,” she adds. “But now that the rules are out, the rules make it impossible for anybody to access that $9,000 because there’s a hardship requirement. If you’re out driving, you’re not going to be considered in hardship, no matter how much you’re struggling.”

The NYTWA has vetted a different proposal with the city’s comptroller’s office that is backed by New York City’s entire Congressional delegation in addition to state and local elected officials, as well as academic experts on banking and finance. That counter proposal calls for a debt restructuring plan of $90 million over 30 years, with the city providing a guarantee in the case of default and setting a limit of medallion debt loads to $145,000 with monthly payments capped at $800. Chief benefits of the NYTWA proposal would include more driver-owners and lower monthly payments to a manageable amount. The program, unlike the city’s proposal, would include driver-owners who are in foreclosure or undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, allowing drivers to negotiate favorable terms with lenders because the city would guarantee the restructured loans.

The city says that more than 1,000 people have signed up for its proposal. “It literally just means that people are calling them up to make an appointment,” says Desai. Asked to clarify what signing up for city’s proposal means, a spokesperson for the city Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) responded that “1,000 medallion owners have applied to the program.” The spokesperson also said the city is working with a “dozen lenders.” According to the city, 102 drivers have received concrete debt relief.

New York Legal Assistance Group attorney Randal Wilhite characterized as “patently false” the city’s claims of how many people have signed up for the debt relief program. (For speaking out, Wilhite was suspended from NYLAG and prevented from testifying at a TLC hearing.)

One person who won’t be taking the city’s offer as it stands is Dorothy LeConte. When she started driving a yellow taxi in 1987, she wasn’t venturing entirely into the unknown. Word on the street was upbeat about the financial possibilities owning a medallion conferred on women specifically, and immigrants more generally. The evidence of financial independence was self-evident. In those days, LeConte could walk up to a driver who’d happily report on favorable remuneration and confirm a medallion was truly all that it was cracked up to be, a lifelong investment with good returns. So, she did just that, striking up a conversation with a woman sitting in her cab in the shade on Lexington Avenue. 

Her years working housing keeping at the Waldorf Astoria ended with the promise of one day being the driver-owner of a medallion. At first, she leased a car. Then, LeConte, originally from the island nation of Haiti, drew on the time-honored tradition of mutual aid among the Black diaspora, called sou-sou, or an informal savings club, to pool together a pot of cash to purchase a medallion. People in a sou-sou contribute money to a collective fund that pays out a lump sum each month to a participant based on their number in a monthlong cycle, which can average from 18 months or less based on the payout amount for each member. In 1989, she took the $17,000 payout to put down as a deposit on a medallion costing $140,000.

A single mom raising two Black boys, LeConte saw the taxi industry and her possession of a medallion as a reliable way to earn enough money to keep her children off the streets and in school.

“I’m raising two Black kids,” she says. “I’m out from four o’clock in the morning, and I’m coming home the next morning at three o’clock. I don’t want my sons to be in the street. I decided to put them in a boarding school. This is the American dream.”

But it was more than a mere pursuit of an elusive American dream. She paid $43,000 a year to a boarding school in Pennsylvania for the assurance that it would provide safety.

“My 14 year old didn’t have to hang out in the street and get killed by the police, or by the gang, or involved in drugs, saving the Rikers Island money,” she adds. “That’s what I use my money for.”

To provide for her children, she put in grueling hours, pushing her body to the limit. The pain of sitting in a cab with no end in sight hobbles the body and curves the bones, but the spirit is more dogged.

The early signs of the taxi crisis began during former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s tenure at City Hall. Giuliani bragged about breaking the 1998 strike among drivers organized by the NYTWA and violated their constitutional rights. When LeConte got her first taxicab, she paid $9,000. Under Giuliani, yellow cabs had to change every five years as part of his efforts to give a Hollywood facelift to New York City and increase regulations on immigrant drivers.

