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Supreme Court’s E-Verify Decision Devastating for Employers, Immigrant Workers

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kari-lydersenImmigrants rights advocates and employers, including farmers, are lashing out at the Supreme Court’s May 26 decision upholding Arizona’s right to demand employers use the controversial e-Verify system, which is meant to confirm whether someone is in the country legally.

The decision also allowed Arizona to continue the so-called “business death penalty,” which entails denying a business license to employers found guilty more than once of violating a 2007 law against hiring undocumented workers.

The e-Verify system has been widely criticized for errors, including flagging legal and native-born residents as undocumented. That’s among the reasons Illinois sought to ban its use by private employers. A federal court shot down those efforts, but the Illinois legislature did pass a state law trying to safeguard against the misuse of the system.

All employers with federal contracts are required to use E-Verify, and Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith is among those pushing to make it mandatory nationally.

Immigrants rights groups are allied with employers – even those that they allege exploit undocumented immigrants – in stridently opposing mandatory e-Verify use. The Supreme Court decision was the result of a lawsuit filed by the Chamber of Commerce opposing Arizona’s law. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other employer groups also sued unsuccessfully over the mandate that E-Verify be used by federal contractors. Florida has proposed a bill similar to Arizona’s regarding E-Verify. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce opposes it.

Agricultural employers and immigrants rights groups point out that the nation’s guest worker program and overall immigration system are so badly broken that agricultural growers will simply not be able to find the needed employees especially during harvest times if they really are barred from hiring undocumented workers.

Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the group America’s Voice Education Fund, said in a press release:

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling is a dagger in the heart of Arizona agriculture.  If this type of law spreads nationwide, we will essentially deport the entire agriculture industry—including jobs held by Americans—and be forced to import more of our nation’s food supply. Passing a mandatory E-Verify law without comprehensive immigration reform will kill American jobs and farms, burden small businesses, reduce tax revenue, and drive undocumented workers further underground.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made similar points in an op-ed:

As Secretary of Agriculture I have met farmers and ranchers all over the country who worry that our immigration system is broken. They are unable to find the necessary number of farmworkers and sometimes struggle to verify their work authorization papers – all while wondering if they’ll have enough help for their next harvest.

And while some American citizens step up and take these jobs, the truth is that even when farmers make their best efforts to recruit a domestic work force, few citizens express interest, and even fewer show up to spend long hours laboring in the hot sun.

In a twist on the misguided idea that immigrants “steal” American jobs, Vilsack described immigrant farm workers essentially protecting U.S. jobs through their crucial role on U.S. farms:

If American agriculture lost access to adequate farm labor, it could cost the industry as much as $9 billion each year. Already, some American producers are opening up operations in Mexico. So we must take action to prevent the further outsourcing of farm-related jobs.

Meanwhile, the Bay Citizen nonprofit news outlet described how lucrative wineries in Napa Valley, Calif., have found it in their own self-interest to treat undocumented workers fairly, rather than paying them as little as possible or sometimes not at all as is often the case in agriculture and other industries that hire large numbers of undocumented workers.

Emmy-winning producer Scott James reported:

Without migrant labor, most of it from Mexico, the wine producers in Napa would be hard pressed to fill a carafe, much less the valley’s nine million annual cases. Experts estimate that 8,000 to 12,000 illegal migrants reside (often seasonally) in Napa, although the number is impossible to confirm.

Ten years ago, they could be found living in the woods in makeshift camps, sleeping on fetid mattresses and drinking from dirty streams. Today they receive subsidized housing, or can reside in three tidy dormitory complexes near St. Helena and Yountville where up to 180 workers pay $12 a day for room and board.

This Blog Originally appeared in These Working Times on May 30, 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 [email protected]


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American Workplaces are Safer…But Not for Everyone

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kari-lydersenU.S. workplaces are getting safer, according to national Department of Labor statistics for the past two decades. But immigrant workers in the most dangerous occupations have not shared in the increased safety, according to statistics and a recent report by seven worker centers nationwide.

On March 9 Arise Chicago Worker Center released their study, done in conjunction with other workers centers, wherein 208 predominantly Chicago immigrant workers were surveyed about their workplace health and safety experiences.

About a quarter of workers reported suffering a work-related injury or illness; and a disturbing 41 percent said they had never received safety training on the job and 31 percent said they were not provided protective equipment. The workers, 88 percent Latino with an average age of 39, worked primarily in low-wage jobs in construction, restaurant, cleaning and maintenance jobs.

Construction is known to be a dangerous occupation, but the survey found even immigrant workers in the other seemingly less-dangerous fields suffered high rates of illness and injury.

Work-related injury and illness can be especially devastating for undocumented workers since they are often fired because of their injury and they often don’t collect workers compensation or other benefits due them. Because of their immigration status and unfamiliarity with their rights, they often don’t complain. The survey found 59 percent of workers were not aware of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); and 87 percent had never filed a complaint against their employer.

Arise Chicago’s report says:

“Job ghettoes,” where foreign-born groups seeking employment provide a steady stream of workers to jobs that are undesirable to US born workers—in residential construction, agriculture, and service—tend to be the most hazardous jobs and the jobs that fly below the radar of wage and hour regulation. Lack of training and absence of OSHA-mandated engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment are further contributors. Finally, language, literacy, experience, and cultural factors may play a role.

