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Making Health Care Reform Work: A Perspective from California Doctors

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kari-lydersenLOS ANGELES—At a conference convened by the organization Reporting on Health at the University of Southern California this week, doctors and health care experts shed light on labor-related aspects of the health care field as the sweeping health care reform legislation is set to take effect after being upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

They provided a window into the workplace stresses and challenges doctors themselves have faced in our tumultuous and trouble-plagued health care system, and also the health care needs and challenges of low-income workers.

Marcia Sablan, a doctor in the tiny northern California town of Firebaugh, embodies both of these narratives. Marcia is one of many doctors who depended on a federal program that helps people afford medical school in exchange for working in under-served rural districts. After her residency at the University of Hawaii, she was assigned to Firebaugh, in the agricultural valley of Fresno County, with a population then of just over 3,000. She was accompanied by her husband, also a doctor and the first native of Saipan to graduate from a U.S. medical school.

Panelists at the conference noted that such programs will be increasingly important if the government wants to encourage more doctors to go into general primary care rather than becoming specialists. Specialists make an estimated $3.5 million more over their lifetimes, yet there will be an estimated shortage of 30,000 primary care doctors in coming years especially as more people become insured under the new health care law.

Sablan arrived in Firebaugh in 1981 and eventually founded her own private practice there, where she primarily serves low-income Latino farmworkers, about half of them immigrants, including many uninsured people who may or may not end up insured under the health care bill reforms. Doctors and experts at the USC conference echoed the widespread concern that due to the way the health care reform bill and Supreme Court decision played out, people living under the poverty line may not get insurance under the new law. That’s because the insurance exchanges and subsidies the law mandates are designated for people who make more than the poverty line, while people making below the poverty line (including childless adults —a change from the past) are all supposed to be covered by Medicaid.

States are ordered to expand their Medicaid programs to cover people making up to 133 percent of the poverty line, but the mandate doesn’t have strong teeth since it is unclear if or how the federal government can punish states that don’t expand their Medicaid programs to cover the newly eligible people. Many states say they cannot afford their share of the expansion plus the extra costs expected when currently eligible but un-enrolled people “come out of the woodwork” thanks to the publicity around the reform law.

Sablan notes that she never asks her patients about immigration status—she is not required to under California’s Medicaid law—and she typically charges a $50 fee which most patients pay out of pocket.

“Undocumented workers know not to leave a trail, not to leave bills,” she said.

But when her patients need specialty care, the seasonal nature of farm work can cause serious problems. Many of them do have insurance during the months they are employed, but not during the off-months, she said. In her early years in Firebaugh, many of the locals were migrant workers living in labor camps who returned to Mexico or otherwise left Firebaugh for half the year. But the labor camps have been demolished and now many farmworkers have bought homes and live year-round in the town with their families, even as they continue to depend on seasonal agricultural wages. Hence an illness or injury that keeps them away from work for days or weeks during the crucial seasonal employment period is especially devastating financially.

“What does an agricultural-based seasonal economy mean to a doctor practicing there?” Sablan asked, noting that Firebaugh’s population now numbers 6,741: 88 percent Latino, 22 percent living below the poverty line, more than a third unemployed and almost two-thirds without a high school diploma. “It means people have insurance and Medi-Cal (California’s version of Medicaid) at certain seasons of the year. But we know diseases don’t work like that. So this is a huge problem for us—seasonal workers have a very difficult time keeping up with chronic diseases.”

From a health perspective, Sablan is glad to see the valley’s once-thriving cotton industry decline, she said, since it involves heavy pesticide use that raised serious health problems for workers and other residents. Once she treated victims of what was known as the worst pesticide-poisoning case in state history—28 workers critically poisoned after being ordered to return to a field too soon after it had been sprayed with phosphates. Now almonds and pistachios are the main crops in the area, grown mostly by huge industrial farms. (Meanwhile a sustainable cotton project has been in the works.)

Sablan hopes the health care reform law will indeed result in better preventative care for low-income and currently uninsured people. She cites the case of one patient, a 54-year-old farmworker who had a heart attack and was prescribed medication which, at $400 a week, he could never afford. Also suffering from diabetes and lacking medication, he eventually had another heart attack and ending up needing permanent dialysis by age 60.

“When you think about the Obama plan, think about [the farmworker] – do we want to be upstream or downstream?” in health care spending, she asked. “Someone paid for him to be in the hospital two times and on dialysis, which costs about a million dollars a year. He’s totally disabled now, unable to work, from what should have been a preventable situation.”

Despite such challenges, Sablan and her husband feel lucky to work in an environment where they have treated three generations of patients —it gives them a sense of personal connection and continuity that other doctors say they lack when forced to see up to 30 patients a day, in the common “fee for service” health care model.

Dr. Ken Kim described the challenges of working in a typical profit-driven, urban system. He and other internists were disgusted to see how badly many of their patients were faring under the standard health care model. He described multiple diabetic patients with legs amputated because they were shuffled between specialists, waiting for months for appointments, while a “pin-sized” wound became infected and festered. And he described elderly patients unable to comply with a doctor’s orders because they lacked a ride to the clinic or couldn’t open medicine bottles with arthritic hands or ate high-sodium meals as shut-ins. Doctors and nurses want to help such patients with personalized care, he indicated, but the fee-for-service model and other aspects of the traditional insurance system create so much time pressure that patients fall through the cracks.

So Kim and other doctors formed an “accountable care organization” (ACO) wherein insurance companies like Blue Cross pay the organization a flat fee to provide care for a certain group of the insurance companies’ enrollees. Kim said that after floundering at first, the company, CareMore, where he now serves as chief medical officer, was able to provide holistic, preventative care to a patient base of mostly ailing senior citizens by subverting the fee for service model, focusing on prevention and making sure the various nurses and doctors working with a given patient communicate and develop a cohesive plan. He said that under their organization rates of hospital readmissions, amputations, mortality and other indicators have decreased drastically. Many hope this type of accountable care organization will become more common under the health reform law.

While the general public is obviously confused about the implications of the health care reform bill, doctors and health care experts are also uncertain about how the law will play out and what it will mean for their own work lives and those of their patients.

