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Reversing Labor Laws Rooted in Slavery

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Rebecca Dixon

As we celebrate Juneteenth this year, it is important to acknowledge the lasting impacts of slavery on the workplace and the labor market. The at-will employment doctrine, which allows employers in most states to discharge workers for any reason, and the subminimum wage for tipped workers are both rooted in the employer backlash to Emancipation. These laws continue to disadvantage workers—Black and Latinx workers in particular.

The at-will doctrine stems from the period after the Civil War when employers, largely in the railroad industry, sought to limit the growing power of organized workers—including formerly enslaved Black workers—by reserving the right to fire them for any reason. Proponents argued that if workers now had the “right to quit” without restrictions, employers should have a “right to fire” without reason or explanation. Though never turned into legislation, this practice became entrenched in US law through judicial decisions over the course of several decades.

Today, most employers can legally fire anyone without warning or explanation, a power imbalance that forces many workers to accept exploitative working conditions out of fear of losing their jobs.

Under the at-will doctrine, it is exceedingly difficult for workers to prove when they have been illegally fired for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons or for government agencies to enforce laws protecting workers against discrimination or retaliation. These circumstances disproportionately affect Black and Latinx workers, who are more likely than white workers to have low-paying jobs and express concern about retaliation for speaking out about unsafe or unfair working conditions.

As a step toward addressing this power imbalance, state, local, and federal legislators must enact just-cause laws that protect workers against sudden and unjust firings. Just-cause job protections would require employers to provide and prove a justifiable reason for discharging a worker and to give fair notice. In turn, workers could more safely insist on better working conditions with less risk of losing their livelihoods.

Tipping in lieu of wages is another practice that became widespread following Emancipation, when hospitality-sector employers hired many formerly enslaved Black workers. Even after the Reconstruction era, the labor hierarchy that expected servitude from Black workers remained intact, and compensation for their labor was left to customer discretion. Despite the organizing efforts of tipped workers, most service industries were excluded from the first federal minimum wage law in 1938.

While employers are now required to pay tipped workers at least a subminimum wage, it has been frozen at a paltry $2.13 per hour at the federal level for more than 30 years. State law protections are little better in the 43 states with a subminimum wage. As a result, these workers’ livelihoods are still dependent on the good will of patrons. These laws technically require employers to cover differences between total tips and the minimum wage, but that requirement is hard to enforce and often ignored. As a result, tipped workers still earn fluctuating wages for their labor and may have to endure harassment from the customers they rely on. Black tipped workers—and Black women in particular—are at an even greater disadvantage because they earn less in tips than their white counterparts on average, with Black women making nearly $5 less per hour than white men.

The Raise the Wage Act of 2021, currently stalled in Congress, would phase out this unfair subminimum wage for tipped workers and raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour by 2025. According to the Economic Policy Institute, this shift would help eliminate poverty wages and raise the earnings of nearly a quarter of the US workforce—about 32 million workers. Nearly one in three Black workers, one in four Latinx workers, and one in five white workers would benefit from a raised minimum wage. Black and Latinx women in particular are overrepresented among workers who stand to benefit. According to the One Fair Wage campaign, which advocates for eliminating the subminimum wage, paying tipped workers the minimum wage, with tips on top, could reduce the race-gender wage gap in the restaurant industry by 35 percent.

Members of Congress must act now to pass the bill to make a living wage mandatory across the country.

This Juneteenth, we are in solidarity with workers taking to the streets as part of the Mass Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly & Moral March on Washington and to the Polls to demand the right to an adequate standard of living and to work with dignity. Protecting workers from at-will firings, eliminating the subminimum wage, and raising wages overall are some of the minimum requirements for an equitable society, one in which all jobs pay a living wage and all workers can advocate for their rights without fear of retaliation or discrimination. Reversing unjust labor laws rooted in slavery is one step toward this vision—and it is long overdue.

This is a blog that originally appeared in full at Nelp on June 17, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Rebecca Dixon is the executive director of Nelp and an advocate for workers’ rights interested in the intersection of labor and racial equity.


