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Paid-Sick-Leave Fight Escalates in New York City, Expands Across the Nation

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eidelson-headshotNEW YORK CITY—Flanked by a hundred-some supporters at a press conference on Wednesday, labor leaders and feminist activists announced a new initiative to push a longtime goal: passage of a citywide paid-sick-leave mandate. Wednesday’s event, held at noon on the steps of City Hall, marked supporters’ latest effort to move City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who will decide the bill’s fate. It comes amid increased organized labor support for similar campaigns around the country—including a recently announced effort in Portland.

All eyes are on Quinn because the law is already backed by a large enough majority of the council to pass and override a promised veto by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The question is whether Quinn will allow the bill to come up for a vote. As I’ve reported for Working In These Times, paid sick leave poses a crucial test for Quinn, a former liberal activist now viewed as the candidate of the city’s business establishment, and Bloomberg’s heir apparent.

Rev. Jennifer Kottler opened the rally with a prayer asking, “Oh holy one…please temper [Quinn’s] strength with compassion and justice so that she is moved to do the right thing…Give her the courage to do what is right.” Rhonda Nelson, the Chair of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Women’s Network, said that Speaker Quinn “has been a champion for women who work in supermarkets across this great city. … Today we ask her to continue to fight for fairness for supermarket workers and the thousands of other workers in this great city who need paid-sick-leave legislation.”

In 2010, Quinn stymied a stronger paid-sick-leave bill by preventing a vote. At the time, Quinn said she supported the goal but had to “help small business stay alive in a fragile economy.” By winter, Quinn will have to disappoint a constituency whose support she’s counting on in next year’s election: either liberals or the business lobby.

Wednesday’s rally marked the launch of a new Women for Paid Sick Days Initiative. Ai-Jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, emceed the event, which drew contingents from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Restaurant Opportunities Center, Make the Road New York and other organizations. Restaurant worker Ai Elo, restaurant owner Barbara Sibley and Gay Men’s Health Crisis head Marjorie Hill all spoke at the event, amidst signs reading, “Here are the Germs You Ordered” and “Our Health = Clean Food.”

In an e-mail to The New York Times this week, Quinn maintained her opposition. Echoing her past comments, Quinn said that she supported the goal, but “with the current state of the economy and so many businesses struggling to stay alive, I do not believe it would be wise to implement this policy, in this way, at this time.” Quinn also wrote, “I stand by the commitment I made more than a year ago—to continue to meet and discuss the legislation, in the context of the evolving economy, with council leaders” and supporters. Quinn’s comments came in the Times’ report on a letter from 200 prominent women calling for the speaker to allow a vote. Signatories included current and former New York politicians, union leaders and feminist icon Gloria Steinem.

“I challenge these celebrities,” Manhattan Chamber of Commerce President Nancy Ploeger told Crain’s New York Business. “What do these women really know about running a small business and what the costs of this bill will be?”

The Times noted that Steinem had introduced Quinn at a fall fundraiser, but reported that in an e-mail to the paper, “Steinem said that before she gave her support to Ms. Quinn, she had told her that it was conditional on Ms. Quinn’s bringing the paid-sick-day bill to a vote.” Steinem told the Times that Quinn had told her that “discussions were under way about the size of businesses to be covered.”

“Everyday people want to see that they can both care for their families and keep their jobs,” says Carol Joyner, the national policy director for the Labor Project for Working Families. By not calling the vote, she notes, “Chris Quinn is standing between a healthy workforce…and the will of the people.”

In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to pass a law requiring most employers to provide paid sick leave to employees. As I’ve reported, paid sick days laws have since passed citywide in San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC, and statewide in Connecticut. A ballot initiative failed in Denver. Philadelphia Mayor Nutter vetoed a paid sick days bill but subsequently allowed a narrower one covering city contractors and subsidized companies to pass. Milwaukee passed a law, but it was over-ridden by a state law signed by Governor Scott Walker. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal similarly signed a law preemptively barring cities from mandating paid sick leave. Along with New York City, campaigns are underway for bills covering Orange County, the state of Massachusetts and now the city of Portland.