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

About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

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‘We Don’t Go to Work to Be Touched’: Sexual Harassment in the Warehouse

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kari-lydersen“We don’t go to work to be touched, to be talked down to, to be told what our bodies look like. We know what our bodies look like when we put on our clothes in the morning,” Uylonda Dickerson said.

But constant remarks about their bodies, and unwanted touching, advances, mean-spirited “pranks” and other forms of sexual harassment are a regular occurrence for many of the more than 30,000 women—like Dickerson—who work in the warehouse industry in the Chicago area, according to a report (PDF) released this week by the group Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ). And women often face retaliation for reporting harassment.

In an extreme example that is currently the subject of a lawsuit, 19-year-old Priscilla Marshall, her mother and her teenage friend allege they were repeatedly subject to aggressive and abusive sexual assaults and language by a 45-year-old manager at the Partners Warehouse in Elwood, Ill. After the three women and Marshall’s uncle and the mother’s boyfriend complained, they were fired or suspended and accused of theft, which resulted in Marshall and her mother spending 15 and seven days in jail, respectively, according to the lawsuit filed March 9.

WWJ’s Leah Fried told me that the same industry structure that allegedly allows for widespread violations of labor law, extremely low wages and unhealthy conditions also contributes to a climate of unchecked sexual harassment and retaliation. The warehousing (or logistics) industry is based on layers of subcontractors, so that major companies like Wal-Mart rarely own and operate the warehouses where their goods are stored and distributed. Fried said:

A major factor is the layering of management, it’s another way the owners say of WalMart shirk responsibility and subcontract and subcontract so no one is taking responsibility for a very basic legal obligation (avoiding sexual harassment). There’s also the low unionization rate – because so many jobs are temp jobs and because very few warehouse workers have a union, it makes it easier for management to get away with violating people’s rights. Not having a union is a big deal – and a big reason people can be exploited more easily.

WWJ (launched by the United Electrical workers union, for which Fried is an organizer) is trying to fill the gap by educating women and men about sexual harassment and their rights and responsibilities, and providing resources for legal action and a forum for organizing and leveraging community support. Various elected officials, religious leaders and other residents attended a forum on International Women’s Day, called “Take Back the Warehouse,” in reference to Take Back the Night marches.

WWJ’s extensive surveys of the Chicago-area industry found that about one quarter of warehouse workers are women; the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports similar numbers nationwide.

The report and forum are part of WWJ’s three-year-old campaign to improve conditions and accountability in the warehouses where consumer goods destined for stores around the country are staged for distribution.

The group has also recently launched a Warehouse Women’s Legal Defense Fund to subsidize legal action for women with sexual harassment or other gender-based complaints. In conjunction with the Working Hands Legal Clinic, WWJ recently helped Marshall and her mother, friend, uncle and mother’s boyfriend sue Partners Warehouse manager Brian Swaw, and people whom Swaw allegedly enlisted to intimidate and threaten the plaintiffs after they complained about his conduct. The lawsuit alleges Swaw repeatedly touched their breasts and buttocks, thrust his crotch in their faces and told Marshall’s then-17-year-old friend that when she turned 18 he would have sex with her.

The lawsuit also alleges Swaw also made frequent racial slurs toward Latinos, and suspended, and then fired, the plaintiffs after they complained. It also alleges he enlisted a former police officer (who was facing a federal indictment) and a private investigator to intimidate the plaintiffs and falsely charge them with theft, forgery and filing a false police report.

While that was an extreme situation, many other women told WWJ organizers that they deal with unequal pay, constant verbal and physical harassment and the threat of retaliation if they complain on a daily basis.

Elizabeth Labrador said after she complained about being paid $2 to $3 an hour less than men doing the same job at a warehouse for Petco, she was assigned to lift heavy fish tanks and ended up hurting her back.

Female workers report sexual harassment from both top managers and co-workers lower down the organizational hierarchy, so WWJ is trying to convince men they should be joining with their female co-workers to fight for better conditions rather than making their jobs even rougher. Fried told me:

A lot of men need to receive some education about what’s appropriate in the workplace. Because that’s not happening from the companies that employ them and operate the warehouse, because the industry is not doing their job, WWJ founded a women’s committee with one of the roles being to develop sexual harassment training for both women and men. The men have been incredibly supportive, it’s been eye-opening for them. They’ve found that absolutely this is an issue that affects women and also that it’s about making warehouses better for everybody.

Women quoted in the report describe constant patterns of humiliating and threatening behavior that left them exhausted and dreading their jobs. Dickerson, who worked at a Wal-Mart warehouse, said she was locked in a trailer and constantly derided by men asking things like “Did you chip a nail?” Latasha Davis described men gathering to watch women bend over to pick up boxes.

Samantha Rodriguez, a former Wal-Mart warehouse worker, is quoted in the report:

When I went to another supervisor about the harassment, he asked me out on a date. I said “no,” and eventually I got fired. I pride myself on being an independent woman. I do remodeling, I hang drywall, I put in floors. That’s my profession. So I went to warehouses because I like doing that kind of work. Now, I won’t step foot in a warehouse. I refuse to. Because, the way they treated me wasn’t right.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on April 19, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book isRevolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached atkari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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Getting on the BRT Bus: U.S. Cities Eye Mexico Program That Benefits Workers

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kari-lydersenMEXICO CITY—Almost any time of day on Avenida de los Insurgentes, one of Mexico City’s busiest streets, people crowd onto the constant parade of shiny red buses that pull up to platforms every few seconds, whisking passengers to different neighborhoods in the city of 22 million.

This is the Metrobus system, one of the bus rapid transit or BRT projects that have been instituted in the past decade or two in Bogota, Johannesburg, Guangzhou and other Latin American, Asian and African cities. They’ve been proposed for an increasing number of U.S. cities.

The system is meant to enhance public transportation, help revitalize marginalized neighborhoods and reduce air pollution, with less expense and construction than new light rail lines. On a tour this week paid for by The Rockefeller Foundation and run by the international Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), Metrobus official Gonzalo Garcia Miaja told me and other journalists that the system also means a major improvement in working conditions for bus drivers. And it makes the workday easier for hundreds of thousands of regular residents, who now have a much quicker, healthier and safer commute to work.