Workers and immigrants rights advocates think official safety statistics for industries including manufacturing, meatpacking and construction greatly undercount injuries and accidents, for this reason. A 2009 Government Accountability Office report says non-fatal workplace injuries could be under-reported by 80 percent.

The GAO report says:

In 2007, there were approximately 4 million cases in which workers in the United States were injured or became ill as a result of unsafe or unhealthy working conditions, and more than 5,600 workers died as a result of their injuries…The rate of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses among private sector employers as reported by BLS in 2007 has generally declined since 1992; the rate of worker fatalities decreased from 1992 to 2001, and has remained relatively constant since 2002.

But…

OSHA overlooks information from workers about injuries and illnesses because it does not routinely interview them as part of its records audits…In addition, some OSHA inspectors reported they rarely learn about injuries and illnesses from workers since the records audits are conducted about 2 years after incidents are recorded. Moreover, many workers are no longer employed at the worksite and therefore cannot be interviewed. OSHA also does not review the accuracy of injury and illness records for worksites in eight high hazard industries because it has not updated the industry codes used to identify these industries since 2002.

Arise Chicago cites government statistics in noting that Latino workers are disproportionately impacted by workplace health and safety problems, in Illinois and nationwide. Foreign-born Latinos also suffer injury and illness at a much higher rate than U.S.-born Latinos.

In Illinois, the fatality rate per 100,000 full time employees has decreased, on average, from 1997-2002. However, Hispanic workers have not experienced the same trend in the State. In addition, Hispanic workers’ average age at death, 34.9, was found to be approximately 10 years lower than non-Hispanic workers, 45.

To mitigate the injuries and illnesses suffered by low-wage and immigrant workers, Arise Chicago recommends increasing both workers’ awareness of their rights and enforcement by government agencies. Workers centers can play an important role, the study says, by offering workers information, support and advocacy. It also recommends support for the OSHA Susan Harwood Training Grants, meant to help improve workplace training and safety. These grants can go to unions, non-profit groups, employers groups and other entities.

The report also recommends increasing penalties for health and safety violations, which now often amount to little more than a slap on the wrist. And it recommends OSHA officials collaborate with workers centers and other community groups who have more grassroots contact with workers. And it says the Department of Labor’s two separate enforcement arms, the Wage and Hour division and OSHA, should cooperate more closely.

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 is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at [email protected]

This blog originally appeared In These Times on March 25, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.


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Temporary Workers on the Auction Block? And the Complicated Economics of Immigration

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kari-lydersenImmigration reform experts propose tying system to labor market, and creating govt.-run auction for temp workers…While also touting economic benefit of immigrants.

DALLAS, TEXAS—Do immigrant workers—specifically, undocumented workers—contribute value to the economy through their labor, taxes and Social Security contributions? Or are they a net drain on government services and a big depresser of wages?

As states consider anti-immigrant bills modeled on Arizona’s SB 1070, this question has been debated hotly by activists on both sides of the immigration reform debate and by economists and other academics. The need for federal immigration reform remains impossible to ignore.

At the Institute for Journalism and Justice’s “Immigration in the Heartland” conference in Dallas Thursday and Friday, experts tried to get beyond rhetoric and politics in ascertaining the concrete economic and fiscal impacts of immigrant workers on the U.S. economy. Among other things, they argued for a reformed immigration system that is strictly tailored to the current labor market, and a temporary worker system based on a government-run auction. They also stressed the importance of understanding the separate fiscal and economic impacts of immigration. The fiscal impact is the direct cost of services, while the economic impact includes the wide-ranging ripple effects of their roles as consumers and entrepreneurs.

Washington Post Writers Group pundit Ed Schumaker-Matos, a Cuban immigrant, cited World Bank, Social Security Administration and other figures while positing that immigrant workers mirror native-born workers in the fact that highly skilled and educated people contribute a net gain to the economy, while low-skilled immigrant workers cost more than they contribute on the fiscal level considering their use of social services, education and healthcare.

But he said the cost of low-skilled workers in using social services and in competing with native-born low-skilled workers must be considered in light of the fact that immigrants of all skill levels do much to grow the economy as a whole.

A migrant worker's teeth are inspected at a tobacco leaf farm on August 11, 2010, in Windsor, Conn. The University of Connecticut Migrant Farm Worker Clinics visit area farms to offer health screenings to migrant farm workers and their families. There are an estimated 3.5 million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the United States, and many of these workers lack access to health professionals due to language barriers and fears of deportation.   (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A migrant worker's teeth are inspected at a tobacco leaf farm on August 11, 2010, in Windsor, Conn. The University of Connecticut Migrant Farm Worker Clinics visit area farms to offer health screenings to migrant farm workers and their families. There are an estimated 3.5 million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the United States, and many of these workers lack access to health professionals due to language barriers and fears of deportation. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

And he said that as opposed to decades past where many native-born U.S. citizens were high school dropouts, today only a small fraction of the U.S. population qualifies as “unskilled” and hence in competition with unskilled immigrants for jobs. He noted that studies show immigrants are much more likely than native-born U.S. citizens to start businesses, and that their role as customers and the income they inject into the economy expands the economy and U.S. productivity as a whole.

And he noted that while low-skilled immigrant workers may be a financial drain on local or to a lesser extent state social services, as anti-immigrant critics often charge, their children are likely to obtain levels of education and skill that help compensate for their parents’ effect on the economy by contributing more in taxes than they cost the system.

He said:

Is it an investment in the future or a burden? You don’t say to the local white kids that they’re a burden – they are in fact – they cost more than they put in. But you think of it as an investment in the future.

