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New York City fast food workers to get a major new job protection, this week in the war on workers

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The New York City Council voted to dramatically strengthen protections for fast food workers with two bills this week, both supported by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The really big deal bill would ban fast food restaurants from firing workers without just cause—that means workers could only (“only”) be fired for performance issues or other serious problems, not just because the boss felt like it.

Most workers in the U.S. are currently “at-will,” which means exactly that—your boss doesn’t actually need a reason to fire you. As Jared Odessky explained at Data for Progress last summer, moving to a just cause standard could help crack down on discrimination: “Currently, the burden is on a fired worker to show that they were terminated for an impermissible reason like their race or sex. This is true even though the employer has greater access to and control over information about the firing. After the worker makes out a case of discrimination, the employer can then point to another basis for the termination, benefiting from an at-will presumption that permits employers to fire workers for almost any or no reason. In reality, employers can simply invent reasons after the fact. The burden then falls to the worker to show that the reason the employer gave was a lie.”

The other bill passed by the city council would require layoffs to go in order of seniority. Both bills apply to fast food stores belonging to chains with more than 30 locations.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on December 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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


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A McDonald’s worker accuses the chain of firing her after she protested against a lack of masks and other safety concerns in a new whistleblower lawsuit.

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McDonald’s is facing a whistleblower lawsuit from a former worker, who claims she was fired after protesting the fast-food giant’s safety policies during the pandemic. 

On Friday, Maria E. Ruiz Bonilla filed the whistleblower retaliation suit against McDonald’s in the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Santa Clara. 

Ruiz had worked for McDonald’s in San Jose, California for more than 16 years when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. Despite being a diabetic, Ruiz said she wasn’t provided personal protective gear or even allowed to wear a mask on the job. 

“We didn’t have sanitizer, masks, gloves,” Ruiz told Business Insider through a translator. “We didn’t even have Clorox, sometimes, to clean and disinfect the store. I was in panic.” 

McDonald’s was among the many chains that did not provide workers with personal protective equipment at the beginning of the pandemic, and originally discouraged employees from wearing masks in accordance with the CDC’s guidance at the time. Dozens of fast-food workers told Business Insider in March that they were terrified to go to work, as many wondered how they could avoid getting sick and if they would be able to financially support their families. 

But Ruiz went further than most when it came to speaking out about safety concerns. She started protesting, leading a series of walkouts in late March and early April, and filed complaints with health officials. 

“I was afraid, of course. I was thinking about losing my job,” Ruiz said. “But, at the same time, my fear of getting sick with COVID and dying was bigger.” 

Ruiz said that her work hours were cut in April, after she began protesting and speaking to the press. She was suspended in mid-July and fired later the same month, according to the complaint. 

“These allegations are untrue and cannot be substantiated,” McDonald’s said in a statement to Business Insider. “The employee was terminated after a thorough review found that she falsely reported a safety violation, created and provided false evidence, and lied during the investigation.”

McDonald’s said that, despite national shortages, the company worked to provide masks to employees, and that masks and gloves arrived at the San Jose location on April 12. 

Ruiz was involved in high-profile protests against McDonald’s during the pandemic 

When Ruiz began protesting against McDonald’s, she told media outlets that her location lacked masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and hand soap. Working with the Service Employees International Union-backed Fight for $15 movement, she also called for McDonald’s to provide paid sick leave for all workers. 

Ruiz and other workers filed complaints with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal-OSHA), the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, and the Labor Workforce Development Agency (LWDA).

“On April 16, the local Department of Health conducted a review at the restaurant and found no major or minor violations — the DOH’s report concluded there was ample hand sanitizer and soap available, and that instructions on social distancing were prevalent and being followed by crew,” McDonald’s said in a statement. 

According to Friday’s complaint, McDonald’s managers responded to Ruiz and other employees who reported safety concerns by “rudely and yelling at them,” as well as disciplining them disproportionately.

Soon after Ruiz was fired in July, the Service Employees International Union filed a complaint on her behalf with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that she faced illegal retaliation for her workplace activism.

As part of the lawsuit filed on Friday, Ruiz is seeking to be reinstated in her position at McDonald’s, as well as given back pay and compensation for damages. 

“We were called essential workers, but this is the way that they treat the essential workers?” Ruiz asked. 

Companies facing repercussion for their pandemic policies 

Attorneys told Business Insider in April that it would be difficult for workers to win against employers in court if they tried to sue after catching COVID-19 on the job. 

“The biggest hurdle infected employees will face if they seek compensation from an employer will be proving where they contracted the virus,” attorney James Biscone said. “Was it at work? On the way home? On the subway or bus?”

Workers recently told Business Insider’s Catherine LeClair and Áine Cain that they feel as if they have been deserted by organizations like OSHA intended to enforce workplace safety during the pandemic. Republicans have pushed to give businesses a “liability shield” to protect employers from lawsuits related to the coronavirus, as part of the proposed SAFE TO WORK Act. 

Recently, there has been an uptick of litigation and action on the part of health officials. While OSHA issued few COVID-related citations early in the pandemic, the administration has recently fined Amazon and meat-processing giants JBS and Smithfield over safety violations. Reuters reports “take home” lawsuits, filed by people sickened by family members who were infected at work, could cost businesses up to $21 billion, citing risk analytics firm Praedicat. 

Ruiz’s case highlights that pandemic-related lawsuits will not be limited to workers who caught COVID-19 at work. Law firm Fisher Phillips reports that there has been a surge in whistleblower lawsuits due to the pandemic, as employees report safety violations such as a lack of personal protective equipment and social distancing failures. According to the firm, 136 of the 674 federal employment-related lawsuits since March 2020 were related to whistleblower allegations.

This blog originally appeared at Business Insider on October 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kate Taylor is a correspondent for Business Insider, covering restaurants, food, beverage, and retail. Companies that she covers include McDonald’sStarbucks, and Chick-fil-A. Kate previously covered food and franchises for Entrepreneur. Find her on Twitter at @Kate_H_Taylor.


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Fast food workers declare victory after McDonald’s withdraws opposition to minimum wage hikes

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After six years of strikes, lawsuits, and damning public scrutiny of how the fast food business model relies on taxpayer-subsidized poverty wages, McDonald’s formally withdrew from efforts to block a federal minimum wage hike on Tuesday.

The chain will also stop working against minimum wage increases at state and local levels, its executives told lobbying partners at the National Restaurant Association in a letter.