To drive a cab today, “you need $45,000 to $50,000. [If] you don’t have the money, you got to [borrow] against the medallion,” says LeConte. That’s excluding medallion loan debt payments. To become a driver-owner was increasingly cost prohibitive. Last year, 4,500 taxis needed to be replaced after seven years on the road at a cost of $135 million, according to Crain’s New York.

Despite these financial hardships, yellow cab drivers continued to motor down New York City streets, taking pride in serving the public. LeConte runs through the times she’s come to the aid of the city’s residents and visitors, from September 11 to the 2003 blackout. “When I say we build the city, we do.”

She says yellow taxis are peripatetic ambassadors to countless tourists on their first visits to New York.

“People come for the first time to New York. They’re so happy to grab a camera,” she says, and take a photo of a yellow taxi. “I am in the movies.”

“I’m always there. In everything, I help the city.”

According to LeConte, this includes intervention in harrowing domestic violence incidents.

“Another time, another woman, a man was beating her up. I was right in the middle of the street. I just rolled down the window. I said, ‘Jump in.’ She jumped in the cab, locked the door, and I flew with her.”

LeConte weathered ups and downs in the industry, but she said nothing prepared her for the arrival of Uber and Lyft, inundating New York City streets. Her brother, with a job in the technology sector, saw the writing on the wall and warned her in 2015. But she refused to heed his warnings.

“This is a New York City franchise. New York City will never allow this medallion to go all the way down,” she reasoned with her brother.

City data showed a 10 percent drop in revenue per yellow cab after Uber’s debut in 2011, with yellow taxi ridership in shambles. Medallion values held steady for a few more years, but the industry was soon ravaged by the combined forces of the city allowing banks and hedge funds to aggressively push predatory loans. Banks targeted people who they knew couldn’t service the loans, according to a New York Times investigation. They took advantage of immigrants whose first language wasn’t English to sign turgid contract terms they could, at best, only puzzle through. And even as the city knew there was trouble in the medallion market, it continued to inflate the value. Experts deemed the speculative bubble the largest since the housing crash of 2007.

“I don’t think I could concoct a more predatory scheme if I tried,” Roger Bertling, the senior instructor at Harvard Law School’s clinic on predatory lending and consumer protection, told The New York Times. “This was modern-day indentured servitude.”

Drive-owners of yellow taxis are now trapped in Sisyphean ordeal, pushing a proverbial boulder up a mountaintop only to see it come crashing down, seemingly until the end of time, as many drivers like LeConte are in their 60s.

“We estimate between 4,000 to 6,000 thousand have underwater loans,” says Desai from the NYTWA.

LeConte describes going to her mailbox during the pre-Uber years of the early 2000s and finding five flyers promoting loans or refinance offers. “You open the taxi news, and you find people advertising” to borrow against the equity in the medallion, she explains. “Some people borrowed against it.”

“I did not expect what happened here to me today, and to us. The city will be responsible, because I know a government is there to protect the people,” she says. “I don’t think the government is there to sell us out.”

Without the city’s protection, the banks and tech companies have had free rein to extract the last cent from workers. Because the medallion after 2015 can no longer serve as collateral, she says, “you will be the collateral. If they can’t find anything on you, they’ll probably take you to a barber shop, they’ll shave your hair. If you have long hair, they’ll sell your hair for fake hair in the street. Whatever you have, they’ll take it away from you.”

She draws parallels to the financial ruin facing yellow taxi drivers today to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In May 1921, a white mob went on a rampage in the economically thriving, predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The mob was incited by a false story of a Black man assaulting a white girl, fueling the already potent adrenaline of white supremacy through the veins of an armed white mob of looters and arsonists. All told, hundreds of African Americans residents were savagely killed, their 1,250 homes and assortment of businesses annihilated by racial terrorism. According to a 2001 state commission report, property loss claims reached about $27 million in today’s dollars.

“You remember that story?” she asks me. ”The government burned its Black people down, taking their wealth, killing them. They lost everything.”

“The whole world is looking, but they [are] using the technology,” she adds, referencing the city allowing Uber to break the law and flood New York’s streets with app-based drivers.