Joyner says that what last year was “a group of different campaigns” is now “becoming a movement. There have been some wins along the win, some losses – losses we have learned from. There’s a growing momentum.”

“Over the last year the engagement of labor has been ratcheted up,” Joyner adds. “Some of the larger international unions have been paying closer attention to the issue…we’ve seen a dramatic increase in unions getting involved in this issue on a state and a local level.”

Joyner also cites the prominent role of labor leaders, including AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler and SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry, at a national paid sick leave summit this month. She says that “real heavy-hitters who always have been supportive” are now “speaking up publicly and saying these are issues that the labor movement has to take on, so that everyone can have a minimum standard.”

“Most of the hard-working men and women that we represent get paid sick leave as part of their negotiated contracts,” SEIU District 1199 Secretary-Treasurer Maria Castaneda told the crowd Wednesday. “But we believe that workers deserve a paid day off to care for their self or their loved one, without the risk of losing wages or being terminated. Paid sick days should be a basic workplace standard for all New Yorkers.” UFCW’s Nelson also noted that most of her union’s members have paid sick leave, but said, “All these other employers that do not provide paid sick days are trying to drag the responsible employers and their workers down into the gutter, where profit matters more than fairness.”

Paid sick leave has also become a focus for some chapters of Working America, the AFL-CIO affiliate for non-union workers. Tara Murphy, a senior member coordinator in Portland, says that Working America canvassers have collected 2,000 letters to the city’s mayor and city council calling for a bill.

“Working families are saying to our organizers that this something that they really need right now,” Murphy says. The coalition backing a bill includes several local unions and the state Working Families Party. According to Murphy, organizers had originally hoped to push for an August vote, but may need to wait until just after the November election. “We’re hoping to get this done sooner rather than later,” she adds. “People really can’t wait any longer.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on July 23, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet. After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years. His website is http://www.josheidelson.com.

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Good News for Transgender and Ex-Offender Workers

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eidelson-headshotEqual Employment Opportunity Commission issues major rulings.

Last week the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released major decisions regarding the rights of two groups of workers that face frequent discrimination. On Monday, the EEOC delivered an opinion finding that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans “sex discrimination” in employment, applies to discrimination against transgender workers. On Wednesday, the EEOC approved a new set of guidelines restricting employers’ use of past criminal convictions to disqualify job applicants. Both decisions parallel, and could impact, legislative efforts already underway.

The EEOC was created by the Civil Rights Act and enforces that landmark legislation’s workplace discrimination protections. Its five commissioners are appointed by the president for five-year terms.

Transgender protections.

The EEOC’s new transgender precedent came in the case of Mia Macy, a transgender woman who says she had, as a man, applied for and been promised a job with the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. When she attempted to take the job after her transition, she was told it had been given to someone else. After ATF’s Office of Equal Opportunity responded to Macy’s discrimination claim by asserting that anti-transgender discrimination was not covered by federal law, she appealed to the EEOC.

Macy’s lawyer argued that Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination applied to discrimination for being transgender. The EEOC agreed, and sent the case back to ATF with the instruction that it evaluate the case in that light. That’s in line with the steady—but by no means unanimous—trend of lower court rulings, notes Jennifer Pizer, the Legal Director of the Williams Institute at University of California Los Angeles. Pizer, a former Lambda Legal Senior Counsel, says the decision is “very significant,” because it “establishes a national understanding that discrimination in a workplace because of a person’s gender identity or expression is a form of gender discrimination.”

In an interview with Metro Weekly, Macy described the EEOC opinion as “one more piece in the puzzle of equality.”

“This isn’t discrimination because a person is male or because a person is female,” says Pizer. “It’s a subset of that discrimination against a person based on how they are male or how they are female, or whether their gender seems to be ambiguous, or whether the way they are and the way they live is consistent with what other people they should do based on what their gender appears to be.”

Pizer notes that courts used to often rule against sex discrimination claims by transgender workers on the grounds that “Congress did not have this in mind” in 1964.  But more recently, judges have increasingly recognized that the protection covers “the range of ways a person might be treated differently because of their sex…If a person was qualified to the job as a man, and isn’t qualified to do it as a woman, or vice versa, that’s sex discrimination.”

