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Bernie Sanders makes a play for Biden Labor secretary

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Sen. Bernie Sanders is hoping to be a part of Joe Biden’s potential administration and has expressed a particular interest in becoming Labor secretary, two people familiar with the conversations tell POLITICO.

“I can confirm he’s trying to figure out how to land that role or something like it,” said one person close to the Vermont senator. “He, personally, does have an interest in it.”

Sanders on Wednesday declined to confirm or deny that he’s putting his name forward for the position.

“Right now I am focused on seeing that Biden is elected president,” he told POLITICO. “That’s what my main focus is.”

Former Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir said Sanders has not talked directly with anyone on the Biden campaign about a future role, but plans to push Biden, his former Senate colleague, to “include progressive voices” in both the transition and in a potential new administration.

Yet two other people close to Sanders, including one former aide, said the senator has expressed interest in being in the administration, should Biden win in November. Sanders has been making his push for the top job at the Labor Department in part by reaching out to allies on the transition team, one person familiar with the process said.

When asked about Sanders’ potential role, a spokesperson for Biden’s transition team repeated the transition’s stock line: that they are “not making any personnel decisions pre-election.”

Since ending his second bid for the Democratic nomination earlier this year, Sanders has thrown his support behind Biden, hitting the campaign trail for him in Michigan and New Hampshire, collaborating with him to create “unity task forces” to make recommendations on everything from health care to climate change, and taking the stage at the Democratic National Convention to urge progressives to back the former vice president.

“He’s 100 percent in Joe Biden’s court,” said Shakir. “We’ve had a good working relationship with the Biden team and I expect we’ll maintain that all the way through.”

Through this collaboration, Shakir said, Sanders has been able to influence both policy and personnel discussions underway among Biden transition’s staff.

“It would be great to have a unity government that takes into account that progressives are a pretty healthy portion of the electorate,” he said. “Heeding that would be good, but if Joe Biden wins, he rightly has a mandate to move in whatever direction he chooses.”

The news of Sanders’ interest in the job is certain to cheer the Democratic left, which has been pushing for progressives to take senior roles in a potential Biden administration.

“He’d be terrific,” said Robert Reich, a former Labor secretary in the Clinton administration.

Having Sanders in a senior post could also help balance out any consternation over more moderate picks — or even a Republican — that Biden’s team is already considering for other spots in the administration.

Sanders could find support from the labor movement as well, where union officials expect to have some influence over Biden’s pick to lead the DOL.

The Vermont senator — who throughout his decadeslong career has called for laws to raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize — won significant support from local unions and rank-and-file members in the 2016 Democratic primary race, even as most major national unions endorsed his rival Hillary Clinton.

In 2020, many major unions endorsed Sanders’ signature “Medicare for All” proposal — which would replace private insurance with a national single-payer system — saying the policy would help workers focus their bargaining power on wages and working conditions, rather than health benefits. When some unions came out against the policy, saying they didn’t trust the new government insurance program to offer as robust benefits as the private plans they secured through negotiations, Sanders added a provision empowering the National Labor Relations Board to make sure employers reinvested what they would save on health insurance in workers’ pay and other benefits.

“Obviously, he’s earned a lot of trust from working people across the country over the past many years,” one union official said.

The official added that joining a Biden administration could help the 79-year-old Sanders craft a legacy — “being able to help rebuild the economy in a way that works for working Americans after this pandemic.”

One person close to Sanders agreed that Sanders sees an opportunity to achieve long-held policy goals for the working class under Biden, adding: “He really does believe Biden wants to be a Roosevelt-like president.”

The Democratic presidential nominee has made labor a priority issue throughout his presidential campaign, emphasizing the need to strengthen and expand the right to join a union and rebuild America’s middle class. It’s an area where he’s fairly progressive and generally aligned with Sanders, who pledged as a presidential candidate to double union membership if elected.

Still, it could be an uphill battle for Sanders to secure the nomination at Labor or any other agency, in part because Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, would be able to appoint a temporary successor to his Senate seat.

Unlike governors in other states, who get to appoint successors to carry out the rest of the term, Scott would be required under Vermont law to hold a special election within six months of the seat becoming vacant. But even allowing Scott the opportunity to fill Sanders’ seat with a GOP lawmaker in the short term could potentially affect control of the Senate, depending on the results of November’s election.

Others see Sanders’ stubborn independence as a potential liability.

“Because of how he operates and works with other people, there’s a zero chance” of him getting tapped for the job, one person close to Sanders said. “He’s a Lone Ranger, to a fault.”