The feminist intellectual Jacqueline Rose has attributed the unseen violence of capitalism, or what Rosa Luxemburg once called the “quiet conditions,” to the “skill with which capital cloaks its crimes.”

The fire of righteous indignation that blazes from within LeConte refuses to be tamped down, but she has also reconciled herself to the realities of age and the unseen casualties of the spirit.

“I need the day off. I need to stay home. I’m 64-years-old. When I go to my doctor, I have pains in my fingers, sprain in my knee. I can’t get up, pain in my back.”

The toll of driving a cab all these years has finally begun to manifest in her body. But it’s also overtaken her mind.

The anguish of the banks coming for her to collect $558,000 has deprived her of the balm of a good night’s sleep. “I never get a good six hours, eight hours of sleep. Never. Because I’m dreaming. What is going to happen to me? What happens with my dignity?”

About her plight, she says, “it’s not because I’m sick. It’s not because of an accident that I’m paralyzed. [It’s] because of the government that I trust. We ask Mayor de Blasio only to guarantee the loan.”

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a freelance journalist from New York City and an educator at Labor Notes.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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The big takeaways from Biden’s jobs report bust

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Women, teachers and health care employees all suffered from the slow rebound last month.

The labor market recovery that President Joe Biden has promised slowed again in September, with a weaker-than-expected 194,000 new jobs created.

That suggests school reopenings and the end of generous federal jobless benefits haven’t brought enough Americans back into the labor force amid the resurgence of the coronavirus.

Yet the recovery has been uneven throughout the economy, with women, teachers and health care employees suffering from the slow rebound last month, according to a Labor Department report released Friday. Among the gainers in September were white and Asian workers, retail and hospitality employees, the long-term unemployed and wage earners generally.

While the overall unemployment rate fell to 4.8 percent from 5.2 percent, the drop was likely fueled by 183,000 people leaving the labor force.

Biden touted the report as another sign that his administration has delivered steady month-over-month job growth and blamed the disappointing overall number partly on the fact the survey was taken before a recent decline in Covid cases.

“Remember, today’s report is based on a survey that was taken during the week of September the 13th, not today — September 13, when COVID cases were averaging more than 150,000 per day,” the president said in remarks after the report. “Since then, we’ve seen the daily cases fall by more than one-third and they’re continuing to trend down. We’re continuing to make progress.”

Here’s a closer look at how key groups fared in September:

Women

The report showed that 309,000 women 20 years and older dropped out of the labor market in September, marking the second straight month of losses. Men in the same age group regained 182,000 jobs.

Working women have been acutely affected by the school and child care closures prompted by the pandemic, holding many back from returning to the workforce. But they were initially expected to go back to work in September, with school reopenings relieving some of the responsibilities that had been keeping them at home. But since the Delta variant of the coronavirus took hold in late summer and disrupted school plans, economists have been bracing for a devastating September for women who may have had to continue taking care of their kids amid the uncertainty. The numbers show that concern was well-founded.

Race

While other major ethnic groups have seen their unemployment rates near or below the national level throughout most of 2021, the rate among Black workers had remained near 9 percent. In September, Black unemployment fell by almost a full percentage point to 7.9 percent, narrowing the gap on the national rate of 4.8 percent. The bad news: 83,000 Black workers also left the labor force last month, probably contributing to the drop in the jobless rate.

Black workers — and women in particular — make up large shares of the workforce in health services and child care, industries that have been slower than most to recover. AFL-CIO Chief Economist Bill Spriggs has also argued that the stubbornly high unemployment rate among Black workers could be due to discrimination in hiring.

Hispanic workers have also been experiencing jobless rates above the national level, seeing 6.3 percent unemployment in September, little changed from August. White and Asian workers have been recovering more quickly, with the unemployment rate falling to 4.2 percent in September for both groups.

