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A Bunch of Union Organizers Explain What’s Wrong with Unions

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Here is the most fun­da­men­tal quandary of unions in Amer­i­ca: Polls show that 65% of Amer­i­cans approve of unions, and half of work­ers say they would join a union. But only about 10% of work­ers are actu­al­ly union mem­bers. In the yawn­ing gap between those num­bers lies the entire sto­ry of the Amer­i­can labor movement’s decline. 

The sys­tem­at­ic decades-long assault on labor pow­er by right-wing busi­ness inter­ests is the biggest con­trib­u­tor to union weak­ness, but by itself it is not a suf­fi­cient expla­na­tion. Why is there such an enor­mous dis­par­i­ty between the num­ber of peo­ple who want to be union mem­bers, and the num­ber who are union mem­bers? And how do unions close that divide? There is no short­age of opin­ions on these ques­tions, but we asked the one group of peo­ple who know the most and appear in the media the least: pro­fes­sion­al union organizers. 

A dozen orga­niz­ers respond­ed to our call and shared their thoughts about how unions got so deep in a hole, and how to get out. 

How did we get here?

Fear

“I do not hon­est­ly believe it is pos­si­ble to sep­a­rate ‘polit­i­cal issues’ from that gap between sup­port and mem­ber­ship. Yes, stuff like Right to Work and anti-work­er Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board appoint­ments harm work­ing peo­ple, but right-wing aus­ter­i­ty, gut­ting of the pub­lic safe­ty net, and lack of uni­ver­sal health cov­er­age is a huge fac­tor here as well. To me, the biggest rea­son peo­ple don’t join a union or orga­nize their work­place is because their boss has too much pow­er over their lives. When I worked on an exter­nal new orga­niz­ing cam­paign at Unit­ed Health­care Work­ers West I spent a ton of time talk­ing with work­ers who were ter­ri­fied of los­ing their job if they orga­nized or pub­licly sup­port­ed the union because it would mean los­ing health­care cov­er­age or finan­cial ruin for their fam­i­ly. A lot of peo­ple tru­ly just feel lucky to have a job. And while in the­o­ry, yes, they would love to have a union, they are more afraid of rock­ing the boat. I went to work on the Bernie cam­paign with the pur­pose of try­ing to change that. While card check or the Pro­tect­ing the Right to Orga­nize (PRO) Act would cer­tain­ly make it eas­i­er to win unions and first con­tracts, until los­ing your job does­n’t mean los­ing your health­care cov­er­age and abil­i­ty to cov­er rent, it is always going to be an uphill battle.”

— Dan­ny Keane, orga­niz­er-rep­re­sen­ta­tive with Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) 221

Ser­vice unionism

“I’ve seen union-bust­ing both hard and soft, and these employ­ers have got­ten so good at nar­row­ing the focus of the union. Sure, peo­ple sup­port unions in broad strokes, but when it gets down to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of you form­ing a union, the boss is so good at either scar­ing peo­ple or con­vinc­ing peo­ple that union dues are not a worth­while ‘invest­ment.’

While right-wing forces have eager­ly tried to turn unions into irrel­e­vant third par­ties, unions have alien­at­ed them­selves from work­ers as well. I think that unions have sim­ply shift­ed away from empow­er­ing work­ers. Through an overzeal­ous focus on con­tract enforce­ment through griev­ances and through some anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic mea­sures, unions have, in effect, made them­selves a third par­ty to the work­ers. These shifts did­n’t hap­pen overnight, and I think inten­tions behind them were good, just misguided.