Williams say there’s no good estimate of what proportion of transgender workers are known to be transgender by their employers. Some employers find out for the first time when a employee undergoes a gender transition, or when management reviews a worker’s health insurance information for an unrelated reason. When that happens, says Pizer, “a hostile reaction” is “sadly common.”

“Everybody is protected against sex discrimination,” says Pizer, “and sex discrimination includes protection against discrimination based on one’s perceived failure to confirm to sex stereotypes.”

Pizer says the EEOC’s logic would also apply to some, but not all, cases of discrimination against non-heterosexual workers: it would apply to a non-transgender lesbian woman, for example, who was treated differently because of a perceived failure to conform to “feminine” norms.

But it would not protect the same woman if she was being treated differently specifically for having, or wanting, same-sex relationships. Pizer acknowledges that’s an “odd line,” and one that could be exploited by employers. A minority of states have their own laws banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, has been repeatedly introduced in Congress, though it’s drawn less attention than fights over marriage equality. In a November press conference following the announcement of his retirement, Congressman and ENDA sponsor Barney Frank named resistance to transgender protections as one of the reasons the bill has not yet passed.

Pizer says the EEOC’s ruling, which leaves transgender workers with stronger federal protections than other LGBT workers, doesn’t lessen the urgency of passing a broad ENDA, but has the potential to dull some of the opposition.

“What we’ve seen in some states,” says Pizer, “is that when courts and administrative bodies recognize that a kind of discrimination is covered by existing law, then sometimes legislators find it that much more straightforward, if you will, to codify that understanding into a statute.”

Ex-offender protections.

In a Wednesday vote, the EEOC approved a revised set of guidelines for employers regarding the use of criminal background checks in hiring. Advocates hailed the move in a Thursday conference call with reporters.

National Employment Law Project Executive Director Christine Owens said it “was really well past time” for new guidelines, given that the “terrain…had shifted so dramatically” since 1987, when the EEOC first formally recognized the “disparate impact” of such restrictions on African-Americans and Latinos.

In the 25 years since, notes Owens, the pre-employment background check industry has exploded, and the use of such checks has spread from a bare majority of the economy in 1996 to over 90 percent today. NELP has estimated that up to 65 million U.S. adults face potential job restrictions due to past offenses, including 1 in 17 white men, 1 in 7 hispanic men, and 1 in 3 black men.

Compared to its ruling recognizing anti-transgender discrimination as a form of sex discrimination, EEOC law on pre-employment background checks remains less clear: The EEOC warns that such practices can have a potentially illegal—discriminatory effect, but doesn’t consider them inherently to be a form of racial discrimination under Title VII.

Sharon Dietrich, a managing attorney for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, says the EEOC’s move Wednesday “is not groundbreaking, but it is extremely important.” Dietrich highlighted the change in three areas. First, the EEOC is providing illustrative examples for employers of practices now likely to run afoul of the law, including firing already-hired employees purely on the basis of background checks, or automatically disqualifying all employees with criminal records in an online application. Second, it offers guidelines for how to stay within the law. Third, it advises employers to inform potential employees when ex-offender status is being weighed against them, and provides guidelines for consideration of extenuating circumstances.

Dietrich notes that private-sector employers aren’t the only ones that have been found to use background checks in a manner inconsistent with the Civil Rights Act. She says the EEOC’s new guidance means that “legislators at the state and local level cannot enact over-broad state and local laws that restrict the employment of former offenders.”

In Pennsylvania, Dietrich’s organization successfully brought suit against a state law that imposed imposed a lifetime ban on the hiring of people with a wide range of former offenses by facilities assisting senior citizens.  “Anything that is a lifetime ban,” she says, “pretty clearly is in violation of EEOC’s policies, and is of really questionable legal merit.” Meanwhile, some cities have gone farther than the EEOC, passing “Ban the Box” legislation that forbids some employers from asking about criminal background on initial employment applications.

Owens and Dietrich were joined on the call by Elsie Sacarello Quiles, who says she was fired after three days working for a new school district.

“At the time,” says Sacarello, “I didn’t even remember what the charges were.” She later realized she had lost her job over a nearly four-decade-old “disorderly conduct” arrest. “I was very humiliated. I was very much ashamed, for something occurred 38 years ago, out of my ignorance as an 18-year-old…I’m pretty much at a standstill right now.”