Retail and leisure

Consumer-facing industries including retail, leisure and hospitality were walloped in early 2020 by pandemic safety restrictions and business closures, facing the largest post-pandemic jobs deficit of any sector of the economy. They remain the first to take the hit when fears of the virus increase. But both sectors saw some improvement in September, which is a good sign for the economy as coronavirus cases start to recede. Leisure and hospitality added 74,000 jobs, while retail added 56,000.

Labor force participation

Beyond the topline number, the jobs reports suggests that fewer people were optimistic enough about the market to look for work last month.

While the national unemployment rate has been falling for months, the labor force participation rate — which captures how many people are either employed or actively looking for work — has remained pretty stagnant. That rate was 61.6 percent in September, not much different from the 61.7 percent in August. It’s also still down 1.7 percentage points from February 2020, just before the pandemic hit. That matters because the size of the workforce is tied to productivity, which is the basis for wage gains.

Many Republicans had predicted that the Sept. 6 expiration of federal unemployment benefits would increase employment as Americans could no longer afford to stay away from work. But since the jobless aid has ended for millions, many people have fallen out of the labor force instead and are no longer considered “unemployed.” While this can push the unemployment rate down — if you’re not actually looking for a job, you’re not counted as unemployed — it’s also a sign that there are fewer people actively available for work.

Wages

Average hourly earnings increased in September by 19 cents, bringing them to $30.85. That follows five months of significant hikes in wages and suggests that the widespread demand for workers as businesses have reopened has put upward pressure on pay, as employers compete for labor.

Long term unemployed

The longer people remain unemployed, the longer it typically takes them to find a job, which is why economists like to keep an eye on the number of those who have been out of a job for at least six months. That figure fell by nearly 500,000 last month, which is a good indicator of labor market health, as people with large gaps on their resumés can face more obstacles to reemployment and can find themselves in deeper financial trouble. However, there were still 1.6 million more long-term unemployed in the workforce last month than before the pandemic began.

Education

One of the puzzles in the jobs report was the loss of jobs in state and local public education in September — the month when schools were supposed to reopen. Instead, the market saw a notable decrease in jobs in this area — a drop of 161,000 workers, which dragged down the headline numbers.

Much of this, however, is likely due to seasonal adjustment. That’s because schools usually ramp up hiring in September for the start of the academic year, so the models that adjust for seasonal factors expect it. But this year, some of those hires may have taken place in July and August as students started earlier, making September hiring in public education slower than normal. But while the decline of 161,000 looks bad, it’s probably due in part to hires that did not happen last month rather than actual job losses, a key distinction.

About the author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. 

About the author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on October 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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A New Group to Organize College Football Players Just Launched. Incredible Timing.

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After last week’s NLRB memo made the unionization of college athletes a possibility, the CFBPA could become very important.

Last week, a memo from the top lawyer of the Biden administration’s National Labor Relations Board, Jennifer Abruzzo, asserted that certain college athletes should be legally considered employees. This decision took a wrecking ball to the myth of the “student athlete,” and opened the door for the unionization of players in big time college sports. For one recently launched group, the timing could not have been more fortuitous. 

The College Football Players Association (CFBPA) formally launched in July, with the goal of promoting labor organizing among college football players. Now, the nascent group finds itself presented with an unprecedented gift from the NLRB, few competitors in its newly energized space, and a clear path to becoming a leader in the drive to transform college sports forever. 

All they need now are the college football players. 

The CFBPA is the brainchild of Jason Stahl, a former professor at the University of Minnesota who became concerned about the exploitation of the school’s football players while he was teaching many of them in his classes. He left the school last year amid disputes over its treatment of players, and began working on a book about the topic. He put together the CFBPA with the belief that some kind of players association is necessary to enable players to begin organizing effectively. Stahl is the group’s executive director. Its advisory board includes current and former college players, ethics and labor law experts, and former University of Minnesota regent Michael Hsu, a longtime advocate of paying college athletes. 