He pointed out a similar double standard regarding the “stealing jobs” argument.

Just like with natural population growth, the more people you have the more the economy grows. But people don’t stop having children because they’re afraid they’ll steal jobs from their parents.

A recent report by the Dallas Federal Reserve, “From Brawn to Brains: How Immigration Works for America,” noted that only 11 percent of second generation immigrants lack a high school diploma, compared to 30 percent of first generation immigrants. The report says:

One silver lining is that these costs dissipate in the very long run as their descendants assimilate and “pay back” the costs imposed by their predecessors. Economic or educational assimilation is, therefore, a very important piece of the immigration calculation.

Shumaker-Matos added that a less-publicized part of the immigration debate involves (usually legal) high-skilled immigrants, especially in the sciences, who compete with highly educated citizens for those high-end jobs. He said that while high-skilled immigrants may drive down wages slightly in these jobs, the innovation and overall economic and technological growth they contribute expands overall economic efficiency and productivity.

Pia Orrenius—a senior economist with the Dallas Federal Reserve, co-author of the aforementioned report and former advisor on labor, health and immigration to the Bush administration—said that high-skilled immigrants are a boon to the U.S. economy while low-skilled immigrants are a drain, at least in the immediate sense.

In her recent book, Orrenius proposes an “employment-driven” immigration system that awards temporary work visas without a wait based on the immediate needs of the labor market; rather than the current legal immigration system that according to government figures awards 85 percent of green cards to family members and only 7 percent based on employment.

Orrenius said that the U.S. lags behind other developed countries including South Korea, her native Switzerland, Spain and Italy, which base their legal immigration system primarily on the needs of the labor market rather than family relationships and humanitarian concerns.

The Dallas Federal Reserve report said that:

Estimates from 1996—the most recent comprehensive estimates available—indicate that immigrants with less than a high school diploma cost $89,000 more than they contribute in taxes over their lifetimes, while immigrants with more than a high school education contribute $105,000 more in taxes than they use in public services.

In other words, low-skilled immigrants are a net fiscal drain, but overall, immigration need not be. High-skilled immigrants can offset the fiscal cost of low-skilled immigrants.

Orrenius, whose book was published by the pro-business, free market American Enterprise Institute, would like to see a system wherein the government would auction off permits for high-skilled, low-skilled and seasonal temporary workers, and employers willing to pay the most for the permits would legally hire workers. The permits would only be good for a year, with the number of visas constantly adjusted based on the labor market and economy.

She said that under her proposal, workers would be allowed to quit their jobs if they suffered exploitation or abuse of the type common under the U.S.’s current guest worker program. In that case workers would have to find a new employer who had also bought permits, Orrenius said, which she suggested would likely not be a problem in urban areas but could present problems in rural areas with fewer employers. She said immigrants could theoretically petition for green cards – with the numbers awarded also determined by the current labor market – after five or 10 years in the temporary worker program.

Though in theory this might protect immigrants from exploitation by employers, in reality such a system would likely be ripe for abuse, as many immigrants likely would be afraid of leaving their jobs for fear of endangering their visa. And employers unwilling or unable to pay for the permits would likely continue to employ undocumented workers.

Orrenius’ proposed system would allow reunification of spouses and minor children with no wait, but it would greatly reduce the number of other relatives of citizens or permanent residents – a move sure to be blasted by immigrants rights groups. She said:

With an employment-based system, legal immigration would act more like unauthorized immigration. It is demand-based, so it benefits native workers – you don’t want a lot of immigrants coming in when the labor market is doing poorly.

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 is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at [email protected]

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on March 11, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.


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Wal-Mart Warehouse Workers File Class Action Wage Theft Lawsuit

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kari-lydersenCHICAGO—After three months of working in a Wal-Mart warehouse in the Chicago suburbs last fall, Robert Hines was fed up with getting paid much less than he had been promised by the company Reliable Staffing, which hired temporary workers to unload containers.

But the final straw came when he wasn’t paid at all for seven 10-12 hour days he’d worked shortly before Thanksgiving, he says. His calls to the agency weren’t returned, and when he went in person to demand his money, he said a manager claimed he and his work partner, Leo Williamson, had never worked those days at all.

So Hines and Williamson are among eight named plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit filed today in federal court charging Reliable Staffing, its owner Daniel Gallagher and Schneider Logistics, which runs the Wal-Mart warehouse in Elwood, Ill., with violating state and federal labor laws.

When former Reliable Staffing workers marched into the agency last Monday demanding pay and billing records (as is their right under the Illinois Day and Temporary Labor Services Act), they were not given any records and, they say, were greeted with hostility by Gallagher.

Deathrice Jimerson and Demetrie Collins allege they were cheated out of hundreds of dollars in wages at a Wal-Mart warehouse.   (Photo by Kari Lydersen)
Deathrice Jimerson and Demetrie Collins allege they were cheated out of hundreds of dollars in wages at a Wal-Mart warehouse. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

Under the Illinois day labor act, considered one of the nation’s strongest such laws, the workers have the right to see what Reliable Staffing billed Schneider for their work, and what it paid them. If the hours and/or piece rates reported to Schneider and reported to the workers themselves don’t add up, it could show Reliable Staffing was intentionally not paying workers for their labor.

The plaintiffs think that was standard practice at the company.

“The lady looked me in the face and said I have no recollection of you working,” said Hines, 37. “I got vulgar comments, a snazzy attitude from them. And I was breaking my back for peanuts, or to not even be paid at all.”