Workers and organizers involved in the six-year campaign of walk-outs, demonstrations, and litigation, dubbed the “Fight for $15,” immediately celebrated the about-face and pressed their advantage.

“It’s also time the company respect our right to a union. Since day one, we’ve called for $15 and union rights and we’re not going to stop marching, speaking out, and striking until we win both,” Kansas City McDonald’s worker and prominent Fight for $15 leader Terrence Wise said in a statement. “McDonald’s decision to no longer use its power, influence and deep pockets to block minimum wage increases shows the power workers have when we join together, speak out, and go on strike.”

Wise’s mix of praise and warning reflects some murkiness attending the company’s decision. McDonald’s hasn’t renounced its membership in the “other NRA,” just forsworn corporate support for an ongoing lobbying effort funded in part through its own dues payments to the group. And it’s unclear if the company now welcomes the $15 wage floor workers have consistently sought since 2012, or if it merely accepts some smaller increase is inevitable.

The details of how minimum wage hike policies come together are always tricky, as business organizations fight to carve out certain sizes of business and to slow the phase-in period of a wage hike beyond what workers and progressive economists say is reasonable. The nation’s first $15 hourly wage floor deal was the product of months of vigorous negotiations where “everybody left… a little bit of blood on the floor,” as Seattle Hospitality Group leader Howard Wright told ThinkProgress after that city brokered the first low-wage labor peace of the conflict-oriented era workers like Wise created.

Despite Tuesday’s letter, McDonald’s is also continuing to fight a federal labor board’s finding that its franchise business model does not protect the corporate parent from liability for how its franchisees operate their stores. That dispute over whether or not “joint employer” legal doctrines apply to the franchise models common to the fast food industry likely presents a more fundamental threat to McDonald’s ability to funnel money to its shareholders and CEOs than do wage floors.

But if the war between McDonald’s and workers like Wise isn’t exactly over, it’s radically reshaped by Tuesday’s letter, which was first reported by Politico.

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Retail and service workers paid at or near the legal minimum have become a staple of the stock price-obsessed modern U.S. business world. Congress’ multi-generation failure to hike the federal minimum pay has meant that corporate reliance on low-wage work steadily eroded the traditional social contract in which having a job meant being able to afford a decent standard of living. Instead, as people who work substantial hours found themselves impoverished anyhow, government programs funded by taxpayers stepped into the gap — effectively subsidizing the profits McDonald’s and its peers reaped from their low-wage business models.

Stark partisanship within federal government coincided with the rapid, coast-to-coast spread of Fight for $15 strikes and protests, preventing legislative action in response to the mounting labor strife for years. A bill to gradually raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 was among the first legislative proposals Democrats introduced after taking the House in last year’s midterm elections.

The same month, Chamber of Commerce officials announced they’d entertain some pay hike provided Democrats were willing to negotiate some flavor of concessions. Like the chamber’s announcement, Tuesday’s high-profile maneuver from McDonald’s carries major symbolic weight but leaves lingering unanswered questions about just how far major corporate interests that have taken publicly-subsidized wage serfdom for granted for decades are now willing to move in the name of economic justice.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Alan Pyke is a reporter for ThinkProgress covering poverty and the social safety net.


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#MeToo Hits Fast Food: Why McDonald’s Workers Are Out on a Historic Strike Today

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Workers at McDonald’s are set to walk out of work today in ten U.S. cities: Chicago, St. Louis, Durham, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Orlando and San Francisco.

While a string of fast food strikes has hit chains in recent years, this time workers aren’t walking out for higher wages, but for respect and freedom from harassment in an industry known for rampant abuse.

In the non-unionized fast food industry, marked by high turnover, low wages, and poor to non-existent benefits, sexual harassment is endemic. A recent study of fast food restaurants such as Taco Bell and McDonald’s found that 40 percent of workers reported experiencing sexual harassment at work. A full 60 percent of the women who reported multiple occurrences of harassment said they felt pressure to accept the abuse because they could not afford to quit their job.

McDonald’s has faced a slew of lawsuits related to sexual harassment in recent years. In October 2016, Fight for $15, the group advocating for minimum-wage increases in the service sector, filed 15 sexual harassment claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accusing the McDonalds corporation and franchisees of failing to protect—and sometimes retaliating against—workers reporting harassment.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, an organization supporting the striking workers, McDonald’s management routinely “initiated or disregarded” instances of sexual harassment. Among the incidents reported by the Center: A 15-year-old cashier in St. Louis who was asked by an older male employee: “Have you ever had white chocolate inside you?” When the 15-year-old reported the harassment to her manager, she was told, “you will never win that battle.” In New Orleans, a female worker complained about a co-worker groping her, to which her manager responded that she should “take it to the next level” with him. This same worker also endured an attempted sexual assault, which she did not report because of her past experiences.

“By funding the legal representation in these cases, we hope to help ensure that these charges will be a catalyst for significant change,” Sharyn Tejani, Director of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, said in a statement. “Few women working in low-wage jobs have the means or the financial security to challenge sexual harassment. As shown by these charges and thousands of intakes we have received at the Fund from women in every industry, those who report their abuse are often fired, demoted or mocked—and since nothing is done to stop the harassment, nothing changes.”

The TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund is the latest example of the #MeToo movement’s solidarity with low-wage workers. The Fund, which arose as a response to the sexual harassment faced by women in Hollywood, has now amassed over 200 volunteer lawyers, and has pledged to support “the factory worker, the waitress, the teacher, the office worker.” The organization was also led to this cross-class alliance in part by expressions of solidarity from workers across sectors, including a letter signed by 700,000 female farmworkers associated with the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, and a 2017 “Take Back the Workplace” march in Los Angeles.

The strike is historic. While labor organizing campaigns have often made sexual harassment a focal point, this strike marks the first multi-state action devoted solely to the issue. 

Workers organizing against sexual harassment at McDonald’s can draw from a long tradition. In the 1830s, one of the first labor struggles in the early phases of American industrialization centered around addressing the sexual harassment and assault faced by female mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts.

In one of the first efforts to organize workers at a restaurant chain, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) launched a six-year campaign during the 1960s to organize Playboy Bunnies. The campaign centered around combating the sexist workplace of the Playboy Clubs, an environment rooted in Hugh Hefner’s ethos that “women should be obscene and not heard.”