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The Amazon Labor Union Victory Shows That Jurisdiction Is Dead

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

No more arguing over territory or industries—we need multi-union coalitions capable of organizing on a national scale.

When news spread April 1 that the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) had won its union election at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island in New York, the initial response from anyone who supports the labor movement was exultation at this unprecedented?—?and unexpected?—?victory for the working class. 

The secondary response was a collective ?“In your face!” to mega-billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who was shown that all the money in the world can’t crush the will for a union. 

Now, we can all move on to what should be the next response: Forcing the union establishment to take a long, hard look at what it needs to change. 

The ALU?—?a project of current and former Amazon workers as well as committed volunteer organizers?—?succeeded in organizing Amazon before any big, well-funded union could. That fact has produced a million insta-analyses: ?“They were in New York City, not Alabama?—?so they had the easiest target!” ?“The ALU was led by cool younger people?—?old union bureaucrats must be purged!” Etc.

Rather than indulge in that particular argument, I propose an adjacent conclusion that I think will hold true no matter where anyone lands on the specific tactical questions about the ALU victory. This is the lesson the union world should take from the ALU’s accomplishment: Jurisdiction is dead. By this I mean that all of the time unions spend arguing with one another over who has the right to organize which workers, in which industry, at which company is one gargantuan waste of time. Stop it. It’s useless. It is, in essence, a bunch of drivers arguing over a single parking space in one corner of a vast, empty parking lot. While an asteroid is approaching. It is not something that should be on the list of top 100 priorities for labor, given the current situation.

Who cares about jurisdiction in the first place? Well, many major unions consider this parochial concern to be the most important reason for the AFL-CIO to exist?—?to serve as a traffic cop, arbitrating petty arguments between unions that want to organize the same place. Inherent in this perspective is the belief that other things the central body of the labor movement could be doing?—?like, for example, building multi-union coalitions capable of organizing powerful employers like Amazon?—?are less important than this traffic cop role. 

What has this approach gotten us?

It has gotten us a nation in which barely one in ten workers (including barely 6 percent of private sector workers) are union members, while economic inequality has been rising for decades. The idea that unions should have the right to lay claim to particular industries where 90 percent of workers are not union members is farcical. A perfect illustration of this absurdity is the fact that, in March, new Teamsters president Sean O’Brien told Bloomberg he ?“wants the Teamsters to be the only union that organizes workers at Amazon’s fulfillment centers and sorting hubs.” Less than two weeks later, the independent ALU had actually unionized an Amazon fulfillment center, which is one more Amazon fulfillment center than the Teamsters have unionized. 

Unions serve workers. Not the opposite. What serves workers best is having a union now, not the abstract concept of a single union that owns their industry and may get around to organizing them years from now. Until union density in America reaches, say, 50 percent or more, we don’t need to hear any more jurisdictional arguments from unions about whose territory is whose. Instead, we need to see successful union campaigns in which millions of new workers are unionized.

Want to claim ?“jurisdiction” in an industry? Then organize it. Otherwise, make way for those who will. 

To the credit of America’s union leaders, their public reaction to the ALU victory has uniformly been one of support. But that same victory throws into relief how pressing it is for those same unions to change the way they’ve been doing business for the past half century. No more individual fiefdoms jealously guarding their own shrinking islands of union territory, while the majority of working people flounder with no support from organized labor. The ALU inspired us all by unionizing the first 8,000 Amazon workers in the United States. Organizing the next 800,000 will require the combined efforts of many unions, and then some.

Rich, ruthless, and omniscient companies like Amazon will not be organized solely with GoFundMe donations, as the Staten Island warehouse was. Now is the time for the labor movement to start building multi-union coalitions capable of tackling employers on a national scale, and keeping up the fight long enough to win contracts in the face of endless litigation?—?think something like the Change to Win coalition, but more active, and aimed at individual companies. 

Building multi-union coalitions requires unions to recognize the futility of arguing over jurisdiction, and instead do the opposite: Combine forces and organize without freaking out over who gets to put their label on the end product.