Intracity transport has a complicated and dramatic history in Mexico City. In the 1980s and 1990s the powerful bus drivers union fought bitterly with the administrations of presidents Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Ernesto Zedillo over plans to privatize the public bus system. Union leaders were jailed and massive protests rocked the city, as In These Times contributor David Bacon explained in this 1996 article. Unlike many unions of the time, Mexico City’s SUTAUR-100 bus union was not affiliated with the then-ruling PRI party, and they supported the Zapatistas during their 1994 uprising.

The labor clashes changed the face of standard public bus transport in Mexico City, with use of these “high capacity” buses dropping dramatically between 1990 and 2000. Standard public buses were largely replaced by a chaotic and allegedly corrupt system of private small microbuses, or “combis,” with a mosaic of small fleets run by extended families and syndicates, with relatively little oversight from the government. According to the ITDP, the percent of trips by microbus increased from 36 percent in 1989 to 54 percent in 2000 as the use of high-capacity public buses plummeted.

As in many other cities in the “developing world,” Mexico City microbuses are infamous for driving wildly through crowded and perilous streets, motivated to pick up as many passengers and reach their destinations as quickly as possible—for more profit. The operators also typically delay repairs and maintenance and run the vehicles for as long as possible, meaning many archaic, heavily-polluting and dangerous microbuses on the street.

Enter the BRT system starting in 2005, wherein city and private officials with the new agency Metrobus essentially convinced seven of the city’s main private microbus operators to become partners in the new public-private Metrobus organization in exchange for removing their microbuses from key routes.

The Metrobuses have their own dedicated lanes, and people pay fares on platforms as at light rail stations, so the buses can move very rapidly. The city government oversees the Metrobus program, while the collectives of private operators pay the costs and reap the profits.

Many microbus drivers lost their jobs because of the conversion, since a total of 1,077 microbuses (with at least that many drivers) were removed from the streets, while currently about 800 drivers now operate the city’s fleet of almost 300 Metrobuses.

Garcia noted that many of the microbuses were family operations “where the father drives in the morning, the brother in the afternoon and the son in the evening,” and the whole family profits; so the streamlining of operations into the Metrobus system wouldn’t necessarily mean devastating layoffs for drivers’ families.

But Garcia said working conditions are much better for the drivers who now pilot Metrobuses instead of microbuses. They now have health insurance and pensions, he said, and work 8-hour days, compared to workdays that could last 20 hours in the past. And they are paid based on numbers of kilometers driven on established uniform routes rather than by the number of passengers they pick up—so the actual driving is much safer and more relaxed.

“Previously their income was directly proportional to the number of passengers they were carrying, so they were literally killing themselves to get more passengers,” Garcia said.

Additionally drivers and passengers in the old microbuses were exposed to high levels of benzene, particulate and other air pollution extremely harmful to health. Tests have shown the air emissions from Metrobuses are much lower—about 35 percent less benzene exposure and 54 percent less exposure to carbon monoxide for riders and drivers, and of course less pollution for the city as a whole.

The Metrobus drivers are not unionized and they are employed directly by the private operators. Garcia said the city government closely regulates the private operators to make sure working conditions are decent and drivers are safe and qualified, undergoing mandatory training and testing related to alcohol use and other factors.

Official policy and reality regarding working conditions, customer protection and civil rights are often far apart in Mexico, so U.S. advocates and analysts usually take official statements with a large grain of salt. However, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard of the center-left PRD, whose six-year term expires this fall, has generally been supported and praised by people across the political and economic spectrum for his populist policies and his efforts in revitalizing and securing the city.

Bus rapid transit has been proposed for an increasing number of U.S. cities including Chicago and Detroit. In Latin America the systems are typically run by private operators, with the contracts bid out or, as in Mexico City, run by the operators of previously existing microbus systems. In the U.S. such bus rapid transit would typically co-exist with current light rail and regular public bus systems, in most cases replacing some regular bus routes. Bus rapid transit could be incorporated into the existing public systems or privatized or some hybrid of the two approaches. It is not clear how it will play out exactly in different U.S. cities, whether workers will be unionized or whether there will be opposition from public transit unions.

On March 12 a fleet of 17 new Metrobuses including prized “bi-articulated” (three-car) ones lined up in formation in front of Mexico City’s Plaza de la Republica, a monument to the 1910 Revolution. The grand structure was under construction as the country’s new Congress building at the time of the Revolution; it was left unfinished and later revamped as an homage to revolutionary leaders including Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and Ricardo Flores Magon. Nearby is an historic massive jai alai stadium where workers have been on strike since 1994. An occupation continues inside and faded red and black flags cover the entrances.

(Protests and strikes are a constant presence in Mexico City. For example, during our tour, one Metrobus line was blocked by a public protest, and a separate protest of union pensioners against the government of Tabasco state blocked one of the separated bike lanes that are also part of the current administration’s sustainable transportation initiative.)

Facing the Revolution monument with the buses lined up expectantly behind him, Mayor Ebrard described the Metrobus system as part of a larger effort to make Mexico City more livable, sustainable and healthy. Ebrard, an ally of famous former Mexico City Mayor and presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), has won international attention for his “green” initiatives in Mexico City and his outreach to poor and working people.

“It’s dramatically changed the culture of the city,” he told a crowd at the unveiling of the new Metrobuses.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 16, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book isRevolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached atkari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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Another Victory for Southern Calif. ‘Carwasheros’

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kari-lydersenImmigrant “carwasheros,” who often earn below minimum wage with no benefits, scored an historic victory this week by unionizing two Los Angeles car washes, Vermont Car Wash and Nava’s Car Wash. They were the first in the city limits to unionize. The workers are now members of the United Steelworkers, with the move likely gaining them significantly improved wages, protections and benefits while also scoring a symbolic and tactical win for organized labor as a whole.

Last summer, three car washes in Santa Monica recognized unions and then in October Bonus Car Wash in Santa Monica became the first in the country to sign a union contract, as Akito Yoshikane and Michelle Chen reported for Working In These Times.

