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In America, Business Profits Come First Over the Pandemic

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Los Angeles, California, is now considered one of the worst COVID-19 hotspots in the nation. LA mayor Eric Garcetti assessed grimly that there is one new infection every six seconds and a death every 10 minutes from the virus. Hospitals are turning away ambulances, and health facilities in LA County are quite literally running out of oxygen. But last spring, as the pandemic was first declared, the city was an early adopter of mandated mask wearing and benefitted from California enacting the first statewide shelter-in-place order that helped curb the worst spread of the virus. So, what happened?

There is a possibility that the deadly surge in cases may be a result of a new, more transmissible strain of the virus circulating in the area. But more likely the spread is the result of the message that authorities are sending of a premature return to normalcy. As social media platforms are filled with angry Angelenos blaming and shaming one another for brazenly vacationing and flouting social distancing guidelines, in truth, the burst of infections is the price that officials are willing to pay for ensuring that corporate profits are protected.

California’s latest shelter-in-place order is quite different from its first one. Whereas in March 2020 the state ordered all non-essential businesses to remain closed, in early December, at the peak of the holiday shopping season, all retail stores were allowed to remain open, even as outdoor parks were closed. So outraged were Californians by the obvious double standards that state officials caved and reopened parks—instead of shutting down retail stores.

Predictably, infections at malls soared as shoppers, eager to salvage Christmas, rubbed elbows with one another in their rush to fulfill holiday wishes. After all, authorities had okayed such actions, so they must be safe, right? Rather than enact strict rules to prevent such congregating, some Californians rightfully terrified of the disease simply blamed the shoppers. Even LA County health services director Dr. Christina Ghaly told the Los Angeles Times, “If you’re still out there shopping for your loved ones for this holiday season… then you are missing the gravity of the situation that is affecting hospitals across LA County. Though they may seem benign, these actions are extremely high-risk.” LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said to Angelenos, “stay home,” but has refused to consider shutting down non-essential businesses.

In other words, officials kept retail stores open but then chastised residents for shopping. There are two ways to interpret the muddled messaging. If authorities are allowing all businesses to remain open, surely it must be safe to frequent them. Or, authorities are being driven by financial stakes, not public health, so surely it is not possible to trust them.

Hollywood is another exercise in contradictions. While new films and TV shows were not considered essential last year, production has now resumed. Why? Simply put, “there is too much money at stake,” in the words of one TV producer. State and local authorities have the power to stop production in the interest of public health, but rather than exercise that power, they asked companies to volunteer to halt their projects. Now that the virus has spread so far and has caused so much suffering and death, even Hollywood has decided maybe it is not a good idea to continue filming. But is it too late?

American society is ruled by the right of businesses to make money above all else. And while for a few months in 2020 it seemed as though we prioritized public health and well-being by shutting down large swaths of the country and passing the modest CARES Act, that did not last. Lost in the horrifying surge of cases and mounting death toll is the stark fact that authorities have chosen to sacrifice human life at the altar of corporate profits. By their logic, if anyone is to blame, it is the individual American who has brought the disease upon themselves by simply making the wrong choices. It is the American way.

Take John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, an elite grocery chain favored by wealthy and health-conscious Americans. According to Mackey, there is no need for health care services. “The best solution is to change the way people eat, the way they live, the lifestyle, and diet,” he said in a recent interview. He added, “There’s no reason why people shouldn’t be healthy and have a longer health span. A bunch of drugs is not going to solve the problem.” Tell that to the seemingly healthy people among us who contract dangerous diseases like cancer and need the kind of chemotherapy drugs that do precisely that—help “solve the problem” of cancer.

Mackey’s logic is consistent with that of the new pro-business “shelter-in-place” orders in California, which effectively send the message that if you catch COVID-19, it is your fault, not the fault of the indoor mall that was allowed to remain open.

Businesses do need to continue operating if they want to make money. But large corporations have amassed so much wealth through the Republican Party’s tax giveaways that surely those in non-essential industries can survive for a year or two while remaining closed and dip into their assets without threatening their bottom line.

The situation is of course far different for small businesses that operate on razor-thin margins and are easily plunged into bankruptcy with just a few months of forced closures. But surely the world’s richest government can pay such businesses to remain closed so that they can reopen safely once the danger is over. European nations have paid workers to stay at home—an obvious solution to curbing the virus.

An NBC News article compared the U.S. response to other nations, making the point that “unlike Western Europe and Canada, the U.S. is asking citizens to face the COVID-19 pandemic without any additional financial cushion from the government.” One epidemiologist told the outlet, “I know multiple industries have been lobbying governors to stay open because closing means a huge loss of income to business owners and employees, even if it would be the best thing to do from a public health perspective.”