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on April 30, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet.  After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years.  His website is http://www.josheidelson.com.

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Grad Student Workers Plan Counterattack After Michigan Gov. Signs Law Denying Rights

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eidelson-headshotUnion plans to win recognition rights through political and legal challenges rather than demanding voluntary recognition

Following two years of organizing and months of hearings, this month Michigan’s state labor board was set to rule on whether to reverse a 1981 decision that stripped union recognition from the state university’s graduate student research assistants (GSRAs).  That ruling never happened. Instead Michigan’s House and Senate passed a bill declaring GSRAs ineligible for union recognition, and Governor Rick Snyder signed it into law on March 13.

“We were clearly disappointed – disturbed, even – that our rights as graduate employees were attacked in this manner…” says Graduate Employees Organization President Samantha Montgomery. “To have the Michigan legislature pre-empt their ability to have an election in this way is very disheartening.”  GEO, also known as Local 3550 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has represented University of Michigan graduate student employees since 1975.

Montgomery says the union will push back against the law on multiple fronts: filing a legal challenge, pushing for a constitutional amendment, and continuing to tackle workplace issues facing research assistants and other graduate student employees.

In an e-mailed statement, Governor Snyder said, “While graduate student research assistants provide valuable efforts for universities, they are students first and foremost.  Considering them to be public employees with union representation would alter the nature of the critical relationship between students and teachers, and risk the educational mission of universities.”

Montgomery, a graduate student in the university’s Psychology and Women’s Studies departments, calls Snyder’s statement “yet another one of those anti-union misconceptions about the role of collective bargaining.” Over four decades, says Montgomery, GEO has “done nothing but help to improve the lives and working conditions for graduate employees, and make it a more competitive place and a more attractive place for graduate students to come.”

Because the University of Michigan is a public institution, its labor relations are governed by state labor law, rather than the National Labor Relations Act, and by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC), rather than the National Labor Relations Board. As I’ve reported for In These Times, private-sector graduate student employees won recognition rights from the NLRB for the first time in 2000, lost them in 2004, and now are looking to Obama’s NLRB nominees to restore them once again.  While some states ban public employee union recognition entirely, others recognized graduate student workers decades before the NLRB did, and have continued for years after the NLRB stopped.

University of Michigan GSRAs had union recognition until 1981. The university began recognizing GEO as the collective bargaining agent for GSRAs and two other categories of graduate student employees – instructors and staff assistants – in 1975.  But at the expiration of GEO’s first contract, the university challenged its obligation to collectively bargain with graduate student employees. The MERC issued a split decision: graduate student instructors and staff assistants were workers with recognition rights, but GSRAs were not.

Two years ago, with GEO’s backing, GSRAs began campaigning to win back union recognition. Last spring, a majority of the 2,200 GSRAs petitioned the MERC seeking a union recognition election. The MERC denied the petition but requested more information regarding the grounds for reversing its 1981 decision.

In October 2011, GEO presented evidence arguing that the role of GSRAs had changed since the labor board excluded them from recognition rights: Research has become a central mission of the university, and GSRA’s research now is often unrelated to their dissertations. In contrast to 1980, says Montgomery, university regents backed recognition. At the labor board, “they attested to the role that RAs play and how they are treated as employees.” Management’s support increased GEO’s optimism about a reversal from the MERC. Instead, Michigan Republicans took the decision out of the labor board’s hands.

GSRAs plan to challenge the new law, PA 45, on constitutional grounds in U.S. District Court.  Mark Cousens, an attorney representing GEO, said in an e-mail that the suit will assert that the law “deprives GSRAs of the equal protection of the law” by “irrationally classifying them as non-employees.” Cousens expects the lawsuit to be filed early next month. Wisconsin unions challenged Scott Walker’s restriction of collective bargaining on similar grounds last year.

GEO has also joined the push by several Michigan unions to add a collective bargaining rights amendment to the state constitution. If unions gather the required 322,609 signatures, and their wording survives legal challenge, the proposed amendment will land on November’s ballot. In Florida in 1982, collective bargaining language in the state constitution led an appeals court to overturn a state law declaring graduate students not to be workers.