In addition to fundraising (the group is seeking 1,000 recurring donors by the end of this month, a number that Stahl believes they will reach), the CFBPA’s biggest ongoing task is recruiting active college football players as members. That’s not an easy task, particularly because the fear of retaliation is high. For now, the group is allowing its current player members to remain anonymous, and is not releasing specific membership numbers. Players from at least three schools are already organizing with the group, according to Stahl. 

“Any workplace trying to unionize [can face retaliation], and this is the same thing. But within college football, it’s particularly pronounced,” Stahl says. If coaches or schools do retaliate with measures like withholding playing time from certain players, it can be virtually impossible to prove. “We’re trying to create an initial campaign that guys feel safe with.” 

The group’s goal is to unveil an organizing committee in December, made up of current players from a number of different schools, both big and small. By the end of the year, Stahl hopes to establish the first Players Association chapter at an individual school. 

The structure of college football poses some unique challenges for organizers. Though college football players as a group hold a great deal of leverage within a wealthy, powerful institution, individual players serve only brief careers—many may be on teams for only a year or two before leaving football and their schools entirely. And a good deal of uncertainty surrounds what the laws will ultimately be that govern the players’ labor rights, and whether collective bargaining would take place with individual schools, with athletic conferences, or with the NCAA itself. 

For its part, the NCAA issued a statement last week arguing forcefully against the NLRB’s memo, but politics and regulatory decisions could eventually make negotiating one big collective bargaining agreement covering all NCAA athletes a rational decision. Perhaps the only certainty is that if college athletes are to take advantage of their new labor rights, they will need to organize, and likely unionize, in order to create an entity capable of bargaining in the first place. 

Against this backdrop, the CFBPA aims to become a permanent institution, capable of serving the needs of players even after they have left college football altogether. That will require not just organizing the players of today, but building Players Association chapters durable enough to carry on for years. Structurally, such associations could be obvious launching pads for union campaigns, if the CFBPA is indeed able to attract large numbers of players at certain schools. 

Stahl says that most players, parents and associates of players that he speaks to have concrete concerns—chief among them, seeing to it that existing NCAA rules governing things like how many hours players can be asked to devote to “football activities” are actually enforced. He is not unaware of the obstacles. “There’s so much work to be done, with such a transient work force,” he says. 

But with the landmark NLRB memo coming just months after the June Supreme Court ruling that allows college athletes more avenues for compensation, 2021 is shaping up to be the year that the NCAA’s fantasy world of unpaid “student athletes” finally starts to crumble for good. The CFBPA is, quite literally, in the right place at the right time. Whether they are the seed that grows into a new branch of the labor movement remains to be seen.

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

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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Working at Home Accidents – Who is Liable?

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In many countries, the number of people working from home has doubled since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic. While many businesses take reasonable care and responsibility for their employees’ safety in the workplace, many are asking what the regulations are for remote workers. 

In this article, we will be discussing accidents when working at home and who is liable.

Your Employer’s Duty of Care

Whether you’re working in the office or from home, your employer is required to protect your health, safety and welfare while you are working for them. 

Just like in-house employees, remote workers expect and are owed the same duty of care from their employers. This duty of care covers everything from the physical working environment of the individual and extends to their mental health needs.

How to Create Safe Work Environments at Home

Unlike offices, where the environment can be controlled and safety measures can be put in place to protect employees, everyone’s home environment differs. From the layout to the furnishing, creating a safe work environment at home means something different for everyone.

Despite this, governments are asking employers to be vigilant about protecting the health and safety of their remote workers, according to Health and Safety Law

Whether employees are working part-time, full-time or on an ad hoc basis, if they are ‘at work’ employers must ensure that all reasonable precautions are taken to prevent any accidents they may otherwise be liable for. McCarthy + Co. Solicitors state the scope of an employer’s duty of care falls under four principal headings, with an employer being obliged to provide his workforce with:

  • Competent co-workers
  • A safe place of work
  • Proper equipment which is fit for purpose
  • A safe system of work

Below are some of the most effective ways employers can support the health and safety of remote workers.