In the book Feminism Unfinished, Dorothy Sue Cobble writes that tenacious HERE organizer Myra Wolfgang told reporters the Bunnies would “bite back” against Playboy’s sexist working conditions.  And that’s just what they did. According to Cobble, management ultimately agreed to a “national contract promising to pay wages to Bunnies (previously the women relied solely on tips) and allow Bunnies more discretion over uniform design, customer interactions, and company appearance standards.”

While historically unions have (albeit sometimes unsuccessfully) been a bulwark against sexual harassment, fast-food empires like McDonald’s have always been closed off to unions. Without the protection of a union, fast food workers are particularly vulnerable to harassment. But, according to sexual harassment expert Lin Farley, the equation can also be reversed: Harassment can be a tool to prevent unionization and collective worker struggle. “You have fast-food managers systematically using sexual harassment to keep turnover high, so they don’t have to unionize, they don’t have to give higher wages,” Farley told On the Media.

That might be changing, however. With a more class-conscious #MeToo movement, a wave of militant teachers’ strikes, anti-sexual harassment campaigns and strikes in the majority female hotel industry, it’s clear that women are fed up with abuse in the workplace. The McDonald’s strike shows that this increased organizing may soon translate into more wins for labor in the most exploited sectors like the fast food industry, where class struggle is now on the menu.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rachel Johnson is a writer based in Chicago. She holds a master’s degree in U.S. history from Northwestern University.


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22 Democratic senators want to know how sexual harassment financially impacts women

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Twenty-two Democratic senators are calling on the Labor Department to collect additional, better data regarding sexual harassment in the workplace.

The senators sent a letter to the department, signed by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand and co-signed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), among others. Not a single Republican senator attached their name to the letter.

“What is known is that harassment is not confined to industry or one group. It affects minimum-wage fast-food workers, middle-class workers at car manufacturing plants, and white-collar workers in finance and law, among many others,” the senators wrote in the letter, provided to Buzzfeed. “No matter the place or source, harassment has a tangible and negative economic effect on individuals’ lifetime income and retirement, and its pervasiveness damages the economy as a whole.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that anywhere from 25 percent to 85 percent of women report having been sexual harassed in the workplace. An ABC News-Washington Post poll taken shortly after the New York Times bombshell report on Harvey Weinstein found that 33 million U.S. women, or roughly 33 percent of female workers in the country, have experienced unwanted sexual advances from male co-workers. Among those women who have been sexually harassed in the workplace, nearly all, 95 percent, say their male harassers typically go unpunished.

What this data doesn’t reveal, however, are the financial and personal costs of sexual harassment that women endure — and that’s exactly what these senators are in search of.

Workplace harassment has physical and psychological consequences, including depression and anxiety. These consequences can manifest themselves in missed workdays and reduced productivity, in addition to decreased self-esteem and loss of self-worth in the workplace.

In the restaurant industry, where 90 percent of female workers have experienced sexual harassment, more than half of these women endured the behavior, by both customers and co-workers, because they relied on the money. The Gillibrand letter describes these women as being “financially coerced” into enduring toxic workplace environments.

Sexual harassment in the workplace often forces female victims to leave their jobs to avoid continuing to experience the harassment. This frequently occurs in science, technology, and engineering fields, rather than low-wage service jobs.

According to data collected by sociologist Heather McLaughlin and others, about 80 percent of women who’ve been harassed leave their jobs within two years.

This call-to-action from Congress comes at time when the governing body is still trying to grapple with its own sexual harassment problem. As recently as this week, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) flew to Washington D.C. from Florida to fire his chief of staff over sexual misconduct allegations.

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives unveiled bipartisan legislation last week to overhaul sexual harassment policies on Capitol Hill. The policy, as it stands now, overwhelmingly protects the harasser.

The new legislation also includes language that bars lawmakers from using taxpayer funds for settlements. As was first reported by the New York Times, Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA) used taxpayer money to settle a complaint from a former staffer. Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) similarly confessed he agreed to an $84,000 settlement after a former aid accused him of sexual harassment. Farenthold as allegedly pledged to take out a personal loan to pay back the $84,000 dollars.

According to a GOP aide familiar with how the House sexual harassment legislation was crafted, Farenthold’s case led to the inclusion of a provision that would prevent the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) from reviewing complaints. Instead, complaints would automatically be referred to the House Ethics Committee, bypassing the agency in an effort to streamline the process.

The OCE reviewed complaints against Farenthold in 2015 but concluded there was not substantial reason to believe he sexually harassed his staffer.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 29, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebekah Entralgo is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Previously she was a news assistant and social media coordinator at NPR, where she covered presidential conflicts of interest and ethics coverage. Before moving to Washington, she was an intern reporter at NPR member stations WLRN in Miami and WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida. She holds a B.A in Editing, Writing, and Media with a minor in political science from Florida State University.


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The Trump Labor Board Just Made It Harder for Fast-Food Workers to Hold Corporate Bosses Accountable

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On December 14, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) overturned a 2015 policy that had made it easier for workers—particularly fast-food workers—to unionize and challenge their employers over unfair labor practices.

The Obama-era standard sprung from a 2013 case involving workers attempting to unionize at a recycling plant in Milpitas, Calif. The recycling company, Browning-Ferris Industries, owned the building but used a small staffing agency called Leadpoint to provide and manage workers. The local Teamsters union was trying to organize the employees, but it didn’t want to merely negotiate with Leadpoint: It wanted Browning-Ferris to be considered a joint employer and party to any labor contract. A regional director determined that Leadpoint was the sole employer, but the Teamsters requested a review, and the NLRB’s general counsel sided with union in a 3-2 vote.

The vote was hailed by unions and labor advocates for making it more difficult for corporations to distance themselves from certain legal violations—and for strengthening the bargaining power of subcontracted gig-economy workers.

The Browning-Ferris decision was also good news for fast-food workers and organizations like Fight for $15. Most fast-food companies use a franchising model, and Browning-Ferris made it easier for workers to hold corporations responsible for wage theft and union busting at individual locations. In 2014, the NLRB’s general counsel had already ruled that the McDonald’s Corporation could be considered a joint employer in various labor cases brought against the company’s franchises. But Browning-Ferris provided an entirely new legal dimension to the proceedings.