Indeed, California has allowed businesses to remain open in part because of a dangerous decline in tax revenues and a lack of federal government funding to states to make up for pandemic-related losses. Again, authorities have chosen the sink-or-swim approach to business and public health. Why pay people to stay at home and remain safe when those individuals can simply risk their lives in the service of profit? After all, it is the same logic that has driven the relentless shredding of the pre-pandemic safety net programs for economically struggling Americans.

There is much hand wringing, blaming and shaming the individual, and general confusion over why COVID-19 is continuing to claim so many lives. But to understand the real reason for the ever-increasing death toll, look no further than the American way of leaving citizens to fend for themselves in the service of capitalism.

This blog originally appeared at Independent Media Institute on January 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of â€œRising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations.

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Los Angeles Teachers Stay Strong; Win Improvements

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Less than a month into 2019, the teachers of Los Angeles have proven that last year’s wave of collective action isn’t quieting down. After taking to the streets in a strike that has captured the country’s imagination, members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) are returning to classrooms today after overwhelmingly approving a paradigm-shifting contract that delivers on key demands.

For six days, more than 30,000 UTLA teachers went on strike to shine a light on the daily realities of a neglected and underfunded public school system. They demanded better, and by standing together, they won it. Here are just a few critical improvements in UTLA’s new contract:

  • A much-deserved 6% pay raise with no contingencies;
  • A nurse in every school five days a week;
  • A teacher librarian in every secondary school five days a week;
  • Hard caps on class size that will go into effect immediately in 2019–2020, with additional improvements every year after;
  • A commitment to reduce testing by 50%;
  • Hard caps on special education caseloads; and
  • A clear pathway to cap charter schools.

“For too long teachers have lived with a hard truth to tell—that for years our students were being starved of the resources they need,” said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl following the vote. “Our expectations were fundamentally raised by this strike. Together, we said we deserve better, our students deserve better. We must keep our expectations high and not let go of this moment, because the next struggle is right around the corner.”

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on January 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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L.A. Teachers on What Was Won—And Which Battles Are Next

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Following a six-day teachers’ strike over inadequate public-school funding, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) reached a tentative agreement Tuesday. While tallies haven’t yet been released, UTLA has confirmed that teachers voted in favor of the contract and, as of Wednesday, have returned to their classrooms.

The agreement, which was preceded by a nearly 21-month bargaining period, reverses some of the trends the union was protesting, including bloated class sizes, insufficient staffing of nurses and counselors, excessive standardized testing and a lack of resources for special education. (UTLA’s protests, including the strike, were largely the product of a reform movement among educational unions nationwide.)

It also calls for a greater reckoning with charter schools: publicly funded, privately operated schools boosted primarily by wealthy financiers and executives. UTLA members rebuke these schools for siphoning funding from public schools and view a pro-charter district agenda as the cause of the aforementioned problems.

The new contract would restrict school privatization, calling on California to establish a cap on charter schools. It also states that Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti will endorse the Schools and Communities First ballot initiative, which will ostensibly redirect $11 billion per year to California schools, community colleges, health clinics and other local institutions.

In These Times spoke to five teachers from five different LAUSD schools. While most of them contend that more could have been won, these rank-and-file members overwhelmingly consider the new terms an improvement and a testament to the power of strikes.

“I am pleased with the agreement for several reasons,” second-grade teacher and rank-and-file UTLA member Traci Rustin told In These Times. “I think we started a conversation about charter schools among those members of the community and UTLA who had not previously given it much thought.”

Rustin and some other teachers, however, found the vote bittersweet, arguing that while they’re eager to return to work, the proposed terms should have included more aggressive changes. The agreement prevents the district from “unilaterally ignor[ing]” all class sizes and promises a gradual reduction of class size—which routinely exceeds 40—over the next four years, imposing maximums of 39 students for English and math courses in secondary schools. While the change marks an improvement, some remain frustrated.

“There are classes with 45 students in them. Do we really think that 41 students, three years from now will be acceptable? Absolutely not!” a kindergarten teacher in West Los Angeles who wished to remain anonymous told In These Times. “I am glad that the school district cannot come in and change that on a whim, like they were initially trying to do. … But the reduction isn’t enough.”

The 2019-2020 school year will see additional full-time teacher librarians and counselors for secondary schools, and nurses for all schools. By the 2020-2021 school year, theoretically, each school will be equipped with one nurse, five days a week. In the 2014-2015 school year, California ranked below all other states in student-to-librarian ratios, while nearly 40 percent of LAUSD schools were staffed with a nurse only one day a week, according to UTLA.