Provide Risk Assessments and Guideline Advice

Often, workplace risk assessments will highlight areas of concern within a workspace, whether that’s in-house or remote. These issues are then raised with the employer and appropriate action is taken to reduce any risk to the employee.

Despite so many people working from home, very few have a suitable working space that isn’t the dining room or kitchen table. As such, accidents can happen – the most common being back pain and injury caused by insufficient working set-ups. 

All employers have a responsibility to ensure the working environments for their employees are suitable for remote working on a long-term basis. Advice should also be provided that helps employees carry out their own basic risk assessment at home and share their findings with employers so that suitable adjustments can be made.

Display Screen Equipment

This includes the use of smartphones, tablets and desktops in the home that allow employees to do their job. All equipment used for work must be provided and properly maintained by the employer. A few steps employees can take to reduce the likelihood of injury whilst working from home include:

  • Regularly changing their working position.
  • Taking short breaks every 10-20 minutes away from the screen.
  • Breaking up long periods of screen time with 5-minute rest breaks every hour.
  • Stretching regularly to avoid stiff joints.

Identifying and Reducing Hazards

Most slips and trips in the office are caused by uneven floors, obstructions in walkways, or inappropriate flooring. Unsurprisingly, these factors also come into play around the home. So, a risk assessment will consider the hazards around your home to ensure any necessary changes are made before remote working commences.

Manual Handling Training and Precautions

If part of your job involves the manual handling of products or the packing of boxes, precautions must be taken to avoid injury. A risk assessment will take these factors into consideration and highlight any areas of concern. It is the responsibility of the employer to provide the necessary training to ensure all manual handling is carried out safely and for the avoidance of any injury.

Mental Health Support

Employers have a duty to protect the mental health and wellbeing of their remote employees. Mental health conditions are classed as disabilities when they have a long-term effect on the everyday functioning of an individual and, as such it is against the law for employers to discriminate against employees with mental health struggles. As such, employers are expected and legally required to provide mental health support for their workers.

The type of support that is provided will depend on each person and their individual needs. However, providing support such as paid-for therapy sessions, online consultations, space to talk, and even the provision of specialist equipment or adjustments to the duties of the job itself are all necessary steps to protect employee mental health.

Equipment Provision

One of the most common injuries suffered by remote workers is because of a chair that is not fit for purpose. Employers are required to provide guidance and advice about the ideal chair and screen positioning to reduce potential injuries.  

Employers must check that remote workers have the equipment they need to do their jobs effectively and that said equipment is in good working order. Employers must also provide remote workers with any personal protective equipment, as necessary.

Who is Liable if You Have an Accident?

Many remote workers are concerned about whether their employer would be liable if they had an accident while working at home. Your employer would only be responsible if you suffered an injury whilst working from home due to some negligence on their part.

As we have already stated in this article, employers are predominantly responsible for carrying out a risk assessment of your working environment and ensuring you have suitable and working equipment available to do your job well. Therefore, unless they neglected to provide suitable training or equipment to you and you had a work-related accident as a result of this, it is unlikely your employer would be liable.

However, it is always important to provide all the facts of your injury and your working environment to a solicitor so they can advise you on your case. The sooner you report your injury and make a claim, the better. Whether you win your case or not, raising the issue will provide useful for your employer and hopefully encourage them to act and improve on any areas of negligence within their company so that future work-related accidents are prevented.

Final Words

Employers have a duty of care to their employees, whether they work in-house or from home. This duty of care requires that employers do everything within their power to ensure their employees are supported, both physically and mentally, to carry out their jobs safely. 

As the number of remote workers around the world continues to increase, employers must continue taking positive action to ensure the health and safety of their employees. 

This blog is printed with permission.

About the author: Gemma Hart is an independent HR professional working remotely from as many coffee shops as she can find. Gemma has gained experience in a number of HR roles but now turns her focus towards growing her brand and building relationships with leading experts.


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Social Media Policies: Know Your Rights

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The idea of using social media in the workplace is a very 21st-century problem — one that many previous generations would have never had to deal with. In many aspects, social media defines parts of our lives. It is a way to document how we feel about certain things and a way to connect with people from across the globe on issues. 

