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Senate Dining Room Workers Win $1 Million in Back Wages

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Bruce VailThe Department of Labor [last] week confirmed persistent charges of labor abuses at the U.S. Senate dining room on Capitol Hill, ruling that workers there are owed more than a $1 million in back wages.

An investigation found that 674 workers are owed back wages of $1,008,302, and that the employers—food service contractor Restaurant Associates and labor subcontractor Personnel Plus—violated the Service Contract Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“Workers in the restaurant industry are among the lowest paid workers in our economy. Most struggle to afford life’s basic expenses and pay their bills: they shouldn’t have to deal with paychecks that don’t accurately reflect the hard work and the wages to which they are legally entitled,” says David Weil, administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division.

The ruling is a victory for a union organizing campaign taking place among the cooks, waiters and other food service workers. They are seeking a minimum wage of $15 an hour and representation by the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ.

In the campaign assisted by union advocacy group Good Jobs Nation, the workers have been charging Restaurant Associates with an array of labor abuses, including job misclassification, failure to pay legally required overtime rates and unfair efforts to block union organizing.

Labor law violations “are happening all the time right under the noses of the lawmakers,” says Good Jobs Nation spokesman Paco Fabian. “If it’s happening here, it’s likely happening at other sites,” where the federal government employs non-union contractors to do food service work and other essential tasks, Fabian says.

Restaurant Associates Senior Vice President Sam Souccar provided the following statement regarding the Labor Department decision:

“Restaurant Associates understands that our Associates are the heart of our business and we value and respect them. We conduct business in a professional, safe, ethical and responsible manner. Since January we have worked diligently with the Department of Labor in regard to our contract … We discovered as a result of the DOL’s review that some of our Associates were not properly classified in appropriate job categories under the Service Contract Act (SCA). The misclassifications were largely attributable to administrative technicalities related to our Associates’ evolving day-to-day work responsibilities, which in some cases crossed multiple job categories. Restaurant Associates has corrected the classifications and is working closely with the DOL to ensure payments are made as soon as possible to all impacted Associates. We are 100 percent committed to ensuring classifications are accurate going forward, and have implemented enhanced monitoring and training at the US Senate and in all accounts where the SCA applies.”

Dione Tellez, 57, a food service worker and cook at Senate dining facilities, tells In These Times that she has been classified as a food service worker even though she often labors as a grill cook, which is a better-paid position. A nine-year veteran on the job, she is earning $14.21 an hour, she says, and lives with her adult son because she cannot afford to rent an apartment in the pricey Washington, D.C., area.

Speaking in Spanish (translated by Fabian), Tellez says, “I want to be paid for the job that I do. It’s about respect. I am entitled to get what I have earned … I am sick and tired of being treated unfairly.”

Restaurant Associates is a subsidiary of U.K.-based multinational Compass Group, which claims to have about 500,000 employees in 50 separate countries. In Washington D.C., the company also has a contract to operate cafeterias and dining facilities at the Smithsonian Institutions, where workers are represented by the UNITE HERE Local 23.

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on July 28, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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Tuesday’s Baltimore Primary Results Mean a $15 Minimum Wage Is Likely Coming Soon

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Bruce VailBALTIMORE—Although it was nowhere on the ballot, the Fight for 15 was a winner in the municipal elections here Tuesday.

In a Democratic Party primary election that selected candidates for both a new mayor and a new majority of the city council, supporters of a city-wide minimum wage law of $15 an hour appear to have won enough offices to see it enacted. The push is underway now to get it passed this year, and almost certainly will be passed by early next year, at the latest, activists say.

Because of a large Democratic majority in the city, the spring party primary is considered tantamount to final victory in the November general election. Only an unprecedented political upheaval could prevent the candidates selected this week from taking office in January 2017.

Fight for 15 supporters are mobilizing behind a bill introduced earlier this month by City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D). Clarke’s bill would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020, and also eliminate the subminimum “tipped wage.”