Still, the proposed staff-to-student ratios continue to worry some. “I don’t think that having a ratio of 500 students to one counselor is acceptable,” said the kindergarten teacher. “Yes, the district is giving us 17 more counselors to meet that ratio, finally, but a 500 to 1 ratio for mental health is not showing our students that we’re there for them.”

“It’s a little disheartening to realize that we’ve gained no ground on school psychologists and librarians for elementary schools,” added fourth-grade teacher Anavelia Valencia.

To address the issue of rampant standardized testing, UTLA has also vowed to establish a committee with LAUSD to cut testing in half—a move teachers overwhelmingly approve. Teachers will also receive a retroactive raise of three percent for the 2017-2018 school year, as well as an additional three percent retroactive raise dating from July 1, 2018. While educators emphasize that their salaries are a low-level concern, the raises come at a time when many California teachers can scarcely afford to rent or buy a home, yet don’t qualify for public housing.

The contract also ensures a number of changes designed to bolster students’ wellbeing. Schools will curtail “random” searches of students—a practice that has elicited strong criticism for targeting and criminalizing Black, Latinx and Muslim students. Schools will also plan to replace some of their industrial environs—bungalows, asphalt—with plant life, which has been shown to have therapeutic effects. Furthermore, according to the agreement, the district will provide an attorney for immigrant families as part of an Immigrant Defense Fund initiative.

While teachers find many of these changes promising, the circumstances surrounding voting were somewhat contentious. Because UTLA teachers learned of the contract the same day they were expected to vote, “several members were upset about voting so quickly,” said Rustin. “I wouldn’t have minded having an extra day to vote, but I also understand the need to return to work ASAP.” Relatedly, some organized impromptu meetings to discuss the contract and the merits of voting either way.

Whatever the outcome of the new terms, teachers agree much more work remains on the local, state and national levels—especially as educators in Denver and Oakland are preparing for potential strikes in response to public-school funding issues—and are returning to the classroom intent on keeping the struggle alive. In the meantime, they look forward to a fairer—and more galvanized—labor landscape. “The future of public education depends on making informed decisions about charter schools versus community schools,” said Rustin. “We were successful in calling attention to this.”

“Teachers have been beat down,” UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said at a press conference on Tuesday night. “One of the things we’re most proud of is that this campaign… had our members say, ‘I deserve better.’”

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

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Here’s Why LA Teachers Are Walking Out in a Historic Strike

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After nearly two years of bargaining, public-school teachers in Los Angeles have initiated a strike in protest of their district’s policies. Starting today, teachers are picketing outside of their workplaces, underscoring an inveterate lack of investment in public schools made worse by a pro-charter-school “austerity agenda.”

From April of 2017 to January of this year, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA)—which represents more than 35,000 teachers, nurses, librarians and counselors in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)—had been in negotiations with the district, and eventually reached an impasse. The union’s proposals address grievances including preferential funding for charter schools, and such related problems as inflated class size, inadequate support for special and bilingual education, and excessive standardized testing.

The strike is the culmination of a protracted battle against the de facto privatization brought on by the growth of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated—that is, independent of local school board regulations. In Los Angeles County, charter-school enrollment has risen 35.7 percent since 2012 to 2013, rendering the county, among dozens of others in California, one of the fastest-growing hubs of charter-school education.

In recent years, Los Angeles charter-school advocates have generated unprecedented financing: Pro-charter groups, for example, were responsible for more than two-thirds of the $14.3 million in campaign spending in a May, 2017, LAUSD school board election. That election saw pro-charter candidates clinch a majority and, the following year, appoint former investment banker and deputy mayor Austin Beutner as superintendent.

Much of this growth can be attributed to charters currying favor with Wall Street and Silicon Valley as grounds for tax breaks, real-estate investments, and business opportunities. In Los Angeles specifically, charter schools have become the pet projects of prominent billionaires, including Netflix chief Reed Hastings and real-estate developer and financier Eli Broad.

UTLA contends that the political climate of the school board has stripped traditional public schools of funding. A 2016 report commissioned by the union found that charters had siphoned $591 million from traditional public schools. The union also says that the district has $1.86 billion in “unrestricted” reserves, which UTLA claims can be used to fund LAUSD’s public schools. Beutner argues that the reserve funds exist, but are already being spent.

According to UTLA treasurer Alex Orozco, there’s no evidence the reserve funds have been spent, and the current distribution of funds has bred untenable student-to-teacher ratios. Orozco told In These Times that he visits schools with average class sizes in the 40s—a number that LAUSD’s own statistics for middle- and high-school classes confirm.