ALU leader Chris Smalls, whose vision made the Amazon union victory a reality, has already become a celebrated figure. In the end, his greatest contribution to the labor movement might be that he’s served as a blaring wake-up call. There is no room for egos or territorialism in a country of 10 percent union density. This fight is going to be expensive. Everyone, ante up.

This post originally appeared at In These Times on May 18, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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The New Labor Movement Is Young, Worker-Led and Winning

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Katie Barrows — IFPTE

From Starbucks and Amazon to political campaigns and digital media, workers in historically unorganized occupations are forming unions—and breathing new life into the U.S. labor movement.

This year, May Day was celebrated during a historic moment for the American labor movement. Nearly every day, news reports announce another example of workers exercising their rights as nonprofit professionals, Starbucks workers, and employees at corporations like Amazon, REI and Conde Nast announce their union drives. The approval rating for labor unions has reached its highest point in over 50 years, standing at 68 percent, and petitions for new union elections at the National Labor Relations Board increased 57 percent during the first half of fiscal year 2021.

Three years ago, we wrote an op-ed about how young workers in historically unorganized occupations—such as digital journalism, higher education and nonprofit organizations—were beginning to rebuild the labor movement. Today, Covid-19 has changed the way that we relate to work and created new sources of economic anxiety, while exacerbating old ones. Yet, young workers continue to fuel the new labor movement as they form new unions to win back a degree of control over their futures in a world fundamentally altered by a global pandemic. With momentum in union organizing and worker activism still growing, it is important to recognize the ways that workers in every industry are helping the labor movement live up to its values and reverse the years-long decline in union density. 

Through organizing campaigns at the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, we’ve learned that successful new organizing campaigns must be member-led. Recent organizing victories at Amazon in Staten Island and at Starbucks stores across the country have reinforced the importance of workers themselves being empowered to be the drivers of their own organizing campaigns. We’ve also seen this in other traditionally unorganized sectors, such as political campaigns, digital media and tech.

There are a variety of reasons why member-led organizing campaigns tend to be more effective. One is the commitment that worker-led union organizing requires—leading a union organizing campaign is not for the faint of heart. Worker-leaders must be dedicated, and their time and energy investment means they have more skin in the game. Additionally, these workers build genuinely supportive relationships with their coworkers through one-on-one conversations, working in teams on union materials, and happy hours that bring more workers into the organizing drive. The relationships built during a worker-led organizing campaign helps workers to feel supported, as they know that their coworkers have their back. This collective approach also solidifies workers’ resolve to push back on empty rhetoric from their employer.

Member-driven campaigns are also key to combating bosses’ anti-union campaigns. When workers are active in setting campaign strategy, reaching out to their coworkers, and driving the narrative of the union campaign, they can successfully push back on corporate union-busters’ messaging that the union is a “third-party” or “outside agitator”—because workers know that they are their union.

The significance of momentum can not be understated. In all of these newly organized industries, we’ve seen the power a single union victory can have when it sparks a new consciousness among workers who previously didn’t know they could join a union, or didn’t think unions existed that understood and could address their specific concerns. Union wins years ago at Gawker, the Center for American Progress and Kickstarter helped incite the momentum for new organizing, and laid the groundwork for the campaigns we are seeing today. 

We’ve also learned the importance of publicizing our unions’ tangible contract gains. Workers want to be a part of a union that’s effective at improving their pay, benefits, and working conditions, so we as a labor movement need to make the public aware of our wins. That’s why our union and others in newly organized spaces will shout our wins from the rooftops with press releases, social media posts, news stories, and through any other means that will spread the word.

Today’s unions are making incredible gains and raising workplace standards. For example, members of our union at the Center for American Progress recently won a new contract that raised starting salaries by 20 percent over three years, secured annual raises of between 22.5 percent, and codified junior staff’s right to be credited on research and policy publications that they work on. Union members at G/O Media ratified a new contract that raised the organization’s salary floor to $62,000, includes trans-inclusive healthcare and prevents forced relocation for remote staff. At NPR, union journalists won 20 weeks of paid parental leave, a hiring process that commits to interviewing more candidates from underrepresented groups, and regular pay equity reviews. The more folks outside of the labor movement know about these victories, the more they will want to learn more about forming a union in their own workplaces. 