Take griev­ances, for instance, which appear to be a win-win: Work­ers get their issues heard with legal sup­port, and unions get to jus­ti­fy their increas­ing­ly bureau­crat­ic struc­tures by bog­ging them­selves down in the drawn-out griev­ance pro­ce­dure. But in the long-term, rely­ing too much on the griev­ance sys­tem hurts work­er pow­er. Griev­ance pro­ce­dures are pur­pose­ful­ly slow and bureau­crat­ic, and, by design, griev­ances are lim­it­ed sole­ly to nar­row con­tract enforce­ment. They take the pow­er out of the work­ers’ hands and put the deci­sions into the hands of lawyers and an osten­si­bly neu­tral arbi­tra­tor. They lim­it work­ers’ imag­i­na­tions from dream­ing of ways to improve and trans­form their work­places. And they turn the union into a third-par­ty ser­vice that tries to clean up mess­es for the price of biweek­ly dues.

Unions have also tak­en anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic mea­sures inter­nal­ly. I think that work­ers are large­ly shut out from the cam­paign deci­sion mak­ing that union staffers lead. As orga­niz­ers, we’re trained to fol­low the work­ers’ lead, but I see that teach­ing only goes so far. While I respect the per­spec­tive that trained orga­niz­ers know the best prac­tices for orga­niz­ing, I believe that work­ers know their employ­ers and their indus­tries best and need to be more includ­ed in the deci­sions that affect orga­niz­ing campaigns.”

— Daniel Luis Zager, Cam­paign Orga­niz­er at SEIU Health­care-Illi­nois Indi­ana Mis­souri Kansas

The nature of the mod­ern workplace

“Even before the pan­dem­ic length­ened aver­age hours worked by those still employed, work­ing an eight-hour work­day does­n’t leave much time for all else that needs to get done. Com­mit­ting to week­ly orga­niz­ing meet­ings and hours of one-to-one con­ver­sa­tions with cowork­ers—the back­bone of any union cam­paign—is daunt­ing, and for many, unten­able. The work­ers who have the most to gain from a union at their com­pa­ny—those who are over-worked, under­paid, and under-val­ued—are also the most like­ly to take on sec­ond or third jobs and man­age care-tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties that make it hard­er to engage in a sus­tained union cam­paign. And unfor­tu­nate­ly, because of the nec­es­sary clan­des­tine nature of orga­niz­ing efforts, these meet­ings must take place out­side of the work­place, off work time, and through tedious (yet illu­mi­nat­ing) conversations.

Those who see issues in their work­place and would be most sup­port­ive of a union are often ones who are on their way out of a com­pa­ny. While there’s sim­i­lar­ly a con­tin­gent of work­ers who orga­nize because they love their com­pa­ny and want it to be a place they can remain employed long-term, there are always work­place lead­ers whose per­sis­tent griev­ances push them to sim­ply find a new job instead of com­mit­ting to a long campaign.

Along those same lines, the ‘career jobs’ of the past are large­ly lost in the 21st cen­tu­ry. Even those who are sat­is­fied with their jobs and enjoy the work are encour­aged to con­tin­ue gain­ing skills else­where for fear they’ll lose their edge, or miss out on oppor­tu­ni­ties else­where. The decline in long-term com­mit­ments to employ­ers pos­es chal­lenges for union cam­paigns, whose core philoso­phies rely on work­ers dig­ging into their own self inter­est and orga­niz­ing around the kind of work­place they desire. If employ­ees already see them­selves leav­ing with­in two to five years at any giv­en com­pa­ny, putting in the work it takes to build a union may not add up.

We are taught to see our­selves as mobile employ­ees who are poised to climb the lad­der in our work­place. Receiv­ing a pro­mo­tion to a man­age­ment posi­tion is aspi­ra­tional. And once in that man­age­ment or super­vi­so­ry posi­tion, employ­ees are no longer eli­gi­ble for a union. Even if a major­i­ty of work­ers sup­port unions and would like to see one in their own work­place, the dis­tance between see­ing them­selves as ‘work­ers’ who would be part of that, and their own endeav­ors to pro­mote out of the union-eli­gi­ble des­ig­na­tion, can be great.”