Worker activists are pleased that the new Democratic candidate for mayor, Catherine Pugh, is committed to signing a $15 bill, says Charly Carter, executive director of the political party Maryland Working Families. The new city council will include a strong majority who have already committed to supporting the higher minimum wage, so the path to final passage seems clear, she says.

Majority support in the 15-member city council was evident even before the election this week, Carter explains. “We had somewhere between nine and 12 votes before the primary. But our goal had to be at least 12,” to override an anticipated veto by current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, she says. Although Rawlings-Blake had never explicitly threatened a veto, some City Hall insiders are interpreting her lukewarm public comments about the higher minimum wage as a veiled veto threat.

With this political arithmetic, Working Families made support for $15 one of its minimum requirements for an endorsement in city council races, as did a number of labor unions active in local politics. Special importance was attached to the council races because an unusually large number of members had announced their retirements, meaning that a working majority on the council would be reformulated in the election process. Therefore it was a priority for Working Families to add support for the Fight for 15, Carter says.

Riccara Jones, a political organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), did candidate interviews on behalf of her union and reports that most candidates were quick to commit to $15. “Support for Fight for 15 is out there in the community, and the politicians who are listening to the community are lining up,” Jones says. SEIU endorsed seven candidates for council, and six of those were successful on election day.

“I’m optimistic we have the votes” to pass the minimum wage law, Jones adds. The union will push to pass it this year, despite reservations about Mayor Rawlings-Blake. “She’ll be gone at the end of the year, so I don’t see any reason why she would want to fight over this. Even if she wins a veto fight, then it gets passed under Mayor Pugh. … Our goal is to do it now. Baltimore can’t wait another year,” she says.

Jones’ comment partially reflects a feeling among some political activists that an opportunity for change in the wake of the Baltimore race riot one year ago is slipping away. Working Families’ Carter, for example, says that there have been a lot of press conferences and statements from public officials, but there is no sense in the streets that anything has changed. The voluntary retirement of Rawlings-Blake and the turnover at the city council seem to be admission of defeat by the city’s political leadership, but that has yet to be replaced by a renewed sense of purpose.

“A year after the uprising, nothing has been done. The terrible conditions in these neighborhoods have not changed at all,” she says.

Operating independently of Working Families, UNITE HERE Local 7 has been active in this election but on a different scale, says President Roxie Herbekian. “We are more oriented to the community level. We saw that two council districts had a high percentage of our members, and that the incumbent councilmen in those two districts are what I would call ‘do nothing’ politicians. So we supported challenger candidates and worked hard to get them elected. Of course, we wouldn’t support anyone who would oppose the $15.”

UNITE HERE was rewarded with success on Election Day, and both challengers supported by the union won. “But really, we are not about making friends with one candidate or another. We are mobilizing on a community level around our broad goals,” of improved lives for workers, she says.

A higher minimum wage fits in with those broader goals and will have a real impact in the lower-income neighborhoods of Baltimore, Herbekian predicts. UNITE HERE, along with other unions and local activists, will be pushing the city’s elected officials to move as quickly as possible.

This blog originally appeared at inthesetime.com on April 27, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’sDaily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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Grocery Chain’s Financial Meltdown Could Leave Thousands of Union Workers Jobless

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Bruce VailPlans to dismember the A&P supermarket chain were revealed in a federal bankruptcy court in New York this week, with dire results predicted for more than 15,000 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.

The historic grocery retailer—the original Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. was formed back in 1859—intends to sell or close all of its 300 stores spread across six Mid-Atlantic states, according to documents filed Monday in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. The plan will affect every one of an estimated 30,000 UFCW members currently employed with the company, with more than half of those in real danger of losing their jobs soon, union officials say.

The bad news for the union was partially tempered with the announcement that A&P had already lined up the sale of 120 of its stores to other regional grocery chains that also have UFCW contracts. If those sales go forward as planned, most of the 12,500 union members at those 120 stores would be expected to retain their jobs under the new owners. The prospective buyers—ACME Markets, Ahold USA (operator of Stop & Shop) and Key Food—already have UFCW collective bargaining agreements covering the 120 stores in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey (A&P stores are also located in Connecticut, Delaware and Maryland).