The California car wash campaign begun in 2008 has been a major focus of the national labor movement, with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka joining L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in person to cheer the achievement on Tuesday. The Carwash Organizing Campaign, affiliated with the United Steelworkers, has rallied much community support and called for boycotts of local car washes, formerly including Vermont, and also including ones with the names Celebrity, Hollywood, Five Star and Magic Wand.

In January, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris announced a settlement for more than $1 million among eight northern and southern California car wash owners that “underpaid workers, denied rest and meal breaks, and created false records of time worked,” according to a press release. The office had filed a lawsuit against the car washes in 2010. In December 2010, workers from Marina Car Wash who lost their jobs right before Christmas performed a play about their plight at a celebrity-heavy restaurant whose owners have family ties to the car wash owners.

In Chicago a campaign by some car wash workers and labor rights activists has been underway for close to a year, with organizers and workers in close contact with their L.A. counterparts. Workers at Little Village Car Wash gained citywide attention with a campaign supported by the group Arise Chicago to get back pay due a number of workers who had worked for years for little more than tips. Workers and supporters bearing squeegees took over the car wash in November.

Car wash workers are emblematic of a significant and stable or even growing sector of the labor economy – people who obviously work in a fixed location, for a given employer, but are often treated as independent contractors, frequently working only for tips with no job stability or benefits. Dish washers, night club dancers, graphic designers and IT professionals are among the diverse range of occupations wherein people often find themselves in similar situations. These workers have traditionally had difficulty unionizing, since they are treated as independent contractors and/or their economic and potentially immigration status make them vulnerable and afraid to anger the employer.

A study by the Community Labor Environmental Action Network (CLEAN) found that while California car washes brought in $872 million in revenue in 2002, workers often earned well below the state minimum wage of $8 an hour. 

In addition to paying wages that are illegally low, Los Angeles carwash owners often deny their workers the most basic workplace rights and protections required by law.?Analysis of case files of the California Occupational Health and Safety Administration (Cal/OSHA) reveal numerous citations of carwash owners in Los Angeles.

Working at a carwash can be difficult and even dangerous, especially during the hot summer months when temperatures in Los Angeles approach 100 degrees.

Workers are frequently forced to work without safety equipment, training on how to deal with hazards and chemical exposures in their workplaces, clean drinking water, breaks for rest and meals, minimum wages, overtime pay, health insurance, or respect and dignity on the job.

A study by the University of Illinois at Chicago regarding working conditions at Chicago area car washes is also in the works.

The CLEAN campaign also points out that car washes can be serious local polluters, allowing chemicals to run off into storm sewers that often lead directly to rivers or in California the ocean, while also potentially exposing members of the public to toxics.

As Michelle Chen noted, the car wash bears important cultural symbolism, especially in Southern California:

The car wash is the quintessential symbol of American exuberance. Nothing speaks to our freewheeling consumer culture like our obsession with shampooing, waxing and pimping our rides for the world to see. But in the gleaming car capital of the world, Los Angeles, carwash workers are driving a movement to expose rampant abuses in one of the city’s dirtiest jobs.

A press release from Harris’s office about the lawsuit against car washes notes that:

The car washes required employees to report to work several hours in advance and be available, unpaid, until business picked up. When workers were paid, many received paychecks that could not be cashed because of insufficient company funds. Additionally, the car washes operated for years without licenses from the Labor Commissioner, which are required under California law.

The two-year contract signed by workers at Bonus Car Wash in Santa Monica addresses many of the problems with the industry, as Yokishane summarized:

Workers at Bonus Car Wash will see a 2-percent wage increase. In addition to health and safety measures, the contract prohibits the employer from firing workers without just cause or discharging those who voice safety hazard concerns. There is also a grievance and arbitration procedure to settle disputes.

On Tuesday, Mayor Villaraigosa was quoted saying:

What these contracts represent are a good paying job, a better standard of living, and a voice on the job for some of our City’s most exploited workers…In an industry rampant with wage theft and abusive conditions, these businesses have stepped up to do the right thing.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 22, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book isRevolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached atkari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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Not So Sweet: The Intricacies of Big and Little Sugar

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kari-lydersenThe lede on a story by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) attacking import limits and other government protections for the U.S. sugar industry was an attention-grabber: “That Valentine’s Day hand on your back pocket billfold is not your sweetheart’s, it’s the sugar lobby’s.”

There are plenty of reasons for less-than-sweet feelings about the sugar industry, from the big sugar cane producers that have decimated large swaths of the Everglades to American Crystal Sugar Company, the sugar beet producer which has locked out 1,300 workers at its North Dakota plant this winter. On February 22, thos workers are joining other locked out workers for a 1,000-mile-plus “Journey for Justice” from Fargo, N.D. to the site of a tire factory that’s locked out workers in Findlay, Ohio. (In These Times staff writer Mike Elk will be along for the ride.)

But the AEI doesn’t usually ally itself with labor or environmental causes, so I was surprised to see the conservative, pro-business think tank attacking the powerful sugar industry with a recent study saying import limits and other federal protections for sugar beet and sugar cane farmers are costing jobs and hurting consumers. AEI’s position does fit with its larger politics, once one considers that artificially high domestic sugar prices increase costs significantly (or so they say) for other parts of the food industry. AEI authors Michael Wohlgenant and Vincent H. Smith explain in their article:

The “no-romance” sugar program has largely been ignored by legislators and groups concerned with tax burdens because there are no direct federal subsidies for the sugar industry. Instead, U.S. sugar policy raises prices indirectly by taxing consumers through the marketplace. A system of import quotas and domestic supply controls works to raise sugar prices for households and food processors to a target level of 23.3 cents per pound of raw sugar when world prices fall below that amount. This system drives up consumer food prices and destroys jobs in the food processing sector because of reduced competitiveness in the global marketplace… In most years, the program also hurts many of the poorest farmers in developing countries by lowering the world price of sugar and reducing their already meager incomes…

In 2006 I wrote in The Washington Post about Chicago-area candy companies closing or moving out of the country; they blamed sugar price supports.

But it’s possible attacking the government sugar program is partly an excuse to justify outsourcing that would have happened anyway. That’s the view expressed by U.S. Sugar spokesperson Judy C. Sanchez, who spoke to a group of reporters I was part of touring sugar cane fields and refineries in Florida in October.