Millennials and Gen Z are excited, energized, and winning new gains and a new sense of power at work. For the labor movement to continue to grow, we must learn from each other, continue implementing the strategies that are winning union organizing campaigns, and support new, young leaders. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 9, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: Katie Barrows and Ethan Miller are the President and Secretary-Treasurer of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, IFPTE Local 70, which is made up of the staff of 49 organizations in Washington, DC and across the country.


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Starbucks is very unhappy about all the customers ordering drinks under the name ‘Union Strong’

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Laura Clawson – Netroots Nation

Starbucks keeps escalating its anti-union campaign, taking it ever more public and more blatant. From quietly shifting national-level managers into the first stores where workers organized, to firing pro-union workers, to interim CEO Howard Schultz whining volubly about the “assault” on Starbucks, the company has ratcheted up and up, and it’s not stopping.

This week, Starbucks announced pay raises and new benefits, including improved sick leave and credit card tipping—but not at stores where workers are organizing. It’s a direct bribe/threat: Stay quiet, and we’ll be nice. Organize, and get the short end of the stick.

Starbucks claimed that it would be illegal to unilaterally change conditions where workers are organizing, but Matthew Bodie, a law professor and former National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) lawyer, told The New York Times, ”If Starbucks said, ‘Drop the union campaign and you’ll get this wage increase and better benefits,’ that’d clearly be illegal,” and it’s “Hard to see how this is that much different in practice.” Starbucks Workers United has filed an unfair labor practice complaint over the company’s action, and has explained that while the company can’t unilaterally impose changes on a store that’s unionized, it can and should offer the changes to the union. That’s telling: Starbucks management is claiming that if it can’t act unilaterally, it can’t act at all, when really it’s time to start engaging the union as a bargaining counterpart.

Starbucks also took action against its own union-supporting customers. Many customers have been expressing support for the union by ordering under names like “Union Strong.” Starbucks is done putting up with that, instructing managers to not call out the names on those orders.

Starbucks even acknowledged, in a recent government filing, that “Our responses to any union organizing efforts could negatively impact how our brand is perceived and have adverse effects on our business, including on our financial results.”

The company knows this might not be so great for its image. And it’s not working. But executives are so committed to it that they’re even trying to silence customers.

About that “it’s not working” part: The union has a 90% win rate, according to a recent NLRB graph flagged by Steven Greenhouse. In recent days, that includes wins in several southern locations, including Tallahassee, Florida; Boone, North Carolina; and Farmville, Virginia, following an earlier win in Augusta, Georgia. On top of that, votes were held in four Massachusetts locations, and the union got a clean sweep, along with wins in Massapequa and Brooklyn, New York; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Plover, Wisconsin; and Summit, New Jersey. While many of the union wins have been blowouts, the few losses have largely had very close margins, and some votes remain uncalled because the number of challenged ballots could shift the outcome.

While Starbucks has been an ongoing drip drip drip of good news on the union front, the recent surge of worker-driven organizing did suffer a significant defeat this week when the second Staten Island Amazon warehouse to vote on union representation was a lopsided no. The fact that a group of workers forming an independent union and organizing against the multimillion-dollar union-busting campaign of one of the biggest companies in the world got one win remains massive, even if the second try didn’t replicate that success. But if the LDJ5 warehouse had voted to unionize, it would have suggested a truly seismic shift, especially given that even a small Amazon warehouse has as many workers as dozens of Starbucks stores.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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The Campus Workers Withdrawing Their Consent

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A conversation with student and graduate employees about why workers are simultaneously on strike at two universities.