While making a legal and political push for recognition, Montgomery says GEO will continue working to improve working conditions for GSRAs and other graduate student employees.

GEO is pressuring the university’s regents to change eligibility restrictions for the university’s child care subsidy, which is only available to graduate students whose partners are employed at least 20 hours a week. Montgomery says that GSRAs are also active participants in preparing for contract negotiations for GEO’s existing bargaining units in 2014; many students are GSRAs at one point in their University of Michigan career and graduate student teachers at another.

Both GEO’s legal challenge and its constitutional amendment push face substantial obstacles. But there’s another route open to GSRAs seeking union recognition, though it faces steep challenges of its own. While Snyder’s law excludes GSRAs from legal recognition rights, it does not prevent the university from voluntarily recognizing and bargaining with them.

Cousens says any such recognition “would be ‘extra-legal,’ i.e. not unlawful but not subject to the Public Employment Relations Act,” Michigan’s public employee labor law. The union would lack PERA protections or recourse to the MERC.

“Voluntary recognition is possible, then,” says Cousens, “but would be very complicated.”

Montgomery says that although the administration has not taken an anti-union stance, some deans and faculty have expressed their opposition to recognition, and there have been “instances of intimidation and even retaliation against some our activists…It highlights the problems when workers don’t have protection in place and the problems with this legislation that denies this group of workers their rights, because it gives us fewer avenues to pursue justice for these people.”

Asked why GEO’s campaign for GSRA recognition is pursuing legal and political challenges rather than targeting the administration with a campaign demanding voluntary recognition, Montgomery says, “I think our members are hopeful that the university will continue to work with us. And we hope that one day they will have the full protections of the Public Employment Relations Act.”

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 26, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet.  After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years.  His website is http://www.josheidelson.com.

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Trader Joe’s Caves to Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Signs Fair Food Agreement

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eidelson-headshotMonths-long pressure campaign pays off

On Thursday, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers announced it had signed a Fair Food Agreement with Trader Joe’s, a significant step forward its efforts to bring fairness and accountability to the food industry.  “We are truly happy today to welcome Trader Joe’s aboard the Fair Food Program,” CIW’s Gerardo Reyes said in a joint statement issued by CIW and Trader Joe’s.  “Trader Joe’s is cherished by its customers for a number of reasons, but high on that list is the company’s commitment to ethical purchasing practices.”

The same statement, which the company has posted as a letter to customers on its website, hails Fair Food as “a groundbreaking approach to social responsibility in the U.S. produce industry that combines the Fair Food Code of Conduct…with a small price premium to help improve harvesters’ wages.” Trader Joe’s did not respond to a request for further comment.

But it wasn’t long ago that activists were carrying “Traitor Joe’s” banners, and Trader Joe’s wascondemning Fair Food Agreements as “overreaching, ambiguous, and improper.”

Trader Joe’s’ reversal follows a months-long campaign. As Michelle Chen has reported for In These Times, it included “Trader Joe’s tours” last summer that picketed stores, educated consumers, and met with allies along the East and West Coasts.

In Boston, a group of fifth graders organized a rally outside a store. In New York, activists held a 1.6 mile run between two stores. The announcement of the settlement came on the eve of two planned days of coordinated protest pegged to the grand opening of Trader Joe’s’ first-ever Florida location. That store, the company’s 367th, is located on Immokalee Road in Naples, 35 miles from the fields where the CIW was born.

CIW announced Thursday that Friday’s and Saturday’s demonstrations, planned for Naples and 32 other cities, were being cancelled or replaced with actions targeting Fair Food holdout Publix instead.

CIW is a workers’ organization that partners with faith, labor, and consumer groups to push improvements in farm workers’ working conditions and voice on the job. It’s part of a growing trend of labor activism that takes place outside of the protections and restrictions of the National Labor Relations Act. CIW’s Trader Joe’s agreement is the latest in a series of victories achieved through comprehensive campaigns that leverage consumer and media pressure at strategic points in the tomato supply chain.