Yet here we are. Often being asked by our employers to maintain a social media presence for work, whether we want to or not.

For others, it isn’t even that our employers require a social media account. Rather the issues stem from the need to be abundantly cautious about how they act on social media. One post that is regarded in bad taste or one drunken picture from college that unexpectedly crops up could ruin a career.

Employee social media rights have become a central workplace issue. Knowing your rights when it comes to your employer and social media is essential.

Review Company Policy

Arguably the most important thing you can do to better understand your rights as an employee is to review company policy. Today, many companies that require employees to work online will have some social media rules as a condition of employment. Some examples of company policies that are commonly used include things like:

  • Laying out guidelines for company responses to negative social media posts by customers on the company feeds
  • Provide clear policy on who owns certain company accounts. For instance, does your work Twitter account belong to you since it is in your name or does it belong to the company since you set it up as an employee?
  • Provide clear rules for transparency and honesty in marketing strategies
  • Clarify if comments about the company in personal accounts are off-limits
  • Set expectations for social media use in personal accounts of employees related to political and social issues.

If a company states that your personal account is protected, then it should be. Up until that point, it can be pretty murky. Many professionals would recommend not posting something blatantly controversial, especially if you aren’t sure of the company policy.

If your company doesn’t have them, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re off the hook. Instead, it means you should contact HR about getting something reasonable on the books before someone gets in trouble.

Work-Related vs Non-Work-Related

It is important to remember that although everyone has the First Amendment right to free speech, it gets a little more convoluted when it comes to social media. First Amendment rights are not always protected in private settings. For instance, you would never go to work and say racist things and expect not to get in trouble. Likewise, you wouldn’t have drinks with a coworker and slam your boss if you thought that information might get back to him and get you in trouble. Treat social media the same way as any other interaction that would occur in person.

Going off of that general guideline is likely to more or less keep you out of trouble. But there are the occasional posts that seem like they aren’t a big deal, but turn out to be very controversial. Here it can be important to remember where you are posting from. Using social media on a work account, from a work computer, or on a work-provided cell phone can spell trouble without question. Avoid using personal accounts in those situations at all costs.

***

Social media policies for individuals in workplaces are still relatively new. Many of the protections and rights are still being worked out by the courts. For that reason, it is always worthwhile to review company policy and get clarification on your rights. If you are unsure, it is always better to play it safe, even on your personal accounts.

This blog is printed with permission.

About the author: Dan Matthews is a writer, content consultant, and conservationist. While Dan writes on a variety of topics, he loves to focus on the topics that look inward on mankind that help to make the surrounding world a better place to reside. When Dan isn’t working on new content, you can find him with a coffee cup in one hand and searching for new music in the other.


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“It’s Time to Turn This Tortilla Around”: El Milagro Workers Walk Out, Demanding Fair Treatment

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Alleging abusive conditions and staff shortages amid the pandemic, workers at the iconic Chicago tortillería walked off the job—only to to be locked out by management.

On Thursday, food production workers at El Milagro—Chicago’s most popular tortilla company—staged a temporary walkout, alleging years of workplace violations and abusive conditions made worse by the pandemic.

After leaving their shift early, nearly 100 workers picketed outside El Milagro’s flagship taqueria and neighboring tortillería in the Little Village neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, promising to escalate their protests unless management meets with them to discuss their grievances by September 29. They were joined by local faith leaders, community supporters and democratic socialist 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez of the nearby Pilsen neighborhood.

Laura Garza, director of Arise Chicago worker center—which has been helping the non-unionized El Milagro workers organize over the past several months—said that 85 workers contracted Covid-19 on the job last year, and five died. With employees getting sick or resigning, the company has been understaffed, leading to a widely reported scarcity of El Milagro products at grocery stores across the Chicago area earlier this month, with eager customers lining up outside the company’s facilities to get their hands on however many tortillas they could. 