She said U.S. producers make about 1.5 million to two million tons of sugar a year, compared to about 32 million tons in Brazil, which it could “dump on the world market” and in the U.S. if it was allowed to.

“We’re all for global free trade, but other countries have subsidies,” including the European Union and Brazil, Sanchez told the group, part of the Society of Environmental Journalists conference. In contrast to the American Enterprise Institute’s report, she said sugar costs make up such a small part of total food prices that the sugar program doesn’t have a significant impact. She said it might mean a 5 cent price difference in a box of cornflakes or 2 cents on a Hershey bar. She said the price of a bag of sugar in a grocery store “hasn’t gone up in 30 years.”

About half of the sugar we use in the U.S. is produced from sugar cane and half from sugar beets. The cane sugar industry is dominated by a few large powerful companies, including U.S. Sugar and the Fanjul Corp. Opponents often highlight the sugar lobby’s power by pointing out that then-President Bill Clinton reportedly interrupted an infamous encounter with Monica Lewinsky to take a phone call from sugar magnate Alfonso Fanjul.

Based on my October tour and another one in 2008 (thanks to the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment), it was hard to feel the Florida cane sugar industry was deserving of government protection.

The refineries and growing operations are highly automated, employing fewer workers than in the past, and even when they did have more workers the industry was infamous for hiring low-paid immigrant guest workers who lived in rural slums like Belle Glade, once home to the country’s highest HIV rate. The industry has also been notorious for displacing and polluting huge swaths of the Everglades, leaving the future of the “River of Grass” in doubt and costing millions in restoration funds.

Much Florida state money has been lost in an ill-fated attempt to buy back sugar plantation land. Since the economic crisis hit and the state was unable to complete the deal, the land in question has largely remained sugar plantations.

However Sanchez noted that U.S. Sugar has improved its environmental practices, including using bagasse – the detritus of the cane – as a clean-burning biofuel to power its refinery. And she described the company as an important job-creator, adding that U.S. Sugar has recently invested $600 million in its Florida operations, which employ about 300 people, “so we can compete with foreign producers paying their workers 20 cents a day.”

The AEI study notes that 60 percent of the sugar cane industry is in the hands of a few major producers; while sugar beet farms are much smaller and there are about 4,000 of them nationwide.

American Crystal Sugar, a cooperative of sugar beet growers that also owns sugar beet refineries around the country, is not necessarily representative of the entire sugar beet industry. In many cases sugar beets are grown by true family farmers who struggle to make a living amidst the general hardships of farming and controversies over the use of GMO sugar beets.

During years of controversy raging over the possibility of genetically modified sugar beets being grown on public land in Boulder, Colorado, social justice and sustainability advocates not normally known for allying with big agriculture have spoken out in support of the generations-long, family sugar beet operations.

Sugar has long been intricately linked to tense international relations and geopolitics. Cuba provided a third of the U.S.’s sugar before the revolution and embargo, and Mexican sugar has been prominent in controversy over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

While sugar protections have bolstered mainland U.S. sugar producers, the policies actually wreaked havoc on Hawaii’s economy and environment in the first half of the 1900s, before statehood, when Hawaii was home to many sugar plantations who sold sugar to the U.S. as foreign producers. The industry ultimately meant an influx of immigrant workers,  declines in Native Hawaiian well-being, and the clearing and pollution of delicate natural areas – many now standing desolate as the sugar operations have closed.

The American Enterprise Institute used Valentine’s Day as a light-hearted peg to point out how consumers are paying for the price supports enjoyed by the sugar industry. But the fact that sugar is best-known as a largely non-essential, often unhealthy though also highly enjoyable component of food, it is ironic to think of all the labor and social strife and environmental harm the industry has wrought.

If the government ends the current sugar support program, as the AEI is demanding, production may be shifted increasingly to other countries. That might be a good thing for consumers and the environment in the United States. But such a shift would do little or nothing to change the historical legacy of big sugar; or to improve the environmental and labor practices of major sugar companies, wherever they end up.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 16, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book isRevolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached atkari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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Closing Time at Chicago Libraries Hits Women and Minorities Hard

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kari-lydersenBudget austerity trims library staff and hours, as Mayor Emanuel and AFSCME trade accusations

Sara Doe was hired as a page at a Chicago library in 2007, and immediately fell in love with the job. Earning $11.18 an hour without benefits for shelving books, directing customers and other basic tasks might not be glamorous work, she told In These Times, but she loved the human interaction and the chance to spend time in libraries, which since she was a kid have been “like museums for me”—oases of calm and knowledge.

Doe’s mother worked in a city library, and since her parents were divorced, Doe considered the library her “third home” and has fond memories of stamping due dates in books. But this year visiting the library has been a somewhat painful experience since December 31 was her last day on the job at the northwest side library where she had worked since fall 2009. She was one of 181 library staff laid off because of city budget cuts that hit the library system particularly hard. Along with the layoffs, libraries are now closed on Mondays, cutting total weekly hours from 48 to 40.

After an intense campaign by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31, some library staff were called back to work and Monday afternoon hours were restored, bringing the weekly total to 44 hours. But more than 100 library staff including all the pages are still out of work.

The library cuts—along with planned layoffs at city mental health clinics and Chicago O’Hare International Airport—have become part of a protracted and bitter battle between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and public-sector unions, as Emanuel has blamed AFSCME for forcing schedule cuts and using the library system as a bargaining chip.

The union held “People’s Library” hours with book readings outside several libraries during the Monday morning hours when they are now shuttered. Late last month, popular longtime library commissioner Mary Dempsey resigned amidst the controversy. The Chicago Sun-Times wrote of her departure:

She met her match in Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was more concerned about cutting spending than he was about preserving library services…She was apparently unwilling to preside over the dismantling of a library system she helped to build, but agreed to postpone her departure to minimize the impact of the cuts. The only surprise was that she didn’t walk out the door sooner…

Doe, 30, is desperately hoping to be called back to her library job. She has been applying for other positions—”anything and everything,” including food service at the city’s Wrigley Field baseball stadium—but she hasn’t had any luck. She qualifies for disability payments and has applied for unemployment, but she would rather be working at the job she loves so much that “the hours go by too fast.”