— Grace Reck­ers, north­east lead orga­niz­er, Office and Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union

Polar­iza­tion

“Over 20 years of gen­er­a­tional change, [the old demo­graph­ics of affin­i­ty for unions] has fad­ed a lot, and atti­tudes to union­iza­tion break down much more clear­ly along con­ven­tion­al right to left lines. Younger peo­ple and non­white peo­ple and lib­er­als or Democ­rats—espe­cial­ly African Amer­i­cans—are the main sup­port­ers, and white, work­ing-class peo­ple—espe­cial­ly old­er ones—have as a group slot­ted unions in with the rest of right-left issues. The same polit­i­cal polar­iza­tion that exists in most oth­er issues, basically.

Addi­tion­al dynam­ics have been: The youngest gen­er­a­tion in the work­force now is the most left-wing and inter­est­ed in redis­tri­b­u­tion, but also has the least famil­iar­i­ty with any of the con­cepts of unions and is not nec­es­sar­i­ly strong like­ly union supporters.

There is an increas­ing­ly region­al back­ground to whether unions are a thing you see oper­ate. Blue states and red states have become much more polar­ized on labor stuff than the sim­ple Right to Work map indi­cates. Blue states like New Eng­land, the West Coast and the North­east have become much more proac­tive in work­ing with unions to union­ize more peo­ple and get them some stuff, and red or pur­ple states (espe­cial­ly the whole Mid­west) have got­ten much more hos­tile to that stuff.

The edu­ca­tion­al polar­iza­tion we see on right to left stuff has become a huge fac­tor in whether young, work­ing-class peo­ple want to union­ize. Indus­tries pop­u­lat­ed with poor, younger adults who are gen­er­al­ly overe­d­u­cat­ed like (ahem) dig­i­tal media or high­er edu­ca­tion, are super ripe slam dunks where you can trans­form an indus­try with hot-shop orga­niz­ing. Ones with most­ly poor­er, younger adults who are not edu­cat­ed, and are not most­ly based in urban areas, like retail and sup­ply chain logis­tics, have had cold work­ers that are not respon­sive enough to union dri­ves to make win­ning a pos­si­bil­i­ty. (Part of the equa­tion hold­ing them back, of course, is how that gen­er­a­tion of big-box retail and its sup­ply chain were built from scratch in such a way that unions could be kept out com­plete­ly and any rare com­po­nent that got infect­ed could be eas­i­ly shut down and dis­solved. But there’s an atti­tu­di­nal dif­fer­ence in the con­stituen­cies as well.)

A bright spot excep­tion to this has been fast food where, despite the work­force being young and not edu­cat­ed and rarely stay­ing long at par­tic­u­lar jobs, peo­ple just hate their job and boss so much they are eager to unionize. 

What I find myself want­i­ng to impress upon fel­low labor-fan left­ies is this: It is tru­ly not just the unfair play­ing field, or the pow­er of the boss’s fight to scare peo­ple, that pre­vents a major­i­ty of a work­place from vot­ing to union­ize. In many many work­places, skep­ti­cism and dis­in­ter­est in doing a col­lec­tive fight thing is wide­spread, organ­ic and real among the major­i­ty in the mid­dle. Not among social sci­ence adjuncts, or jour­nal­ists, or in large urban ser­vice job clus­ters where almost all the work­ers are poor and non­white. In those types of work­places, I think any com­pe­tent orga­niz­ing pro­gram should be able to grow the union. But in places that reflect the edu­ca­tion­al or polit­i­cal diver­si­ty of the coun­try as a whole, I think you’re work­ing with few­er total sup­port­ers and that’s why you wind up chas­ing stuff like card check neutrality.”

— Jim Straub, vet­er­an union organizer

The orga­niz­ing model

“The shop-by-shop mod­el of union­iz­ing in the Unit­ed States makes it real­ly hard to scale orga­niz­ing. It sad­dles both union orga­niz­ers and employ­ees who want a union with a ton of strate­gic, legal and bureau­crat­ic work just to orga­nize a work­place of even five or 10 peo­ple. It’s as if any work­er who want­ed health­care had to form their own insur­ance com­pa­ny before sign­ing up. We need to build a new mod­el—like sec­toral or mul­ti-employ­er bar­gain­ing—so we can orga­nize entire indus­tries together.