Beutner responded to these concerns via an article in the Los Angeles Times, proposing “to add teachers and reduce class size at 15 middle schools and 75 elementary schools in communities that have the highest needs.” UTLA holds that this falls short. “You can just feel the disrespect,” Orozco said. “The proposal that he put out addressed class size, which in the 16 months that we were in negotiations, not once did they address class size. But they addressed class size at the bare minimum, which is focusing on our neediest schools.”

Availability of essential personnel outside the classroom, including nurses, librarians, counselors and school psychologists, has also been compromised. For the 2014 to 2015 fiscal year, California ranked as the worst state in student-to-teacher librarian ratios. Meanwhile, California suffers a troubling shortage of school nurses. UTLA maintains that nearly 40 percent of LAUSD public schools have a nurse for only one day a week. According to Orozco, many schools are forced to pay out of pocket for a nurse.

This scarcity disproportionately affects students with disabilities and special needs, who may benefit from more regular visits. After appointments, nurses and school psychologists “are spending a lot of time doing paperwork,” says special-education teacher and UTLA rank-and-file member Allison Johnson. “So if they’re only there one day a week, then how much time are they actually getting to provide care for the students?”

Johnson’s concerns raise questions about the district’s support for students who depend on accommodations for disabilities, language barriers, and other needs. Traditional public schools are legally required to provide for these students. Charter schools, however, aren’t held to the same standards. A report from the Los Angeles Board of Education found that, as of 2014, the percentage of total LAUSD charter students with severe disabilities was less than one-third that of traditional district schools.

Another symptom of charterization, UTLA says, is an excess of standardized testing. According to UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl, the district requires up to 18 discretionary standardized tests—despite mounting nationwide criticism of standardized testing—in addition to those mandated by the federal and state governments. Orozco told In These Times that these tests are administered so frequently in order to generate school performance data, which can be leveraged into justifications for charter models.

Tests “make it very easy for the charters to come and privatize our schools based on this data that was collected by these exams that really are not necessary,” he said. “We want our teachers to be able to use their professional judgment and assess the kids in many other different ways.”

When contacted for comment, LAUSD referred In These Times to its website, which includes the following statement: “We hear our teachers and want to work with them. Los Angeles Unified and teachers agree—smaller class sizes, more teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians in schools would make our schools better. We know teachers deserve to be paid more and a working environment where kids can have the best possible education.”

In addition to its class-size reduction proposal, LAUSD has offered a six-percent pay raise to teachers, back pay for the 2017 to 2018 year, and no changes to their health benefits. In anticipation of a strike, the district has already hired 400 non-union substitute teachers for its more than 600,000 students.

Still, UTLA, frustrated by “20 months of fruitless bargaining and lies and manipulation,” as well as Beutner’s and other criticism in the media of the educators for their demands and decision to strike, feel this is far from enough. Echoing the concerns of many of her colleagues, Johnson argues that while a strike isn’t ideal, teachers have been left with no choice.

“It’s not about the raise,” she said. “People are mad. They want things to change. They want the profession to be respected and to have what we need to be able to function as educators.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

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Los Angeles Teachers Demand a Change, Starting with Union Leadership

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Yana KunichoffFor seven years, the 31,000 members of United Teachers Los Angeles, the largest local on the West Coast, have gone without a salary increase. Their contract has beenexpired for nearly three of those. And the teachers, counselors and school nurses that make up the UTLA can still be sent to so-called “teacher jail”—housed in district offices until they’re either fired or restored to their position, a process that can take months—when they’re accused of misconduct .

All of this, activists say, has left United Teachers Los Angeles disengaged and disillusioned. This was evidenced by the low turnout for the union election in late April, in which only 7,235 members—fewer than 25 percent of the UTLA—participated.

The results of that election, however, are perhaps an even greater indication that the UTLA is ready for a change. On April 29, social studies teacher and longtime union activist Alex Caputo-Pearl was elected as president of UTLA following a run-off with incumbent Warren Fletcher.

Caputo-Pearl is a member of Union Power, a reform coalition that, a month before Caputo-Pearl’s victory, took over leadership of UTLA. Union activists see the election of the Union Power coalition as a step forward in the fight against business-led, top-down education reform and resource cuts that have beset Los Angeles in recent years.

Los Angeles schools Superintendent John Deasy, for instance, has aggressively pushed for teacher evaluations to include test scores and supported an ongoing lawsuit aimed at cutting seniority and tenure rules. Meanwhile, pay in L.A. has stagnated compared to other large districts, class sizes have grown and school support services are thin on the ground. In 2010, the Los Angeles school district was scarred by the suicide of an elementary school teacher, ostensibly after his scores were publicized on a teacher-rating database by the Los Angeles Times. Most recently, a court ruled in favor of teachers on the issue, finding that the district did not need to publicize the names of teachers with their performance ratings.