CIW achieved national prominence during its multi-year boycott of Taco Bell, which successfully forced the fast food giant to absorb the cost—a penny per pound—of modest labor reforms for workers in the fields. The three other largest fast food chains later followed suit.

CIW took the momentum from these victories—and the promise of an extra penny—and turned its focus to the growers who directly employ tomato growers.

As Kari Lyderson has reported for In These Times, agreements with major growers in 2010 mean that 90 percent of U.S. tomatoes come from growers who have signed Fair Food agreements. CIW estimates that more than 10,000 farm workers are now covered by these agreements. They include basic standards on wages and working conditions as well as a complaint procedure, independent auditing, and meetings between workers and management to monitor compliance. CIW is currently training farm workers on their rights under Fair Food Agreements, and how to enforce them.

Following its agreements with fast-food chains and growers, CIW turned its attention to another point the tomato supply chain: supermarkets. For these companies, signing a Fair Food Agreement means a commitment to absorb the penny-per-pound cost, source tomatoes only from growers that are complying with a Fair Food Agreement, and meet with CIW regarding compliance. Absent buy-in from supermarkets, CIW warned, growers that are currently abiding by Fair Food Agreements could violate them in the future, secure in the knowledge that noncompliance would not cost them supermarket business.

Throughout the months that it rebuffed CIW’s call for a Fair Food Agreement, Trader Joe’s insisted that it was already paying the extra penny-per-pound. Given that major growers were already signed on, that may well have been true—which suggests that Trader Joe’s true objection may have been less about spending money than about sacrificing power.

Although CIW never called a boycott of Trader Joe’s, “it was always a possibility if we needed to get there,” says CIW staffer Julia Perkins. In November, CIW sent an e-mail promoting a campaign by the New York Community/ Farmworker Alliance to send “Dear Joe” letters breaking up with the company over its refusal to sign a Fair Food Agreement. “The persistence of fair food activists,” says Perkins, “and of their consumers too, who kept going over and over to them…helped to show them that this was something they wanted to do.”

In August interviews (for Alternet) during their East Coast Trader Joe’s Tour, Immokalee tomato workers Oscar Otzoy and Wilson Perez described how the 2010 agreements had, along with improving their wages, changed their working conditions: managers stopped rampantly stealing wages, denying breaks, and demanding sex in exchange for less strenuous assignments.

Their pay remains well short of a living wage.  But for the first time, said Perez, “We have a voice in the camps.”

Whole Foods was the first major supermarket to sign a Fair Food Agreement; Trader Joe’s is the second. Perkins says Trader Joe’s “didn’t agree to anything less” than Whole Foods had in its own agreement. CIW’s next major target is Publix, which has been refusing requests to sign an agreement.

CIW and religious allies have announced a six-day protest fast outside Publix headquarters that will begin March 5. Publix, charges Perkins, is “not just turning their back and refusing to meet with us, but really being a blockade in the road to truly changing conditions for farmworkers.”  But she expects Publix will eventually follow Trader Joe’s and Publix in signing on to the Fair Food model.  “It’s really the future of the industry.”

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 13, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet.  After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years.  His website is http://www.josheidelson.com.

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Housekeepers Charge Hyatt Fired Them for Taking Down Their Own Photos

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eidelson-headshotBecoming a pin-up without your permission: another downside of workplace autocracy

Passing through the halls one day in September, Martha Reyes stopped to see why a group of her Hyatt co-workers stood laughing in front of a bulletin board. Looking closer, she saw photos of her head, and those of other housekeeping employees, pasted onto bodies in swimsuits. “I got really angry,” says Reyes, seeing her face on a figure that looked “almost naked, and a very different body that wasn’t mine. I felt very humiliated and embarrassed.” Martha’s sister Lorena was also included in the beach-themed display, which Hyatt management had posted over the weekend as part of Housekeeping Appreciation Week.

Martha Reyes took down her picture and her sister’s. A month later, alleging they spent too long on their lunch break, the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara fired both of them.

The sisters charge that the non-union hotel was retaliating against them over the bulletin board. Hotel workers’ union UNITE HERE (full disclosure: my former employer) is championing their cause. On November 18, the union organized a delegation of hotel workers and community leaders that joined the Reyes sisters in delivering a copy of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint to the hotel, followed by picketing outside. UNITE HERE is in a national fight with Hyatt over organizing rights at non-union hotels.