Other names that have been floated for Labor secretary in a Biden administration include Bill Spriggs, chief economist at the AFL-CIO and a Howard University economics professor; Sharon Block, a veteran of the DOL and Obama White House who is now executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard University; Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a former union organizer and leader of Michigan’s Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth; and Seth Harris, the former deputy secretary of Labor in the Obama administration.

There has also been some discussion of Biden looking to appoint a union official to his Cabinet, possibly atop the DOL or the Department of Education.

This article originally appeared at Politico on October 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. It was in that role that she first began covering trade, including Donald Trump’s rise as the populist candidate vowing to renegotiate NAFTA and Hillary Clinton’s careful sidestep of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

A D.C.-area native, Megan headed south for a few years to earn her bachelor’s degree in business journalism and international politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Now settled back inside the Beltway, Megan’s on the hunt for the city’s best Carolina BBQ — and still rooting for the Heels.


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Overturning Austerity 101: California’s Prop 15 Will Tax the Rich

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California’s November ballot will feature a challenge to the notorious Proposition 13, which in 1978 helped to inaugurate the decades-long neoliberal assault on labor.

Prop 13’s anti-tax, small government campaign, with a dog-whistle racist subtext, created a national template for conservatives to simultaneously attack public sector unions, public employees, and the people they served. For the right wing, this was the lab experiment for Austerity 101.

In a time of high inflation, Prop 13 exploited fear—older homeowners on fixed incomes were afraid that rising taxes would drive them out of their homes. It rolled back assessments to 1975 rates, set property taxes at 1 percent of value, and capped increases at 2 percent per year, no matter the inflation rate or the increase in market price of the property. When it passed, grandma breathed more easily.

But grandma was not the biggest beneficiary of Prop 13. The same rules applied to commercial property—including giant corporate-owned properties like Chevron and Disney. The consequent plunge in property tax revenues to local and state government forced enormous cuts to social programs and schools, led to layoffs of public employees, and established a new normal in the Golden State, described by former California Federation of Teachers president Raoul Teilhet as “poor services for poor people.”

ANSWER TO A DISASTER

Prop 15 is the long-awaited answer to this disaster. It’s the product of a 10-year-old coalition of unions and community groups, now known as Schools and Communities First, with a couple of previous progressive tax victories under its belt. Prop 15’s passage will mean commercial property is assessed at current market value, not purchase price, for tax purposes. In a non-COVID year that change will raise $10 to $12 billion for schools and local services. In the Pandemic Depression, it will mean a bulwark against soaring class sizes and public sector layoffs due to plunging tax revenues.

Carefully crafted after years of opinion research funded by public sector unions, it exempts commercial property below $3 million and all residential property, including rental units. It also eliminates a tax on business equipment that mostly affected small businesses.

The bulk of the campaign’s funding comes from two of the biggest unions in the state, the California Teachers Association (affiliated with the NEA) and the state council of the Service Employees (SEIU). But the backbone for the coalition over the years has been three organizations that spearheaded a Millionaires Tax ballot campaign in 2011: the California Federation of Teachers (the other statewide teacher union, affiliated with the AFT), California Calls, and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

They have been joined in the Schools and Communities First coalition by virtually the entire labor movement, as well as hundreds of community, civil, and immigrant rights organizations, and a seemingly odd bedfellow or two like the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife.

Although the measure is opposed by the usual suspects like the California Chamber of Commerce and the right-wing Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, some large commercial property owners like Facebook stand to gain from the measure: Prop 15 would level the playing field that currently gives an unfair tax advantage to older businesses that purchased their properties decades ago.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted signature gathering, initially causing worries whether the measure would qualify for the ballot, in fact the coalition had already pulled in a record-breaking 1.7 million signatures by the end of March. This was due to the scope of the coalition and a massive volunteer effort alongside paid signature collection.

EASY TO SELL

Until the coronavirus put a stop to it, I staffed a table on campus along with other members of my union, AFT 2121, which represents faculty at City College of San Francisco. One union sibling, Kathe Burick, a dance instructor, said, “I’ve never had such an easy time filling petitions. Students, staff, faculty, even administrators—as soon as they heard what Prop 15 would do, they signed.” Local 2121 contributed 1,600 signatures to the CFT’s 20,000. In all the campaign’s volunteers collected 225,000.

Passage of Prop 15 is not a slam dunk. By their nature progressive tax measures attract well-funded enemies who, in addition to their war chests, have few scruples about lying to the electorate. On August 6 a judge ruled that the election information guide mailed by the Secretary of State to every registered voter had to be changed to eliminate “false or misleading” arguments by opponents. One claimed Prop 15 would allow the legislature to raise taxes on homeowners.