But those plans don’t include any future employment for workers at the other 180 stores, including 25 that A&P says it will seek to close immediately. All sales or closures are subject to approval by Bankruptcy Court Judge Robert Drain, and the process of selling off or closing stores is expected to begin soon but drag out for months. ACME Markets, for example, issued a statement saying that it didn’t expect to finalize purchase of any A&P stores until mid-October.

Very few union members were taken by surprise by these developments, says Wendell Young IV, President of UFCW Local 1776 in Philadelphia. A&P, which also operates under the trade names of Pathmark, Waldbaums and Superfresh, has been ailing financially for years, he says, and underwent a painful bankruptcy reorganization in 2010-2012.

“I’ve been telling my members for two years that I didn’t think A&P was going to make it. We’ve been doing everything we can as a union to be prepared for this,” he tells In These Times.

The final demise of A&P was signaled last September, Young comtinues, when company executives announced a debt refinancing package that failed to include any new investment in the company. Rumors swept the supermarket industry soon afterwards that executives were intent on dismembering the company by selling off its valuable pieces, and discarding the rest, he says.

Young adds that part of the union preparation has been to revive a coalition of 12 separate UFCW locals with A&P contracts. Supported by legal experts and financial resources from the UFCW International headquarters in Washington, D.C., the coalition was first formed in 2010 to present a united labor front in dealing with bankruptcy issues at that time. The coalition ceased active operation when A&P emerged from the first bankruptcy proceeding in 2012, but was revived in June as a crisis at A&P appeared imminent, Young says. UFCW Local 1500 in New York, with about 5,000 members employed with A&P, is one of the coalition members most affected by the bankruptcy.

UFCW Region 1 Director Tom Clarke, who heads the coalition, did not respond to In These Times calls seeking additional information and comment. Christopher McGarry, A&P’s Chief Administrative Officer, began the bankruptcy process by threatening the unions. In a declaration dated July 19 and filed with the court July 20. McGarry warned:

It is imperative that the parties cooperate with one another and that negotiations be conducted as expeditiously as possible. While the Debtors are committed to pursuing consensual resolutions with their unions where possible, if consensual resolutions cannot be quickly achieved within the required deadlines imposed…the Debtors will be required to commence proceedings under sections 1113 and 1114 of the Bankruptcy Code to seek authority to implement both temporary and permanent modifications to the CBAs on a unilateral basis.

Section 1113 is the section of the bankruptcy code commonly used to cancel or revise labor contracts, even without any agreement from unions or union members. The coalition will resist any attempts by A&P to use bankruptcy law to cancel existing UFCW collective bargaining agreements. “If the process is to be the orderly sale or closure of all the stores, then there is no need to cancel any contracts. The union is fully prepared to negotiate decent contracts with any of the new owners, and in the case of store closings, the existing contracts should be honored by all the parties,” Young says.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 22, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Bruce Vail. Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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Workers Win Facebook Fight Against Huge Supermarket Chain

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Two labor unions representing workers at supermarket chains are reporting success in efforts to protect their members from employers who want to impose restrictive rules on the use of social media outside the workplace.

Leaders of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and the Teamsters have successfully backed down a large multinational conglomerate that attempted to impose such restrictions on more than 100,000 workers across the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions, union officials said.  Complaints to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have resulted in the New York-based unit of the company withdrawing the disputed policy, and a settlement of similar complaints is imminent in the Baltimore area, they said.

The fight erupted late last year when supermarket chains owned by the Dutch retailing conglomerate Royal Ahold began demanding that employees sign a “Social Policy Guidelines” document that warned of dire consequences if workers used social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to communicate too freely about their jobs. The grocery chains—Stop & Shop in New England/New York, Giant Food in the Mid-Atlantic, Martin’s Food Markets in Virginia, and a separate home delivery service called Peapod—threatened disciplinary action, including possible dismissal, if employees refused to sign the document or violated any of the guidelines.

