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Attack on Middle-Class Jobs, Workers Is Nationwide

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Image: Mike HallThe incredible response and mobilizations against the coordinated attacks on workers’ rights and middle-class jobs in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana have grabbed most of the media spotlight during the past few weeks.

But there are other serious assaults under way in dozens of states, pushed by corporate CEOs and their Republican puppets. Perhaps flying lowest under the radar is one of the most drastic measures, one that even its own supporters blatantly call Michigan’s “financial martial law.”

The so-called emergency managers bill would allow Gov. Rick Snyder (R) to declare a “financial emergency” in a city or school district and appoint a manager with broad powers, including the ability to fire local elected officials, break contracts, seize and sell assets, eliminate services—and even eliminate whole cities or school districts without any public input, according to the Michigan Messenger.

Last week, more than 1,500 people jammed the Lansing Capitol building to protest the bill during the state Senate’s debate. Ken Bower, a United Steelworker (USW) Local 2-21 member from Escanaba, Mich., said:

I’m here to tell the governor that he has to stop this attack on working-class citizens. Removing the people that we put into office without any check or balance is completely undemocratic.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) warns that that the bill:

empowers this financial czar with the governor’s approval to force a municipality into bankruptcy, a power that will surely be used to extract further concessions from hardworking public-sector workers.

Different versions of the bill have passed the state Senate and House and final action is expected early this week.usw_photo_wp

In a related note from Michigan, if there is any question what side Snyder stands on—CEOs’ or working people’s—his budget and tax proposals show he is firmly camped out with his corporate friends. Pat Garofalo at Think Progress points out:

Snyder has proposed ending his state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, cutting a $600 per child tax credit, and reducing credits for seniors, while also cutting funding for school districts by eight to ten percent. At the same time, as the Michigan League for Human Services found, the state’s business taxes would be reduced by nearly $2 billion, or 86 percent.

Elsewhere:

  • So-called right to work bills have been introduced in more than a dozen states, including Indiana (temporarily off the table), Maine, Michigan and Pennsylvania with Republican legislatures and governors.
  • Paycheck deception bills that would silence workers’ voices in the election process have been or soon will be introduced in nearly two dozen states, including 15 where Republicans control the legislature and hold the governor’s office, including Florida where the bill was approved by a Senate committee this morning.
  • Prevailing wage laws protect communities and workers from unscrupulous contractors low-balling bids on taxpayer-funded construction projects by setting wage rates to the local or prevailing standard. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), with the support of construction industry CEOs, vows to eliminate Ohio’s prevailing wage law, and legislation has been or will soon be introduced in 19 states, including  nine with dual Republican control.
  • In 22 states—12 with Republican governors and legislatures—moves are under way to eliminate Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) that would hurt communities, workers and small businesses by lowering wages.
  • Public school teachers and employees are fighting back against assaults in more than a dozen states, including some so-called “education reform” proposals that are thinly veiled attacks on teachers’ rights and privatization schemes.
  • Bills attacking immigrant workers’ rights and immigrant children’s education, including many patterned after Arizona’s anti-immigrant law passed last year, have been or will soon be introduced in some 30 states, half of which are Republican controlled.

This blog originally appeared in blog.aflcio.org on March 14, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He has also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold his blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.


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Is the Labor Department Dragging Its Feet On Promising Anti-Wage Theft Measure?

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photo_86504Advocates estimate that tens of billions dollars are stolen from workers every year through wage theft. A national survey of workers in the United States’ three largest cities – New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – showed the startling finding that 26 percent of those surveyed in low-wage industries were paid less than the minimum wage in the last year and 75 percent were not paid overtime. The survey showed that 15 percent of the earnings of low-wage workers were stolen each year.

Part of the problem is that often workers don’t have the ability to prove that their wages were stolen. Pay stubs do not have uniform standards that clearly indicate overtime, wage per hour, exact days, and hours worked. Ten states do not even require employers to provide pay stubs for workers. The uneven standards and lack of uniformity and clarity in standards makes it very difficult for workers to prove that wages are stolen.

It would cost employers almost nothing to provide workers with such information. Already, employers are required to keep this information and give it to the IRS, state tax authorities, and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), just not to the workers. So it’s not as if companies do not already collect this information—they simply don’t want to give it to workers. Earlier this year, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued a statement indicating it intended to make a rule making greater standards and transparency. The Department announced that

Wage and Hour Division [of the Department] intends to publish a proposed rule updating the recordkeeping regulation issued under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to assist employers in planning to protect workers’ entitlement to wages that they have earned and bring greater transparency and openness to the workplace.

The proposed rule would address notification of workers’ status as employees or some other status such as independent contractors, and whether that worker is entitled to the protections of the FLSA. The proposed rulemaking would also explore requiring employers to provide a wage statement each pay period to their employees.

But anti-wage theft activists are saying the rule is not taking effect quickly enough.