The lawsuit alleges violations of the aforementioned Illinois Day and Temporary Labor Services Act, along with the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Illinois Minimum Wage Law and the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act. Allegations include unpaid overtime, failure to pay state and federal minimum wage and failure to pay at least four hours’ wages when workers were called in to work, as mandated by the day labor services act.

The lawsuit says that plaintiffs who worked for Reliable Staffing from 2006 on were promised $10 an hour, plus a piece rate for unloading trucks, including a higher “premium” piece rate for heavier goods. It alleges they were not paid the piece rate as promised, and that in fact workers were often paid less than state and federal minimum wage along with not being paying overtime.

Hines said that at the rate promised, his paychecks for working often from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. should have been at least $300 a week – not counting overtime, which he also should have been due. But he was usually paid $239.

The suit also alleges workers were not paid for mandatory waiting time, adding up to multiple hours per week. It says that when one defendant wrote his arrival time on a sign-in sheet, a supervisor actually tore the sheet up.

“Reliable Staffing actually did not keep track of people’s hours,” said attorney Chris Williams. “That’s illegal. Even if you are paying a piece rate, under federal law you need to show that adds up to at least minimum wage.”

And the suit alleges Reliable Staffing violated state laws by failing to provide workers with documentation of where and for which third party they would be working, the nature of the work and how much they would be paid. The suit basically alleges that workers were paid the $10 piece rate only – often divided between two or three workers, workers say – and then the employer simply made up the number of hours the worker supposedly worked by dividing the piece rate by 10.

“The check stub is a fiction—their check stub could show they worked 36 hours when they really worked 72 hours,” said Williams. That’s why, Williams said, it’s so important the workers are able to demand their billing records under the state day labor services act.

“The workers are supposed to be able to go into the office and get this information themselves,” Williams said. “But unfortunately the law isn’t working. That’s why we had to take this to federal court.”

The suit says:

In fact, Defendants Reliable and Gallagher provided Plaintiffs and similarly situated laborers with check stubs that contained false information, showing the final gross compensation to the laborer divided by $10.00, thereby showing a number of hours worked on the check stub that bears no relationship to the actual number of hours worked…

Rather than provide Plaintiffs and the Class with the actual hours worked, Defendants Reliable and Gallagher provided Plaintiffs and the Class with a fictional number of hours worked and a fictional pay rate as described in paragraph.

The lawsuit adds that failing to provide workers documentation of their employment terms makes it easier for employers to cheat workers, saying:

The Illinois legislature found that such at-risk workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse of their labor rights, including unpaid wages, failure to pay for all hours worked, minimum wage and overtime violations, and unlawful deduction from pay for meals, transportation, equipment and other items.

The workers’ want unpaid wages, going back up to three years. The lawsuit also asks for statutory damages on some counts, attorneys’ fees, and that the company be blocked from violating these laws in the future. The suit notes that under the day labor services act, third party companies like Schneider that hire staffing companies are liable and legally responsible for any unpaid wages by the staffing company.

Depending on how the law is interpreted, it’s possible Wal-Mart itself could be liable.

“Hopefully this lawsuit will trickle down and help not just us but other people,” said Hines. “Maybe they’ll wake up and see that they have to treat people fairly if they want to get more out of us. Now they’re sitting there high on the hog, eating nice food, while we’re on the dollar menu at McDonald’s.”

This blog originally was posted on http://www.inthesetimes.com/on February 28, 2011. 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 is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at [email protected]



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Warehouse Workers Allege Wage Theft, Demand Pay Stubs

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kari-lydersenEmployees will march into Reliable Staffing office to demand billing records, highlight mistreatment

When Reginald Burnett started working in a warehouse unloading trucks of goods destined for Wal-Mart, he said he was told he’d make at least $10 an hour. But he soon realized that figure hinged on unloading a truck in three hours. Depending on how many things are in a truck and how heavy and unwieldy they are, unloading a truck can take two days.

Burnett, 32, soon found himself working 12-hour days, seven days a week, and taking home only $90-100 a day – less than $9 an hour, not counting copious overtime to which he should have been entitled under the law. He said he wasn’t the only one who realized his Friday paycheck from the agency Reliable Staffing “didn’t add up.”

Burnett is among workers who think they are victims of wage theft by the New Lenox, Ill., staffing agency. Reliable Staffing workers have contacted the group Warehouse Workers for Justice, which is trying to shed light on alleged wage and hour violations, unhealthy working conditions, extensive use of temporary labor and other unsettling aspects of the massive warehouse industry in Chicago’s southwest suburbs.

Today Burnett and other former or current Reliable Staffing workers and their supporters are marching into the company demanding copies of their pay stubs and billing records, to highlight what many workers say is erratic, deceptive or non-existent recordkeeping and transparency by the agencies that hire workers to staff warehouses for major multinational companies like Wal-Mart.

“It was everything that goes to Wal-Mart, from BBQ grills to tables to different types of book folders,” said Burnett. “A lot of it was heavy.”

George Johnson is among the former Reliable Staffing workers who never got straight answers about how much he was being paid. He said he was promised $9.25 an hour, but he said he sometimes got as little as $15 for a full eight-hour day during his three months at the company, paid piecemeal for unloading trucks, splitting pay with one or two other workers unloading the same truck. He said he was also told to report to the warehouse at 7 a.m., but wouldn’t start working until 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m., without being paid for the waiting time.