For Jeff Armstrong, a five-year employee at the Giant store in Rehoboth Beach, Del., the threat of dismissal for refusing to sign was startling. “I couldn’t believe it. They called us in and made us sit down in front of a terminal. They said ‘Read this, then sign it.’ They told us you had to sign right then and there, and that if you didn’t sign, you could be fired,” Armstrong said. Feeling pressured, he reluctantly signed.

But Armstrong grew angry as he discussed the humiliating incident with co-workers and reconsidered it in his own mind. A UFCW member, he talked to his shop steward and other union representatives. Impatient for action and determined to assert his own rights, he ultimately took a courageous step and personally filed a complaint against Giant with the NLRB regional office in Baltimore.

He didn’t know it at the time, but complaints were already starting to pile up at NLRB offices. Ritchie Brooks, president of Teamsters Local 730 in Washington, D.C., was hearing stories similar to Armstrong’s from his members at a Giant warehouse in the Maryland suburbs.

“I told the guys not to sign anything. They (Giant) can’t pull this shit. It was retaliation, plain and simple. They did it (imposed the social media policy) because in 2010-2011 we fought them on the contract,” Brooks said, referring to heated contract talks in which Giant has sought to cut Teamster jobs in the area.

Brooks quickly filed an NLRB complaint and was joined by two other Teamster locals in the region that also have contracts with Giant. Filing a separate complaint was UFCW Local 400, which represents thousands of Giant employees in Maryland and Virginia. Significantly, Local 400 is also involved in nascent efforts to organize workers in the Martin’s Food Markets chain, which is one of several non-union operations under the Ahold umbrella.

Meanwhile, the same issues were coming to a head in the New York area. Tony Speelman, secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 1500, represents about 5,500 Stop & Shop employees in New York City and its suburbs. He says he received dozens of reports from members when Stop & Shop sought to impose the social media guidelines in a way virtually identical to Giant. In March Local 1500 filed an NLRB complaint, charging that the guidelines were a violation of federal labor law and of the civil rights of workers, he said.

“ It is our belief that Stop & Shop has implemented a policy that is vague, overbroad and in violation of the civil rights of our members employed at their stores. Furthermore they did so without first bargaining with our union. That action alone is in violation of federal labor law,” Speelman stated in announcing the complaint.

If not in agreement with Speelman, Stop & Shop executives at least recognized they had a legal problem. Last month, the guidelines were withdrawn and are currently under review, Speelman says.

Contacted by Working In These Times for comment, Ahold USA spokeswoman Tracy Pawelski said the company would not make anyone available for a telephone interview to discuss the policy. Separate offices for Giant and Stop & Shop also declined to discuss the matter, and refused or ignored repeated requests for copies of the disputed guidelines.  Stop & Shop spokeswoman Arlene Putterman insisted that new social media guidelines are now in effect, but wouldn’t say what they were or how they are different than those that had been withdrawn.

In any event, a settlement of the charges in NLRB’s Baltimore region appears to be imminent, according to NLRB spokeswoman Shelly Skinner. Documents have been circulated among all the parties to the complaints, Skinner said, and the NLRB is taking the position that the language of the Giant policy is overly broad. The labor agency also sees merit in the charge that the policy could chill the exercise of the employees’ protected rights, she said. Armstrong added that his understanding of the settlement is that Giant will no longer threaten dismissal for employees who refuse to sign the policy document.

For UFCW, this victory is part of a larger struggle taking place in the realm of social media, according to Amber Sparks, director of new media at the union’s international headquarters in Washington, D.C. The union is using social media, especially Facebook, as a way to connect workers with each other and their union, she said. These efforts are provoking reactions from employers like Giant who see Facebook campaigns for fair labor contracts, or new organizing initiatives, as a threat, she said.