Right now, a majority of residential advisers at Kenyon College, organized with the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee, are on an indefinite strike over unfair labor practices. At the same time, over 1,750 graduate student workers at Indiana University with the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition are on strike, demanding that the university administration formally recognize their union, pay graduate workers a livable wage, and eliminate costly student fees. In this extended mini-cast, we talk about these important struggles with three worker-organizers across the two campuses: Molly Orr, a sophomore at Kenyon College who works at the Kenyon Farm and the Writing Center; Nora Weber, a fourth-year PhD candidate in Sociology at Indiana University; and Anne Kavalerchik, a third-year PhD candidate in Sociology and Informatics at Indiana University.

This blog was originally posted at In These Times on April 21, 2022.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe?se?Times?.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.


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Speed Grocery Delivery Workers Are in a Dangerous Race

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A new industry of venture-capital-backed startups claim their workers are fast. Are they faster than regulations?

NEW YORK?—?Anthony Hom offers tips to delivery workers on his YouTube channel, Ride With Anthony. In one 15-minute, day-in-the-life video titled ?“Delivering Groceries Almost Kills Worker NYC,” Hom records himself on an electric bicycle delivering groceries through the streets of Manhattan, through a 20 mph wind he says is ?“pushing him sideways,” past a street barrier that blows into his path and avoiding a car that swerves without signaling.

That day, Hom was delivering for startup 1520, which launched in Manhattan in January 2021. It promised delivery in 15 to 20 minutes ?“or it’s free,” hence the name.

Grocery speed-delivery services surged in New York in 2021, heavily backed by venture capital. Already, expansion is outpacing protections, experts and advocates say (though 1520 has now shuttered, having drained its initial funding of $7.8 million). Delivery workers for the startups commute using e?bikes, and sometimes e?scooters, often provided, and branded, by the company they work for.

The ads are hard to miss, complete with neon color palettes and obscure names (see JOKR and Gorillas) and websites claiming the pasta will be ?“delivered before the water boils.”

The 20-minute delivery window is possible because of strategically located, company-owned micro-warehouses that each stock a limited supply of curated products, with an operating radius of about 2 miles (New York City Councilwoman Gale Brewer has alleged the ?“dark stores” are illegally located in commercial and residential zones.)

Hom started as a full-time delivery courier for 1520 in September 2021, motivated by the prospect of being an employee with hourly pay and the requisite benefits and protections, which he would not receive as an independent contractor, where pay scales can be radically different each day. On paper, the difference seems like a big move for the delivery and gig-economy industry; the majority of delivery workers for third-party apps are classified as independent contractors, which leaves them ineligible for minimum wage protections, sick pay, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance and other benefits.

Without robust, enforced regulations, however, some advocates say the move is more about public relations than social responsibility.

“Speed delivery is testing new business models to maximize their profit, create competitive advantage and grow in the app delivery market,” says Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Worker’s Justice Project. ?“They need a reliable workforce that can be 24/7— and this means paying the minimum and giving minimum protections, so they can control the labor more rapidly.”

Speed-delivery workers in New York City are covered under Administrative Code 10?–?157, which sets standards for businesses using bicycles for commercial purposes, according to Vincent Barone, press secretary for the city Department of Transportation. But Hildalyn Colón Hernández, policy director for the Worker’s Justice Project, says speed-delivery companies often do not comply. She cites examples such as providing reflective uniforms for safety and company identification on the bikes, guidelines that restaurant delivery services are required to follow, while some speed-delivery services are lacking, she says.

Meanwhile, the delivery industry itself is rapidly changing. ?“We have an industry that is emerging extremely fast, with a slower government sector,” Colón Hernández says. In September 2021, for example, the New York City Council passed legislation granting workers for third-party delivery apps (like Uber Eats and DoorDash) new protections, including access to restaurant bathrooms and transparency about daily compensation?—?but that particular legislation does not cover speed-delivery from micro-warehouses.

Hom quit 1520 because of ?“a lot of close calls” and the inflexibility of his schedule, he says. The average shift for 1520 workers was 12 hours according to Hom, but he says no delivery worker should be out longer than 8 hours: ?“Your body gets fatigued, not just your muscle but your instincts. That’s when human error takes place.”