Another common tactic is to muddy the waters by implying that the tax in question will affect everyone. Undaunted by the judge’s decision, a spokesperson for the opposition commented, “This one will be won once voters know that Prop 15 is a $12.5 billion tax increase they can’t afford.”

In fact Prop 15 will draw 92 percent of its revenues from just 10 percent of commercial property holders, a reflection of the concentration of wealth in a state that, if a country, would contain the world’s fifth-largest economy—yet can’t seem to find money to properly resource its schools and services.

In addition to the usual flood of misleading advertising, Yes on 15 activists face the challenges of a pandemic election. Without the ability to canvass in person, the campaign will have to rely on phone banking, text banking, virtual house meetings, and the like. It remains to be seen whether labor’s grassroots “people power” can be channeled as effectively as usual under such conditions. But the need and the momentum for progressive taxes are real.

The California Labor Federation emerged from its annual convention the first week in August—held on Zoom—with solid commitments on two November ballot initiatives: Yes on 15 and No on 22. The latter is an attempt by Uber and Lyft to reverse legislation passed earlier in the year that reclassified drivers from contractor status to employees.

Speaking at a recent Zoom rally for Prop 15 hosted by California chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, United Teachers of Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz said, “We’ve got to be able to pass Schools and Communities First, as one measure, and then come back with another measure, and another, so that we make the rich pay their fair share.”

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on August 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Fred Glass is the retired communications director of the California Federation of Teachers, and the author of From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement (UC Press, 2016).


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San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council Launches Food Assistance Program

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Our Team — San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council

We are in an unforeseen crisis. Just a few weeks ago none of us could have predicted the economic impact created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our members and our neighbors are in a financial and food crisis. Our entire labor council operation has converted to an emergency team focused on securing member benefits and running a substantial food distribution operation. To date we’ve distributed more than 150,000 pounds of food and served over 5,000 families in need. In the coming days, our distribution will provide food to more than 2,000 families per week, as our operations continually expand. I wish to commend our staff team for the work they are doing to keep this operation running, in the face of the health crisis swirling around them.

Our ability to provide for our members would not be possible without the support of a number of our unions. A big thanks to Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 465, Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 122 and United Domestic Workers (UDW)/AFSCME Local 3930 for assigning staff to our labor council food distribution in the City Heights community in San Diego, including scheduling appointments. Our team is ordering food to support our City Heights food bank, for the Unions United-United Way of San Diego County food bank, and for UNITE HERE Local 30’s and IBEW Local 569’s distributions to their members. We have secured a steady stream of food product and have recently opened an Imperial Valley distribution site for our members.

Last week, for the fourth Saturday in a row a team of labor council volunteers joined in solidarity to provide food to more than 1,000 families in need. These distributions to the general public have been in partnership with Feeding San Diego and the San Diego Food Bank. A big shout out to the unions serving on our logistics committee—Ironworkers Local 229, the San Diego Education Association, UDW, Local 122, UFCW Local 135 and Local 569. They are leading this effort with our labor council staff to make sure our distributions run efficiently, and the safety of our volunteers is maintained. In addition, we have had a large turnout of over 100 volunteers each week willing to provide a helping hand, and we thank them all. 

I’d like to acknowledge both locals 30 and 122 for the effort they are making to support their impacted members. Both unions have essentially lost their entire memberships to layoffs. Many of these workers lost their jobs more than a month ago, due to conventions and major conferences canceling. They are hurting. Yet these two unions, with strong leadership and commitment, have assisted their members in filing unemployment claims, guiding them with utility and worker assistance processing, and making sure they are getting food for those most in need. This is a time that we all need to do our part to help these workers, and all of the other members who have lost their jobs and their paychecks!

FINANCIAL SUPPORT FOR UNION MEMBER FOOD:Providing food for our union members impacted by this health and economic crisis requires a constant purchase of food. You can support our efforts by sending union contributions to the labor council’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit fund that is certified to receive and distribute food with both the San Diego Food Bank and Feeding San Diego. All funds received will go to providing food for our union members in the coming days and weeks. A big shout out to Local 135, AFT Local 1931, OPEIU Local 30, California Teachers Association and San Diego Gas & Electric for their contributions to a Partnership for a Better San Diego. We’ve also secured more than 110 online donations from individuals. 

UNIONS: Make checks out to A Partnership for a Better San Diego and mail or deliver to our labor council office. If you have questions, please contact Sandra Williams: [email protected].

INDIVIDUAL DONORS: Send contributions by clicking: Union Member Relief Program.