Often those most in need of unions have the least resources and band­width to form them. Staff work­ing long hours in dan­ger­ous or over­whelm­ing jobs just don’t have the band­width to sit on a bunch of evening Zoom calls to learn the ins and outs of deter­min­ing an appro­pri­ate bar­gain­ing unit under the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act (NLRA). The only way to bridge this gap would be if unions had the resources to offer more orga­niz­ing sup­port to work­places that need it.

A lot of work­ers ‘sup­port unions’ but think they are for oth­er work­ers. ‘White col­lar’ work­ers in par­tic­u­lar think unions are for work­ers in oth­er eras, in oth­er indus­tries, at oth­er work­places. Help­ing peo­ple under­stand that if they sell their labor then they are a part of the work­ing class and deserve a union is often the first hur­dle. More broad­ly, our coun­try doesn’t teach or cel­e­brate col­lec­tive action as some­thing peo­ple should aspire to par­tic­i­pate in. In fact, many peo­ple inter­nal­ize the idea that orga­niz­ing is incon­sis­tent with the idea of becom­ing a leader in their field.”

— Daniel Ess­row, orga­niz­er, Non­prof­it Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Union

No pop­u­lar labor history

“I find that there is a huge gap between peo­ple’s gen­er­al sup­port for unions and hav­ing any idea of how they real­ly work, what it takes to start one, etc. I think there are two pri­ma­ry and relat­ed rea­sons for this. One is that labor process­es are com­plex and arcane to most peo­ple. Elec­tions, griev­ances, Wein­garten rights, just cause, right to work—all of these terms are either total­ly for­eign to or com­plete­ly mis­un­der­stood by most non-union work­ers. I’m cur­rent­ly work­ing on a cam­paign in a Right to Work state, and many of the work­ers there thought Right to Work means unions are for­bid­den! Oth­ers tend to think that unions are some­thing for just fac­to­ry work­ers and the like, even though the ser­vice indus­try is [a rapid­ly grow­ing union­ized sec­tor]. Relat­ed­ly, I think many who sup­port­ed unions in that poll might have answered dif­fer­ent­ly if asked, ‘Would form­ing a union improve work­ing con­di­tions at your job?’ I see a lot of folks who gen­er­al­ly sup­port unions, but don’t see their field or com­pa­ny as being a place to organize. 

The oth­er is that labor his­to­ry and process­es aren’t part of our basic edu­ca­tion, nor are they ever explained or even real­ly ref­er­enced in the media. I think it’s a big issue that our his­to­ry lessons don’t gen­er­al­ly address the role of labor in increas­ing liv­ing stan­dards for work­ers glob­al­ly, nor any of the big laws (NLRA, Taft-Hart­ley) and what they have done. Why don’t we learn about the NLRA in high school when we study the New Deal or McCarthy­ism? How come we don’t learn about the Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions and the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World, and the gains made by the work­ing class in that era?”

— Steven More­lock, orga­niz­er, Nation­al Nurs­es United

Hold my jacket…

“There’s always going to be a gulf between sup­port­ing some­thing in the abstract and being will­ing to risk your ass to achieve it in a real way. This is a dynam­ic that plays out on the ground dur­ing orga­niz­ing con­stant­ly, as you have plen­ty of peo­ple who are will­ing to sup­port the union, but don’t want to actu­al­ly be pub­lic about it. The anal­o­gy I use is some­one offer­ing to hold your jack­et before you get into a fight. Get­ting work­ers to over­come that fear is a key part of orga­niz­ing, and it maps out to the broad­er trend. Insti­tu­tion­al­ly, the union move­ment has tried to nar­row this divide through pass­ing laws like the Employ­ee Free Choice Act or the PRO Act that reduce the risk of orga­niz­ing a union. I don’t think that approach is a viable or real­is­tic option: I severe­ly doubt Con­gress will pass a ver­sion of the PRO Act if by some mir­a­cle Biden wins and the Democ­rats have undi­vid­ed con­trol of the Congress.”