Caputo-Pearl, a longtime activist, has said he opposes pegging teacher evaluation to student test scores, expanding charter schools and other school-reform measures popular among city officials. A 20-year veteran of some of the highest-poverty schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Caputo-Pearl started his teaching career with the first round of Teach for America recruits. He is the union chapter chair for Frida Kahlo High School and serves on the Board of Directors for the union’s House of Representatives. He survived several targeted attempts to remove him from both posts after he fought the district’s plan to break his high school into three smaller schools as part of the nationwide “reconstitution” strategy pioneered by Arne Duncan.

Throughout their campaign, Union Power also placed an emphasis on Caputo-Pearl’s community-organizing chops, which they argued would be useful for the broader coalition the reform coalition hoped to build. In a press release promoted before the election, Union Power officials wrote:

“Alex has experience building organizations from the ground up.  He is co-founder of Coalition for Educational Justice, a citywide organization that has been involved in local, state, and national campaigns.  He has been key in building the Crenshaw Cougar Coalition and the Bus Riders Union, which has also led local, state, and national campaigns around civil rights and public services.  He has been a key leader in Progressive Educators for Action, which has helped build a national network of educator organizers, which has allowed Alex to develop deep relationships with the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, which is in the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union and led their successful strike.  Alex has also played a role in building the national ‘Resisting Teach for America’ network.”

In addition to Caputo-Pearl’s presidency, the Union Power slate won 24 out of the 25 seats it ran for, including races against three incumbents from Fletcher’s slate. “In every area, in every position it was a big margin between the Union Power candidates and our opponents,” teacher Rebecca Solomon, who won an executive board spot, tells Labor Notes. “It’s not against one person: it’s everywhere.”

Caputo-Pearl will replace Warren Fletcher, who early on in the race said he would stop campaigning in favor of Caputo-Pearl. The race went into a run-off after the first round of voting narrowed the candidates down from the ten initially campaigning for the post.

Fletcher himself was a reform candidate when he swept into office in 2011 on bread-and-butter issues, winning a runoff against the then-vice president of the union widely seen as a shoe-in for the post. His tenure included an April 2013 referendum against Superintendent Deasy, with a resulting 91 percent of members who voted saying they disapproved of Deasy’s education measures. During his time as president, however, he came under criticism for using piecemeal negotiations on single issues, and not sufficiently mobilizing a dissatisfied union of teachers or a district of angry parents.

Fletcher also leaves behind an agreement made with the district about a new teacher evaluation system, which draws on data from a mix of state standardized tests, classroom observation, and school-level scores. The arrangement is already being contested, though: A state labor board said the district has pushed the evaluation beyond the agreed-upon frameworks signed by the teachers union.

If elected, Union Power said it would invest in broad-ranging plans to reform the union, including a commitment to “initiating a comprehensive public relations campaign to support our demands, a plan to take back our expert role in our profession, a strategic research arm that exposes LAUSD conflicts of interest, and an organizing strategy that supports chapter organizing, parent/community/labor outreach, capacity-building actions, and strike preparation.” It may also broaden from a coalition that came together for the election to a full caucus, cementing a larger group of educators within the UTLA.

At the same time, Union Power’s leaders hope to help shift the conversation around education reform on the national stage, too. “We are at a key moment where [progressive leadership] now has several key cities around the country,” Caputo-Pearl tells In These Times. “The more that we can lead in those cities and encourage others to run for leadership in their teachers union, the more that we can support fighting back against the privatization agenda and fight for real educational justice.”

As that movement grows, says Caputo-Pearl, the Los Angeles teachers union aims to build where the real power is—locally. “Local leadership is where the most important base of organizing happens. When push comes to shove the organizing of education in connection with parents and communities building to the credible threat of a strike can only happen at the local level.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on May 15, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Yana Kunichoff is a Chicago-based journalist covering immigration, labor, housing and social movements. Her work has appeared in theChicago Reporter, Truthout and the American Independent, among others

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It’s Time to Clean Up the Los Angeles Garment Industry’s Dirty Secret

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Kevin Kish 1On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan. Today, we know our clothes are still often sewn in lethal conditions in foreign factories.  Last year’s disastrous Rana Plaza collapse and a series of deadly factory fires resulted in much hand-wringing over how to improve safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry. But 103 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, we still have our own dirty garment secret, much closer to home.