FOOD DISTRIBUTION:All affiliated local unions have been provided a form to request assistance for their members. Please provide the labor council with names of those you wish to receive food. Once received, the labor council staff or staff from our member unions will call to set an appointment time. Food assistance is by appointment only. The Unions United food pantry is fully functional. You can contact its operation directly. You also will need to provide the information to schedule an appointment for food assistance.

This article was originally printed in AFL-CIO on April 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Keith Maddox is the executive secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council.


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Trump is putting the shock doctrine in action, using COVID-19 as an excuse to slash regulations

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It’s not just immigration. Donald Trump plans to use coronavirus as an excuse to weaken environmental, labor, health, and other regulations in exactly the ways he’s wanted to all along. While the White House negotiates with Congress, including Democrats, over what the next round of coronavirus relief could look like, regulatory changes can be made without congressional approval.

The administration already decided not to enforce air quality standards—during a respiratory disease pandemic. Now, Trump and advisers like director of the United States National Economic Council Larry Kudlow, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and incoming chief of staff Mark Meadows are talking about ideas like suspending regulations on small businesses—an absolute invitation to wage theft and dangerous working conditions, among other things—and “expanding an existing administration program that requires agencies to revoke two regulations for every new one they issue,” The Washington Post reports. Because nothing says “we’re serious about making good policy” like arbitrary rules limiting what the government can do on a strictly numeric level.

“This sounds exactly like the type of opportunistic political move that absolutely should not be attempted right now,” Jared Bernstein, who was the chief economic adviser to Joe Biden during his time as vice president, told The Washington Post. “Correlations between regulations and economic activity are far shakier than they assume, and I don’t believe this idea will help at all.”

According to Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen, “all attention should be focused on improving the regulatory state to protect the public. We should be focused on the crisis at hand, not loosening standards.” There’s a great example of someone saying something that is 100% true and 100% not what is on the table in the current administration. Protecting the public? Ha ha. Focused on the crisis at hand rather than on loosening standards—indeed, rather than using the crisis as an excuse to loosen standards? Bitter laughter to infinity.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 21, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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How COVID-19 Showed America’s Dependence on Blue-Collar Workers

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At the start of each shift, Eric Jarvis takes a handful of anti-bacterial wipes and sanitizes the equipment he uses at the Packaging Corporation of America mill in Valdosta, Georgia.

He worries about getting the coronavirus every time he leaves for work, but knows the nation depends on paper workers like him to produce the linerboard that goes into the cardboard boxes used to ship millions of items to stores and homes each day.

Jarvis, president of USW Local 646, may not be on the front lines of the pandemic in the same way as nurses and first responders. But he and other manufacturing workers also fulfill a vital role on the nation’s production lines, ensuring that Americans still have the food, medicine, toiletries and other items crucial for everyday life.

“If we don’t make boxes, then the grocery stores don’t have groceries,” Jarvis said.

“We know our job is an essential job,” he said of the local’s 235 members. “You can see the pride in the workers doing their jobs out there.”

Truck drivers, bakers, transit operators, grocery store clerks, warehouse packers and manufacturing workers form the backbone of America’s economy.

They show up every day and get the job done, performing so reliably that the nation long took their work for granted. No one questioned, for example, whether stores would have toilet paper and cleaning products.

Then the pandemic struck, and surging demand for consumer goods exposed America’s dependence on the blue-collar workers who supply almost every need.

Life would grind to a halt without them.

Right now, these workers risk COVID-19 by laboring in groups at mills, factories, warehouses and stores while many other Americans do their jobs alone at home. It angers Jarvis to think that service workers put their lives on the line for the poverty-level wages common in their industry.

“I hope people never forget that,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis and his co-workers protect themselves as best they can.

Besides wiping down equipment, they stagger their starting times to reduce contact with one another. They wait in their cars and trucks before a shift instead of congregating at the time clock. Inside the mill, they remain at their work stations unless their presence elsewhere is a necessity.

Still, workers worry about bringing the coronavirus home to their families. Some shower, change clothes and even wash their eyeglasses the minute they get home to avoid spreading any germs they picked up during their shifts.

“It gets a little rough,” explained Colt Kovatch, vice president of USW Local 14693, which represents about 80 workers at the International Paper box shop in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania. “You have family at home. You want to be with them. But I understand what I’m doing, what I’m making, and how it helps. It keeps my blood pumping.”

The box shop makes packaging for food and drug companies, plastics manufacturers and online retailers.

“We might not be the frontline workers,” Kovatch said. “But we’re right there behind them.”

At Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, members of USW Local 8888 continue building nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines for the Navy even though 23 co-workers contracted COVID-19. Local President Charles Spivey said the workers who report each day “are making a great sacrifice.”

“We do unique work here,” Spivey observed. “We can’t just shut down. There’s pride here. We know that we’re the best shipbuilders in the world.”

Some of the workers at Morton Salt’s production facilities in Lyons and Hutchinson, Kansas, have worked together for years.

Now, that camaraderie helps the members of USW Local 12606 cope with the risks they face from the coronavirus.

“We recognize that there’s a danger, but we also recognize that there’s a job to do,” local President Jon Ahrens said. “We still have to provide not only for our families but for the whole United States.”

Table salt in blue containers may be the most recognizable product supplied by the local’s approximately 200 members. But their salt also is used as an additive in shampoos and water softeners; as a preservative in the chips, snack cakes and other comfort foods in high demand during the pandemic; and in the saline solutions that hospitals use to treat patients.

So far, at least 33,200 Americans have died from COVID-19, and more than 671,000 have been infected. An influx of patients overwhelmed some hospitals and ambulance crews.

Jay Wright, president of USW Local 188S, figures that many exhausted health care workers and first responders survive on caffeine these days. And he’s happy to do his part to keep them going.

Each day, Wright and about 140 co-workers at the Ardagh factory in Valparaiso, Indiana, make more than 40 million tops for aluminum cans.

When the pandemic began, manufacturers of sodas, energy drinks and other beverages experienced increased demand for their products—so they requested more lids.

The factory is so loud that workers often speak mouth to ear. Because social distancing is crucial to controlling the spread of COVID-19, Wright successfully pushed Ardagh to purchase radio sets so workers can communicate while standing several feet apart.

USW members say they’re proud to belong to a union that fights for fair wages and benefits and holds employers accountable for worker safety.

But they worry about the home health aides, food delivery drivers and other service workers who put their lives on the line while laboring for low pay and few, if any, benefits.

“That minimum wage is a joke,” said Jarvis, referring to the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009. “People should see that after this.”

Jarvis and other workers at Packaging Corporation make more than the minimum wage largely because they have the protection of a union contract. They recognize others aren’t as lucky.

For years, labor leaders and other advocates pushed for an increase in the minimum wage. Raising it to $15 an hour would help 33 million Americans, including many who live in poverty even though they juggle multiple part-time jobs.

The House last year passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025. However, Senate Republican leaders refuse even to consider it.

Working-class people make, package and ship just about everything Americans need. Although their work is essential, they believe consumers long showed little appreciation for it because much of what they do occurs behind the scenes.

COVID-19 shined a light on their role, and they hope people will remember it after life returns to normal.

These workers are the lifeblood of the nation. They step up every day and keep America running—even during a pandemic.

“I think this has really opened a lot of people’s eyes,” Wright said.

This article was originally printed the Independent Media Institute. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).


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Trader Joe’s Said I Was ‘Essential’—Safety Concerns Made Me Quit

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I quit my job this month. No, not the well-paying NGO summer position; that was canceled weeks ago. Not the paid internship either; my boss hasn’t returned my emails or sent me back pay for the past month. I decided to let go of my last source of income because Trader Joe’s didn’t appear to take their workers’ safety seriously when I was working there.

As COVID-19 has swept through the country, the spread of the virus has been accompanied by a massive shift in how we view our workers. Blue-collar starter jobs—the grocery clerks, janitors, and postal workers of the U.S.—are now seen as essential to the survival of our country. Though they are often praised on social media and by elected officials, policy has yet to catch up.

Across America workers and their unions are rallying for increased protections and accommodations in these unprecedented times, demanding proper protective gear, sick leave, and hazard pay in order to continue to serve the public.

Some national retailers like Walmart and Target have increased wages and protections for their workers, but others, like Trader Joe’s, have been reluctant.

I have some health issues. Not too bad, but enough to make me think twice before going outside during a respiratory illness pandemic. I had always loved my job, and genuinely looked forward to showing up, especially in a time of crisis, to help my community and maybe make someone’s day that much better. I trusted my team to keep me safe. But the billion-dollar company let me down.

At Trader Joe’s, your coworkers are called your “crew,” and upper management takes the moniker “mate,” with the store manager as our “captain.” Nautical titles aside, leadership has been lacking since this crisis began and the policies around personal protection have been confusing at best.

One week we weren’t allowed to wear gloves at all. Then next, we could wear gloves when stocking shelves, but not at the register. No masks allowed, period. No restrictions on how many people can enter the store, and no guidance around social distancing and how to stay safe as a cashier.