“We are encouraged that the DOL is proposing a regulation that would mandate pay stubs. But the devil is in the details,” says Ted Smukler, policy director at Interfaith Worker’s Justice Center, which has helped make the country’s wage theft crisis visible nationally. “The regulatory language has not been released, even while this has been on the DOL’s agenda since the fall of 2009. Meanwhile, tens of millions of workers are ripped off every week. Whether it’s through regulatory reform or passing national legislation mandating that businesses provide workers detailed pay records, something must be done.”

It goes without saying that struggling American workers need every dollar they earn in order to survive. But as the U.S. economy sputters back to life after the worst recession in 70 years, it’s worth pointing out that eliminating wage theft would not only be the just thing to do—it could prove an economic stimulus.

This blog originally appeared in www.inthesetimes.com on March 10, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. Based in Washington D.C., he has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times, Alternet, The Atlantic and The American Prospect. Mike Elk is a labor journalist and third-generation union organizer based in Washington, D.C. He has written for Harper’s Magazine, the American Prospect and In These Times.


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Will Albany Stop the Wage Thieves?

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amytraub4It’s difficult to imagine anything more basic to a free economy than the right of an employee to be paid for his or her work. Yet this fundamental right is violated in New York’s low-wage industries as a matter of routine. Research from the National Employment Law Project concludes that a fifth of the city’s low-wage workers – an estimated 317,200 working New Yorkers – are paid less than the minimum wage in a given week. Even more are cheated out of the tips they’ve earned, their overtime pay, or the meal breaks they’re legally entitled to. It’s not a case of a few “bad apples” but a well-documented, pervasive pattern of wage theft throughout the city.

In March, I wrote about powerful state legislation drafted and promoted by community organization Make the Road New York to cut the state’s epidemic of wage theft. The Wage Theft Prevention Act stiffens penalties for cheating employees out of wages, encourages workers to come forward, and provides new avenues for investigating and prosecuting wage theft cases – and ensuring violators will pay up.

The bill passed both the state Assembly and Senate in the last legislative session. Yet because each chamber passed a slightly different version of the legislation the bills must be reconciled before the law can be enacted. Legislators will have a small window to act on the bill in the upcoming legislative special session: The Wage Theft Prevention Act sponsored by Senator Diane Savino and Assemblyman Carl Heastie should be a priority.

Clearly low-wage workers and their families are hurt deeply when income they’ve earned is stolen from them. But an environment of pervasive lawlessness at the bottom of our labor market also harms New York’s small businesses, drains revenue from the already depleted city and state budgets, and retards the city’s overall economic recovery.

When enforcement of workplace laws is as lax as it is now and penalties are so low, corrupt employers can simply factor the risk of getting caught into their cost of doing business. As a result, businesses that cheat their employees can come out ahead, leaving responsible, law-abiding business owners at a competitive disadvantage. Small businesses with low margins face the greatest difficulty competing against rivals that are willing to break the law to lower their costs. Enforcing the law would level the playing field for everyone.

Both New York City and New York State face daunting revenue shortfalls that have led to very tight budgets. New York’s epidemic of wage theft makes the situation worse. The state loses an estimated $427.9 million a year in reduced unemployment insurance payments, workers’ compensation premiums, and personal income tax revenue as a byproduct of wage theft. New York City also loses income and sales tax revenue when employees get cheated out of their wages. By improving enforcement of wage and hour laws New York can begin to reclaim a portion of this lost revenue.

There are also broader economic consequences when money is taken from the pockets of New York’s lowest income workers. Workplace violations rob low wage workers of an estimated $3,016 annually out of average wages of just $20,644 a year. New Yorkers living on such low incomes tend to spend their paychecks quickly, buying food, clothing, and other essentials in their communities. By deterring violations, the Wage Theft Prevention Act will keep these wages from being sucked out of our neighborhoods, enabling workers to support their families and put dollars to work rebuilding New York’s economy.

This article was originally posted on DMI Blog.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.


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In Illinois, Wage Thieves Will Pay

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Image: James ParksIllinois employers who shortchange or don’t pay their employees will face felony charges for repeat offenses and, in all cases, will be forced to pay back wages plus interest and fines under a new law signed by Gov. Pat Quinn (D) last week.

The new law, which experts say is the toughest anti-wage theft law in the country, goes into effect Jan. 1, 2011. It also gives workers more rights to ensure they are paid what they earn.

Chris Williams, executive director of the Working Hands Legal Clinic in Chicago, which led the effort to pass the law, told the Associated Press the law particularly benefits those who are most vulnerable: low-wage, temporary and immigrant workers. Low-wage workers are often paid in cash, making record-keeping difficult, and some undocumented workers fear retaliation if they speak up.

Such laws passed in Illinois and other states are important because they help generate momentum for a national policy, says Ted Smukler, public policy director at Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ). If the law is administered the right way, it would help workers get justice quicker than the current system, he said.

IWJ, under the leadership of executive director Kim Bobo, has been in the forefront of efforts to stop wage theft. IWJ is organizing a National Day of Action on wage theft on Nov. 18, to increase awareness of the issue and ways workers and communities have fought back. If your worker center, local union or worker advocacy group would like to organize an event on Nov.18 and coordinate with IWJ, contact Smukler at [email protected].

The new law gives the state Department of Labor more oversight in dealing with the more than 10,000 wage theft claims it receives each year. The department will have authority to directly adjudicate claims of $3,000 or less.