As an employee, he says he was on the clock regardless of weather conditions. ?“When it’s raining, snowing, really cold outside, the hazardous work conditions, you still gotta deliver these groceries,” Hom says, adding: ?“If you refuse to, you’re probably going to get written up.”

When remnants of Hurricane Ida swept through New York in September 2021, images of delivery workers fulfilling orders for those hunkered down at home circulated online. One video, which shows a rider carrying an order through waist-deep water, prompted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to tweet, ?“If it’s too dangerous for you, it’s too dangerous for them.”

To Colón Hernández, the unacceptability of this risk should be obvious. ?“If there is a hurricane, no one should be out there,” she says. She adds that, even in wintry conditions, ?“They are out there doing the work that nobody wants to do. They need to be compensated fairly.”

Veena Dubal, a San Francisco-based law professor whose research centers on the gig economy, says, ?“In an industry where there is such a high rate
of injury, so much wear and tear on one’s body and health, there has to be a wage premium,” Dubal says. ?“These have to be good jobs, not make-it-by-the-seat-of-my-pants jobs.”

Josh Wood, a delivery worker for Uber Eats covered by the new delivery legislation, says his experience with Los Deliveristas Unidos (“Delivery Workers United”), an organizing collective created by the Worker’s Justice Project, has bolstered his beliefs in workers’ rights. 

“Every worker,” Wood says, ?“should have a union, have a group of advocates for them, and should be in an industry that’s regulated.”

This blog post was printed at In These Times on April 21, 2022.

About the Author: Maggie Duffy is a Brooklyn-based writer and an In These Times editorial intern. She is a graduate of Occidental College where she earned a degree in sociology. She most recently worked as a researcher for American Friends Service Committee. 


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Amazon moves its army of union-busters to the next warehouse over, this week in the war on workers

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Following the Amazon Labor Union’s huge win in Staten Island, they’re going for it again. Workers at another, smaller warehouse—called LDJ5—will begin voting on April 25, and Amazon is once again going hard with its union-busting campaign. 

“All those union-busters that were there to union-bust 8,000 workers at JFK8 have walked across the street and are in our little building of 1,600 people,” LDJ5 worker Madeline Wesley told reporters at a press conference last week. “They’re really fighting us, and they’re playing really dirty.”

The union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over captive audience meetings being conducted by veteran union-buster Rebecca Smith. The workers at LDJ5 will face enormous intimidation in the coming 10 days, but they can also look at JFK8 and take their inspiration.

“I can’t believe the building across from us, JFK8, got a union,” 18-year-old Ursula Tomaszuk told Labor Notes. “I thought it wasn’t doable until now.”

This blog was originally posted at Daily Kos on April 16, 2022.

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


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A Hotline Garment Workers Can Call When They Face Harassment on the Job

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When women who sew clothes for famous brands are harassed, there is a new place for them to turn.

MASERU, LESOTHO?—?When Nthabiseng Moshoeshoe’s supervisor told her he loved her, they were alone in a room where they both worked at a blue jeans factory in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, she says.

It was early 2021. She was emptying the garbage. He said she was beautiful, that he wanted to be with her, says Moshoeshoe, who is going by a pseudonym to protect her safety and job security. ?“Let’s keep this professional,” she remembers telling him back. ?“I pushed him away gently.” 

But he didn’t receive the news kindly, she says. From then on, she reports that he made repeated complaints about her performance. She grew worried she would lose her job, and with it the paycheck of $150 a month she relied on as her family’s breadwinner. 

For the women who sew the Western world’s clothes in Lesotho?—?the tiny country buried inside South Africa?—?men like Moshoeshoe’s supervisor have long been largely untouchable. In the factory where she worked sewing jeans for brands like Levi’s, Wrangler and The Children’s Place, it was an open secret that male supervisors traded sex for promotions and permanent jobs. And that they made work life painful for those who refused to give it to them. 

But not long after Moshoeshoe’s confrontation with her boss last year, she says she saw a poster at the factory advertising an information line to report sexual harassment. 