In our daily meetings, whimsically called “huddles,” I heard less about how to protect yourself from infection and more about why unionizing would hurt us.

As the weeks went on, and the full scope of the situation became apparent, I kept waiting to hear that our management would do something. Finally, the day came, and I was shocked: there was no message of safety protocols, no guidance on how to minimize contact, just a disclosure that those who had worked during the first weeks of panic would get a small share of the profits from the store as compensation. For most, this amounted to less than $2 per hour.

A week later, for my own safety, I quit.

I ultimately made my decision from a place of privilege, and I am thankful that I had the means to make a decision like that in the first place. I am fortunate to have family with the means to support me. I have lost all my income, and like many, will not see a cent from the Care Act tax refund. I am ineligible for unemployment benefits, but unlike other immunocompromised workers, I have the luxury to sit at home and wait this out, for now at least.

Since I quit, I understand there has been some clarification in store policies. Officially, masks are now allowed, and stores can limit the number of customers. Yet still, daily reports come in from stores around the country detailing contradictory messaging from management, and confusion over what the store’s policies are. There has been a temporary 10 percent increase to the employee discount. Employees are still encouraged to donate their own paid leave to their peers. I received a letter from national management two days ago, one that went out to all TJ’s workers around the country. I opened it eagerly, hoping it contained some new information about medical leave, or compensation. It was two pages on the dangers of unions.

The pandemic has revealed the urgent need for billionaires profiting from the food industry to truly protect and support workers on the front lines. Treat your grocery workers like the heroes they are for continuing to work in the face of danger. Just understand that for many, they have no other option.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute. April 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeremy Frakes is a former Trader Joe’s employee. To protect the author from workplace retribution, their name has been changed.


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Why COVID-19 Will Strain the Safety Net for Homeless Vets to the Breaking Point

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Under normal circumstances, Jerry Porter would be spending his time helping the veterans he finds in tent camps and run-down housing.

But the escalating threat of COVID-19 forces the community activist and retired Steelworker to remain at home for now, even though vulnerable vets need him more than ever.

As the coronavirus spreads across America, the poor bear the brunt of a pandemic that’s exposed the deep class lines in U.S. society.

The rich have big savings accounts and quality health care. They’ll emerge from the crisis just fine.

But Americans at the margins, including homeless vets who rely on a frayed safety net stretched to the breaking point by COVID-19, now face an even greater struggle to survive.

“I don’t know where they end up,” said Porter ruefully. Porter, 75, is a Vietnam veteran and longtime member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105 who worked more than 40 years at the aluminum plant in Davenport, Iowa, now owned by Arconic.

Porter and a group of friends work together to help veterans in the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois.

But now, they’re heeding the request of public health officials. They stay home to help their community slow the spread of COVID-19.

That prevents them from helping veterans like the one Porter found sleeping on a squalid mattress in a “junky” house. He got the man into a clean apartment and—thanks to a friend who owned a bedding store—a new mattress and box spring for just $180.

Just as alarming, COVID-19 halted the fund-raising supporting that kind of intervention. Local veterans groups just canceled a taco dinner and a poppy sale that together raise about $6,000 each year.

For some veterans, that money is the difference between sleeping indoors or on the street.

Porter and his friends use some of the funds to provide life’s basics to the homeless vets they move into government-subsidized housing with little but the clothes on their backs.

“There’s nothing,” Porter explained. “There’s no bedding, silverware, dishes, glassware, towels, sheets.”

Twice a year, advocates in the Quad Cities hold “stand down” events that serve as a one-stop shop for veterans needing anything from counseling to jobs.

Porter already worries that the three-day event planned for September will be canceled because of COVID-19, leaving veterans to face a long winter without important services.

Porter’s union job ensured good wages, a pension and affordable health care. He devotes his retirement to the less fortunate, feeling a duty to fellow vets with no one else to help them.

The federal government fails veterans who struggle to find adequate employment or wrestle with health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

For example, the nation hasn’t adequately addressed the challenges that doom many vets to unemployment or low-wage jobs. Among other problems, veterans have difficulty converting their skills to the private sectorfinding purpose in civilian work and obtaining occupational licenses enabling them to apply skills learned in the military.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, up from the current $7.25, would benefit about 1.8 million vets, along with millions of other Americans, who barely scrape by. The House last year approved a bill to increase the minimum wage, but Senate Republicans refuse to act on it.

Although significant progress in combating veteran homelessness has been made in recent years, unemployment, low wages and health problems still force veterans onto the streets or into shelters. About 40,000 are homeless, and 1.4 million more are only a lost paycheck or other crisis away from losing the roof over their heads.