The Illinois law is part of a growing national focus on stemming the epidemic of wage theft. In April, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis unveiled a new campaign to inform workers about their pay rights and to put a stop to wage theft.

Earlier this year, the Miami- Dade County Commission approved a country-wide wage theft ordinance. Several states, including  New York, Washington State, Massachusetts and New Mexico, have toughened penalties for employers who steal workers wages, Smukler said.

A recent study found that low-wage workers in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles are routinely denied proper overtime pay and often are paid less than minimum wage.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He has also been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris


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Putting Wage Theft on the Map (Literally)

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Image: Adam KaderWorkers employed in low-wage and poorly regulated industries (most prominently restaurants, residential construction, domestic cleaning, and mechanics) are confronted with staggering exploitation as employers look to cut corners in today’s recession. Such exploitation includes health and safety violations, discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation, firing for participating in union activity, and wage theft—failure to pay workers for work performed, including overtime hours and final pay periods.

To combat this wave of illegality, a Chicago worker center has collaborated with a local university to create a map of law-breaking employers against which they have organized, giving workers and activists a powerful visual tool to bring to politicians and the community.

The Arise Chicago Worker Center has no shortage of evidence for the dire conditions facing Chicago’s low-wage workers, having collaborated with over 2,050 workers in the past seven years.

None of the restaurant workers who have contacted our organization during that time received overtime wages. One of our members seriously injured his back at a construction site, but his employer refused to pay legally required workers’ compensation. One African-American member, who works for a state-funded social service agency, has consistently received paychecks one to three weeks late, for more than two years. A group of candy manufacturers were denied bathroom breaks.

Recently, we spoke with a Guatemalan immigrant car wash worker who works from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., six days a week, for $5.25 an hour. He does not receive overtime pay and takes home an average of $9 a day in tips. If that weren’t enough, the employer does not provide gloves needed for the work, and illegally deducts the cost of the workers’ required uniform from his paychecks.

With the help of the University of Illinois-Chicago Center for Urban Economic Development, Arise has mapped by ward—a political district—the law-breaking employers against which Arise has organized. The maps illustrate law-breaking employers in 43 of Chicago’s 50 wards, affecting workers living in 47 of the wards.

Groups of worker center members plan to meet with their ward aldermen to discuss workplace abuses and enlist support for a city response to the biggest problem facing low-wage workers: wage theft.

Clergy whose congregations are located in the 43 wards will join the workers. Recently, Catholic Bishop John Manz attended a meeting with Alderman Danny Solis in the 25th Ward, where Arise has recorded a dozen labor violations.

Solis committed to introducing the issue to the city council’s Hispanic Caucus, whose wards include great concentrations of Arise membership. Alderman Mary Ann Smith’s office offered to explore legislative strategies that could deny additional business permits to law-breaking employers. Additional meetings and research are planned to determine the best approach to address wage theft in Chicago—which may include a citywide ordinance that could make stealing a worker’s wages treated like other forms of theft.

*This post originally appeared in Labor Notes on December 3, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Adam Kader (www.arisechicago.org) is the director of the Arise Chicago Worker Center, part of the national Interfaith Worker Justice network.


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National Day of Action to Stop Wage Theft

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Image: James Parks

Workers, community leaders and religious activists are holding rallies, prayer vigils and other actions in more than 40 cities around the country today as part of a National Day of Action to Stop Wage Theft.

Wage theft is a national epidemic, which robs millions of workers of billions of dollars they’ve worked for but never seen, says Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) and author of the book Wage Theft in America.

During a Capitol Hill press conference this morning, Bobo said:

Too many workers can’t buy a Thanksgiving turkey because employers have stolen their wages. Wage theft is not a small, isolated situation. It’s a national epidemic.

Wage theft affects workers like Cleve Williams, who worked for a city contractor in Cincinnati. Williams told the press conference he was fired after he organized his fellow workers to fight for a living wage. The city’s law required the comapny, which holds a city contract, to pay a minimum wage. But Williams says it took three years to get the wages raised to the legal level.

Bobo cited a study by the National Employment Law Project, which shows how widespread wage theft has become. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 4,387 workers in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City, a group of respected academics estimates that 68 percent of the workers surveyed are routinely denied proper overtime pay and often are paid less than minimum wage. The average low-wage worker lost more than $2,600 in annual income due to the violations, 15 percent of their annual earnings. Click here to read the report, “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers.”

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, speaking to the press conference by phone, said the nation’s economy suffers when millions of workers are denied their just pay. Unions are the first line of defense against wage theft, she added. With a union contract, workers don’t have to worry about not getting paid for overtime or not getting a decent, living wage and other benefits.

Wage theft is not only an economic issue, but a moral one, says Thomas Shellabarger, of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

As we pause this Thanksgiving to remember all that we are thankful for, we also remember the workers across the nation whose wages are stolen and struggle to put a meal on their holiday table. We must put an end to this national scandal of wage theft.

*This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on November 19, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

**For more information on unpaid wages visit our Workplace Fairness resource page.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He has also been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris


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