Though she didn’t know it, when she dialed that number, she was part of a grand experiment?—?one that advocates say has the potential to help make factories safer for women around the world. It’s modeled after labor hotlines in Bangladesh’s garment factories and Florida’s tomato fields.

The line in Lesotho is trying that approach for sexual harassment complaints, giving workers a way to report problems to someone outside the factory. That’s particularly important in an industry that is both dominated globally by women, and where sexual harassment is a documented, endemic crisis.

In an industry that has long been largely allowed to police itself, these hotlines are part of a greater movement toward accountability for brands and factories. But even their supporters are quick to point out that they are not a cure-all. Many of the conditions that make gender-based violence hard to stamp out in the world at large?—?like stigma and victim-blaming?—?exist in factories too. And in an industry beholden to the frenzied pace and dizzyingly low prices of fast fashion, working conditions remain difficult to regulate. 

Still, experts say, putting outside eyes on factories is a good place to start. ?“Left to their own devices, companies have largely failed to improve working conditions in their supply chains,” says Jason Judd, executive director of the New Conversations Project at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations school. Since the 1990s, he notes, the dominant model in the industry has been a system of social audits, where brands pay independent assessors to inspect factories for poor working conditions. But the quality of those audits is extremely inconsistent, and consequences for poorly-scoring factories are uneven at best.

But Judd says that in recent years, brands have begun to feel increased outside pressure?—?from consumers and governments in the countries where they sell their clothes?—?to be more rigorous in policing their suppliers. This comes at a time when the pandemic has exposed massive vulnerabilities on the supply side of clothing manufacturing, with brands canceling billions of dollars of orders, leaving factories and workers in the lurch. That has created, in many parts of the world, tenuous alliances between unions and factories, both desperate to keep business from shutting down. 

Lesotho’s sexual harassment line is one such example of this. On a recent morning, 20 garment workers sat in a pre-fab conference room beside the blue factory shell where they worked in a scrubby industrial district of Maseru, listening to union organizer Matsi Moalosi explain how the sexual harassment call line work. 

“After you report, you can get counseling, and the situation will be investigated,” she explained, raising her voice over the chatter of hundreds of workers on their lunch hour outside. 

The information line had its genesis in 2019, when a report by the labor NGO Worker Rights Consortium uncovered widespread sexual harassment and abuse at the factory group where Moalosi was doing the training?—?a Taiwanese company called Nien Hsing operating in Lesotho.

The factory owners initially denied the report. But its meticulous documentation, which included dozens of women independently reporting similar offenses, and a raft of bad press quickly forced the factories and the companies they manufactured for to the negotiating table. 

The brands and factories struck a deal with local labor unions and women’s rights groups. If the factories wanted to keep getting orders from the likes of Levi’s, Wrangler, and other major brands, they would agree to do two things. First, they would consent to a third-party complaints line, staffed by the Lesotho Federation of Women Lawyers, a local NGO. A second NGO, the Workers Rights Watch, would then investigate the complaints and ?“direct and enforce remedies in accordance with the Lesotho law,” according to a press release from the Worker Rights Consortium at the time. The three major brands involved agreed that if Nien Hsing was found breaching the agreement, they would reduce or cut off orders until it returned to compliance. 

Second, the factories would let the three major local trade unions, along with women’s rights NGOs, run trainings for every worker, teaching them how to access the hotline when they needed it.

Lesotho’s garment sector is heavily unionized, and ?“it was important to us that we run the trainings because we understand the issues workers are facing, and they trust us,” says Solong Senohe, general secretary of United Textile Employees (UNITE). ?“If someone who didn’t know them came and tried to teach them [about reporting sexual harassment], they might not trust that they should do it.” 

“It was important that it was a shift to an independent reporting mechanism outside of the law, because in Lesotho, the law is not trusted,” says Mampiletso Kobo, an investigator at Workers Rights Watch. As in many parts of the world, rates of sexual violence are high in the country, and women frequently say they face ?“harsh and accusatory questioning” from police when they report it. 