Along with picket signs, the workers carried a giant burrito and tortilla chips made of carboard. They led chants changing the company’s name from El Milagro to “El Maltrato,” which translates to “mistreatment.”

“You’ve heard there’s a shortage of workers over and over on the news, but the fact is there isn’t a so-called shortage of workers, it’s a shortage of good wages, good benefits, good working conditions, and being treated with respect and dignity on the job,” said Garza. The worker center also recently helped organize non-union food production employees at the popular Portillo’s restaurant chain, who staged a seven-day strike this summer.

The workers allege that in order to keep production going amid the staffing shortage, management has been illegally forcing them to work up to seven days per week, as well as violating the city’s paid sick leave ordinance and speeding up the production machines to dangerous levels.

“With the extreme speed of the machines, people are having health issues, especially back pain from having to go so fast,” El Milagro worker Alfredo Martinez told In These Times. Martinez added that he and his coworkers have also suffered health problems from having to work quickly in temperatures over 90 degrees, without being allowed breaks to drink water.

“They’re cranking up these machines to produce more tortillas, but we’re not machines,” said Martin Salas, an El Milagro employee who has worked at the company for ten years. “I’m packing 80 packages in one minute. If it doesn’t happen, then it’s my fault.”

The workers also claim that management is advertising new job openings at $16 an hour—higher than what workers who have been at the company for years make. Martinez, who has worked at El Milagro for 13 years, said veteran employees like himself are also expected to train the new hires without any extra compensation.

“The new people don’t stay for long because it’s too hard and too hot,” Martinez said. “We know the work; we do the work well. It’s insulting when you’ve been working here for years, doing a good job and new people who have barely been trained are making more than you.”

The workers reported numerous other abuses at El Milagro, including sexual harassment and intimidation. With the help of Arise Chicago, they have organized a committee and are demanding that management implement a fair wage scale based on seniority and experience, increase wages to at least $20 per hour, stop all harassment and hire more staff. The workers claim that despite issuing multiple letters to management, the company has so far refused to meet with them to discuss their concerns.

When the employees who walked out of the El Milagro plant in Little Village attempted to return to complete their shifts after the protest rally—as they had earlier informed management they would do—they were locked out. Arise Chicago says this is illegal retaliation by the company. Upon learning that their colleagues had been locked out, five cleaning workers arriving for the late-night shift decided to join the walkout.

Salas said that when he and other first-shift workers went into work on Friday morning, prepared to walk out in solidarity with their locked-out colleagues, they were greeted by an armed security guard. “That is simply a tactic the company is using to intimidate us, and it’s creating a lot of fear,” he said.

As the locked-out workers reported to human resources on Friday morning seeking to return to work, they were joined by 22nd Ward Alderman Mike Rodriguez, whose district includes the El Milagro plant, Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson and Chicago Teachers Union recording secretary Christel Williams-Hayes.

“We stand with you,” Williams-Hayes told the workers. “What you’re doing is not wrong. Stand in solidarity, stand up for your rights, do not be afraid.

Management promised to allow the locked-out employees to return to work at the start of their 2 p.m. shift on Friday, with no loss of pay, according to an Arise Chicago spokesperson.

El Milagro did not respond to a request for comment. The company has also faced complaints at its facility near Austin, Texas, where it was recently fined $218,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for unsafe machinery exposing workers to amputation dangers.

The struggle at El Milagro is reminiscent of attempts to unionize immigrant workers at Tortillería Del Rey in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood 40 years ago. That campaign was led by legendary organizer Rudy Lozano, who, before his murder in 1983, famously helped build Black and Latino unity in support of Harold Washington’s successful run for mayor.

Jorge Mújica, Arise Chicago’s strategic campaigns organizer, said the workers are exposing El Milagro’s “greedy” side. “In English, we say ‘the other side of the coin.’ In Spanish we say ‘el otro lado de la tortilla’ [the other side of the tortilla],” he explained. “It’s time to turn this tortilla around.”

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. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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