A collection of government agencies and nonprofits operates soup kitchens, shelters and other services to serve America’s homeless. But this underfunded system is strained to capacity even in ordinary times.

Volunteers like Porter provide crucial support, stepping in when government agencies don’t know who else to call for help.

A veterans hospital once contacted Porter and asked him to help a man who lived outdoors. His tent was broken, and rain kept getting inside.

Porter picked up the vet and drove him to see a friend who owned an awning company. The businessman fixed the tent for free.

In a crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, this patchwork system is easily overwhelmed.

Some service providers already reduced services or limited new admissions to slow the spread of the disease.

Agencies closed drop-in centers where homeless veterans can get out of the elements. Some now want to counsel clients remotely, even though homeless people may not have cell phones.

And in the Quad Cities, Porter and his crew are sidelined, too.

Homeless vets face even greater odds during the COVID-19 crisis even though they have a higher risk of contracting the disease than other Americans.

Many live in cramped quarters without the social distancing and sanitary measures vital to controlling the virus. The closing of libraries, malls and coffee shops deprived them of places to wash their hands. They have nowhere to isolate themselves if they get sick.

Some cities are scrambling to place homeless people in places such as unused motel rooms, vacant houses and recreational vehicles on public streets. The goal is to disperse the population and keep the disease from spreading like wildfire if someone contracts it.

While the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented, the slapdash response underscores how fragile the safety net for America’s homeless really is.

As cities struggle to adapt, the ranks of the homeless likely will grow because of the economic slowdown, putting more stress on the overtaxed system.

The government’s response to COVID-19 must include injecting funds into programs that support homeless veterans and keep other vets from losing their homes.

But federal officials also must think about what the economy and social-service network will look like after the pandemic.

That means better funding a system now overly reliant on fundraisers like taco dinners and poppy sales. It means comprehensively addressing the problems servicemen and servicewomen face when they leave the armed forces.

Thoughtful interventions will save lives, says Porter, who recently ran into the veteran he rescued from the “junky” house.

“I’m on my feet,” the man told him. “I’m doing OK.”

This article was originally printed the Independent Media Institute. on March 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).


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You and Your Boss Have the Same Interests Right Now. That Is a Once-In-A-Lifetime Opportunity.

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“We’re a team.” “We’re a family.” “We’re all on the same side.” “A rising tide lifts all boats.” These are lies that companies regularly tell their employees. In fact, in normal times, the interests of the workers and the bosses are mutually exclusive. Their bigger slice of the pie gives you a smaller slice. But these are not normal times. For the first time in a lifetime, the interests of the workers and the bosses are—temporarily—the same. That is an opportunity.

I know a guy who owns a few bars. In the course of a week, his business dried up. His income went to zero. He had to close the doors. His 80 employees are all out of work. Even if he wanted to keep paying them, he couldn’t. All of his money is invested in the business. Now he and his employees are both powerless bystanders in the face of a disaster. It will wipe all of them out, together, unless something is done.

Multiply that scenario by a million and you have a rough picture of the American economy at the moment. This is not a normal acute business crisis, affecting a single area of the economy, which can be bailed out so that the rest of us can continue on. This is a stoppage of the economy, which renders the fight over slices of the pie moot. There is no pie now. There’s an empty plate, and we’re all going to starve together unless something meaningful is done.

Organized labor is built, and should be built, with the idea that it will always be locked in a contentious struggle with business interests, because the logic of capitalism means that every dollar that working people do not win with their own power will be snatched away by owners and investors. Broadly speaking, that is always true. Except for now. Now, today, business owners—in particular small business owners—and their workers have the exact same interest: not being completely wiped out by an unprecedented crisis that defies categorization. We all need help from above right now.

In a perverse way, this is a sort of leverage for the working class. The economic balance of power that is usually used as a weapon to force workers to take less out of desperation is being erased by the day. Yes, the working class is still fucked. But the boss is fucked too! The workers may starve faster, but we’ll all starve nonetheless. What is normally happy rhetoric that conceals a shiv is now real. We’re all on the same team, and we are losing.

A few big-picture things are clear for all of us: Whenever this virus and its quarantine pass, the businesses that employ tens of millions of people will not be able to just throw open the doors and restart on their own. For owners, the bills are still piling up while they have no income, which will drive them into bankruptcy. For workers, the bills are still piling up while they have no income, which will drive them into bankruptcy. A week ago, the boss may have been driving a Porsche and deriding his employees as ungrateful socialist kids who don’t understand the real world. Today, the idea of a rent freeze and universal government healthcare and a debt jubilee sound pretty damn good to that same boss. It has always been true that the economy should be organized around what is good for working people. Instead, it has been organized around the interests of money itself, and those who hold it. But all of the intricate rules and structures that have been built to pull wealth to the top are breaking down as we speak in the face of the fundamental fact that there is no functioning economy for anyone. That sudden equality is a form of power.