There are some 5,000 garment manufacturers registered in Los Angeles County where an estimated 50,000 workers make clothes. The true numbers are almost certainly higher since many businesses do not report their employees, pay taxes, or carry insurance. Some L.A. garment factories are safe and decent workplaces where skilled employees make high-end denim, swimwear, and other products for elite brands. But in many others, where clothes are sewn for the “fast fashion” industry, the conditions are similar to those in New York sweatshops over a century ago or to those in Bangladesh today.

Bet Tzedek, the public-interest law firm where I practice, has represented hundreds of L.A. garment workers over the past decade, and their stories are sobering. Workers earn as little as two cents per completed garment. The pay, predictably, falls far below minimum wage, sometimes less than $200 for workweeks of 65 hours or more. Even in factories where breaks are permitted, piece-rate pay encourages workers to stay at their sewing machines for unbroken stretches. Musculoskeletal pain and related health problems are common. Over 100 years after workers were unable to escape the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory because the doors were locked, some of our clients have worked in factories without access to fresh water or functioning bathrooms, where bales of fabric block fire exits, and where owners lock workers in the building during overnight shifts.

Statistics bear out our clients’ testimony. According to research conducted by UCLA, over 90% of garment workers in L.A. experience overtime violations, and more than 60% are not paid minimum wage. The federal Department of Labor (DOL) found violations in 93% of the 1,500 inspections of garment factories it has conducted since 2008.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In January 2000, a landmark law went into effect in California with the intention of eradicating garment sweatshop labor. Before passage of the law, known as AB633, factories that often had no assets other than a few sewing machines would close, move, or reorganize under a different name in response to legal claims, leaving workers empty handed. AB633 established an administrative process in which companies that contract with sweatshops can also be liable for a share of workers’ unpaid wages.

In response, the industry reorganized. Over the past decade, thousands of middleman companies sprang into existence to funnel orders from retailers to factories. These subcontractors create a buffer between workers and the fashion houses that profit from sweatshop conditions. Not coincidentally, this is the same subcontracting structure that now prevails in the garment industry around the world, surprising brands like Walmart and Sears when their production documents are recovered from places like the rubble of Rana Plaza or the ashes of the Tazreen factory.

While we assume that U.S. garment factories are well-regulated, my clients know better: their bosses simply lock the doors to workrooms when potential inspectors are seen approaching. And paying citations is a relatively minor cost of doing business in an industry where the vast majority of workers, many of whom are Asian or Latina immigrant women, are too afraid to file a complaint.

In response to the tragedies in Bangladesh, some companies have entered agreements to inspect and monitor the factories there. Here at home, there is no such movement. When the DOL found garments allegedly destined for Forever 21 stores being sewn by workers in L.A. making less than minimum wage, Forever 21 fought the agency’s subpoena in federal court, arguing that it shouldn’t be forced to disclose sensitive information such as where it makes clothes or what systems it has in place to monitor compliance with the law.

There is little incentive for the law-abiding sector of the industry to get involved. Fashion houses paying fair wages for domestic labor are not competing for the same customers as the companies using sweatshop labor. And organizing a low-wage, immigrant workforce on an industry-wide scale requires investments of time and money that have not been forthcoming.

What else can be done? Paying workers less than minimum wage is theft, and criminal prosecutions of factory owners could cause many to rethink their business models. Aggressive investigations by government agencies could begin to unpeel the layers of subcontracting that protect the reputations of retailers and keep the sweatshop system humming.

The simplest solution would be a law clarifying that retailers are liable to workers who prove they sewed garments sold in stores, regardless of who signed the contract with the factory or how many subcontractors were involved. Such a law would swiftly clean up supply chains. But it would also likely mean fewer inexpensive clothes for shoppers and could send more garment jobs overseas if we aren’t willing to pay more.

The question is whether we want sweatshops in our backyard. It took more than 1200 dead bodies for the Bangladesh agreements to be proposed. What will it take here?

This article was originally printed on CELA Voice on March 25, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kevin Kish is the Director of the Employment Rights Project at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, in Los Angeles. He leads Bet Tzedek’s employment litigation, policy and outreach initiatives.

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Why Port Truckers Are Striking: 12-Hour Shifts, Noxious Fumes and $12.90 Paychecks

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sarah jaffe“We are on strike today to have respect and dignity at work,” says Walter Melendez, one of approximately 40 Los Angeles port truck drivers who walked off the job at 5a.m. morning in protest of alleged unfair labor practices. The strikes featured the rolling “ambulatory pickets” that the truckers have excelled at—chasing down trucks as they leave the port and setting up picket lines in front of them.