“It was all screwed up,” said Johnson, 41, who struggled to support eight kids on the meager wages. “You spent all these hours working, unloading these big trucks, one after another after another. For nothing.”

Warehouse Workers for Justice, a campaign launched several years ago by the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), last year released the study Bad Jobs in Good Movement: Warehouse Work in Will County that showed:

63 percent of warehouse workers were temps and that majority were earning below the poverty line…and one in four warehouse workers needed public assistance and many workers needed a second job in order to make ends meet.

Both Johnson and Burnett were temporary workers, and Johnson since then worked another temporary warehouse job. Burnett has been collecting unemployment since being laid off after about seven months, when his contract ended.

“When they want that order, they’ll say ‘that truck is hot,’” he said. “There are people waiting on the order, they need to complete it right away to get their money, so they make you work harder. But they don’t share the money with you. They are making big money, I kid you not.”

Warehouse Workers for Justice organizers have been meeting with Illinois state legislators to introduce legislation that would limit the number of temporary jobs in the industry, among other workers’ rights protections.
“People deserve permanent jobs,” said Tory Moore, a WWJ organizer who worked at the same warehouse for six years as a temp.

Burnett said he hopes more workers speak up about wage theft and other problems. He said many of the people working for Reliable Staffing have criminal records, something he thinks the company banked on.

“The job is so God-damned hard, most people they hire have felonies, they know most people won’t hire someone with a felony, so they know he’ll put up with it because he’ll have a hard time doing anything else,” Burnett said.

They are trying to prove to society that they’re capable of handling this kind of thing. Making their own money feels good, especially someone who came from the street, who never had anything in their lifetime. Now they don’t have to look over their shoulder, over their back, look out for the police.

They’re going to hold on to that job as long as they can. The people know they’re being cheated, but they don’t want to speak up because if you speak up, you lose your job.

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 [email protected]

This post originally appeared in http://www.inthesetimes.com on February 21, 2011.


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Another Proposed Chicago Wal-Mart Sparks Opposition

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Six years ago, Wal-Mart’s efforts to build its first store within the Chicago city limits sparked a city-wide furor and debate over the big box giant’s labor and community practices…and led to the passage of a historic living wage “Big Box Ordinance” heralded as a national model.

But the ordinance was vetoed by Mayor Richard M. Daley, who called it a job-killer that would prevent stores from opening. Wal-Mart then opened a store on the city’s west side free from the living wage requirements. Now Wal-Mart is moving forth with plans – despite community opposition chronicled on this blog – for two stores on Chicago’s south side. And the company reportedly also plans to open a store in a relatively upscale north side neighborhood.

Wal-Mart opponents rally Jan. 27 at a proposed new location for the store on Chicago's north side. (Courtesy of UFCW Local 881)

Last year, the Chicago Federation of Labor and other community groups touted a “deal” with Wal-Mart, which has announced plans to build a dozen stores in Chicago. According to the labor group, the corporation promised to pay at least $8.75 an hour (with an increase of 40 to 60 cents after one year of work) and hire union workers to build all its Chicago stores. The same day, a Wal-Mart spokesman disputed the concessions, saying: “There are no deals. All raised are based on performance.”

Despite the fact that labor claimed a victory last year, Wal-Mart is still not welcome to the city, according to union members, workers’ rights advocates and local business leaders who rallied against the proposed north side Wal-Mart on January 27.

Though the city’s media, elected officials and general public are paying relatively little attention to the issue this time around, UFCW Local 881 and other labor and neighborhood groups are trying to galvanize opposition to the proposed north side store because of Wal-Mart’s labor practices and effects on surrounding communities.

At a rally near the proposed site last week, Susan Hurley, executive director of Jobs with Justice, said:

We are reinforcing our fight to bring good jobs to our communities.  As we work towards positive economic development of our neighborhoods and long-term sustainability, we recognize that there are many alternatives and Walmart should not be one of them.  We cannot afford the widespread expansion of poverty-type Walmart jobs.

The Lakeview neighborhood where Wal-Mart proposes to build is more upscale and commercially vibrant than the south and west side Chicago sites Wal-Mart has previously targeted. Much opposition has come from local retailers, including boutiques and independent high-end stores who don’t want the competition and stigma represented by a Wal-Mart.

Chicago workers’ rights advocates say that along with these concerns, they also want to keep the focus strongly on the labor record of Wal-Mart, which has launched a campaign to clean up its image nationally over recent years, even as it continues to face the nation’s largest class action gender discrimination lawsuit and a host of other legal complaints.

Maureen Martino, executive director of the local Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce, said:

Walmart’s strategy was to build in areas where food and retail deserts exist. Obviously their strategy has changed and perhaps the City Council needs to reassess the impact this will cause on our small business community.

Now is the time to preserve our communities by offering incentives and financial assistance to our small businesses and not add another factor that will lead to storefront vacancies.

And Rev. Calvin Morris, executive director of the Community Renewal Society, added:

Walmart is supposed to be applauded for their appalling corporate behavior for locating themselves in economically underserved areas, but that’s clearly not their only purpose. They also seek to bring their race to the bottom wage and benefit standards to economically thriving neighborhoods all over the city of Chicago. I know Chicago can do better!

Editor’s note: This article, including its headline, has been updated to note the fact that Wal-Mart has disputed that any formal wage agreement between it and Chicago labor groups was made in June 2010.