The Browning-Ferris decision was predictably criticized by industry groups, which immediately launched an all-out assault on the new rule. International Franchise Association lobbyist Matt Haller declared that the decision was “a knife-to-the throat issue,” pro-business organizations pressured Congress to block its implementation in their subsequent spending bill, and Browning-Ferris Industries challenged the decision in a federal appeals court.

Industry nervousness ended up being alleviated by the surprising election of Donald Trump, who successfully tipped the NLRB back to a Republican majority in September—and has sought to overturn the labor victories which occurred under his predecessor. The Trump administration recently ended Obama’s extension of federal overtime pay, and it’s preparing to eradicate a 2011 rule which protects the tips of wait staff. All of Trump’s NLRB appointees were connected to anti-union policies at their previous positions, but the confirmation process was fast-tracked, and they easily made it through GOP-controlled Senate. In overturning the Browning-Ferris precedent, the board claimed that the 2015 decision was responsible for “upending decades of labor law precedent and probably centuries of precedent in corporate law.”

In a statement, National Employment Law Project executive director Christine Owens called the reversal “just one more example of the Trump Administration favoring corporations over working people.”

“In this economy, employers are increasingly subcontracting out vital parts of their business to other contractors and/or using temporary employment agencies to fill vital positions,” said Owens. “The Browning-Ferris decision recognized that in these arrangements, companies that contract out work may still retain control over the conditions and standards that govern the work and how the workers doing the jobs are treated … the Trump NLRB has decided to let them off the hook.”

While there is no evidence that Trump was directly involved in the case, we do know that one his companies was impacted by the 2015 decision. In May 2016, catering workers at the Trump National Doral golf resort in Florida won a $125,000 settlement after suing for unpaid wages. As a result of the joint-employer liability, the workers were able to hold Trump Miami Resort Management responsible, even though an outside staffing agency had hired them.

It is likely that the Trump administration will soon work to overturn a number of additional Obama-era NLRB decisions. To the surprise of many, the board ended up adapting to the complexities of a changing economy under Obama and forcefully asserted the rights of workers in a number of important votes. Recent NLRB decisions have given graduate students the right to unionize at private universities, increased the bargaining power of workers at charter schools and made it easier for smaller groups of workers to unionize at companies. However, the term of the NLRB’s Republican chairman, Philip A. Miscimarra, ended just days after the board’s vote. Trump will at least have to wait until the Senate confirms his next nominee and reestablishes the Republican majority before he’s able to undo any of these changes.

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria


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Trump’s pick for Labor Secretary is a big ‘screw you’ to the Fight for $15

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In an otherwise grim period for the U.S. labor movement, the fast food industry has been a hot spot for organizing activity. For the past four years, the union-backed Fight for 15 movement and allied groups have staged a series of nationwide, day-long strikes and protests in support of higher wages and unionization for fast food workers.

Fast food workers have yet to gain any significant union representation. But thanks in large part to the movement’s efforts, states and cities across the country have passed minimum wage laws raising pay for millions of people.

And now, if President-elect Donald Trump has his way, an enemy of the Fight for $15 movement will lead the U.S. Labor Department.

On Thursday, Trump revealed that he had nominated Andrew Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, to be Labor Secretary. CKE Restaurants is the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., two fast food companies that have been targeted by Fight for 15. Puzder himself is on record as an opponent of raising the minimum wage, and has said that he would like to try automating service more service jobs in response to wage hikes.

CKE Restaurants CEO Andrew Puzder, center, departs Trump Tower in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Unsurprisingly, the fast food lobby was delighted with Trump’s decision to elevate Puzder. International Franchise Association President and CEO Robert Cresanti called Puzder “an exceptional choice to lead the Labor Department” in a statement responding to the news.

Cresanti also offered up a wishlist for Puzder’s early days in office. The Obama Labor Department issue a rule (currently held up in federal court) that would dramatically expand the number of workers eligible for overtime pay. The department has also fought to expand joint-employer liability, meaning that multinational corporations such as McDonald’s may be held legally accountable for labor law violations committed at their franchised locations.

“We are hopeful that, if confirmed by the Senate, a top priority [for Puzder] will be rolling back the damaging effects caused by the expansion of joint employer liability to America’s 733,000 franchise businesses, and the too-far, too-fast increase in the overtime threshold that was recently put on hold by a Texas judge,” said Cresanti.

The progressive National Employment Law Project, on the other hand, described Puzder’s nomination as a “sucker-punch in the gut to all the men and women of good faith who believe in the mission of the U.S. Labor Department.”

“The job of the labor secretary is NOT to strengthen the power of corporations to reap record profits by squeezing every last drop out of their low-wage workforce—and threatening to replace them with machines if they ask for wages they can support their families on,” said NELP Executive Director Christine Owens. “While Mr. Puzder’s qualifications may fit the bill for the latter, those qualifications are anathema to what a secretary of labor should stand for.”

As Labor Secretary, Puzder would head up the main government agency charged with investigating claims of wage theft. A 2016 Bloomberg analysis of Labor Department data found that Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants were themselves frequent violators of the law.

CREDIT: Bloomberg BNA

That may be why Fight for 15 organizing director told the American Prospect two weeks ago that appointing Puzder as Labor Secretary would be “like putting Bernie Madoff in charge of the treasury.”

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress.org on December 8, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Ned Resnikoff is a senior editor at @thinkprogress.He was previously a reporter for for International Business Times, Al Jazeera America, and msnbc. Follow him on twitter @resnikoff.


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Beyond the Fight for 15: The Worker-led Fast Food Union Campaign Building Power on the Shop Floor

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psdtnwbe_400x400Last year, at age 17, Eli Fishel moved out of her parents’ house in Vancouver, Washington, squeezing into a three-bedroom apartment with five other roommates. To pay her bills as she finished high school, Fishel landed a job at Burgerville, a fast-food chain with 42 outlets and more than 1,500 employees in the Pacific Northwest.

Founded in 1961, Burgerville has cultivated a loyal following by emphasizing fresh, local food, combined with sustainable business practices like renewable energy and recycling. But Fishel quickly realized she wasn’t part of Burgerville’s commitment to “regional vitality” and “future generations.”

After 16 months on the job, she earns just $9.85 an hour, barely above the Washington State minimum wage. Her hours and shifts fluctuate weekly, with only a few days’ notice, and every month she goes hungry because she runs out of money to buy food.

Speaking of the privately-owned Burgerville, Fishel says, “We’re poor because they’re rich, and they’re rich because we’re poor.”