She told In These Times:

It’s not just a job, it’s something I really enjoyed. Even though it was low-status I felt really good and made some good money…Now I feel like I’m work-sick. I’m one of those people who like to work their butts off.

AFSCME Council 31 spokesman Anders Lindall said Doe’s attitude is typical:

People don’t give their working lives to public service to get rich. Library employees love their communities, their patrons and the role of their libraries as hubs of learning, research, culture, community and much more.

Like other layoffs resulting from city budget cuts, the library cuts have disproportionately impacted minorities and women. Lindall said 72 percent of the staff initially laid off were women and 77 percent were people of color, including 78 African Americans and 40 Latinos.

Library workers and patrons said they think the city administration is underestimating the important role that libraries play for city residents, even in the digital age. Mother Natasha Nicholes attended the People’s Library protest and has been blogging about the library cuts, which were a major disappointment for her four kids, including her three-year-old daughter whose weekly story hour was cut.

The library is an especially valuable resource for Nicholes, since she homeschools her daughter, providing needed books and also a social outlet. As a child in Chicago, Nicholes spent almost every Saturday at the library with her younger sister. She told In These Times:

I won’t let this pass without saying something, especially since libraries played such a large role in my growing up…I don’t think it’s a dying art, and I definitely don’t think eReaders will replace the feel of having a book in your hand.

Lindall said the Monday morning cuts are a serious impediment to customer service, and he noted that several years ago city libraries were open 64 hours a week, compared to 44 now. He told In These Times:

Any reduction in hours is a barrier to access…Weekday morning hours are especially popular with families and caregivers for preschool-aged children, seniors, shift workers and the unemployed. Monday mornings are the most crucial time for people looking for work, as new job postings come out in the Sunday paper but libraries are closed on Sundays. Unemployed folks line up at the branches waiting for the libraries to open on Monday morning, to look at the job listings in the Sunday paper or most commonly, to search them online, then submit resumes.

During a “Facebook town hall” I blogged about last month, Mayor Emanuel portrayed his executive order that restored some library hours as a way to bypass an out-of-control union. But Lindall said he thinks the union and library supporters should be thanked for the avoidance of more severe cuts:

In October, Mayor Emanuel introduced a budget that would have cut $10 million from the library budget, forcing 363 layoffs and untold reduction to hours. After a huge public outcry galvanized 28 aldermen to send a letter opposing these and other cuts, the mayor restored funds to rescind half his proposed layoffs.

As public criticism continued from all corners in January, he “found” money to restore more hours and positions. So he has taken two steps in the right direction. Our union and the people of the city want to work with him to finish the job, fully open and fully staff the branches.

Doe, whose first library job came after a promised position with the city park service helping special needs people fell through, said the mayor’s actions on the libraries don’t jibe with his high-profile push to lengthen the school day at public schools. She says:

I don’t know why he wants to extend the school day and short-change the library system. And with shorter library hours the longer school day makes it harder to get there on time. It doesn’t make sense.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 10, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book isRevolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached atkari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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‘Get a Job’? Not So Easy for Teens, as Adults Snap Up Openings

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kari-lydersenTeen employment rate of 26 percent is lowest since World War II—and much worse for African Americans

Even as the economy slowly picks up, finding a job is harder than ever for teenagers, according to a national study released on Tuesday. That’s likely because the jobs that are being “created” in recent months are being snapped up by adults—often people over age 50 who were laid off from other positions or forced out of retirement during the economic crisis. Meanwhile, funding for youth jobs has suffered because of state and local budget crises, and significant “stimulus” funding for youth jobs and training under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has now expired.

The study, by researcher Andrew Sum at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston,looks at teen employment over time through “jobless” numbers rather than “unemployment” numbers, since unemployment figures don’t include youth who are not actively looking for work. As with adults, since it has become harder and harder to get a job many youth have given up and hence dropped from the unemployment figures.

A press release for the report says:

The teen employment rate declined by 19 percentage points, or more than 40%, nationally from 1999-2000 to 2011, falling to 26, the lowest rate since World War II… The figures are bleakest for African-American teens in the city of Chicago, of whom 90 percent are jobless, including 93 of every 100 teens from families with incomes under $40,000; upper-middle-income whites were nearly four times as likely to hold a job, the data show.

Ironically, the growing dearth of employment opportunities for youth—particularly low-income and minority youth—has come just as families most need that extra income, and as the experience the jobs provide is more important than ever for youth to get a leg up in an increasingly competitive labor market. Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network in Chicago, told me:

If you’re an employer and have a choice between a 56-year-old man or woman who’s worked a lot, you’re probably going to take the adult; you might not want a ‘surly teenager.’

Wuest added that even before the economic crisis, automation, downsizing, the increase in part-time and contract work and other factors in the larger labor market have either eliminated the jobs once filled by youth or funneled adults into them. As a kid, Wuest was one of an army of newsboys in Chicago’s far north side Rogers Park neighborhood, each delivering a separate paper on their specific routes. He told me:

Now one guy delivers all the newspapers – The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Chicago Sun-Times – across the whole neighborhood…It’s another example of an adult taking a job that would’ve employed four or five kids back in the 1950s or 1960s.

Also in tighter economic times, companies are less willing and able to invest in future workers by hiring teens for the summer. This trend probably especially hurts in terms of professional jobs that offer more specific training and opportunity to advance than the fast food and other service-sector jobs that youth are most likely to get.

Congress has introduced legislation, namely the Pathways Back to Work Act sponsored by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), that would provide significant funding for youth employment and job training. But passing the bill will be an uphill battle, given Republican opposition and the distractions of the election year.

A press release from the Alternative Schools Network and partners explains:

The proposed Pathways Back to Work Act would create a $5 billion fund that provides $2 billion for subsidized employment programs for unemployed, low-income adults, $1.5 billion for summer and year-round employment opportunities for low-income youth, and $1.5 billion for a competitive grant program for work-based training and education programs for both adults and youth.