*This article originally appeared in Working in These Times on Jan 31, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor and a Chicago-based journalist writing for various publications, including the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The Truth About Public Employees, the New Convenient Scapegoats

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kari-lydersenIt’s become a common refrain: public employees from teachers to parking meter attendants to firefighters to nurses are bleeding state and local budgets dry with exorbitant wages and pensions.

As recent news reports and communiqués by conservatives have pointed out, a portion of public sector employees do earn what many middle- and working-class Americans would consider very generous wages and benefits. USA Today reported that on average, public workers earn $11.90 more per hour than comparable private sector workers.

But such numbers constitute misleading propaganda, according to labor analysts and proponents and several recent studies, including an April report by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS). “At its heart,” Amy Traub wrote in the The Nation in July, scapegoating of public employees is an insidious way to divide public and private sector workers who share many of the same interests.”

The NIRS study noted that when education and work experience are considered, state and local employees earn 11 to 12 percent less than comparable private sector workers; and their compensation is still lower when their benefits plans are figured in (6.8 percent lower for state workers and 7.4 percent lower for local workers).

The study notes that while public employees may appear to earn more than their private sector cohorts (for example in Michigan), when their education is considered they are actually earning less than they theoretically could on the private market. The study found 23 percent of local and state workers have college degrees, compared to only 16 percent of all federal workers.

The average state worker appears to earn more only because the state hires more of those in the highly educated categories that tend to earn more, not because workers with the same education earn more in the public sector.

When public employees do earn high wages and receive great benefits, rather than engendering resentment and jealousy, labor proponents say, these should be held up as examples of the security and quality of life that all working people should enjoy, whether in the public or private sector.

Although a small percentage of public sector salaries may be relatively high, they are doubtless still only a drop in the bucket compared to federal spending on defense, state tax breaks to corporations and the like.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently opined:

Public servants are convenient scapegoats. Republicans would rather deflect attention from corporate executive pay that continues to rise as corporate profits soar, even as corporations refuse to hire more workers…It’s far more convenient to go after people who are doing the public’s work – sanitation workers, police officers, fire fighters, teachers, social workers, federal employees – to call them “faceless bureaucrats” and portray them as hooligans who are making off with your money and crippling federal and state budgets.

The story fits better with the Republican’s Big Lie that our problems are due to a government that’s too big.

Public employees do periodically make headlines for gaming the system – collecting two pensions simultaneously, collecting a pension while still working a public job, or getting a “promotion” immediately before retirement to boost their pension, for example.

But Reich notes that such pension exploitation is a relative rarity, and most public employees are lucky to collect modest pensions that don’t even cost much to taxpayers. An average government worker who retires with a salary of $45,000 will collect a $19,000-a-year pension, he says—“few would call that overly generous.”

While they’re working, most public employees contribute a portion of their salaries into their pension plans. Taxpayers are directly responsible for only about 14 percent of public retirement benefits. Remember also that many public workers aren’t covered by Social Security, so the government isn’t contributing 6.25 [percent] of their pay into the Social Security fund as private employers would.

CalPERS, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, describes the reality for California public employee pensions, on a “myth busting” website addressing common misconceptions—including the idea that “public pension benefits are excessive and a drain on the public.”

The average CalPERS pension is about $25,000 per year. Half of CalPERS retirees receive $16,000 per year or less in benefits. Unlike the private sector, many CalPERS members do not receive Social Security, making their CalPERS pension their sole source of pension income, other than savings.

The site also says that: “California public retirees put back $2 into the economy for every $1 they receive in pensions.”

Many Republicans argue that even granting collective bargaining rights to public sector employees is a recipe for financial disaster and endangers the public. Nevada, North Carolina and Arizona are among the states that don’t allow collective bargaining for government employees. Labor advocates argue there’s no reason a right enshrined in labor law and guaranteed to private sector workers should be denied to dedicated public employees. If the right to strike endangers public welfare in any way – for example among firefighters or police officers – they can still be allowed collective bargaining rights with some of the same strike-related caveats that affect workers in private industries from transportation to healthcare.

The NIRS “Out of Balance” study concludes:

Although the current recession calls for equal sacrifice, the long-term pattern indicates that state and local workers are not, on average, overcompensated. If the goal is to compensate state and local sector employees in a manner comparable to those in the private sector, the data do not call for reductions in state and local wages. If anything, they call for increases.

An organization called Brave New Foundation has collected stories of public employees facing layoffs and wage freezes, describing the effect on their own lives and on citizens who need their services. A blogger on the site NewsHound reported:

It absolutely infuriates me the way the right wing is trying to demonize – in an effort to cut back benefits of public workers at the same time that they demand a giant windfall from the public by way of tax cuts for the wealthy.

This post was originally published on Working In These Times.

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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A Day in the Life of a Warehouse Warrior

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kari-lydersenIt’s a stifling hot day in June, and Tory Moore, 37, is pounding the pavement outside a currency exchange in Bolingbrook, a Chicago suburb. Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words Warehouse Workers for Justice, sweating but full of energy, he paces back and forth while mopping his face with a yellow washcloth, looking for the tell-tale signs of warehouse workers.

After years working in warehouses himself, he knows what to look for: t-shirt, shorts, steel-toed boots or tennis shoes, safety goggles. When he sees a likely warehouse worker, he goes up with a friendly greeting and starts asking questions. He often chimes in with his own story – he was a temp for six years, even though he was working at the same warehouse – Del Monte Foods in Kankakee – the whole time.