— Bryan Con­lon, union organizer

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 2020. 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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#CampusResistance rises today at colleges and universities nationwide

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Students and faculty at America’s colleges and universities stand at the confluence of many of the most troubled waters springing from the Trump administration and its corporate-driven, deeply divisive agenda.

It’s on these campuses that millions of young adults wonder whether they’ll still have health insurance if Obamacare is repealed. It’s here where those whose parents are undocumented immigrants may be forced to seek sanctuary. Hate incidents have spiked. The arts, science and intellectual freedom are under attack. Countless professors were ensnared by the administration’s ill-conceived travel ban.

This deluge is flooding a higher education system in which so many were already barely keeping their heads above water. Families can’t afford to send their kids to college, student debt has skyrocketed and faculty in precarious jobs are earning so little, many must rely on public assistance to make ends meet.

Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that college campuses are emerging as centers of resistance in these first weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Today, nationwide, at dozens of colleges and universities from Boston to Seattle, students, contingent and adjunct faculty, their fellow working people and allies are standing up, teaching in, speaking out and reclaiming higher education for the public good. A national day of action is raising the banner of #CampusResistance.

At the University of Chicago, we are standing up for part-time faculty who struggle to pay for healthcare and are in danger of their losing insurance. Elsewhere across the country there are marches, rallies and teach-ins. The energy surrounding the campus resistance movement is real and growing.

As a contingent professor of Hindi and the executive vice president of a labor union, the two of us have different vantage points as we observe what’s happening in our nation and on our campuses. However, we see the same forces at work. New Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is unqualified and wrong for the job, which she has clearly demonstrated through her attacks on unionized workers and support for commoditized, corporatized higher education.

But college campuses are inherently optimistic places. That’s why we can see past Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. It’s why contingent faculty endure the challenges of the profession. It’s why graduate workers keep at it even when they are underpaid and overworked. It’s why students who wonder what kind of world they’ll graduate into are hitting the books harder than ever.

You can’t keep people down who are thinking about the future—their own and that of our country. It’s why students and faculty who joined or applauded as millions of women marched the day after Trump’s inauguration have turned their attention to what they can do right where they are.

What they can do—what they will do on today—is more than protest Trump, although it’s essential that we resist and oppose his agenda. Faculty and students will rise up to and stress how important a strong higher education system is to the well-being of the nation.

Americans deserve—and need—colleges that are gateways to a lifetime of opportunity for students. Institutions that are once again cornerstones of local and regional economies, providing good, stable jobs that can sustain a family. Places where children of immigrant families can pursue the American Dream without worrying they will be dragged away. Homes to robust intellectual inquiry that advances science and nurtures the arts, uncompromised by the pressures of partisan politics.

This is why we and thousands of others are a part of the #CampusResistance — today and beyond.

This article was originally printed on SEIU.org in March 2017 .  Reprinted with permission.

Jason Grunebaum has been a contingent professor of Hindi at University of Chicago for 12 years.
Heather Conroy
is an international executive vice president at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).


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We Cannot Build a Strong, Equitable Economy on Low-Paying Jobs

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Mary Kay HenryWhat started out last fall as a one-day walkout at fast-food restaurants to protest poverty-level wages and stand up for basic human dignity has transformed into a movement that has captured the public interest.

I’ve been privileged, especially in recent weeks, to talk to institutional partners, policymakers and media about why low-wage workers across the country are risking their jobs and forgoing a much-needed day’s pay to work toward a better future for themselves and their families. We will be better off when hardworking people have enough money in their pockets to put back into their communities and generate more jobs, and SEIU members are proud to back these workers in their pursuit of economic justice and better lives for their families.

I traveled to New York City on Wednesday, to talk to Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert about the fast-food strikes. How in the world did this happen? I told Kendall Fells, an organizer from Fast Food Forward, it is because of the courage of the strikers, such as Shay Kerr and Shakira Campbell.