There hasn’t yet been any outside study of how well the hotline is working, and the pandemic has slowed down its rollout, but in Lesotho, workers and their advocates say they’re cautiously optimistic?—?with some caveats. 

A hotline is a blunt instrument, and sexual harassment is a nuanced problem, they note. After Moshoeshoe reported her harassment, for instance, she says her former supervisor was given a warning and moved to a different department. But although the hotline is theoretically anonymous, everyone around her seemed to know she had reported him, and people began to take sides. ?“I don’t feel very good being at work now,” she says. At the same time, she says, ?“other women who have problems with their bosses, they come to me now to ask for help. I help make them brave.”

For now, the program is limited to Nien Hsing’s factories, which together employ about 10,000 workers. That means the women working in most of Lesotho’s garment factories remain unprotected, and so far there’s been no move to scale the hotline up, or try a similar model in other countries. Indeed, advocates say that enforcing meaningful, widespread protections for garment workers anywhere in the world remains a constant challenge in the face of pressure from fast fashion brands to keep prices low and produce at extraordinarily brisk rates. 

“The companies are always threatening us that if we ask for too much, they will go to another country that’s cheaper,” says Rorisang Kamoli, a shop steward for UNITE at Nien Hsing. 

Meanwhile, the Lesotho Federation of Women Lawyers, which runs the hotline, says many who call it actually have complaints about workplace conditions that are unrelated to sexual violence, showing just how great the need is for outside reporting mechanisms for all kinds of workplace issues. 

Despite the problems it has brought her, Moshoeshoe says she is glad she reported what happened to her. ?“Before, men were never punished for this,” she says. ?“Now when we report, they hear us.” 

Majirata Latela contributed reporting. This story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

This blog was originally printed at In These Times on April 18, 2022.

About the Author: Ryan Lenora Brown is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She writes frequently about fashion, sustainability, and the women who make our clothes.


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Wisconsin AFL-CIO Supports Striking UAW Members at Vollrath Manufacturing

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

On April 4, more than 250 members of UAW Local 1472 went on strike at Vollrath Manufacturing in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The workers at Vollrath produce deep drawing, metal spinning, metal fabrication, annealing, polishing and finishing, and refrigeration systems. The workers are striking over wages and the equitable elimination of wage tiers for employees.

President Stephanie Bloomingdale (AFT) said the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO fully supports the UAW members: “The Wisconsin labor movement proudly stands in solidarity with our sisters and brothers of UAW Local 1472 on strike at Vollrath in Sheboygan for a fair and just contract. UAW Local 1472 members are holding the line to protect our American middle class and standing up for fair wages and benefits. We urge Vollrath to come back to the table and negotiate in good faith with meaningful proposals to reach a mutually agreeable contract. It’s never easy to go on strike. The brave members of UAW Local 1472 are coming together and taking courageous action to protect and advance good jobs in our local communities across Wisconsin.”

This blog post originally appeared at AFL-CIO on April 11, 2022.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinell is a Senior Writer at AFL-CIO.


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Unions Stand With Exploited Immigrants Demolition Workers in NYC

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A conversation with Chaz Rynkiewicz, vice president of Laborers Local 79.

With Laborers Local 79 leading the charge, union demolition workers, construction workers, carpenters, bricklayers, and more have rallied multiple times in the past month outside the Chelsea Terminal Warehouse in New York City to protest the mishandling of workers’ pensions and the exploitation, union busting, wage theft, and hazardous conditions workers have experienced at the job site. As Dean Moses writes in The Villager, ?“Many of the Laborers are immigrant demolition workers, also called los demolicionsitas, and construction workers who say that they have been deprived of healthcare throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to face intimidation and threats for trying to unionize Terminal Warehouse. Protesters named several culprits?—?three being New Line Structures, ECD NY and Alba Services?—?which, they alleged, have a history of wage theft and permitting hazardous working conditions. There were also allegations of gender discrimination.” We talk to Chaz Rynkiewicz, Vice President and Director of Organizing for Laborers Local 79.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on 03/03/2022.

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


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