Moore is one of the driving forces behind the study “Bad Jobs in Goods Movement,“ released by Warehouse Workers for Justice and the University of Illinois at Chicago last month. The campaign hired Moore through a program for low-income workers to help conduct the hundreds of surveys that form the basis for ongoing research into this booming but little-examined industry.

“Some people need two jobs just to make ends meet,” explains Moore. He asks one worker outside the currency exchange: “Are you doing anything else to make ends meet, cutting grass, cutting hair, tattooing?”

Since becoming involved with Warehouse Workers for Justice, Moore has developed his apparently natural talents as an organizer. He spoke to workers, organizers and academics involved with goods movement issues nationwide at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in June.

Outside the currency exchange, he goes through the questions on the four-page blue survey earnestly and methodically, making sure he gets the spelling of people’s names right and reading off all the different types of discrimination they may have faced. When he gets to the question about whether someone prefers temporary or permanent work, his voice becomes more animated and he jumps in to answer for them, “Permanent right?”

Most quickly agree.

“You don’t get any justice if you’re a temp!” he says.

He  takes a quick break to check his messages – the only one is from a temp agency  asking if he can work tomorrow. On principle, he’s not going to take a one-day job, even though he needs the money. But he doesn’t want a refusal to prevent them from calling him with future longer-term offers. So he returns the phone call – politely saying, “I’ll be going out of town so I won’t be able to do it.”

“Well I lied to them, I’m not going to disqualify myself in case something else comes up. I’m not trying to be lazy, but, one day only! I’m not the one.”

Moore is acutely aware of the injustice in the industry, which relies heavily on temporary workers who labor for low wages with few or no benefits, paid sick days or chance for advancement. But in a desperate job market, some see this as normal, and are grateful for any work they can get.

One man, who doesn’t want his name used, is happy to have just gotten a new albeit temporary job.

“I thought that was the game! I didn’t know that was a problem. I thought that’s just the way it was. You work three months somewhere then they move you somewhere else,” the man says.

“That’s right, you’re getting $9.50, then they move you somewhere else where you’re making $8,” says Moore. “I never thought of it that way…”

Moore examines the man’s pay stub, and is enraged to see there’s no company name on it.

“There’s no damn name on here! That’s a problem! Say you need to sue them, you show this to a judge, there’s no name.”

The man rubs his face and looks worried. Moore asks what his new position is.

“I really don’t know, they don’t tell me anything, they just say, ‘See how many of these seasoning packets you can put in a box,’” says the man, who works 2 a.m. to noon. “I was just so happy to get the job.”

Moore tells his story about being a temp for six years, and being denied a loan and apartment rentals. ” Seriously?” says the man, looking crestfallen.  “So when I go look for an apartment I can’t go in and say this is the place I work?”

“A lot of people lost their cribs because the 89 days came and they got laid off instead of hired on. This is a million-dollar company and you’re working your ass off for 9.50,” Moore says.

The man stands absorbing it all for a few moments, asks a few more questions and receives impassioned answers from Moore. The man basically tells Moore that he has ruined his day, but he’s glad to know what he needs to watch out for. He agrees to answer Moore’s survey questions.

“I had to give my Martin Luther King speech,” Moore says, laughing and shaking his head. He wipes his brow again, then starts scanning the parking lot for more warehouse workers.

This article was originally posted on Working In These Times Blog.

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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Driving ‘Mobile Sweatshops,’ Cabbies Become A New Face of Movement

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Cab drivers earn as little as $4 an hour, regularly work 12-hour days six days a week, suffer debilitating work-related health problems and are mistreated and gouged by customers, city regulators and leasing companies. Yet most feel such a sense of pride and community in the occupation that they don’t even consider switching professions.

This was among the revelations at the United Association of Labor Education‘s annual conference in San Diego last week, where Chicago professor Robert Bruno and east coast public health specialist Rebecca Reindel discussed their research in an increasingly high-profile field of study: cab drivers’ working conditions and organizing drives.

Bruno, whose work I’ve blogged about here before, has studied various facets of cab drivers’ daily lives, including wages and hours, frequency of violence and treatment by city regulators and leasing companies. He found that Chicago cab drivers on average earn only $4.38 an hour, often working almost 12 hours just to cover their lease and making a profit at the tail end of long shifts.

Cabdrivers with the United Taxidrivers Community Council (UTCC) joined forces with Communities for an Equitable Olympics 2016 in Chicago in August 2008, demanding, among other things, a living wage for cab drivers.   (Photo courtesy United Taxidrivers Community Council)
Cabdrivers with the United Taxidrivers Community Council (UTCC) joined forces with Communities for an Equitable Olympics 2016 in Chicago in August 2008, demanding, among other things, a living wage for cab drivers. (Photo courtesy United Taxidrivers Community Council)

Reindel, pursuing a master’s in Public Health at George Washington University, studied occupational health effects on New York City cab drivers, in cooperation with the highly organized and active New York Taxi Workers Alliance. She found that nearly one in two drivers suffers moderate to severe pain each week that could be attributed to their job, with lower back pain not surprisingly being the most common complaint.

She found drivers also report significantly more pain on their right side, perhaps related to constantly twisting to collect fares and talk to passengers.

Reindel and a research partner identified a number of relatively simple and affordable remedies which drivers thought would greatly increase their comfort. The drivers identified safety shields, especially “L-shaped” ones that protrude between the driver and front seat passenger, as impeding their mobility and arm and leg space. Many drivers were unable to adjust their seats at all. In general, she noted that cars should be built as cabs from scratch in order to provide decent ergonomics and safety, as opposed to the usual procedure of retrofitting regular Crown Victorias or other vehicles.