Shay has worked at McDonald’s in East Flatbush, N.Y., for six months. She earns minimum wage and, because sometimes her hours are cut for no reason, she can’t rely on a set pay every week. Since she cannot make ends meet on her wages, she has been bouncing around shelters. She’s fighting for a union so she can make a better life for herself and her 6-year-old son. Shakira is leading an action tomorrow at her store to be put back on the schedule. Their stories echo stories I’ve heard from workers all around the country.

Shakira, Shay, and many others who I have had the privilege of meeting in recent months are helping the public understand that, contrary to what some believe, these positions aren’t being filled by teenagers. Anyone who thinks they are is nostalgic for a time that no longer exists.

More than 4 million people work in the food service industry. Their average age is 28. Many of these workers have children and are trying to support a family. The median wage (including managerial staff) of $9.08 an hour still falls far below the federal poverty line for a worker lucky enough to get 40 hours a week and never have to take a sick day. According to the National Employment Law Project, low-wage jobs comprised 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth in the last few years.

This means middle-class jobs are disappearing while low-wage jobs are growing. If we simply accept this as fact, then the divide between the haves and the have-nots will only grow worse. And that is just wrong.

We cannot build a strong, equitable economy on low-paying jobs. Corporate profits are at an all-time high. McDonalds earned $5.5 billion just last year; other fast-food restaurants and retail chains are similarly profitable. They can afford to raise wages.

Americans have a long history of sticking together to fight for something better. SEIU can be proud of how we are fighting on so many fronts, from winning commonsense immigration reform, to delivering on the promise of the Affordable Care Act, to telling our elected officials to invest in vital public services, and to organizing in various sectors to make sure workers have a voice in the workplace. All of our members are involved in these campaigns to help workers strengthen and grow our union. As we do it, we know we have to reach out to the growing service sector of low-wage jobs in retail and fast food.

We are united to make a path to power for all workers; winning a just society; and leaving the world a better and more equal place for next generations to come.

This article originally appeared on SEIU blog on August 8, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mary Kay Henry is the International President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).


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Inferior workplace health and safety regulations are killing us (literally!)

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Image: Kate ThomasOn Monday, May 16, SEIU member Cathy Stoddart, RN, BSN spoke at a briefing with U.S. Senate staff about the importance of strong health and safety workplace regulations. The briefing familiarized HELP committee staff with the benefits of regulations for American consumers and workers, as well as the costs of government’s failure to ensure a safe workplace.

In her dual role serving an Executive Board member of her SEIU Healthcare PA and as a nurse at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny General Hospital, Cathy is no stranger to making her voice heard on workers’ rights and workplace safety issues. She spoke in detail on Monday about how we might easily and affordably strengthen health and safety regulations to prevent injuries and illnesses, save lives, and improve patient care. “Regulations don’t kill jobs,” Cathy pointed out, “but a lack of workplace health and safety regulations does kill workers.”

The reality is much more needs to be done to regulate hazards that healthcare workers face. The statistics speak for themselves…

Healthcare workers have higher injury and illness rates than workers in mining, manufacturing or construction; yet very few health and safety standards for these caregiving workers exist.

For example, there are currently no standards to protect healthcare workers from the leading hazard they face: an epidemic of neck, back and shoulder injuries from manual patient handling. A Safe Patient Handling regulation that required the provision of lifting devices to protect healthcare workers from career-ending back, neck and shoulder injuries would go a long way towards solving this pervasive problem. With the recent anti- worker rhetoric combined with staffing cutbacks, we are also seeing an alarming increase in workplace violence. We need a national OSHA workplace violence prevention standard to protect healthcare workers from getting assaulted by patients, residents and clients.

A bill that’s currently making the rounds in the House Judiciary and Rules Committees presents a huge potential barrier to removing the threats healthcare workers still face on the job. H.R. 10 (the REINS Act) would require both Houses of Congress to approve virtually all new major regulations before they go into effect, which means that any new regulation would get caught up in Congressional gridlock.