Disgruntled Burgerville workers began covertly organizing in 2015. The Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU) went public on April 26 with a march of more than 100 people through Portland, Oregon, and the delivery of a letter to the corporate headquarters in Vancouver. BVWU demands include a $5-an-hour raise for all hourly workers, recognition of a workers organization, affordable, quality healthcare, a safe and healthy workplace, and fair and consistent scheduling with ample notice.

Some BVWU members call their effort “Fight for $15, 2.0,” playing off the name of the fast-food worker campaign launched in 2011 by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

SEIU has won plaudits for making the plight of low-wage workers a national issue and igniting the movement for new laws boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour. But the campaign has not, thus far, included efforts to unionize individual workplaces.

Unlike Fight for $15, which Middlebury College sociology professor and labor expert Jamie McCallum describes as “a fairly top-down campaign,” BVWU is a worker-initiated and -led project backed by numerous labor organizations. The group of Burgerville workers who came up with the idea includes members of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a militant union with West Coast roots that date back to the early 1900s. The campaign has the backing of the Portland chapter of IWW and the support SEIU Local 49, the Portland Association of Teachers, and Jobs with Justice.

This scrappy approach enabled BVWU to leapfrog Fight for $15 by declaring a union from the start. While BVWU has not yet formally petitioned for recognition and Burgerville has not chosen to voluntarily negotiate with it, the union has established worker committees in five stores, is developing units in a similar number of shops and counts scores of workers as members.

BVWU is full of lessons in how organizing works. One member likens the campaign to “low-level guerrilla warfare” with workers maneuvering to increase their ranks, build power on the shop floor, expand the terrain from shop to shop, while skirmishing with managers over the work process, and suffering casualties as some members have quit or say they were pushed out of their jobs at Burgerville. In the workplace, the strategy is to develop leaders, form committees for each store, and nurture trust and respect between workers. Outside, BVWU uses direct action to empower workers and bring suppliers into the conversation. The union also works to build community support by mobilizing social-justice groups, clergy, and organized labor to win over the public and pressure the company.

McCallum says that BVWU an example of social movement unionism. “It’s about organizing as a class against another class,” he says. “It’s to win demands not just against a single boss or to change a law, but to engage in class struggle.”

Beyond the Fight for $15

McCallum also sees the campaign as an attempt to build on Fight for $15. “For the first time since the Justice for Janitors campaign began 30 years ago, we have low-wage workers who are people of color working with traditional unions to change politics,” he says. “If the IWW is interested in pushing that agenda forward to make it more democratic and radical, that’s awesome.”

Fight for $15 is “one of the most successful and inspiring labor victories in the last 20 years,” says McCallum. “They’ve accomplished things, like doubling the minimum wage, thought impossible three years ago. They managed to raise the profile of low-wage workers in a failing economy.” He acknowledges, however, that Fight for $15 is “largely political organizing.”

“It doesn’t require a mass base. It requires mobilized workers with incredibly talented organizers to move sympathetic politicians in a defined geographic area,” McCallum says.

To that end, Fight for $15 devotes considerable money and effort to media. A Fight for $15 strategy document called “Strike in a Box” lists these criteria for a “good [organizing] site to focus on”: “Is it an iconic brand? Does the brand help tell a story, locally and/or nationally? Do we have spokespeople? Trained? Reliable? Experienced? Do we have stories? Compelling worker stories, Horror stories about site practices (wage theft, sexual harassment, etc).”

By contrast, Burgerville worker Flanagan says BVWU uses media primarily as a tool to foster the growth of the union along with worker solidarity and consciousness. She says media helps “connect the dots between our personal struggles and collective struggle.” She adds that explaining what unions do and how they organize helps to educate “my generation, which has very little understanding of unions.”

Indeed, although the Fight for $15 demands “$15 and a union,” SEIU has made a strategic decision not to attempt to organize the nation’s tens of thousands of fast-food restaurants shop by shop. “The NLRB has old rules for small shops,” Kendall Fells, Fight for $15’s organizing director, told Working in These Times in May. “This movement is too large to be put in that process.”

Adriana Alvarez, a Chicago McDonald’s worker, says that while Fight for $15 may not be a formal union, “We’re acting like a union, not waiting for anyone to tell us we can have one.”

“To me a union is workers joining together to accomplish things we wouldn’t be able to achieve on our own,” Alvarez says. “And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing—coming together and winning life-changing raises for 20 million Americans, including more than 10 million who are on the way to $15. By standing together, we’ve gone from powerless to having powerful voices in our stores.”

If SEIU can prove that McDonald’s calls the shots in its franchises, it could also push open the door to unionizing the whole company at once instead of the Sisyphean task of one franchise at a time. Deploying organizers, researchers and lawyers, SEIU has gathered evidence for 181 cases alleging that McDonald’s controls its franchisees’ employment practices and therefore should be held accountable for unfair labor practices in franchisees, including retaliation against workers who supported unionization. In 2014, the NLRB issued a preliminary finding in favor of SEIU’s case and, then the next year in a separate case involving Browning Ferris Industries of California the labor board revised the definition of joint employer to “consider whether an employer has exercised control over terms and conditions of employment through an intermediary.” Years later, the McDonald’s case is still grinding its way through a judicial process, with a multi-city case being argued before an administrative law judge that was kicked back to the NLRB on October 12. If the board finds or any of the court cases, which includes multiple class-action suits SEIU has backed against McDonald’s for wage theft, determine that McDonald’s is a joint employer with its franchisees, that may finally open the door to a company-wide union drive.

“It’s a huge amount of work”

The Burgerville campaign’s strategy of painstakingly organizing shop by shop emphasizes “building worker power,” which is both “a means and a goal,” says Flanagan.

For BVWU, the initial organizing drive was relatively easy, with workers chafing at difficult working conditions and poverty-level wages.

Debby Olson, 49, a military veteran, has worked at Burgerville since her home-cleaning business tanked during the Great Recession. She says the “people are nice, but the pay is horrible.” After six years, she makes $10.75 an hour.

Olson, says the job is “harder than my house-cleaning business. You are literally moving all day. For hours you don’t get to breathe. When I get home, I’m mentally and physically exhausted.”

Five other Burgerville workers also described the pace as non-stop. Olson reduced her full-time schedule to three days a week because, as she says, “I could barely walk when I got off work and my quality of life was really poor. It’s scary that my feet were getting so damaged that it could affect my ability to get another job or enjoy my later years.”