For Armstrong, his experience has given him a unique perspective on the NLRB, which yesterday released its latest report on employer social media policies, and on the political fights that have engulfed the agency since President Barack Obama took office.

“When I read these stories about the NLRB, it makes my skin crawl,” Armstrong says. “I have nothing but the highest regard for the NLRB people I’ve worked with. There is no other agency that is there to protect employees, and that is why the companies get so upset.  As far as I am concerned the NLRB people are wonderful—they are there for the employee when there is no place else to go.”

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on June 1, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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High-Risk Trial Begins in Labor Fight Between Hostess Brands and Teamsters

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The risks are high in a trial that began this week pitting top corporate managers at Hostess Brands against the unionized workers who have produced and distributed its cakes, breads and snack foods for decades.

Hostess – maker of well-known products like Twinkies and Wonder Bread – wants bankruptcy court approval to cancel its labor contracts with several unions, most notably the Teamsters. If successful in eliminating the contracts, a strike could well ensue that threatens to kill off the company and eliminate as many as 15,000 union jobs.

Hostess has been spoiling for this fight for months, according to court documents and comments by union leaders. In January, it filed a Chapter 11 petition in federal court and immediately sought to invoke the notorious Section 1113 provision of the bankruptcy code, which would allow Hostess to unilaterally cancel its collective bargaining agreements. Soon after the filing, it was revealed that Hostess had anticipated a labor fight six months earlier by unilaterally ceasing to make any more cash contributions to union pension plans.

After some delays and fitful negotiations with its unions, the Section 1113 trial opened yesterday (April 17) in the federal bankruotcy court in White Plains, N.Y., and is expected to last two to three days, according to Hostess spokesman Erik Halvorson.

There is little indication of when Judge Robert Drain will issue his ruling, or how damaging it might be to the unions, said a spokeswoman for Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union (BCTGM), another labor organization with a lot at risk in the trial. Spokeswoman Corrina Christensen said the bakers union – which represents more than 5,000 Hostess production workers at 36 bakeries spread out across the country – is not making any comments about the case until the situation becomes clearer.

The Teamsters, by contrast, have been making a lot of public comments about the case. The union set up a special Hostess page on its website, where it has issued a steady stream of statements attacking Hostess officials, and demanding a fair negotiation of contract changes free from judicial coercion. It also reported on a vote by some 7,500 Teamster members at Hostess authorizing a strike against the company.

Ken Hall, a Teamster leader who is second only to President Jim Hoffa in the union hierarchy, has not tried to minimize the potential consequences of a strike. One result of a prolonged strike could be the final financial collapse of Hostess, and the consequent loss of all the Teamster jobs, he has indicated.  By the same token, Hostess lawyers have argued in bankruptcy court that it must have deep union concessions to repair the company and avoid liquidation.

Despite the threats of a strike, Hall has also made continued appeals to Hostess to negotiate an out-of-court settlement that would include some concessions. The latest of such offer came early this week but was not acceptable to Hostess, Teamsters representatives said.

Also at risk are the members of several other unions and the non-unionized employees of the company. Hostess’ third-largest labor group is the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), an independent affiliate of the United Food & Commercial Workers. Hostess estimates that it currently employs a total of about 15,000 unionized workers, and another 3,500 individuals not represented by any union. All stand to lose their jobs in a court-ordered liquidation.

Watching developments closely are pension experts from all sectors of organized labor. One of Hostess’ key demands is that it be relieved of large debts to the pension funds for members of Teamsters and the bakers union. A decision by Judge Drain to allow Hostess off the hook for these debts would be seen as a blow to the health of union pension funds elsewhere.

Josh Shapiro, deputy executive director of the National Coordinating Committee for Multi-Employer Plans (NCCMP), said that his group is very concerned about the case. NCCMP has filed documents with Judge Drain decrying the use of Section 1113 Shapiro said. Any court decision that would encourage corporations to abandon their union pension plans could have broader destructive effects on workers, Shapiro said.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on April 18, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories.

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