At an event in Chicago Tuesday, teens described the frustrating process of applying for job after job with little luck, often being told they will get a call back, but that call never comes. One bright note was provided by Deshon Carr, an 18-year-old senior at Community Christian Alternative Academy in Chicago who started a landscaping and snow removal business that employs other teens, working full-time in the summer and on weekends and over holiday break during the school year.

Carr, who is also enrolled in a culinary arts program at the Washburne Culinary Institute at Kennedy King city college, is proud he is able to create jobs for other teens in his North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s west side. In the course of looking for jobs himself several years ago, he would call landscaping and construction companies and seek out mentors, ultimately leading to his own business, called Top of the Line Landscaping Inc.

“If you can’t find a job, make a job,” he told me. “If you want something bad enough you won’t give up on it, you just have to keep striving. I want to be a leader in bringing jobs to my community.”

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

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book isRevolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached atkari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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A String of Slaughterhouse Successes for UFCW

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kari-lydersenWorkers at the Farmland Foods meatpacking plant in Carroll, Iowa, make a starting wage of $11 an hour. Workers at a similar plant owned by the same company 25 miles away in Denison, Iowa, make $14.60 an hour, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. That’s one of the reasons, according to UFCW spokesman Marc Goumbri, that in October a majority of the about 125 workers at the Carroll plant voted to join the UFCW Local 440.

Wage disparity with a nearby union plant was also a driving force behind another vote in a string of union election victories for the UFCW this fall. In an early November election, a majority (1292 to 824) of  around 2,500 workers at a National Beef slaughterhouse and packing plant in Dodge City, Kansas, decided to join the UFCW Local 2. The union has long represented workers at a Cargill plant nearby. Goumbri told In These Times:

When you have a union facility that’s not far away, what you see is workers know from the get-go what having a union can mean for them and their families and the community—the wages at the union plant are much higher.

Goumbri said the National Beef election along with an October election at a JBS beef slaughterhouse in Plainwell, Mich., helped the union significantly bolster its “density” in the beef industry. The Michigan workers brought the UFCW’s total membership at JBS plants to about 28,000. Additionally, in September, about 300 workers at a Nebraska Prime kosher beef plant in Hastings, Neb., voted to join the union’s Local 293.

Now, Goumbri said, the UFCW represents about 60 percent of beef and about 72 percent of pork slaughterhouse and packing house workers nationwide. He told In These Times:

When a lot of workers are represented by a union in a particular industry, they use the strength they have in numbers to raise the floor for everyone… These are well-paying union jobs that come with wages and benefits – in the current economic state our communities are in desperate need of such jobs.

A 2008 article by Cornell University professor Richard Hurd about UFCW retail food (grocery) organizing notes that even when the union has a high concentration in a given sector, it needs a unified national bargaining strategy in order to effectively advocate for its members in changing, consolidated industries.

In the above four campaigns, the union said the employers agreed to remain neutral and allow a fair vote free of intimidation or other interference. Goumbri said this is not the norm in the industry or in general, but that in these cases the employers understood there was widespread support for unionization and that the employees were determined.  He told In These Times:

Companies are still hell-bent on preventing workers from having a free and fair process. (Fair elections) come when companies see workers are really united and the workers just take a stand, and the company knows workers are determined to make that choice. These were workers who knew exactly what they wanted and knew what their rights were.

Slaughterhouses and packinghouses are significant targets for unionization, since the jobs are typically grueling and dangerous and often employ a high percentage of Latino immigrants and African refugees.

(Denison, site of the two Farmland Foods plants, made national news in 2002 when the skeletal remains of immigrants were found in a boxcar. Horrified and sympathetic residents noted the quickly growing Latino population drawn by the slaughterhouses, though it’s not clear the people in the boxcar were specifically bound for Denison.)

Goumbri said wages, benefits and conditions will all be the focus of contract negotiations at each workplace, with workers at the kosher slaughterhouse also prioritizing Sundays off (the plant is closed on Saturdays).

Goumbri said the National Beef unionizing campaign built momentum this year after workers attempted to organize last year in an effort that didn’t result in an election. The JBS election came after just several months of organizing, he said.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on December 6, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About this Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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Wal-Mart and Women: Skeptics Question New Initiatives

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kari-lydersenLast week, Wal-Mart announced the latest component of its relatively successful campaign to shift its image from corporate villain to socially responsible role model.

The company promised that it would double its business with women-owned contractors and suppliers in the U.S. and internationally, and educate and train hundreds of thousands of women through its nonprofit Wal-Mart Foundation. That means the company will buy products from more women-owned factories and farms and hire more women to construct its stores.

The move comes after Wal-Mart was up against the largest sex-discrimination class-action lawsuit in history, until the Supreme Court threw it out this summer.

Most labor and social justice advocates are glad to see any corporation change its practices in the face of social and economic pressure, so Wal-Mart’s recent announcement and its other recent efforts, such as contracting with minority suppliers, adopting sustainable environmental practices and increasing diversity and fairness in its stores, can be seen as small victories for campaigns that expose Wal-Mart’s practices.

But many labor and watchdog groups are still skeptical of the mega-corporation’s sincerity and the larger significance of its corporate responsibility initiatives, and they are calling on the company to continue examining and reforming its practices in a big way.

Jennifer Stapleton is spokesperson for Making Change at Wal-Mart, a campaign of the United Food and Commercial Workers international union. She said in a statement last week:

Wal-Mart’s latest PR gambit is trying to cover up decades of unjust treatment of women, but women know better. Wal-Mart causes systematic economic harm to women in the U.S. and around the world, and that is precisely why Wal-Mart is trying to sell us on a new image. Wal-Mart keeps millions of women in the U.S. and around the world in poverty, fails to protect women from unacceptable sexual and other forms of workplace harassment and works many women to the bone in sweatshop conditions around the globe. And, according to the women in the Dukes v. Wal-Mart gender discrimination law suit, Wal-Mart pays women less than men.

In May and June, a group called Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart (OUR Wal-Mart) surveyed 501 Wal-Mart associates. On a number of questions about pay, fairness and opportunity, women were consistently less satisfied and felt treated less fairly than male workers, by margins of about 10 to 25 percent, depending on the question.