Melendez works for California’s Green Fleet Systems, a company that moves freight from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to nearby distribution hubs. The drivers have filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board charging that the company retaliated against them for pushing forward with a drive to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The push continues even as, according to Melendez, the company does its best to intimidate workers: pulling them into one-on-one meetings to dissuade them from unionizing, and even following and photographing them engaging in organizing activities outside work. Melendez believes that more Green Fleet drivers would have joined the strike this morning, had they not been deterred by these tactics.

In total, some 100 port truckers from three different companies—Green Fleet, American Logistics International and Pacific 9 Transportation—walked off the job today in a coordinated effort to raise working standards. Unlike the truckers at Green Fleet, who are employees, the workers from Pacific 9 Transportation are considered independent contractors. They argue that this is an illegal misclassification because they have none of the benefits of real independence—such as being able to set one’s own hours or work for different companies. Meanwhile, their bosses deduct operating costs from their paychecks, something that would be illegal if they were indeed employees. More than 50 Pacific 9 drivers have filed claims with the California Labor Commissioner alleging that this practice has robbed them of more than $7 million in wages. According to the labor federation Change to Win (which is backing much of the port trucker organizing), hundreds of similar claims filed in recent years by port truck drivers have all resulted in “substantial penalties” for the employer.

“They’ve taken from us everything that a human being needs to have a decent life,” says Daniel Linares, who’s worked for Pacific 9 for seven years as a so-called independent contractor.

Linares says that he and his colleagues marched to Pacific 9 management offices today and attempted to deliver a letter collectively explaining why they were on strike, but no one would come out to meet them. Eventually, Linares says, one worker was allowed to go inside to deliver the letter.

Los Angeles is not the only port where drivers are speaking out. Militancy has increased in recent months among port drivers around the country, whether classified as employees or independent contracters. Last month, a self-organized coalition of port truckers held a wildcat strike to protest the costs of new environmental regulations for the Port of Oakland being dumped entirely on their shoulders. Savannah, Ga., port truckers recently crashed a City Council meeting to ask for the city government’s support for their efforts to improve their jobs, and last summer, drivers at ports in New York and New Jersey became the latest port truckers to join the Teamsters.

As I wrote this summer, a report from the National Employment Law Project and Change to Win likened the situation of the independent contractor drivers to “sharecropping on wheels,” because the drivers have to pay for their own trucks and maintenance costs. In return, they are paid only by the load—meaning that time that they spend sitting in line at the port awaiting another load, breathing the fumes from their own trucks, is time unpaid.

Paula Winicki, a research and policy analyst for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy,breaks down the costs that Pacific 9 deducted from a single contractor’s paycheck: $125 a week for the lease of the truck, $530.05 in fuel, $50 for repairs, other miscellaneous deductions for parking, insurance, permit and license fees, and more, that with fuel, repairs and lease add up to $962.90. The paycheck for one week after the deductions was $12.90. Winicki notes that these issues are endemic to port trucking companies, so leaving wouldn’t help much. And in any case, once they sign a long-term lease for a truck with Pacific 9 or another company , “They’re tied to the company. … If they walk away, they lose a truck— and maybe get sued for breaking the lease agreement.”

Even the Green Fleet workers, who are actual employees, face the problem of piecework at the ports. Says Melendez, “When we started they told us [we’d get paid] by the hour, and then when we started working they’re like, ‘We pay you guys by the truckload.’ It’s like they pay us how they want to pay us.”

That means constant pressure to work harder and for longer hours. One of the things Melendez wants to change is the 12-hour shifts he’s pulling. “After ten hours you get tired working in the trucks, our bodies and our eyes and everything get tired, they don’t understand us, they say ‘Keep going, keep going.’ ”

A 2009 study [PDF] from nonpartisan think tank Demos, authored by David Bensman, Professor of Labor Studies and Employer Relations at Rutgers University, looked at the roots of the crisis in port trucking: the Federal Motor Carrier Act of 1980. This piece of deregulatory legislation shifted costs onto workers and, Bensman argues, the public, leaving taxpayers to pay for increased pollution, at risk of traffic accidents caused by unsafe trucks, and picking up the health bills of workers who have no health insurance. Goods for companies like Walmart, Forever 21 and Skechers shoes are made cheaply overseas thanks to low-wage labor and then moved cheaply through the ports thanks to drivers shouldering much of the costs.