Burgerville’s lure is gourmet-style food, sourced locally from “988 farms, ranches, and artisans,” which requires labor-intensive preparation. Luis Brennan, 27, a two-year Burgerville employee, says, “The job is really hard. We actually cook the food. We core strawberries, we hand-blend milkshakes. We cook the meat and eggs fresh, we cut the onion rings and batter them twice. It’s a huge amount of work.”

The Burgerville campaign builds on the IWW’s experience over the last decade in fast-food organizing at Jimmy John’s and Starbucks. Picking a regional chain works to the benefit of the union as it can exert more pressure because Burgerville doesn’t have the might of a global food giant and its carefully crafted image is ripe for attack.

The public may eat up buzzwords like local, fresh and sustainable, but Burgerville’s rhetoric sticks in workers’ throats. Fishel says that despite a 70 percent discount for food on shift, she still sometimes can’t afford it.

“If your workers are going without food, how can you say you are a better, more sustainable option for your community?” she asks.

“This is my community”

Building a workplace organization has been a transformative experience for workers. Fishel says, “Being in the union has been very uplifting, inspiring, and super-positive to come together with so many people. We deserve a living wage, to be treated with respect and to have more than what we have right now.”

Claire Flanagan, 26, who’s worked at the chain since June 2015, says, “The union has changed people’s relationship with the job and work. It’s gone from being a place I go to work to pay my bills to feeling invested in our coworkers and the job in a much deeper way. This is my community.”

Burgerville is hardly rolling over, however. Flanagan says, “The company has dug in their heels and refuses whatever we ask for.” She alleges in her store, “Managers spread anti-union rumors and encourage workers to talk shit about the union as a way to gain favoritism. The company is engaged in a misinformation campaign and spreading fear.”

But BVWU members keep the heat on whether by wearing a union button on the job or tussling over floor mats. Members are demanding mats to ease the stress of standing for hours. Management relented in a few stores, but the mats have emerged as a proxy war. Flanagan says despite having mats, managers will put them away and she will bring them back out.

Jordan Vaandering, 26, says of workers at his outlet, where he’s been for a year, “We own the culture whereas before it was management pushing people to meet speed of service times, meet sales goals.”

Building worker power

BVWU’s strategy is known as “minority unionism” because BVWU may not have a majority in each shop willing to declare support for a union. This sort of organizing circumvents a federal labor-law process that makes union elections difficult, time-consuming and expensive. But BVWU utilizes the NLRB process when it is to its advantage, such as by filing unfair labor practice charges that allege Burgerville is illegally retaliating against the union and workers.

Burgerville worker Brennan says BVWU relies on the IWW model: “It teaches, ‘You’re a worker who hates your job, here’s how to build a committee.’ ” Each organized store began with a committee and grew from there.

One useful question, says Brennan, is asking workers, “What could you do with $5 an hour more?” He says talking to coworkers about “what they need changed and why they need it changed helps to break down the walls of silence around hard stuff in our lives.”

Brennan explains, “Building relationships in the workplace is not natural, but it’s deeply human. The workplace is full of power relationships and incredibly constrained by the boss, by pay, by gender, by race, by language. You need to get to know someone to know whether or not they will fight and why they’ll fight.”

These relationships come into play when management goes after workers. One notable case involves Ivy Fleak, a member whom BVWU claims was targeted by management “for standing up on the job and standing up against sexual harassment.” Flanagan says, “They took Ivy off the schedule for two weeks. We organized actions and a vigil. She spoke out publicly and won, receiving back pay for when she was off-schedule.”

Flanagan says, “People related to Ivy’s story,” which boosted support for the union. “At another job they saw someone being targeted or fired for standing up, or that happened to them. Being part of the union means when I’m at work, I know people have my back.”

BVWU claims Fleak was later forced to quit under pressure after the company allegedly threatened to file spurious criminal charges against her for gift-card theft. Burgerville declined to comment on her case, saying,“Burgerville is dedicated to continuously enhancing our relationship with our employees. We do not comment on individual employee matters or internal communications.” The company also opted not to comment on the BVWU campaign or on complaints about wages and working conditions.

In the case of another BVWU supporter fired over a workplace accident, the union organized a delegation of 50 people to the corporate headquarters asking for the worker’s job back and conducted a food drive for the worker. It publicized the firing to make the case that Burgerville pushes workers“past their limits” and demanded a transparent disciplinary process. More than half the workers in that outlet also signed a petition asking for the worker to be rehired. The worker remains fired.

BVWU members view the firings as part of a wider anti-union campaign. The company has set up a website to “inform” workers of their rights, but which discourages them from unionizing. Store managers have also been holding anti-union sessions with workers, where they play a video featuring Burgerville CEO Jeff Harvey. In the video, Harvey states, “I don’t think a union is in the best interest of the company, our employees, our suppliers, or our guests.” He admits, “Burgerville understands employees face certain challenges like transportation, food, and housing to name just a few.” Harvey then claims, “We have spent well over a year looking into the pressing issues that concern you [but] can’t act” as “under current labor laws, we are obligated to maintain the status quo.”

Flanagan claims when Burgerville says it has to “maintain the status quo,” what it’s really saying to workers is, “If you didn’t get a raise, blame the union.” On August 15, Burgerville Workers Union filed four charges of unfair labor practices with the NLRB, including one concerning the anti-union video. Labor law is fuzzy on the issue. Companies are prohibited from increasing benefits during a traditional union election campaign, but as a minority union, BVWU is acting outside of this framework as a minority union.

BVWU has also taken the offensive by hitting at the company’s public image. The worker-organizers have kept up a brisk pace for five months, averaging an action a week such as vigils, marches, pickets and a bicycle ride. When BVWU members visited Liepold Farms near Portland, which supplies Burgerville with berries for its signature shakes, to ask for support, the farm owner was taken aback but accepted their letter. Shortly after BVWU was unveiled, dozens of workers, local labor leaders, activists, and clergy packed the corporate headquarters in support.

Knowing they have the backing of the community bolsters the confidence of workers on the shop floor. Flanagan says the current plan is to “build organizational capacity and infrastructure to pull off larger actions.”

Time may be on the side of BVWU. The more shops the union can organize, the more workers who join, and the more community support it builds, the likelier it is BVWU will force Burgerville to the bargaining table, with or without a majority union. Then the Burgerville Workers Union may be the one opening new outlets.