As In These Times has reported, UNITE HERE has drawn national attention to 100 non-union Hyatt workers in Boston who were abruptly replaced by a staffing company, and partnered with LGBT groups in boycotting a Hyatt hotel whose owner’s donation helped put repeal of equal marriage rights on the ballot. In September, union Hyatt workers in four cities staged a one-week strike demanding the right to do future solidarity actions while under contract. In February, the Reyes sisters and other union committee members called for a customer boycott of the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara over management’s refusal to agree to a fair organizing process.

Hyatt maintains that the Reyes’ firings were routine, and that the union is taking an opportunistic swipe at their brand. The sisters’ attorney, Adam Zapala, says that conversations with Hyatt Regency Santa Clara employees have turned up no one else who has been terminated for long lunches. He notes that many housekeepers there, faced with excessive workloads, work through their breaks and then take a longer lunch.

Hyatt insists that the posted photos were designed to celebrate housekeepers, not to make fun of them. (The company did not respond to a request for comment.) That could well be true – managers may have put up the display without ever imagining that some employees would be humiliated, rather than tickled, to see their faces juxtaposed on shapely people in bikinis.

That possibility in itself illustrates the downsides of autocracy. The Reyes sisters say the plans for Housekeeping Appreciation Week, like most decisions at the Hyatt Regency, were made with no input – let alone consent – from hourly employees. “I’m a big woman,” says Lorena Reyes, “and the photo they used isn’t my body…I never wear bikinis…those pictures made us look like clowns.” (Both sisters were interviewed in Spanish.)

Though the posting was in an employee area, its location was visible to passing employees from all departments, outside vendors, and the occasional guest. It’s difficult to know how many other employees at the non-union hotel had similar feelings but chose to stay silent rather than take the risks at-will employees face by getting on the wrong side of management. If the pin-ups themselves seem commonplace, that’s striking as well: one of 100 daily collisions between values of autonomy and the acceptance of subordination as a cost of employment.

The indignity the Reyes sisters faced – seeing your image used in a way that horrifies you, by someone who could fire you – is a stark reminder that workplace relationships are power relationships.  Lest we think that was obvious, this month noted non-feminist Katie Roiphe took to the New York Times to call for more “risqué remarks” at work, with nary a mention of whether those comments were more likely to come from subordinates towards “superiors,” or the other way around.  When’s the last time you saw employees pin up a photo of their boss’ head on a swimsuit model at work?

And as the Reyes’ sisters have experienced, the downsides of management autocracy don’t disappear at the end of your shift. Both sisters carried their shame and anger home with them at night. “I still feel really humiliated,” says Martha Reyes. Lorena Reyes avoided showing the image to her family out of embarrassment. They saw it for the first time when it appeared in local news.

The Hyatt Regency Santa Clara also offers a reminder that labor rights and women’s rights aren’t naturally severable. Their connection is especially obvious in housekeeping, where a usually invisible, sometimes sexualized workforce does dangerous but undervalued work. UNITE HERE members in several cities have negotiated for and won the option for employees to wear pants rather than skirts. After a UNITE HERE housekeeper charged former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn with rape, union members around the country spoke out about sexual harassment and assault by hotel guests.

“We want to make sure Hyatt does the right thing,” says Lorena Reyes, “and that they don’t humiliate women again like they did to us.”

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on November 29, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a union organizer based in Philadelphia. He’s written about politics as a contributor to Campus Progress, a columnist for the Yale Daily News, and a research fellow for Talking Points Media. His work has appeared online at publications including In These Times, Dissent, Washington Monthly, and Alternet. Check out his blog: http://www.josheidelson.com Twitter: @josheidelson E-mail: jeidelson@gmail.com.

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Apple Store Workers Share Why They Want to ‘Work Different’

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eidelson-headshotOn the day Apple celebrated 10 years since opening its first Apple Store, employee Cory Moll announced a campaign to unionize the company’s 30,000-plus retail employees. Moll sent an e-mail to reporters declaring that “the people of Apple are coming together to “‘work different.’” “The core issues definitely involve compensation, pay, benefits,” Moll said.