Paid sick leave funded by the government, healthcare funded by the government, financial relief funded by the government: All are in the interests of owners and workers right now. Organized labor and businesses can combine their power in this bizarre moment in time to extract what is necessary from a government that is used to picking the interests of only one side. Time for the cats and dogs to play together. The AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce should be kicking down the door to Congress together and threatening the entire place with scorched-earth destruction unless they pass a massive stimulus that puts money in the pockets of working people and suspends debt obligations. (Already, unions and employers in the airline industry have put together a plan that would save the industry while prioritizing the workers, a good model of what can be done on an even grander scale right now.) If the working class emerges from this with no money to spend, there will be neither employees nor customers for any owners to come back to. Anyone too stupid to see this now is like The Millionaire stranded on Gilligan’s Island, still trying to pay money for good service while everyone else is hunting for coconuts to survive.

Union membership in America boomed after the Great Depression. Union radicalism and strikes boomed after World War II. There is nothing like an existential crisis to show people that they need to stick together. Notions of justice and urgency are sharpened when the stakes are this high. In the past week I have heard from multiple people across the country who are newly interested in unionizing. They all say that this crisis has prompted everyone at work to start talking about what can be done. That means that one of the biggest hurdles to unionizing—getting workers talking about united action—is already being crossed at workplaces all over America. The seeds of new unions are being planted. It is up to the labor movement to see to it that they grow and flourish. We may never see a more fertile environment for union organizing in the national psyche. This moment must not be squandered. Millions of people without unions have come to realize very fast that they have no safety net. Unions can build that safety net only by building newer and bigger unions. Get ready to work.

Very soon, the business class of America is going to come to the working class and say: “It is time to work together.” And they’re right. There is no choice. But this unity comes with a price. Regular people are not going to unite to rebuild the exact same set of arrangements responsible for all of them being overworked, underpaid, and unprotected in the first place. That won’t fly. Organized labor is not here to throw its power behind a government bailout that will restore organized labor to its former position of glorious inferiority. We are all on the same team now, and that team doesn’t run union-busting campaigns, or squeeze minimum-wage employees to pay enormous executive bonuses. Isn’t that right, bosses? The price of our cooperation is your cooperation. We can teach a business owner what solidarity looks like. Now they have to listen. Workers, after all, have been suffering forever. Bosses are just getting their first taste.

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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Coronavirus is a huge labor issue, this week in the war on workers

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Thanks largely to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats, workers’ issues are getting a lot of attention as the United States confronts coronavirus. We’ll see what Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell do with it, but Democrats (and COVID-19) have managed to get paid sick leave and paid family leave into the national conversation. Democrats are also pushing for emergency improvements to unemployment insurance and to food assistance, which is a workers’ issue when you consider how many working people rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Those aren’t the only concerns, though. Look below for a bunch of coronavirus-and-labor links, but also check out the Economic Policy Institute’s discussion of how to handle a coronavirus-related recession, which Josh Bivens warns could happen much more quickly than the 2008 Great Recession. He suggests “rapid direct payments to individuals,” similar to what President George W. Bush did in 2008, but with some improvements. State governments are also likely to be hit hard in ways that could be a strong anti-stimulus, so, Bivens suggests, the federal government could very quickly combat that: “A quick way to transfer resources to state governments is to pay states’ share of Medicaid for the next year. This was done as part of the Recovery Act in 2009, and it is possibly the single most-effective component of the Act (when combining scale and per-dollar impact).”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on March 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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2018 and 2019 hit a 35-year high for major strikes, this week in the war on workers

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Large work stoppages, aka large strikes, had been on the decline for years. That turned around in 2018—going from 25,300 workers involved in major strikes in 2017 to 485,200 in 2018—and stayed relatively high in 2019, the Economic Policy Institute reports.

“Through 2017, the general trend was downward, but there was a substantial upsurge in workers involved in major work stoppages in 2018,” Heidi Shierholz and Margaret Poydock write. “On average, in 2018 and 2019, 455,400 workers annually were involved in major work stoppages—the largest two-year pooled annual average in 35 yearssince 1983 and 1984.” A significant number of them—10 in 2019—were really large strikes, involving at least 20,000 workers.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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