What would passage of the REINS Act specifically mean for working people? Nothing good, that’s for sure. HR 10, if enacted, would essentially make it impossible to ever issue another regulation to protect workers from on-the-job hazards. Consider that in the year 2010 alone, federal agencies issued more than 90 major new rules that could likely have been subject to the REINS Act’s requirements. There are simply not enough hours in a day to allow Congress to allot the time necessary to consider and approve even the most important rules (much less 90 of them).

The OSHA standard setting process currently in place is essentially broken. Standards that previously took a year to promulgate now take decades, if they come out at all. We need to expedite rulemaking, not slow it down, like the REIN Act aims to do.

This article originally appeared in SEIU Blog on May 19, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kate Thomas is a blogger, web producer and new media coordinator at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor union with 2.1 million members in the healthcare, public and property service sectors. Kate’s passions include the progressive movement, the many wonders of the Internet and her job working for an organization that is helping to improve the lives of workers and fight for meaningful health care and labor law reform. Prior to working at SEIU, Katie worked for the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) as a communications/public relations coordinator and editor of AMSA’s newsletter appearing in The New Physician magazine.


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‘Deeper Into the Shadows’: The Aftermath of ICE’s Audits and Enforcement Strategy

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R.M. ArrietaA new report issued by the Immigration Policy Center, “Deeper into the Shadows: The Unintended Consequence of Immigration Worksite Enforcement,” examines what happens to workers after an I-9 audit, wherein the federal governmet inspects employment eligibility forms employers keep on file for each worker.

The results aren’t pretty.

Aftermath of an audit

In Minneapolis, 1,200 workers were fired from ABM Industries, a major building-services contractor, after an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) audit. Staff members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26, the janitors’ union in Minneapolis, surveyed 50 of the workers and found they had on average worked seven years at ABM and were equally composed of men and women.

Of the 50 fired ABM workers surveyed, 31 had found work but now are making 40 percent less than their ABM wages. Fewer than half said they would report their wages to the IRS.

(Most of the surveyed workers are Mexican nationals with an average age of 38. They had lived in the U.S. between six and 24 years, with half arriving before 1999. Thirty-four had children born in the United States. Only nine said they would return to their homeland.)

Last October and December, about 100 workers at two St. Paul, Minn., companies in cattle hide processing and tanning lost their jobs after ICE audits.

On Thursday, January 20, 2011, eight people were arrested after protesting inside of a Chipotle restaurant in Minneapolis. In December, Chipotle fired more than 100 Latino workers following ICE audits. See video below profiling one fired Chipotle worker.   (Photo courtesy Workday Minnesota)
On Thursday, January 20, 2011, eight people were arrested after protesting inside of a Chipotle restaurant in Minneapolis. In December, Chipotle fired more than 100 Latino workers following ICE audits. See video below profiling one fired Chipotle worker. (Photo courtesy Workday Minnesota)

Audits at Chipotle Mexican Grill chain, based in Denver, resulted in the firings of at least 100 people in 50 of the chain’s restaurants. (See SEIU video below profiling one worker.) Company spokesman Chris Arnold called it a “heartbreaking situation to lose so many excellent employees” but pointed out that the ICE audit left the company’s hands tied. He said the company asked ICE for an extra 90 days so that the workers could present valid papers, but officials denied their request.

Union officials say the enforcement is not forcing undocumented immigrants to leave the country so much as pushing them into an underground economy that is making them poorer.

When one woman lost her job at ABM, her daughter dropped out of high school to help support the family. She now works seven days a week, two shifts a day in a factory and makes $8.65 an hour without overtime or health benefits.

One worker dismissed from ABM found another seven-day-a-week janitorial job that pays him $25 a night in cash. His hourly rate depends on his speed. “Sometimes its like, $5 an hour,” he said.  He has two U.S.-born children and has no intention of leaving the country. He says:  “I don’t know what’s going to happen to the kids if they catch me. We don’t go outside. We don’t go to church now.”

The Immigration Policy Center report, released on February 9, found that money is slowly being withdrawn from the local economy and people are relying on the barter system.