Bensman says that the way deregulation ”destroyed” the port trucking industry “speaks volumes about the neoliberal labor markets of our time.” He concludes:

The deregulation of the port trucking industry, which began in 1980, has achieved some of its goals of increasing competition and driving down freight rates, but the public cost of this success is now clear: Ports compete for business by abdicating responsibility for air quality, chassis and container safety, and labor standards. Logistics firms benefit directly from lower freight rates, but suffer indirectly from a broken, unreliable, inefficient drayage system, which cannot share business information in a transparent and timely manner.

Drivers like Melendez would love to have safer, cleaner trucks to drive, but when the cost of updating the trucks comes out of their wages, they have to choose between breathing and eating. This is a problem around the country—drivers in Savannah made the same complaints, as I reported before.

In other words, the workers aren’t the enemy when it comes to dirty air around the ports—they’re victims of a thankless system. The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports aims to take into consideration the workers’ issues alongside the environmental impact of the trucks—an impact that is usually felt in low-income communities that are nearest the ports—and includes labor groups such as the Teamsters and Change to Win as well as community organizations such as Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The support of community groups is key for short-term strikes by non-union workers, a tactic that has grown in popularity since Wal-Mart and fast-food workers took to it over the past year. Without a union contract, the best protection workers have against increased retaliation by the bosses is the watchful eyes of supporters who show up to join the picket lines and then walk them back to work the next day.

And as workers from different companies strike together in coordinated fashion, they multiply the impact they can have on their whole industry. “The companies are a little scared because it’s not [only] Pac 9, in the area, that is getting organized,” Linares says. “This is a general movement now.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on November 18, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belaboredpodcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.

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Spirit Airlines Threatens to Close if Pilots Strike – and More Bargaining News

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10432_167322316152_101165966152_3855492_4504641_nSpirit Airlines is threatening to shut down if its 500 pilots strike, and more news from the “Bargaining Digest Weekly.” The AFL-CIO Collective Bargaining Department delivers daily, bargaining-related news and research resources to more than 1,200 subscribers. Union leaders can register for this service through our website, Bargaining@Work.

ALPA, Spirit Airlines: Spirit Airlines is threatening to close its operations in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., if its 500 pilots go on strike. The Air Line Pilots (ALPA) has said its members will strike at the end of a 30-day cooling-off period if they don’t get a fair contract.

Multiple, City of Los Angeles: The Los Angeles City Council last Monday passed a budget that calls for the layoff of 761 city workers, and 16 to 26 furlough days next year for other municipal workers. The City Council ignored the request of Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa to postpone the vote while negotiations continued with the Coalition of L.A. City Unions.

USW, Yokohama Tire Corp.: United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1023 reached a tentative four-year agreement with Yokohama Tire Corp. covering nearly 700 workers at a Salem, Va., plant. Details of the contract will not be released until USW members have had a chance to review it.

CSEA/AFSCME, Erie County: The Civil Service Employees Association/AFSCME Local 815 reached a tentative five-year agreement with Erie County in New York. The deal would provide workers with a 15 percent wage increase over the contract’s term but would create three tiers of workers in regard to retiree health care. The 4,200 members will vote on the deal in early June.

UFCW, Dr Pepper Snapple Group: Dr Pepper Snapple Group, parent company of Mott’s, has imposed wage and benefits cuts on 300 workers at a Mott’s plant in Williamson, N.Y. The members of Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union/UFCW Local 220 authorized a strike last month, although one has not yet been called.

UFCW-ICWU: Leaders and members of International Chemical Workers Union/UFCW (ICWU/UFCW) Local 143-C are shocked and outraged with Pfizer’s decision to shut down a plant in Pearl River, N.Y. ICWU/UFCW says Pfizer gave no warning of the layoffs and that the work done by its 757 members in Pearl River will be shipped to Ireland, Belgium, Montreal and Puerto Rico.

USW, Pinnacle Airlines: Members of USW Local 736 ratified a new five-year contract with Pinnacle Airlines. The agreement covers nearly 950 ground workers and provides improvements to health care and pension benefits.

USW, Vale Inco: The Ontario Labour Relations Board last week ordered USW and Vale Inco to resume talks aimed at ending the ongoing strike by 3,000 workers. The members of USW Local 6500 have been on strike since July 13 of last year.

Disclaimer: This information is being provided for your information only.  As it is compiled from published news reports, not from individual unions, we cannot vouch for either its completeness or accuracy; readers who desire further information should directly contact the union involved.

This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on May 24, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Belinda Boyce. Before joining the AFL-CIO Collective Bargaining Department as research analyst, I worked for six years in the AFL-CIO Organizing Department: three years in Voice@Work and three years in the Center for Strategic Research, working on organizing, issue, and political campaigns. I attended Penn State University, where I became a rabid fan of Nittany Lion football, and later graduated from Florida State University College of Law.

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