More than half the workers answered that conditions were “poor” or “fair” in terms of having dependable schedules, opportunities for advancement and training, just procedures for discipline and termination and other measures.

These answers imply a mediocre to substandard employment situation–not overwhelming dissatisfaction, but not as positive a result as one might expect from a company that has gone into overdrive to improve its image. Three-quarters of workers also said they thought under-staffing is a serious problem that has resulted in customer dissatisfaction and/or messy stores.

And given the lawsuit and the company’s recent announcement, the group stressed that the disparity between men’s and women’s answers is significant. A release quoted Lancaster, Calif.-Wal-Mart worker Maggie Van Ness saying:

If what’s going on at Wal-Mart happened at a small company, it would be bad enough. But because Wal-Mart’s the nation’s largest employer and sets standards for our communities and other companies, this is a full-scale epidemic. The data show widespread problems that are especially bad for women, who need these jobs.

Wal-Mart is the largest private employer of women in the U.S., with 808,000 women making up 65 percent of its domestic workforce as of 2001, according to a paper by Making Change at Wal-Mart. Between 1996 and 2001, women working at Wal-Mart earned on average $5,200 less per year than men, and were also much less likely to have salaried, upper-level management positions, according to a 2003 report. It also noted women in salaried positions earned $14,000 less per year than their male counterparts.

Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission negotiated an $11.7 million settlement with the company over complaints that at a Kentucky distribution facility, women were systematically discriminated against for certain positions that usually went to young males.

In light of Wal-Mart’s recent promise to increase business with women, Wal-Mart critics also point to the story of Margaret Garner, an African-American construction-business owner whom Wal-Mart had celebrated for her lead role in building its controversial first Chicago store, on the city’s impoverished West Side. Four years after it opened, Wal-Mart has billed that store as a success and planned dozens more stores for Chicago. But Garner’s firm declared bankruptcy last year, driven by $11.9 million in debt from cost over-runs on the Wal-Mart, as reported by Crain’s Chicago Business. The Crain’s investigation explains that Garner’s firm, which received incentives under city programs for minority contractors, sent most of the actual work to firms owned by white males. Garner’s firm sunk into debt when it couldn’t pay those companies as promised.

Also, a University of Illinois at Chicago and Loyola University study alleges that the West Side Wal-Mart drove other local companies out of business, a long-standing complaint which Wal-Mart says is not borne out by facts.

But according to Making Change at Wal-Mart,

For decades, Wal-Mart has shown that when it “invests” in a community, that community can expect lost jobs, depressed wages, bankrupt local business, and lowering of labor standards to follow quickly. Women in the U.S. and around the world would be far better served if Wal-Mart would improve its labor practices, raise its wages, and use its power to stand up for human rights instead of undermining them through its day-to-day business practices.

This post originally appeared in Working in These Times on September 19, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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Hyatt Hotel Puts the Heat on Striking Workers—Literally

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kari-lydersenCHICAGO—The Hyatt hotel chain turned up the heat on striking and picketing workers—literally—here Thursday, as 10 hanging heat lamps normally used in winter were turned on workers picketing outside the downtown Park Hyatt. This occurred on one of the year’s hottest days—with a heat index well above 100 degrees and the temperature over 80 degrees, with high humidity even early in the morning—part of a lethal nationwide heat wave.

CBS reported:

Combined with the outdoor air temperature, Linda Long says it was hotter than the Hyatt kitchen she’s worked in for eleven years. “They put the heat lamps on us, like we were nothing,” Long said. “If the heat didn’t kill us, the heat lamps would.”

Workers at Hyatts in nine cities nationwide were holding a one-day strike and picket to draw attention to contract negotiations, which have been stalled for 22 months, and what workers and union leaders call atrocious treatment of housekeepers, including sub-par wages, subcontracting out of work, and the speed at which housekeepers are expected to clean rooms.

The Chicago Tribune quoted a 42-year-old bellman about the heat lamps. He said only bellmen, engineers and select other employees can turn the lamps on, and it could not have been an accident.

This is one of the hottest days of the summer. Work at that door every single day and only in winter time do those need to be turned on. Somebody did it on purpose. It’s ridiculous.

Hyatt workers also held a one-day strike and picket last month, as Candice Bernd reported for Working In These Times:

After months of bargaining, Unite Here Local 1 has won a 3-year contractual agreement with Hilton and Starwood hotel companies this year. While Hyatt has indicated support for a contract that would match some of the settlements of Hilton and Starwood for union employees, the company continues to refuse a fair bargaining process for workers at nonunion hotels, remaining the last of the three largest hotel chains to do so. Another sticking point for Hyatt is the subcontracting out of new work.

The chain is owned by the influential Pritzker family. Chicago blogger Michael Klonsky (an occasional In These Times contributor) writes:

Heiress Penny Sue Pritzker chairs Obama’s national campaign finance committee. She is also big player in Democratic Party politics as well as in the world of anti-union, corporate school reform and was recently appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to a seat on the Chicago school board.

In a statement Hyatt said the heat lamps went on by accident and were turned off about an hour later after they were notified. Workers said they suspected that’s because media had been alerted. Klonsky reported the heat lamps seemed to energize the picketers, who chanted “You can’t smoke us out.”

This seemingly inhuman and probably illegal response seemed to have had just the opposite effect. Picketers began chanting, “Hyatt can’t take the heat, but we can!” The lamps were left on until word got out and media began to show up.

The day of action Thursday came three weeks after a report by rabbis that described the Hyatt working conditions as “not kosher” and hundreds of religious leaders picketed with workers at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago. The UNITE HERE unionwebsite says: “Hyatt Hotel Housekeepers suffer abuse. Our injury rates are high, our wages are low, and our immigrant sisters are exploited and cheated by Hyatt’s housekeeping subcontractors.”

The Chicago Tribune reported the company’s official response to Thursday’s picket:

In cities from Chicago to Waikiki and here at Park Hyatt, we have offered union leaders contract proposals that match wage and benefit packages identical to what Unite Here has accepted from other hotel companies. Yet, union leaders have rejected every one of these proposals.

This Blog originally appeared In These Times on July 22, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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