For example, one man pays less rent in exchange for landscaping. Another shovels snow or tunes up cars in exchange for childcare. According to immigrants interviewed in the report, the use of “tandas” is increasing. A tanda is a revolving credit system based on trust. Participants agree to pool their money. Members of the pool receive that money which they have to repay.

Bad for companies—and the economy?

Companies are also taking a hit. One firm had to fire 150 out of its 200 workers.

According to ICE guidelines, agents who enforce worksite laws must look for evidence of worker mistreatment, trafficking, smuggling, harboring, visa fraud, identification document fraud and money laundering. But a lack of transparency makes it difficult to find out whether the guidelines are even being followed.

John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center in Minnesota asked, “What are the priorities of this kind of I-9 auditing? It’s a strategy that has a high political value in trying to prove they’re doing enforcement…and going after the bad apples, the worst employers. But the reality is that ABM did not have a serious record of being a bad actor. Why was that a priority?”

Is ICE violating its pledge to go after the worst cases of worker mistreatment?

SEIU Local 26 President Javier Morillo-Alicea says he and other union representatives have taken their complaints to ICE officials in Washington. But he says there’s a disturbing disconnect. “What [the Washington] D.C. ICE [office] tells us has no connection to what local ICE agents do,” Morillo-Alicea contends.  “We are forcing people to the bad actors who profit from the broken immigration system.”

Workers are worried about their livelihoods, their families, whether they will be detained, and the fact that some of their money will not be returned. “When we get paid, they withhold Social Security and Medicare. We pay unemployment and everything in a single paycheck,” Alondra says in the report. (To protect their identities, workers in the report are referred to with pseudonyms or only first names.) She wonders if fired workers will ever see that money.

As the report states,

Immigrant workers are an important part of our labor force. Those who are undocumented, in many cases, entered the workforce when demand was high and have lived in this country for many years, setting down roots and becoming productive members of their communities.

Ripping them from their jobs and families or driving them deeper underground will only hurt the U.S. economy.

Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank, put it simply while testifying before Congress recently. “We cannot deport our way out of unemployment,” he said.

Watch Video of Fired Chipolte Worker

About the Author: R.M. Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked at three dailies and two television stations. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She can be reached at rmarrieta@inthesetimes.com.


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Who Will Lead the SEIU?

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Now that Andy Stern has announced his impending retirement as head of the SEIU, the fight to replace him has moved out into the open.

The heir apparent is Anna Burger, SEIU secretary treasurer, and currently Stern’s second in command. Stern has groomed her to replace him. Like Stern, Burger has strong ties to the Obama administration. Visitor logs show that she and Stern have been among the most frequent visitors to the White House since Obama took office.

When Stern officially steps aside, Burger will serve as interim president until the Executive Board picks a permanent leader, typically within 30 days.

Burger faces several challengers in her bid to lead the nation’s largest and fastest-growing union. International executive vice president Mary Kay Henry has announced that she will seek the top spot. Henry heads up SEIU’s healthcare division. Henry has earned a reputation as a shrewd strategist. She is also a founding member of the SEIU’s gay and lesbian Lavender Caucus.

Dennis Rivera, the former president of Local 1199 United Healthcare Workers East would be a formidable candidate, if he decides to seek the job. As president, he forged alliances with health care executives to fight funding cuts to hospitals. Rivera went on to serve as Stern’s top health care policy adviser.

Burger is generally regarded as the favorite in this race. However, a challenge by Henry and/or Rivera could certainly make things interesting.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on April 15, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Lindsay Beyerstein, a former InTheseTimes.com political reporter, is a freelance investigative journalist in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Slate.com, AlterNet.org, The New York Press, The Washington Independent, RH Reality Check and other news outlets. Beyerstein writes a daily foreign affairs bulletin for the UN Foundation’s UN Dispatch website and covers healthcare for the Media Consortium. She is the winner of a 2009 Project Censored Award. She blogs at Majikthise.


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