Bruno and Reindel are often asked why, given the low wages, dangerous and grueling working conditions, and other drawbacks, people continue to drive cabs at all. The two researchers note that despite the problems, drivers feel an intense sense of pride in their work and also have tight-knit communities of drivers, especially within their own ethnic group. Groups of drivers from a given country, like Pakistan or Nigeria, are likely to all live in the same apartment building or even share apartments, Reindel noted.

“It’s such a cohesive unit,” she said, having observed the camaraderie and support among drivers during 12-hour ride-alongs. “For example, when they go to the airport it takes longer, they have to wait and they have to pay a tax, but it’s worth it because they like to mingle with their friends.”

More than half the drivers surveyed in Chicago and New York have college degrees, and many have graduate degrees. Though they are usually unable to work in their professional field in the U.S., driving a cab allows people to see themselves more as independent entrepreneurs than wage workers, Bruno notes.

“It’s a mobile sweatshop, but they do feel a pride in the job, and they are so embedded in the city of Chicago, they know the city so well and take pride in that,” said Bruno. “This is seen as much more dignified than working at McDonald’s. They’re businessmen, they have flexibility, though it’s flexibility without control since the city essentially controls them.”

Some drivers do own their own cabs and the medallions that most (though not all) cities require drivers to buy or lease in order to operate legally. But the vast majority of drivers lease cabs and medallions from major companies, or—less frequently—own their own cabs but lease medallions.

At the conference last week, Empire State College Professor Michael Merrill noted that the medallion system was typically a well-intended response to drivers’ own concerns about too many operators flooding the market…but the system in most cities turned into what could be called an exclusive racket controlled largely by just a few families or businessmen in a secretive manner.

Medallions in Chicago cost well over $100,000, and in New York they go for more than half a million dollars, making it extremely difficult for new owner-operators to enter the market and forcing them to work long hours just to pay off loans if they do.

Merrill proposes driving a cab should be a municipal job where workers could be organized by public employees unions and granted solid health benefits and pensions. But because of their independent spirits and negative stereotypes about unions harbored by drivers—perhaps because of experiences in their home countries—many drivers are resistant to these sorts of proposals.

Taxi drivers organizations, like the NYTWA in New York and the United Taxidrivers Community Council in Chicago, are springing up in a growing number of cities and often work together. They have called numerous strikes in recent years, but the nature of the industry is such that a very high percentage of drivers must participate to make a serious impact.

“This shows the difficulty of changing many of these situations,” Merrill said.

This post originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 30, 2010. 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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American Apparel Stripped of 1,800 Workers – to What Effect?

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The firing of 1,800 apparently undocumented workers at American Apparel’s Los Angeles garment factory, forced by a federal investigation, is an example of the Obama administration’s new approach to workplace enforcement, which avoids the Bush administration’s militarized raids.

Unlike other companies targeted for immigration enforcement, American Apparel’s factory boasts positive working conditions and relatively high wages. Workers have health and life insurance, paid English classes and even masseuses on the shop floor, yet the company has still managed to compete with cheap imported clothing and grow very profitable very quickly.

An American Apparel factory in California. (Photo by Humain, via Flickr)

News coverage mentions American Apparel’s “proprietary” production system, so the logistics that let the company treat workers well and still profit in a globalized market may not be widely known. It remains to be seen how the company will survive, given the forced firings and the fact it was already suffering heavily from the recession. (And the fact that the company’s success is probably partly a fashion or social justice fad whose novelty is doomed to fade.)

My initial reaction to yesterday’s news was that a hypocrisy had been exposed, since American Apparel’s very existence is based around its Made in the USA label, and—rightly or wrongly—I associated that label with consumers who are not fans of undocumented immigrant workers.

Then I realized that if American Apparel management guessed their employees were undocumented (they contend they didn’t), publicly embracing the workers as the part of the American workforce they are makes a statement.

Founder and CEO Dov Charney, a Canadian immigrant, has in the past spoken out for sweeping immigration reform, as described in this New York Times story. Apparently the federal investigation, started under the Bush administration, was already underway as Charney launched this ad campaign.

Meanwhile, it is impossible to ignore the fact that while shop floor conditions at American Apparel appear to be very positive, Charney’s one-on-one interactions with his employees, at least female ones, leaves a lot to be desired (as In These Times reported in 2005).

At least three ex-employees have filed sexual harassment suits against Charney, who is known to conduct business in his underwear or even while naked. He describes these habits as creative freedom, which his employees apparently don’t appreciate (see MSNBC’s report here).

Employees told Businessweek, “It was a company built on lechery,” and “I thought it was a male contemporary perspective on feminism, but it turns out to be just a gimmick.”

Many also complain American Apparel’s ads offensively sexualize and objectify young women, especially young immigrant women of color. The company markets the fact that its ads feature employees, but I wonder if they are paid as much as professional models would be.

Ultimately it is ironic that, as one worker quoted by The New York Times points out, the fired workers are likely to end up at actual sweatshops or other under-the-table, exploitative work situations in the U.S.

In other words, while the current federal workplace enforcement policy is more humane and logical than the militarized raids of the past, without comprehensive immigration reform it still comes off as a relatively pointless or purely symbolic gesture.

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.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 1, 2009. Re-printed with permission from the author.


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