To find out more about the Burgerville Workers Union, go to burgervilleworkersunion.org.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on October 25, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Arun Gupta is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York and has written for dozens of publications including the Washington Post, the Nation, The Progressive, Telesur English, and the Guardian. He is the author of the upcoming Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste (The New Press).


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The List of the Fight for $15’s Victories—Tangible and Intangible—Is Getting Longer

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David MobergFast food workers and their allies in New York City, supported by protestors elsewhere around the country, flooded public hearings in New York today with the message that they deserve at least $15 an hour. They testified before a wage board appointed at the behest of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to determine standards for fast food workers in the state.

The board’s work is taking place as a widening movement to raise minimum wages for the growing share of Americans in ill-paid jobs is both raising expectations and winning concrete victories. But the Fight for $15 campaign has also spurred action by many groups of low-wage workers, from home care aides to university adjunct teachers. And it is generating a complex new current within the broader labor movement that goes far beyond even their ambitious wage goals.

The Los Angeles city council’s vote last month to raise the minimum wage in the nation’s second largest city to $15 an hour by 2010 was the latest—but almost certainly not the last—in a series of major local victories by low-wage workers and their advocates that started last year in SeaTac, Washington. The movement then won victories in Seattle, San Francisco and other local jurisdictions. Popular movements in other cities, such as St. Louis and Kansas City, are close to pressuring local legislators to set a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Some employers, most recently Chipotle, are apparently reading the writing on the wall and improving pay, benefits and work rules (though generally offering much less than workers want).

In Los Angeles, more than 40 percent of its workforce, which has a high proportion of service workers, earn near California’s current state minimum wage of $9 an hour (or less for some tipped employees and for victims of employers’ wage theft, estimated in Los Angeles as afflicting nearly one-fifth of the low-wage workforce).

They also rely heavily on public assistance programs to survive. Such aid effectively amounts to taxpayer subsidies of nearly $7 billion a year across the country to companies like McDonald’s to support the substandard wages of non-managerial fast food workers in the U.S., according to the University of California at Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.

The contemporary movement to “raise the wage” has roots that are often run deep and wide—for example, in Los Angeles, traditional unions, worker centers and other non-union worker organizations, non-profit research and advocacy groups, faith organizations, immigrant and civil rights groups and dozens of other allies are participating in the movement. Last year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti advocated raising the minimum to $13.25, but he missed the wave of public opinion that swept away his by then passé proposal. In a poll of Los Angeles residents, 69 percent favored a strong package of workplace improvements, including a minimum of $15.25 an hour.

In Los Angeles, more than 100 groups formed the Raise the Wage coalition. Many of them had been involved in living wage battles or other campaigns to raise wages for specific groups of workers, such as hotel employees or people working at the publicly-subsidized LAX airport, or to raise awareness of how many employers cheated their employees.  As a result of their work, the new law covers every worker and establishes an enforcement agency for the first time.

The coalition drew on studies of the economics of raising the minimum from the Berkeley Center, the Economic Policy Institute and the non-governmental think tank the Economic Roundtable (collaborating with two UCLA research institutes) that promised little or no loss of jobs, an economic shot in the arm (especially in poor areas) and a boost in economic well-being for more than 40 percent of Angelenos.

The minimum wage campaign even drew support from a few small business people. Kevin Litwin, chief operating officer of Joe’s Auto Parks (with 20,000 parking spaces in downtown Los Angeles), was told by his CEO not to fight the wage increase but instead investigate what happened to the company’s branch in Seattle after the local minimum wage rose to $15 an hour. Litwin discovered that revenue increased, workers were more productive, turnover declined, and, he said, “the whole thing seemed to work for us in Seattle. Why not LA? We think this is just good to do, and it was also good for our industry.”

The final legislation rejected requests for exemptions from some businesses, such as the restaurant industry’s standard plea for sub-minimum wages for tipped employees, as well as a labor movement proposal that workers under collective bargaining agreements not be covered.  Business critics pounced on what they claimed was labor hypocrisy and an effort to entice employers to accept unions in order to benefit from the exemption.

But Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, said, “The concern of labor is for unionized employees’ varying benefits—sick pay, pensions—with an overall package significantly higher than the minimum wage. It was an attempt to respect existing collective bargaining agreements.” The proposed revision may be taken up later, but many council members seemed unsympathetic to the union argument, even though such exemptions are common in local minimum wage laws.

Even if the Fight for $15 was only one Raise the Wage member among many, the broader movement owes much to the fast food fighters. Starting with a one-day strike action two and one-half year ago by several hundred fast food workers in New York City, the organization has spread throughout the country and to other occupations, though the fast food industry is its priority.

Fight for $15 has contributed to the low-wage worker movement its goals—which at first, seemed to be a far stretch—of at least $15 an hour and the right to join a union without harassment. Its grassroots dynamism and direct action tactics have inspired a variety of ill-paid workers but posed a formidable  threat to its foes, most immediately McDonald’s Corporation, the world’s third largest private employer.

“Once you cut the head off the snake, it all falls in place,” says New York City McDonald’s worker and volunteer organizer Jorel Ware. “McDonald’s is the snake.”

Last weekend more than 1,300 Fight for $15 representatives gathered in Detroit for their second annual convention, and judging from their major resolution—and from the keynote speech by Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, their financial and organizational backer—the organization is counting on the New York wage board determination to be good enough to become the standard for the industry.

“We believe New Yorkers are leading the way to a new standard for fast-food workers and our families across the country,” the resolution reads (and Henry said that “New York is on the verge of setting a new standard that will change how we think about wages in this country”).

Despite the overwhelming emphasis on higher pay, the Fight for $15 has always been a fight for a union as well. Yet increasingly leaders at all levels are focusing on the need for a union as well as for a minimum wage raise. But Kendall Fells, national organizing director of Fight for $15, acknowledges that the union cannot organize store by store, but it can keep pressure on the company as a whole until there’s an agreement about how to proceed with  recognition.

“The problem is the process of organizing is too small and Fight for $15 is too big,” he says, but there’s the possibility of organizing all of the stores at once, adding community pressure from clergy, allies and other unions to the pressure, including additional legal action on the company’s labor law abuse.