A Reuters reporter echoed the response of many journalists in calling the union drive “unusual given Apple’s reputation for fierce employee loyalty.” But interviews with workers in three states help explain how and why some of Apple’s employees want to change the company. (All three employees interviewed for this article requested and were provided anonymity based on their fear of retaliation.)

A Bay Area employee described what happened last year when he and about a dozen co-workers realized employees with years of service were being paid less than new hires doing the same work. Agitated about the situation but concerned about retaliation, the workers committed to a plan: during the approaching round of annual one-on-one meetings between workers and managers, they would each ask about pay disparities.

Supposedly happy and loyal Apple employees help sell things at the Covent Garden Apple Store in London on May 23, 2011.

Those workers who did ask received a consistent response: “Money shouldn’t be an issue when you’re employed at Apple.” Instead, managers said, the chance to work at Apple “should be looked at as an experience.” “You can’t live off of experience,” said the worker interviewed. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Apple has outpaced Tiffany & Co. jewelers in retail sales per square foot.

Employees said that Apple keeps its healthcare costs down by defining even employees working 40 hours a week as part-time if they can’t guarantee open availability (availability to be scheduled to work anytime the store is open). The three workers interviewed said that most employees at each of their stores either work second jobs or go to school, making open availability impossible.

These workers are instead offered Apple’s “part-time” health insurance plan, which costs them much more and the company much less. The Bay Area worker, who works 32 to 40 hours a week, is currently going without medication for a serious health condition because he can’t afford the $120 to $150 a month for the “part time” plan. “$120 a month is what I live on after rent and bills,” he said. All three employees said that the majority of their co-workers were classified as part time.

A Maryland worker said that Apple’s understaffing can make the workload “overwhelming” during high traffic periods and leaves him “singled out” by frustrated customers. He said it “adds tension and makes it a lot more difficult to be effective” as both employees and customers become increasingly stressed.

A New York State worker said that “our demand has outgrown our staffing tremendously,” and that he is yelled at by customers at least once a week. He said the contrast between the lengths Apple goes to satisfy customers and its inflexibility in the face of employees’ needs is “demoralizing.”

The same worker said he has ideas for how to make his store run more effectively, but has no avenue to get them taken seriously given Apple’s “very top-down corporate culture.” In the past year, management made “a very big overhaul” of workers’ schedules and responsibilities at his store. For his co-workers, it meant “less time doing the things they like to do both at work and outside of work”: less time for repairs and more time on the floor; less consistent schedules and more times working a night shift followed by a morning shift hours later.

The change “wreaked havoc” on his personal life and “strained” his relationship with his girlfriend. He calls the new system “a drain emotionally and physically” and resents that he had no voice in it. Though he’s undecided about unionization, he said if it happened, “the biggest benefit” would be “just having a say in these situations.”

All three workers interviewed saw organizing the stores as a daunting task.  The Bay Area worker said he is eager to get involved but most of his co-workers fear punishment for “even talking about a union.” He said that Apple goes out of its way to make employees feel “extremely expendable.” “For a company that has been founded on the ideas of ‘think different’ and innovation,” he said, “their labor practices are anything but.”

The Maryland employee said that although he wants a union, his first reaction on hearing about Moll’s e-mail was, “That guy is going to get fired.” He said after he was hired, a trainer told him “casually” that Apple was against union organizing and that working nonunion was part of the job. The comment was “thrown in there with the sexual harassment training.”

Moll told industry website Inside Apple Store that he has begun working with a “prominent national union” to organize his own store and that he has received e-mails from workers at 100 other stores interested in union representation.

Apple, which has more than 30,000 employees in 325 stores around the world, did not respond to a request for comment.

This blog originally appeared In These Times on June 24, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a union organizer based in Philadelphia. He’s written about politics as a contributor to Campus Progress, a columnist for the Yale Daily News, and a research fellow for Talking Points Media. His work has appeared online at publications including In These Times, Dissent, Washington Monthly, and Alternet. Check out his blog: http://www.josheidelson.com Twitter: @josheidelson E-mail: jeidelson@gmail.com.

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