Meanwhile, even without official recognition of their status, the workers can bring some changes by a variety of challenges at work, in the courts, and before the National Labor Relations Board.  “In these workers’ minds, they already have a union because they’re sticking together and bringing change,” Fells says.

Many workers are not only fighting for the $15 an hour and a union that first drew them to the campaign. They’re fighting for a better world. They see their actions as re-directing the course of history, as building a future for their children and grandchildren, and as helping workers not only in other fast food outlets but also in many other jobs and industries. They are exercising newly discovered rights as citizens of the United States and even enjoy a sense of being linked to workers in other countries. In these ways, they have already taken steps beyond developing a simple trade union mentality towards a consciousness of class that is as much ethical and political as economic.

“Our goal is a living wage when we say $15 and a union,” says Ware, an early supporter of Fight for $15. “That’s why we say $15 and a union. It looks like we’ve got the $15 but it may be a long fight for a union.”

But he notes that next year is an election year, which may open possibilities. Indeed, Hillary Clinton called into the convention saying that she wanted to be the “champion” of the organization and its members. Her move may have been simply political positioning, but it at least indicates that some Democrats may feel momentarily comfortable supporting a labor struggle.

Ware sees their demands as “good for the economy,” since their victories will likely encourage other companies to pay a living wage. And the campaign is good for him, helping him do something he had always wanted but did not know how to do.  “I never thought I’d be doing this,” he said. “I always wanted to help people, but I didn’t know how.”

At his second Fight for $15 convention, Antione Hearon, 22, was impressed by how much the movement had grown in a year, spreading across the country and even around the world. Although he hopes to be able to afford to return to community college, he wants to know that McDonald’s will pay a living wage if he has to rely on it.  But he’s in it for more than himself.

“My family [of 14 children] has been without lights, gas, water. At times we didn’t eat,” he said. “I need the money for myself and my family. I’m doing this not just for myself but for the whole country. I didn’t know anything about unions [before joining the campaign]. I didn’t think fast food workers could have a union. … It shocked me: this is a real thing. … Then there’s the unity aspect of this: there are people who I could go to personally, who have my back. I like that unity.”

At the convention, Connie Bennett, 57, an eight-year veteran at McDonald’s, found herself swapping ideas with other workers about how to recruit people—especially young workers—to the Fight for $15, as well as setting up “pen pal” ties with workers in other cities. She realizes some of them feel they need the job badly and are afraid of losing it, but she explains to them that organizing, even striking, “that’s our freedom, and that’s our right as citizens. I tell them that this is not only their fight but a fight for their children and grandchildren.”

She talks up the union at her bus stop and when she stops by the mid-morning daily coffee club of elderly customers. That paid off when workers at her Chicago McDonald’s went out on strike. The coffee club members joined in. “I can’t put into words how that support made me feel,” she said.

Fifteen dollars an hour might mean that she could take a bus to work all the time, not just half the time. More important, she might be able to visit four grandchildren she has never seen. But the experience of solidarity, of being part of a union, is a reward in itself.

“I believe very much in unions,” she said. “If this is a sign of what a union means, I believe a union will bring the $15 to us. I explain to the members that a union is a big part of what they need. A union will give them freedom of speech, and you’re the ones who make the decisions.”

Even without a formal union or a pay raise, the fighting fast food workers have become winners. They’ve won a new sense of their rights and power and a new view of how they fit in the world. And that’s worth at least as much in its own way as the pay raise they need and deserve.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on June 15, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is David Moberg. David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.


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States Where Minimum Wages Are Supposed To Be Living Wages

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Bryce CovertLast week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced that he is taking advantage of a state law to raise minimum wages without the involvement of the legislature. He’s not the only governor with that power; others could also follow suit.

New York State law gives the labor commissioner the authority to convene a wage board to investigate whether the minimum wage in a specific job — or even all of the jobs in the state — are adequate, and to issue a “wage order” to increase it without the involvement of state lawmakers. On Wednesday, Cuomo announced that he would direct the commissioner to investigate wages in the fast food industry. New York was the home to the first strike in the fast food industry demanding a $15 minimum wage and has been home to them as they continued to spread across the country.

But Cuomo isn’t the only governor with the power to set a higher minimum wage without approval from a state legislature. According to an analysis from the National Employment Law Project (NELP), state laws in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Wisconsin all empower their governors in similar ways. “There was a time when the minimum wage was less politicized and there was a sense that it should be at a level adequate to deliver decent incomes for workers,” explained Paul Sonn, general counsel at NELP. “These laws are still on the books in a number of places.”

States have already been raising their own minimum wages, to the point that the majority have a higher wage than the federal level of $7.25. But some state lawmakers haven’t been taking action. “Where the legislative process won’t deal adequately with the minimum wage, governors should dust [these laws] off and use them aggressively to deliver the wages that workers need,” Sonn argued. “Governors in states with this authority should be using them more frequently and more creatively to address the problem of low wages.”

One example could be California, which has a Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, who already signed a minimum wage increase to $10 by 2016 back in 2013. “Cuomo is saying, ‘I’m going to make New York a progressive leader with the strongest minimum wage in the nation,’” Sonn said. “Jerry Brown could do the same thing.” A spokesman for the governor’s office told ThinkProgress he wasn’t aware of similar options to what Cuomo did in California, but noted that there are other new bills and proposals to raise the wage.

The authority can also be used against governors who aren’t supportive of higher minimum wages. That’s already happened in Wisconsin. There, a state statute says that all wages in the state have to amount to no less than a living wage and that any member of the public can file a complaint saying the minimum wage fails that standard. Last year, low-wage workers and worker organizing groups submitted 100 complaints to Gov. Scott Walker (R) alleging that the state’s $7.25 minimum wage violates the statute, although his administration rejected the complaints.

A similar fight could start brewing in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie (R) has voiced his opposition to increasing the minimum wage. “The Governor of New Jersey has the power to raise wages for hundreds of thousands of workers,” Analilia Mejia, executive director of New Jersey Working Families, told ThinkProgress. “We will absolutely be calling on Gov. Christie to follow in the footsteps of Gov. Cuomo, who Christie has called his ‘separated at birth twin brother.’” She also said the issue would be brought up beyond Christie’s administration. “Over the coming year Working Families activists [will] be asking every potential gubernatorial contender in New Jersey’s 2017 election where they stand on using the state’s wage board to end poverty wages,” she said.

This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on May 11, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: The author’s name is Bryce Covert. Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

 


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